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Column: At the Bar with Hal Wilson

It’s now officially the nation’s favourite tipple, so why is wine also the most taxed? Cambridge Wine Merchants’ Hal Wilson

You’ve had a long day, worked/studied/played/cared hard, you’ve made it home and are relaxing with friends/loved ones. If it feels right, what alcoholic drink do you reach for to unwind and share the moment with?

A new YouGov poll found that wine is now definitively the nation’s favourite tipple and is consumed in the most socially responsible manner. With 81% of those polled saying they drank wine and 28% saying it was their favourite alcoholic drink, wine beat beer, cider and spirits on all metrics. The evidence suggests that 33 million of us in the UK enjoy a glass of wine, across all demographics.

While I obviously raise a glass to these new findings - I call myself a wine merchant, mainly sell wine in my business, and prefer wine to other drinks - they also bring up further questions about the way wine has been treated by successive governments and the reasoning behind that treatment.

Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants Kings Parade, 2 King's Parade, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell. (14905076)
Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants Kings Parade, 2 King's Parade, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell. (14905076)

If wine is the most widely liked and consumed alcoholic drink, across genders and social groups, why is it also the most taxed? UK consumers pay 68% of all the taxes raised on wine in the entire EU, with only 12% of the population. 68%! Since 2010 consecutive Chancellors have raised the tax we pay on wine by 39%, while taxes on beer have risen by only 17% and ciders and spirits by 27%. With the average selling price of a bottle of wine sitting at £5.88, well over half of everything we spend on wine goes to the government in the form of excise and VAT (54.8% in fact).

Is the tax hike because of increased health risks associated with drinking wine compared to other alcoholic drinks? While the amount of research into the effects of wine consumption on health is extensive, recent UK Chief Medical Officers have preferred to concentrate their public messaging on alcohol alone. They have not pointed to wine being a greater threat to health than other types of alcoholic drink, and while they have warned us that drinking any alcohol increases the risk of some types of cancer, there is plenty of evidence of the beneficial effects on health of moderate wine consumption. Suffice it to say that wine does not get singled out as the least healthy type of drink but is singled out for the greatest rise in taxation.

The main reason taxes have risen less for beer and spirits than for wine in the last decade is because UK brewers and distillers have been better at lobbying government than UK wineries. Beer consumption is linked to pubs, and pubs as we know are precious and an endangered species. The UK spirits industry is a beacon of exporting excellence, and as much of it is based in Scotland it benefitted around the time of the Scottish independence referendum in terms of freezes on duty.

Clearly the majority of the wine we drink is still imported, though there are 500 or so UK wineries and companies are investing heavily to increase wine production. If we want to see wine treated more fairly by government we need to join the wine industry as consumers and put pressure on our politicians to cut back wine tax. I urge you to follow @WineDrinkersUK, a new media campaign to raise awareness about the unfairness of the current taxation of wine and lobby to stop increasing and actually reduce wine taxation to bring it in line with beer. With a new Chancellor and Budget expected in October, there is every hope that we could enjoy a welcome, if modest, tax break on our favourite tipple, and to that prospect I say ‘Cheers’!

Hal Wilson is the owner of Cambridge Wine Merchants, which has branches on King’s Parade, Bridge Street and Cherry Hinton Road, as well as managing the University Centre Wine Bar on Mill Lane.

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