Rebecca Hopkins is an Australian wine professional living and working in the US, who is currently Vice President Communications and Partner for Folio Fine Wines. Concerned about wine professionals who were struggling to balance their work-related food and wine consumption with their health, she founded A Balanced Glass in 2018. It’s a web forum dedicated to the health and wellbeing of wine professionals, and offers insights, tips, and support. More than 500 beverage alcohol professionals from nine countries have joined.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. You can hear the full podcast here.
We have a tendency in the fine wine world to forget that we are, amongst many things, an alcoholic beverage. Exploring the responsibilities that could or should come with being an alcoholic beverage is not a discussion that we have often enough in our industry. Hence, I am thrilled to start my year with the amazing Rebecca Hopkins, health and wellness activist, founder of A Balanced Glass.
We’re also right in the middle of Dry January, a public health campaign that is urging people to abstain from alcohol. If I’m correct, it’s was launched in the UK in 2013 and is now a global campaign. What about the US?
Dry January tends to be wrapped up in the conversation around a new year and a new start. Health and wellness across the board is a very big subject in the media. The intention of Dry January is really to look at our consumption habits of everything. Of food, of alcohol, maybe time in front of social media. I personally don’t subscribe to the abstinence of Dry January. Not because I don’t believe in it. I think that for certain people, it is a way for them to take a look at their relationships with alcohol.
So in the US, yes, it is in media. You’ll see it daily in stories, ranging from how to do it, to the benefits of not drinking. It’s a very complex discussion. We have two parts: Mindful consumption, which is obviously looking at your consumption. The second part is looking at the habit.
I arrived in the UK around the time that Dry January was becoming a thing, and I’ve always been: Why would you abstain if you consume in moderation all the time? And then I’ve seen how the British people often consume alcohol in December. And I understand the need for having a Dry January, because of the amount of alcohol consumed in December. I think one of the bad side effects is, sometimes, if people use Dry January as an excuse. Because they don’t drink at all in January, they can catch up and drink more in February. And that’s the wrong message.
You are not just the founder of A Balanced Glass but are also the marketing and communication leader for Folio Fine Wine, which is important for fine wine in the US. How does Dry January affect your part of the business?
At Folio Fine Wine Partners, we’re generally not traveling in January. We’re not meeting, certainly now with COVID. January’s always been a month after where everything is reduced. But in terms of strategy, we’ve always held that Folio has been built on the values of Michael Mondavi, who has always been a proponent of moderation and mindfulness and health. That’s really a philosophy. If we were entertaining clients or suppliers pre-COVID, we would have entertainment over meals. We sit, we eat, we have reasonable travel schedules. And it’s something I’ve been very lucky to be part of from a cultural point of view for the last nine years. It’s definitely not the norm.
That’s the perfect bridge to the next part of our conversation.
When we explore fine wine and health and wellness, there are really two conversations in one. There’s one which is very internal, which is about the wellbeing of our industry and the people that make it. And then there’s the conversation with and about the consumer and how we can be part of that larger conversation in a responsible way.ARENI Global
So I’d like to start with the first point. The platform that you’ve created and founded it is about helping wine professionals.
How do you define wellness?
The definition I like to use, because this is so such a vast subject, comes from the Global Wellness Institute, who really define wellness as “the active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health”. It’s a state of being where our basic needs are being taken care of, to the point we can aspire to live in a healthy and moderate way.
Wellness is “the active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health”. It’s a state of being where our basic needs are being taken care of, to the point we can aspire to live in a healthy and moderate way.Rebecca Hopkins, Founder, A Balanced Glass
Wellbeing has aspects of physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, and then there’s social wellbeing. Inclusion and diversity – I think we have a lot of work to do on that – environmental wellbeing and then financial wellbeing.
It seems to me that wellbeing is very close to the definition of sustainability. Why is it so important that our industry talks about this?
The importance comes from the fact that we operate in a professional capacity in an industry where the volume and the frequency of alcohol is always present. It’s the core of what we do. We work with a product that’s known to have an impact on us if it’s not managed. And in the past, I think we have relied on people to be self-disciplined, whether that’s managing their own moderation, finding their own information, taking action – but that relies on knowing where to look.
It’s important that we do this because we want to create a thriving workforce. We are losing talent to other industries because we are not creating environments that are inclusive, that are safe, that are informed, transparent, and really encouraging high performance. We also need to create an environment where people feel taken care of and safe in order to perform at their highest potential level.
It’s important that we do this because we want to create a thriving workforce. We are losing talent to other industries because we are not creating environments that are inclusive, that are safe, that are informed, transparent, and really encouraging high performance.Rebecca Hopkins, Founder, A Balanced Glass
We all know the struggle of having to do three or four business dinners a week and coming home late. It’s wonderful, the food and wine, but sometimes my friends laugh at me when I say it can be a struggle to have to eat and drink so much. One of the things you do in A Balanced Glass is give a voice to wine professionals and ask them about their own challenges. And you’ve done that with hundreds of professionals.
Are there common challenges that everybody has, or is it unique and personal to everyone?
There have been common themes that have probably changed more in the last two years than in the last five. How do I manage how much I’m tasting, how do I manage eating on the road when I’m away from my disciplined approach at home, how do I find time to make going for a run and exercise or practicing my yoga? That was certainly higher pre-COVID.
