Existential Questions of “Sustainability” Practices of Alcoholic Beverages in Turkey
Lately, I have been thinking about our overall way of living and view of the world. I am going through an intense questioning about the way we live, consume, interfere and invade. We are observing a rapid shift due to climate change, pandemics, wars and migrations. Undoubtedly, they are all connected and making our Planet Earth a difficult place to live. We need to act. Everyone is talking about how to sustain the earth with all its habitants. UN has set targets on 17 different subjects for year 2030. Companies are setting sustainability goals but will this be enough? Sustainability, not even mentioning its overused and emptied meaning, is something very complex and is not about setting targets. I will come to this later.
Working almost two decades on wines and alcoholic beverage sector in Turkey, my definition of sustainability is a bit different from others. It is not about setting goals for lowering fossil fuel targets, or carbon foot print; it is about changing and persevering against politics and ideology. I believe, mere surviving and keep producing with given restrictions and even rooting more on this land against all politics and ideological barriers, is a model of sustainability. It may be hard to define, yet it is happening with unexcepted solutions coming from individual producers’ and few good human beings’ irrepressible enthusiasm, all these singled out movements are triggering others. Small producers, somehow, are finding ways of surviving in extreme conditions. After all, it is the land where wine was founded, there is legacy.
The system is very tough. The policy makers, giving today’s climate of politics, are continuously changing and creating irrational procedures, overpricing production permissions, overcomplicating protocols so that producers would give up and will not produce, or think of producing something different. While the world is talking about inclusivity, creativity, ecology, collaboration, shifting models of different value and profit models, we are being pushed into a backwards thinking status quo mindset. According to Turkish authorities, the alcoholic beverage industry, is not reliable. Their intention is to look from the restricting and penalising angle.
This restriction ideology has caused, for the last fifteen years, many vineyard owners to migrate from their region or discontinue producing local wines and planting something else. This restriction ideology has also caused a lot of homebrewing, home distilling impact due to unacceptable rates of Excise tax rates, changing every six months. People want to drink what they want, without being overtaxed as they can’t reach the prices on the shelves. So, they create their own solution, they are making it at home. This is, however, causing a grey-non-taxed area within alcoholic beverages and while government is trying to restrict alcohol sales with many legislation (such as no web site and e-commerce, no alcohol retail sales after 10pm and during covid-19 lockdowns there were many days where retail liqueur shops, groceries and supermarkets were not allow to sell alcohol with no legal base explanation), they are also promoting the illegal side of the market completely against their own objectives. However, this non taxed market is growing and creating a spillover of “illegal perception” over legitimate, tax payer producers. Alcoholic beverages regulating boards, are becoming more and more tough, creating a vicious circle.
A few good people and hope: Under these conditions, I am thinking about producers, young generations, enthusiasts. Is it possible to stay out of this immense pressure? There are people, like their peers on other lands on Earth, who are enviously looking at the fertility of the land we live in, something that would keep old vines survive, trials for new methods to show their artisanship, experiment and flourish. They are also looking at the land from a open hearted angle, from a multicultural and a more humble perspective. It is a sincere effort and I would like to suggest that this is the way of sustainability we need to define for the future for Turkish alcoholic beverages. I feel that the restrictions are creating a completely opposite effect on the producers; making them invent new ways of survive and keep their heads up. It is slow but they are thinking more creatively. They have also started to stick together. With the support of the like-minded people, this may be the sign of a new movement era for Turkish wines and alcoholic beverages.
There are three struggles and yet “against sparks” I will mention today. They are mainly from the wine ecosystem.
One. 2013 Alcoholic Beverages Promotion and Commercial Restrictions’ and a legitimate reflex from producers.
2013 legislative regulation caused all industry to cancel websites, talk directly to consumers, communicating and advertising on any topic advertising alcohol consumption. The legislation allowed only B2B communication, all B2C communication was abolished. At that time, there were many new and small producers coming to the industry. Although these producers were small and made their investments to sell at least half of their wines directly to consumers by promoting from web sites, etc., the law made it impossible to organise tasting events for producers. The restrictions caused producers to open small boutique hotels and restaurants at their vineyards. As there are still licenced on-trade points where you can go and buy yourself a drink, like restaurants, hotels and cafes. The model was used by wine producers with a slight separation of wine brand and vineyard brand, they made it possible to call consumers to their vineyard, rather than tasting. Further, these were mostly concentrated on Thrace and Aegean areas. Because tourism ministry was supporting local production, they co-created vineyard-route maps for these regions.
Currently, some of the boutique hotels of these “vineyards”, are the most popular destinations for local tourists and they surely are buying wine and staying in these hotels, creating value for both the region and the producer. You can also see some craft beer brand examples, using similar method of producing in a microbrewery and selling with a different name with the next door. These are new sparks against irrational restrictions. It is still hard to see a craft gin in Turkey as it is legally restricted to produce distilled alcoholic beverages below one million liter, but I believe, there will be some other ways of looking at craft while big players started to support kraft minded collaborations.
