Sobering times for Turkish winemakers as new law takes effect

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Blasted by winds whipped up on the Aegean Sea, the Turkish island of Bozcaada sits close to the ancient city of Troy and has been known since the time of Helen and Paris for one thing: wine.

But that may be all about to change.

In early September in Bozcaada, another grape harvest was coming to an end, and with the final fruit of the season heading to the pressing room, Mehmet Tanay was feeling gloomy.

“It will be an average year,” the vintner said. Last year he produced 600,000 bottles, but after the introduction of a new law designed to curb the sale and advertising of alcohol in Turkey, Tanay has lowered his expectations.

Although deputies voted for the law in May, it only came into force on Sept. 9, a move that Tanay and his fellow winemakers believe threatens their livelihoods and a tradition that stretches back generations.

Tanay estimates his business has shrunk by between five and 10 percent in the months since the law was passed banning advertising in the press and online, the sale of alcohol in shops between 10pm and 6am, and a total ban on its retail near schools and mosques.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defended the law as a measure to improve the population’s health, but critics see it as just his latest attempt to “Islamicize” Turkey.

During the violent protests that swept the country in June, the law was consistently raised by demonstrators as the specter of a more hardline Muslim nation they say is sought by Erdogan.

“We can't have wine tastings, we can’t organize events, we can't advertise in newspapers,” said Tanay. “We already couldn’t advertise on TV but now newspaper advertising is banned too. With these laws we can't communicate.”

Even a website advertising his vintage is gone, replaced with a black screen. A highly popular wine festival is now a “grape festival.”

‘Too many people depend on the wine sector’

As Bozcaada ponders its economic future - two-thirds of the island’s 2,400 people are employed in the wine trade - others are worried about losing a part of their identity.

“Small producers don't want to sell their [vineyards] because it’s part of their culture and they’re attached to it. It’s their heritage, often inherited from their parents and families” said mayor Mustafa Mutay. “The islanders want to continue to produce wine and they will fight to be able to do that.”

That may prove a challenge. Since taking power in 2002, Erdogan and his conservative AKP party have lumbered producers and drinkers with huge tax hikes.

Inflation is also a factor, but the price of Turkey’s national drink, reki, has risen by a staggering 272 percent since 2004, with beer bloating by 218 percent and wine by 163 percent, according to official statistics.

The government raked in 4.6 billion Turkish lira ($2.3 billion) in taxes from alcohol last year, up from three billion lira in 2010.

To relieve the pressure on producers, Erdogan’s administration claims it has helped by boosting wine exports, which winemakers concede is true but say is not enough.

“These restrictions have to be looked at differently,” Tanay said. “Too many people depend on this sector.”

Bozcaada’s residents remain optimistic, however, believing that laws and taxes are nothing in the face of many Turks’' desire for a nice glass of red.

“People come to Bozcaada for the wine. When they order a drink, it’s wine,” said Mahir, a restaurant owner on the island.

Selma Songul, one of his customers, described the law as “prohibition.” “Drinking alcohol is a personal choice, nobody should control it,” she said.

And Turks are voting with their wallets by drinking more than ever, it seems. Taxes or no, consumption has jumped from 38 to 60 billion liters a year between 2008 and 2012.

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