An island steeped in wine

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    The box arrives with a familiar clink and a thump every year in the days before Christmas: three red, three white, always from the island and always accompanied by a short handwritten note dictated down the phone to Christine at the Wine Centre by my mum 18,200 kilometres away in Staffordshire in the UK.

    This year the reds were Passage Rock Sisters and the whites Man O’War sav blanc. And they helped lubricate the seasonal festivities quite nicely, thank you very much.

    This annual present is easily arranged and gratefully accepted because of where we live. What’s more natural then than a box of bottles turning up on your doorstep when you live on an island famed for its contents?

    Waiheke’s image has become almost indecipherable from its wines, wineries, cellar doors and vineyards over recent decades – an image cultivated by those growing our lucrative tourism industry and nurtured by those of us in social media for whom images of blush-filled glasses is synonymous with the portrayal of a “good time had by all”.

    But it’s an image we have to be, if not wary of, then certainly cognisant of its implications. Building a reputation on alcohol can be a double-edged sword.

    In the first week of 2020, Waiheke police took as many failed breath tests as in the first three months of last year. It’s a sobering statistic and one that officers had no problem in labelling “appalling”. 

    And, yes, there’s obviously no cause to tie the island’s wine industry to over-the-limit drivers any more than there is to link the thousands of cheerful, sozzled day-trippers that the ferries decant back into downtown Auckland every Friday and Saturday evening at this time of year to the fact that three of the 10 worst locations in New Zealand for robberies, assaults and attacks are in the CBD.

    But at the same time, it’s quite clear now that what has quickly become the life-blood of this island is also essentially harmful. The raw data for this uncomfortable truth comes from a colossal report paid for by billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates which looked at 28 million people and just short of 1300 studies across the world (including New Zealand) and which found that alcohol is responsible for one in 10 deaths in those aged 15 to 49 and that, contrary to all those headlines about a glass a day being good for you, “the safest level of drinking is none”.

    The report was published 18 months ago and stressed the need for governments to help change our drinking habits because they posed “dire ramifications for future population health in the absence of policy action today”. 

    “The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising, particularly as improved methods and analyses continue to show how much alcohol use contributes to global death and disability. Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none. This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day. Alcohol use contributes to health loss from many causes and exacts its toll across the lifespan, particularly among men. Policies that focus on reducing population-level consumption will be most effective in reducing the health loss from alcohol use.”

    It’s unsurprising that New Zealand ranks at the top end of the tables when it comes to per capita alcohol consumption – certainly less surprising than the fact that two-thirds of the planet don’t drink at all. But a report as unequivocal as this does beg a couple of questions: should those of us who do drink, quit? And should the government actually put the same efforts into promoting the harm of drinking as, say, smoking? The thought that those bottles of wine on my doorstep would have to arrive label-less and carry horrifying images of the diseases or social harm that alcohol can cause seems absolutely ridiculous – but that’s precisely how cigarette packages arrive now. 

    But then there’s the other side to alcohol that the Gates Foundation-funded report doesn’t address – a side which The Guardian nicely summed up in light of the study’s publication by arguing that it can also stimulate imagination, courage and friendship in a way that is hard to achieve otherwise. “These are gifts that make life worth living. There is a reason why wine is tightly linked to paradise in religious poetry. Almost all human societies have used drugs for social purposes as well as individual pleasure. A world without drink might find itself poorer as well as richer.”

    Waiheke is certainly the richer for its wines and my Christmas was certainly all the more joyous for being able to share my delivery with friends and neighbours. But at the same time we would all do well to understand that moderation is an importantly acquired taste and you can’t live off wine alone. • James Belfield

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