Wine costs as much as an energy bill


Wine is expensive. I mean, fiendishly expensive. We tell ourselves that it’s not, but it really is. Allow me to horrify my 12-year-old former self with a public demonstration of arithmetic.

The average price of a decent bottle of still wine – by which I mean a bottle that you’d find in a specialist shop rather than a supermarket – is £15.70. That’s what The Wine Merchant survey told us this year, but that was before the duty hike hit.

Let’s pretend this has been the only inflationary pressure to afflict the industry since our January poll. So now we’re adding a nominal 44p, and that price tag has jumped to £16.14. (We’ll ignore VAT for now, if only because it’s so boring.)

We’d like to hope that people who really engage with wine will open a bottle at least three times a week; maybe one on Wednesday night and a couple at the weekend. So that’s a minimum weekly spend of £48.42. Over a year, that comes to £2,517.84, or £209.82 a month.

You’ll note that this fag-packet mathematics assumes that our consumer never treats themselves to a special-occasion wine, never hosts parties, and never buys a bottle as a gift. Neither are we factoring in the wine they might buy in restaurants – or, if they’re feeling reckless, a pub. But let’s keep the numbers on the conservative side, to avoid any suggestion of hyperbole or exaggeration.

If that figure of £2,517.84 sounds kind of familiar, it might be because a number about that size is regularly quoted in conversations about energy bills. According to documents in the House of Commons Library, “the average annual gas and electricity bill for a direct debit customer with ‘typical’ levels of consumption is £2,500”. People are struggling to cope with bills of that magnitude. So what makes us confident they can afford to spend the same again on something as non-essential as wine?

Yes, we know that certain sections of society are insulated from the cruelty of the cost-of-living crisis, and that consumers in these categories won’t worry unduly about how they fund their wine habit. But, talking to independents all over the UK, I’m hearing that even some of these lucky people are cutting down or trading down.

I recently had an instructive chat with a long-established merchant who has seen 15% disappear from his turnover this year, even though footfall is up. It’s been suggested that, instead of placing his premium wines at eye level, he moves them to the bottom shelf and gives the prime slots to a small selection priced £10 and below.

These form part of what he’s calling a cost-of-living range, with wines that can deliver a 30% margin even at prices as low as £7.50. He’s a shrewd buyer, and has been sourcing some surprisingly good quality varietals from Eastern Europe. One Bulgarian Chardonnay, he tells me, “is like Mâcon-Villages … it’s fantastic”.

It sounds like a plan to me, and one that many independents will soon be putting into practice in one form or another, if they haven’t already. But congratulations to any merchant who is able to take this latest duty increase in their stride.

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