Howard Marks once said “there are no facts about the future, just opinions”. Has this ever been more true of a topic than of Brexit? Even after last night’s vote, it’s entirely unclear what’s going to happen. Many of us take solace in a glass of wine – but even that simple pleasure is under threat.
The UK imports 99 per cent of its wine, of which 55 per cent comes from the EU. We’re the second largest importer of wine on the planet, both in terms of volume and value. Our drinking habits are deeply rooted in the international; partly by necessity but also because we relish our role as a truly worldwide market.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of our importing relationships are built around the EU, and cannot be renegotiated until leaving. Even if replacement agreements were negotiated with the likes of Australia or the US, the duty benefits would be marginal, and outweighed by additional supply chain costs. Countries without a replacement agreement will face unappealing tariffs, with pricing certain to be passed onto the end consumer. And that’s before you take into account the continued devaluation of the pound…
Surely, then, that leaves an opportunity for our own nascent domestic wine industry? Wine doyenne Jancis Robinson suggested Brexit may give the industry an opportunity to “step out of its niche and into the mainstream”. Sadly, even if UK wine production was doubled – for context, the list of countries that produce greater volumes of wine include Luxembourg, Madagascar and Egypt – it’d still only account for two per cent of our annual wine consumption. Indeed, our entire focus over the past few years has been on building a reputation based on the quality, rather than quantity, of the wine, so an urgent ramping up of production would be counter-productive.
And what of those physically serving wine in the on-trade? Around a quarter of the hospitality sector workforce are EU nationals, higher still in London; and even conservative estimates suggest a labour shortfall of around 60,000 from 2019 should migration levels fall post-Brexit. It’s already difficult to fill existing vacancies within the hospitality industry, with UK nationals often bypassing it altogether. Wine requires passionate, knowledgeable staff to work with it, and we’ve often looked abroad to recruit these people.
Significant investment in making the industry more appealing to home-grown talent will be needed but that takes time and a culture change. There’s also close to 200,000 people working in the wider wine industry – importing, retailing, delivering – whose jobs are reliant on the UK being a key player in the global wine trade.
A reduced range, higher pricing and a labour shortfall – the outlook isn’t especially appealing. One saving consolation, perhaps, is that if the past couple of years have proven anything, it’s that most predictions turn out to be wildly off the mark. So in the meantime, let’s raise a glass to our ready access to a bountiful, eclectic and international wine selection – while it’s still here.