Just the Answer – European Parliament Agriculture Committee

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A further stage towards enacting the long-awaited reform of European wine policy has been a review of the European Commission's proposals by the European Parliament's agriculture committee. As the parliament prepares to vote on the reforms, Neil Parish, a British Conservative MEP and chair of this influential committee, spoke with Christopher Jones about what the committee expects from the reforms.

just-drinks: The European Parliament's agriculture committee, which you chair, has been discussing proposals to reform the system of subsidies and support for EU winemakers. What do MEPs see as the priority for the reforms?

Parish: The main thing is that we want to bring production back in line with consumption. At the moment, there is far more wine being produced than is being drunk. We've got a situation where 25% of the wine produced in Spain, 30% in France and 17% in Italy is being distilled into industrial alcohol with producers compensated by the EU. So we certainly back the European Commission's plans to abolish crisis distillation.

j-d: And what about the proposals on grubbing up?

Parish: Well, we want to see grubbing up encouraged on a voluntary basis, and speed up the whole process, introducing it over three rather than five years. We do recognise however that there are some problems inherent with allowing producers to volunteer to grub up their vines. This proposal was meant to oblige producers of lower-quality wines to stop production by pulling up their vines; if we make this move voluntary, we must also ensure that the financial incentives are in place to encourage this still to happen. Unfortunately, though, we can't guarantee that that will happen.

Neil Parish, MEP, current chair of European Parliament Agriculture Committee.

j-d: What is the most important proposal for you personally?

Parish: I think the issue of marketing is the most important. We will have to stand firm, because many of Europe's winemakers need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the New World, as it were, and start producing wines that people want to drink rather than simply producing wines that survive, somehow, on the back of the reputation of a relatively small number of top-quality wines.

I think that we need to encourage better-quality European wines in the EUR5-15 segment, where New World producers have been very successful at meeting demand. At the moment, we are not getting this marketing message right; too many producers still seem to believe that their wines will simply sell themselves. But what people really want to know is what is in the bottle and to feel that they will get something that tastes pretty much the same each bottle they drink, and that is something Europeans have not been as good at.

The issue of putting grape varieties on the label has been blown out of all proportion by some countries - wine purists see it as nothing short of sacrilege - but I think in the end that common sense will prevail, led by the bigger wine companies who understand the need to respond to what the market wants.

j-d: But isn't that precisely what many wine producers are concerned about - that the reforms will simply benefit big companies making homogenous wines?

Parish: There is a risk, yes, that we could be encouraging some increase in concentration among wine producers, but I think that the market will simply find its own level, and if that means more large wineries then so be it. Niche producers - making the good-quality wines that Europe is rightly famous for - have nothing to fear from these reforms. What we need are more medium-sized wineries, targeting that mid-priced market, and these will have to be developed.

j-d: So does that mean there will be financial support from the EU to help winemakers with their marketing and other non-production-related activities?

Parish: Well, there will be limited support for wine marketing programmes, or for regional marketing campaigns, but frankly this kind of thing is much better being done by companies themselves.

j-d: Even if the smaller companies cannot afford to do so?

Parish: It's true that many small wine producers are extremely wary of swapping direct support to winemaking for indirect support for rather more nebulous activities such as marketing. But we are not expecting them to go it alone - most smaller producers belong to cooperatives, working with other growers in their region on joint campaigns, and the money for marketing will be funnelled through them.

j-d: You managed to get broad support for the revised proposals at the committee level. Did it take a lot of negotiation?

Parish: We looked at 895 amendments to the [European] Commission's original proposals, so I think we did phenomenally well to get such good support for the changes, which we think give a more balanced package to help producers through what will probably be a very tough time for many of them. Some MEPs were more prepared to move towards a compromise than others, certainly, but I'm cautiously optimistic about the chances of success when the full parliament votes on the report in December. I'm also sure that there will be many who will complain bitterly that we have not done enough to support wine makers.

j-d: Does being from a country that is not a big wine producer help when it comes to negotiations?

Parish: Well, I'm sure some of my colleagues see me as a bit of a heretic. But I enjoy drinking good-quality wines, and I come from one of the very few markets in the EU where wine sales are continuing to grow, so that has given me some bargaining power. I think it's also fair to say that my predecessor, Joseph Daul [a French farmer], might not have found it quite so easy, given the level of lobbying he would probably have faced - he would almost certainly have had to take a more conservative approach. I suppose I have had a little more independence.

Sectors: Wine

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