On Boycotts, Wine and the World

In a continuation of his provocative “August Essays”, influential writer Andrew Jefford makes the case that wine drinkers have a moral and ethical responsibility to choose their drinks with an eye toward responding the “extraordinary times unfolding around us”. Jefford argues that our purchasing choices ought to be guided by the way in which a producer or country is responding to or playing a role in a “world in which unilateralism, threats, posturing, bullying and sanctions are superseding multilateralism and consensus.”

In an attempt to put a rather fine a point on his position, Jefford asks:

“Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor in January 1933.  Should British wine lovers have carried on serenely sipping fine Mosel Kabinett and Spätlese wines through the six years which followed?  Or should they have paused in their purchase of those wines, and troubled to engage with German wine producers and suppliers to explain why they were stopping?”

The question, to Jefford, is rhetorical.

Putting the question more squarely and in a more timely perspective, Jefford declares:

“It would be legitimate to ask any US wine producer for its corporate views on the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate-change mitigation, or on the unilateral imposition of economic sanctions on other nations.  Hungarian wine producers might be asked how they view their government’s criminalization of those providing help to asylum-seekers, or denial of food to asylum-seekers held in transit zones. It would be interesting to have leading Italian wine exporters’ views on the Interior Minister’s proposed Italian census by ethnicity, his expressed contempt for immigrants and minorities, or his praise for President Putin and denigration of the European Union.”

Jefford makes a point of reminding the reader that two years ago, following the election of Donald Trump, he stated his opposition to boycotts and he says he still opposes them today. However, this latest essay, read fairly, suggests that Jefford really has changed his mind on this question of whether wine drinkers ought to use their economic power by boycotting those who contribute to the chaos he sees disrupting the peoples around the world and the international order:

“What you might choose to do is up to you – but there are many roads to action…Governments can be challenged – by you as a purchaser of that nation’s products — on their policies on human rights and the rule of law, on the protection of the vulnerable, on their support for international organizations, and on their response to the challenge posed by climate change.

If this isn’t a call to boycott the wines of those nations that commit the crimes he’s referring to, is it really just a call to “challenge” those countries with questions? I can’t see how.

Jefford is making a point about the power of consumers to challenge political circumstances by addressing wine and wine drinkers. But of course the power to challenge applies to every single purchase we make as consumers. Jefford’s challenge to wine drinkers to think about the politics of our purchases apply to every single product we buy if they apply to wine. And I’m wondering how I’m going to walk through a grocery store with that perspective and not be frozen in the aisles by my inability to know the disposition of every product’s owner as to their stand on South African land reform, the attitude of a product’s home country toward combatting climate change or if the owner of the company whose product I’m reaching for voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

To escape the risk of being pedantic, I want to be clear that I do think that consumer boycotts are legitimate, can be impactful and are an ethical way for an individual to be present, active and respondent to a much larger world. However, to avoid being frozen in the aisle, one is going to have to pick and choose the offense they want to react to as well as be prepared to admit, “there is only so much I can do” when someone points out that “you know, as a country, Italy’s current disposition toward immigration and refugees is harmful to thousands of people seeking escape from atrocities committed by their home country’s government.” Am I, upon hearing this, to avoid purchasing all things Italian? And when someone explains that the policies of the U.S. Federal government are evolving to a point where “white supremacy” lies at their heart, am I to boycott American products? The list is long and if fully examined and acted upon it leads to paralysis. 

Moreover, what kind of herculean effort must it take to simply question or “challenge” the companies or governments before I support them or their products in good conscience? Exactly how dismissive of my family’s needs, my client’s needs and my own needs must I be to carry out this kind of mission?

So, I’m not going to take Jefford’s advice and challenge companies and governments before determining whether to support their products. If I come across a product that has a direct relation to some act that I find particularly egregious, then I’ll reach one product over and choose otherwise.

More than any other writer I know, Jefford has made an effort in his wine writing to connect wine and wine consumers to the wider world beyond terroir and examine the multidimensional ways in which wine connects to and is impacted by larger human issues. For this he ought to be celebrated and cheered. And I do.

Yet, I think it’s obvious that when one becomes so fretful of the state of the world around them, they can funnel and impose too much of their frustration on to a topic best addressed in a somewhat smaller, more constrained context. The logical result of doing this is extremism. And as Jefford knows, we have enough of that right now.


7 Responses

  1. John Skupny - August 27, 2018

    Holy sh!t-storm! between this proposal and Jon Bonne’s missive on a not dissimilar topic [https://punchdrink.com/articles/wine-world-unwoke-food-media-anthony-bourdain/ ]I may not have time to grow, harvest, make and sell any wine so that i have time to make sure that I have my moral compass and PC buttons in order. Perhaps the same criteria could be applied to journalists. No disrespect to the two fine journalists but this seems to add up to the classic conflict of the Artist and the Critic to lay the political fallout on winegrowers.

  2. Tom Wark - August 27, 2018

    Hi John,

    I don’t take Jefford’s article as a call to being “PC”. It’s the principle of his article. I think he would agree that if our principles require us to take action as economic actors to combat wrongs in the world, he would argue that the principle would have to be applied regardless of our politics. He just happens to be arguing on behalf of left of center politics.

    But your point about having time to do what is required if we are regularly checking out those companies we purchase from.

  3. John Skupny - August 27, 2018

    Yes Tom, I get that – I was just being dramatic – and snippy. It is that time of year.

  4. Tom Heller - August 27, 2018

    Based Jefford’s logic. I need a declaration from my cab driver here in DC that he has never sworn at a fare that didn’t give him a tip or that the restaurant I’m going to dinner at is serving fish that is sustainable the leafy greens were delivered by bicycle in order to not have a a harmful carbon footprint. Also I need to predetermine that the staff has health insurance and free day care for their children as the wineries need to guarantee that the glass is all recycled the corks were washed properly and that the labels were printed on paper that was not produced by the Koch brothers. I’m gonna have a shot of tequila with dinner

  5. Scott Creasman - August 28, 2018

    Jefford wrote an unintentional like a parody of Portlandia. I’m with Tom Heller, although probably with bourbon. When Frank Rich eventually decided he was simply writing op-ed pieces disguised as theater criticism, he moved over to that side of the shop. Jefford should do the same – check with the Guardian. Buying American wine is like supporting Hitler? I did not vote for Trump, but really? He probably also does not realize the lost the argument at that point under an adopted corollary to Godwin’s Law that when a Hitler comparison is made, whoever made the comparison loses the debate.

  6. Martin Barker - August 29, 2018

    Scott Creasman, that is a complete botch of Godwin’s Law which states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” Mike Godwin who came up with Godwin’s Law has himself stated, ” If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.” An also “By all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis. Again and again. I’m with you.”

  7. Scott Creasman - August 29, 2018

    Martin – Nice try, but I said adopted corollary, and even when your quote of Godwin uses the specific term “thoughtful.” The concept of demonstrating that your argument has no valid substantive basis when you invoke a Nazi or Hitler comparison was the point and remains valid. Whatever arguments Jefford’s thought he was making he lost me at Hitler. It isn’t a serious argument about wine choices. As distasteful as the current situation is, to make the Hitler comparison is to demonstrate an absolute lack of understanding of the history of the Nazism. The fact that you want to debate the appropriateness of Hitler comparisons in a wine journal article actual provides my point as well. If you want to boycott U.S. produced wines because Trump is president, have at it, but wait my favorite U.S. wines are from Oregon, California and NY, which went for Hilary, but if they they cross through red states in transit on the federal highway system then that will support Trump, but if they come via plane and don’t stop in , but wait that will hurt the environment, and we are back to Portlandia……

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