I think what we’re seeing now is more the mental health challenges around the impacts of working from home. The impacts of children at home or home schooling, and the need to find space. There is such an underlying level of stress, combined with the fact our industry is in crisis.
We are seeing so much trauma come through our industry as a result of responses to COVID requirements or businesses closing up, or people having to retool their entire skillset.
One of the latest surveys that you did at A Balanced Glass, that you presented at Wine2Wine in Verona, was called Can Working in the Wine Industry Be Good for You? I’m interested in knowing the result.
We went to the community and asked them for input. And really it came down to three key areas.
The first is mindful consumption. It’s a lot of what we’ve talked about, where the onus is on the individual. On my personal goals, where I’m at in my career, what my life situation may be, to find a way that is mindful and engaged at a level that works for me as an individual.
The second part of can it be good for you comes down to the influence of culture on wellbeing, and that’s a critical conversation. It comes back to what you’re talking about. Sustainability, you know, the onus being on the company or on our environment to create safe and inclusive environments. And that really requires us to look at things like flexibility in the workplace, financial security, opportunities for growth. The micro level could be our community.
The culture at a macro level leads into the third part, which is industry leadership. We need our industry leaders to really step up and start to develop more frameworks and ways of business that are creating environments for people to thrive.
So I would say the first part of it is self-moderation and self-fulfillment, but the second two really come back to culture and safety and inclusion and leadership.
The gem in the research that we did with the community was their verbatim comments. They literally said, yes, we’re hearing about all this, but no one’s doing anything. We need action. We need tangible ways to help us grow.
We also asked the community how long they plan to stay in the industry. Like if all these things we’re talking about are so difficult and so challenging you know, 50% of the respondent said, I’m here. Like I’m here for it. I’m in it. I love what I do. I love this industry.
Still half that’s not planning to stay. So that’s a huge percentage.
If we’re looking at the next five to 10 years, of those who’d like to stay in the industry it was 23% of respondents and this was about a hundred people. So you have to take this with a grain of salt, obviously. And for two to five years was 17%. “I can’t wait to get out”, which was literally how we worded it, was 10% of respondents.
Of course, we have a self-selected community that are already interested in health and wellness. So yes, there’s a bias in that.
There might be some companies listening to us today that want to start the conversation about wellness. What’s the best way to start that conversation?
I can only really speak from the US perspective, where healthcare is such a critical part of people’s well-being – having it or not having it. And so unfortunately with topics like this, they get put into the HR bucket; they get put into the health bucket. The challenge in the US of course, is everything is on record; preexisting conditions can actually determine your healthcare costs and eligibility. And that is a whole complex discussion. It makes people more reticent to have these discussions.
It really comes back to leaders in the business to start this. So, sitting down and looking at what are the values we have of our business? How can we include employees in that discussion, knowing it’s a very personal topic, and then setting really clear guidelines around what is expected for drinking in the workplace? What are the boundaries we have? What are the actions we take if that gets breached? How do we help people who may need assistance with this?
To bring the European perspective, those are topics that we don’t even consider as something that should be discussed in a business environment. We always put wellness in the personal sphere when, particularly when we are working in the wine industry, that should also be linked to the professional one.
That takes us also to the second part of the conversation, which is how we can be part of the larger conversation around health and wellness when it to our consumers.
We need to care about both, but when it comes to the consumer, we don’t always understand their motivation of consumption in our category.
When it comes to conversation with consumers about alcohol, it comes down to language and the nuances of how we message moderation. Enjoy wine in moderation is not a new thing. But the more information and knowledge we have, the better equipped we are to have conversations with consumers when they’re ready to have that.
I see more and more collectors, for example, that quit fine wine because of wellness. If we want to secure the future of our collectors, we need to talk about wellness. If that collector is looking to change their drinking habits or their relationship to fine wine, where can we point them that keeps them included in the conversation?Rebecca Hopkins, Founder, A Balanced Glass
For my last question: I remember in 2018, when we did the first think tank, we had a gentleman that was leading the oil and gas industry here in Europe, who was telling us how we could potentially lose our social license to operate just like tobacco did and, and the oil companies did.
Is there a risk, really, that fine wine could lose its social license?
I would say yes, we’re at risk, but we still have time to take action to mitigate some of that risk. We’re seeing a younger consumer; we’re seeing a more diverse consumer. We’re seeing anti- alcohol. Our consumer is changing.
I think there is a danger in the clean wine movement because of the lack of transparency and accuracy in that category that is not being challenged by the industry for its inaccuracy. And we have, ultimately, a product that has a connection to agriculture. It has a connection to its source of origin. We are getting better at transparency as it relates to ingredients labeling and calorie counts and things like that. But we really need to accelerate our work in this area to avoid this risk.
We also need to weave wine into occasions where consumers are looking for positive experiences, whether that’s times of relaxation or friendship or family or celebration. Bringing wine away from this this target of excess, overindulgence, safety risk and lack of responsibility.
To know more about some of the initiatives Rebecca mentions in the podcast:
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This conversation is part of ARENI’s publication 12 Conversations: Different Ways of Looking at Sustainability, published in September 2022, available to all.