Second. In search for the old roots and local grapes. This example from wine industry. Turkey sits in the Mesopotomia, which is the cradle of civilisation. Gobeklitepe, the proximity of where the first wine production site of Eastern Anatolia makes it a very rich land not only in term of civilisation and culture, but also about biodiversity. There are currently, more than 1.439 genotype grape varieties registered in Turkey. However, we are not using all of them. While France is using most of its grape production to value adds wine or other distilled products, Turkey is the no name raisin and fresh table grape exporter with very high vulnerability to agriculture price fluctuations. The grapes that have been used in wine production are very low in quantity, around 2-3%. Furthermore, to restrictions and no support for vine growth, many farmers have been changing their vineyard to either fruit orchards or anything that is incentivised by government. (If these were not possible, they were even migrating to different regions. It is easy to see abandoned vineyards in middle Anatolia, where conditions are much harsher than in coastal areas. This is one of the major areas of local grapes and it is the fastest extincting zone of biodiversity) The result is the fast extinction of old local wine grapes. Currently, there are only 6-8 local grape varieties (Kalecik Karası, Misket, Sultaniye, Narince, Emir, Öküzgözü, Boğazkere, Papazkarası, Çalkarası) that have been promoted and produced dominantly. In the meantime, with the given conditions, there were a lot of local wine grapes we have been losing. However, recently, some initiatives from both wine enthusiasts and experts, together with small producers started to create a new kick to protect what is about to get lost. Umay Ceviker’s project was a sign. He worked with couple of wineries and vineyard owners.
Seyit Karagözoğlu, owner of Paşaeli wines, is one of the early ones to look for his regions local extincting varieties. Nowadays, several other small producers, (such as Likya, Gelveri, Urla, Vinolus, Diren, Suvla, Chamlidja, Kayra) are protecting and cultivating local grapes that were about to get lost. There are also people working on natural wine projects which are very exciting. We have to mention here Reşit Soley, as setting a pioneering example from an island, Bozcaada. His direction towards the local grapes of the island was visionary at that time where many boutiques and small wineries were investing heavily on international grape varieties. It was a different period then, however; where there was no such pressure on the land.
Although legislation and irrational production permission fees are set even for small production batches, these people are still resisting to produce and to get connected with both vineyard owners and producers. Sabiha Apaydın, has been talking about land, roots and background of the grapes with a specific focus on natural wine. She established a symposium named “kök-köken-toprak”. She is in search for the pure taste of soil, grape and air and connection of multi-layered cultural blends of the region. The symposium she envisioned was a great place to talk about issues, needs to dig more and feel solidarity within this small community. There might still be a tough road ahead, but these are good sparks and it suggest a different kind of resistance, by keeping focused on what you do and work on it meticulously. This is a different kind of mindset.
Third. Export trials with the new wave of white-collar migration to West. Educated population of Turkey leaving for democratic and better condition, have been migrating heavily since 2013. They are working actively and have been interacting with Turkey from a different angle. They are keeping their connection with Turkey; in fact, this connection is about changing and valuating more of the things we have to protect. They are active digital thinkers and content creators. They are also more connected with their environment and cultures they have migrated into. Therefore, we are experiencing many new trials of connection which also have a potential to create a new export impact for Turkish alcoholic beverages. The government supported gastronomy events in Turkey excludes alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, Turkish government does not support export activities of alcoholic beverage industry. You may see Simit Sarayı in the highest traffic corner of the London or New York, but not Turkish Rakı or Turkish wines being promoted at a store where half of their rent and cost of employees were paid for five years. Although there is countless support for export associations for many industries, Turkish alcoholic beverages had very hardly got supported within last fifteen years. Exporting needs a long-term vision and marketing investment in other countries; it is a different mindset as I have explained previously for many years, this has been a very slow yet steady movement from Wines of Turkey.
Wines of Turkey participant producers, which are only a bunch of people stopped doing trials. But now, the new wave of migrants, are looking for better ways of getting connected and this have the potential of creating something bigger than previous attempts. Few examples here, are https://www.istanbulelsewhere.com/tr/meyhane-elsewhere, individual enthusiasts looking to export Turkish wines rather than Turkish producers trying to convince importers to sell Turkish wine, or other groups, like Turkuazz here, are becoming the mirror of the richness of the land. I am very hopeful from this new movement, as this may be a good wind for a new era.
We are becoming resilient and even if it may seem, from time to time, like rolling the rock of Sisyphus up and down the hill, this is about not giving up, no matter where you are. I think we need to get connected more and embrace each other with our differences, rather than being dominating, we need to act collectively, study more and listen each other more. This will make our gastronomy and alcoholic beverages stronger. This is about keeping the heritage of the land from thousands of years. This is sustainability to exist, in its pure sense, and it is not about setting goals.