Green bottles


"Organic" is one of those misery-inducing words, like "soya" or "vegan", that makes you want to go on hunger strike the minute you hear it. I'm sorry but I can't help it. I know it's terribly fashionable and very good for you, and I have nothing but respect for those who eke out an existence on a nutritious diet of lentils and lettuces (all right, that last bit is a lie - I despise them) but I would rather spend the rest of my life among cannibals than have to eat organically. At least there'd be some thrill attached to the daily contents of the cooking-pot.

But everyone's organic now, and I ought to shy away from my silly prejudices and try some healthier wine. And it shouldn't be as bad as it sounds. Nothing essential has been stripped from the process. It's not like alcohol-free beer, for goodness' sake. Organic wine is still fermented grape juice and still laden with alcohol (I have one here that boasts 13.5 per cent vol). But the difference between this and normal wine is twofold. First, the grapes are grown without the use of pesticides or other nasty chemicals. Instead of routinely spraying his crop - in this case vines - with something akin to poison, the farmer has to employ lots of labourers to tend to them by hand. Organic people, in their evangelical love-thy-parsnip-type way, try to say that this means more "care" has gone into the vines' growth. I'd say more work, which only makes them more expensive. Some organic wines are simply "made from organically grown grapes", which means that the goody-two-shoes process stops here.

Other wine-makers, however, continue the good work by eschewing the use of chemical additives and, notably, vastly reducing the quantity of the preservative sulphur dioxide used. Here there are some real benefits. Wines that go all the organic way can be a saviour for people like my father, an asthmatic who is allergic to sulphur dioxide and who turns into a living and only just breathing Darth Vader when he so much as takes a sip of ordinary wine.

But perhaps my biggest gripe with organic wine is the way it often promotes itself in such a depressing recycled fashion. No one has to drink wine - they do so for pleasure, and nothing is more pointless than opening a bottle of wine because it is organic rather than because it tastes good. Which is why I admire mail-order Vintage Roots (0800 980 4992), one of the biggest suppliers of organic wine, which, despite producing bottom-of-the-range and thoroughly dismal-sounding Organic Rouge and Organic Blanc (both at £3.99), has a list of about 200 wines, many of which are sold on taste as much as on organicness. And of this I heartily approve.

But my latest love and I have grabbed some organic alcohol from Sainsbury's and are not impressed. He says the Pinkus organic draft beer (£1.15 a bottle) tastes "just how I knew it would taste: depressing". And I find both red (cabernet sauvignon, £8.99) and white (chardonnay, £7.99) versions of the American Bonterra, which is only organically grown, weird to say the least. The white, particularly, has a powerful honey aftertaste. I wouldn't like to say whether it's the organic thing that ruins the wine, or the general wine-making incompetence of people too anxious about the spiritual well-being of the grape to give it a good thrashing when that's what is needed.

I wish we had shopped instead at Freshlands on Parkway in London's Camden Town, which stocks some of the Vintage Roots range. I have it on good, unbiased authority that Vintage's crisp Domaine de Richard Bergerac Sec 1997 (£3.99), peachy Soave Superiore, Fasoli Gino (£4.99) and gutsy red Mas Igneus Priorat 1997 (£8.65) are delicious little numbers. What's more, the lady at Vintage Roots claims that organic wines "don't give you a hangover". "Great," I say, "I will drink barrel-loads of it."

"Well," they say mawkishly, "it depends how much you drink." I can hear sandal-leather flapping in disapproval.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.