A team of eight wine inspectors stand guard against fraud, mis-labelling and dodgy practices in the wine trade to protect both the consumer and the producer in the UK. ukvine.com caught up with Graham Finch, a wine inspector who covers the southeast of England.
The Wine Standards team in the Food Standards Agency (FSA) may have a remit to enforce regulations and police the wine supply chain in the UK, but Graham Finch, southeast wine inspector prefers to view the Agency’s work as collaborative with the industry, providing support and information to the industry to prevent mistakes or infringements of the complex regime of rules and regulations that shape how the business operates.
Finch says: “We work to protect the consumer and honest traders from falling foul of the regulations. We might have to enforce the rules but I would rather say that we help people comply. Importers or shippers who have a query about labelling or wine production can approach us and we will offer advice. Our work is to enforce the rules that apply to quality, authenticity and labelling of wine.”
The wine inspector supervises the importing, wholesaling, shipping and bottling of wine, explains Finch, but they do not generally cover retail activity. However, it does cover retailers, of whatever size, that actually undertake any of these functions, especially importing.
He says: “We do not normally cover retail activity unless the retailer is also importing wine. An example might be a smaller retail outlet who imports a few cases of wine or operates a wholesale business.”
UK wine appreciation
Wine grown on a commercial production scale in England and Wales also comes under Wine Standards’ remit. Finch says: “We cover registered vineyards over 0.1 hectare (1,000m2 or 0.25 acre) or smaller if used for commercial production.”
Covering Kent, Surrey and Sussex his beat places him at the heart of one of the most important wine growing and producing areas in the country and the one closest to France. And it’s an opportunity to be involved in the UK industry that he relishes.
He says: “We cover the production of wine in England and Wales. It is an emerging and exciting industry which is beginning to win awards. I am proud to be working with these people in the UK industry.”
Finch also visits Plumpton College, which lies within his area and which as well as educating students, also makes and sells wine commercially. His visits to check wine production will occasionally also include working with students to explain the labelling and legal framework within which English and Welsh producers operate.
Finch oversees 149 vineyards, including some of England’s largest and most successful growers. This number includes 40 vineyards that have no commercial production or are simply abandoned.
He explains: “I cover some 106 commercially active vineyards in the southeast. Some just grow grapes, while others grow grapes and make their own wine. Some grow grapes to send grapes to wineries while others are contract growers who make wine for themselves and others.” Thirty-two of these vineyards make their own wine, he adds.
His inspection visits, which are a mixture of unannounced calls and arranged appointments, will differ in relation to the nature and scale of operation.
He says: “Someone who is just growing grapes may be inspected once every four years. We’ll call every so often to check details to make sure the status hasn’t changed. However, those vineyards that make wine might be visited twice yearly for routine inspection with additional visits made if quality wine records need to be checked as this level of scrutiny is required for maintaining quality standards.”
The FSA works with a range of government, both local and national, and EU agencies to monitor wines that are brought into the UK wine supply chain – depending on the issue, this might involve local Trading Standards, HMRC or environmental health officials.
Finch says: “We have powers of entry and powers of prosecution through the FSA.”
However, the most draconian measure in the Wine Standards armoury is also one of its simplest – movement control orders.
He says: “We can detain goods to prevent them being moved. We say to an importer or business that the wine cannot be moved until an issue is resolved. This can work to choke off funds from improper shipments and crooks. This is such a serious step that we do not do it lightly.”
With such orders as a last resort, Finch says that before any such order is given, informal talks are made to identify the problem and resolve them before such matters come to a head: “We enforce but we do help people comply.”
The majority of cases Finch and the other seven inspectors deal with are individuals or companies trying to operate in an honest manner who have been caught out by the sheer complexity of the wine rules regime they operate in.
He says: “They make honest mistakes and act in good faith. Importing wine into the UK from a union of 27 Member States and from many non EU countries means that people can be caught out by different regulations. They must just remember we do offer free advice on many wine matters.”
He added: “Whilst we give advice it is also up to the traders themselves to exercise due diligence and ensure that they do not keep repeating the same mistakes.”
If Finch is asked whether the Wine Standards Team should be considered a help or hindrance to the UK wine industry; he is emphatic: “We may police the industry but we are also a help and we offer advice and support to protect the consumer and the honest trader. However we have no sympathy for traders who deliberately or negligently flout the rules.”
Wine Standards Branch 101
The current Wine Standards Branch can trace its roots back to Britain joining the European Economic Community (EEC) back in 1973. As Mr Heath’s government embraced the Common Market, mandarins in Whitehall quickly realised that while Johnny European had many rules about wine, its standards and how it should be handled, gained after centuries of growing, perfidious Albion was a little light in formal rules and standards.
Previously it had been Trading Standards that had overseen the trade but a specialist enforcement authority which also renewed the Vintners Company’s historic role in policing the wine trade in was considered suitable now that Britain had embraced wine in a big way through EEC membership.
The Wine Standards Board, an early example of an industry quango, was created by bringing together the Vintners, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the wine trade.
Fast forward to 2006 and the Wine Standards Board is subsumed into the FSA, losing its board and becoming part of the Standards Branch of the Food Standards Agency.