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Red obsession: The Interpreter’s 2021 favourites

A cult 1980s film serves as a useful lesson on how to deal with China’s wine tariffs.

(Robert Hoge/Flickr)
(Robert Hoge/Flickr)
Published 15 Dec 2021   Follow ClareECaldwell

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds

Staggering, saturated to the eyeballs in whiskey and cheap ale, a pair of untidy out-of-work thespians lurch through the front door of a genteel English tea house at closing time, plant themselves at a vacant table, and call for service. After exchanging unpleasantries with the proprietor, who instructs his waitress to call the police, the dishevelled duo make their demands:

Cake, and fine wine.
We want the finest wines available to humanity.
We want them here.
And we want them now.

So goes a scene from my all-time favourite film. And a year on from the “wholesale destruction” of the Australian wine industry, exacted in no small part by China’s trade-knobbling tariffs, the cinematic genius of Withnail and I provides a stellar example of art imitating life.

We want the finest wines available to humanity (Steven Penton/Flickr)

It was precisely 28 November 2020 when China effectively slammed the cellar door on Australian wine imports, imposing tariffs of up to 200 per cent after accusing Australia of dumping wine into their market. Despite a demonstrative love affair with Australian wine – in 2019 the Chinese quaffed $1.2 billion worth – and it representing more than 40 per cent by value of China’s favourite tipples, Beijing decided that flexing its economic muscle was more important than continuing to enjoy (in my humble opinion) some of the finest wines available to humanity.

Withnail provides a tannin-soaked nugget of cinematic insight into the current plight.

As a libation, a social lubricant, and an occasional elixir, wine has found fans since 6000 BC. And that’s why strategic denial hurts so much. With ongoing tariffs, a dearth of local fruit-picking labour in Australia, and a looming global shipping crisis, the country’s best drops are struggling to make it out of their brimming vats and into bottles any time soon. By 2025, Australia is predicted to have slipped to fifth place behind France, Chile, Spain and Italy as a wine importer into China, and that’s looking on the bright side.

While Australian wine makers and growers face the unenviable task of rebuilding or reinventing their overseas markets – most recently finding success in stronger domestic sales and regions such as North America – Withnail provides a tannin-soaked nugget of cinematic insight into the current plight. “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,” he declares. The solution? With China imposing an unexpected vacation on its millions of wine lovers, it’s the perfect time for Australians to support the industry and enjoy the accidental fruits of Beijing’s extended leave.

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