Last Tuesday, I spoke to Taner Öğütoğlu, the Director of Wines of Turkey, on his drive home through the Istanbul traffic. He was planning on working that evening. Not an export strategy; not a trade-fair budget. Not the usual kind of thing.
Picture credit: Wines of Turkey
He was, instead, going to draft a letter on behalf of Turkey’s wine producers to Abdullah Gül, the Turkish president, beseeching him to break with constitutional precedent and not to sign Law number 6487: the latest suite of restrictions on the promotion and sale of alcohol drawn up by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
“Everyone is in shock,” he said. “We don’t know how to react. If there was a big threat of alcoholism, we would understand the need for legislation. But there isn’t; the level is very low here in Turkey – much less than 1% of the population. What the government is doing is bringing in religiously orientated restrictions.” According to the President of the Turkish Wine Producers’ Association, Ali Başman of Kavaklidere, the law would make it hard for new products to be launched and discussed, for new restaurants wishing to serve alcohol to open, for wineries to sell on the internet and for ordinary Turks and overseas visitors to visit vineyards.
The world watched Turkey tumble into political turmoil last week. Protests over a building project for one of Istanbul’s last surviving open spaces, Taksim Square, erupted into wider discontent about what many see as PM Erdoğan’s peremptory paternalism, and the sense that Turkey’s hard-won secular traditions were being gradually eroded in a stealthily managed slide towards ‘soft Sharia’. The heavy handed response to lightly-dressed, evidently peaceful demonstrators like the now-famous ‘woman in red’ did little for Turkey’s image abroad.
What makes life for Turkey’s wine producers so singularly wearying is that alcohol is a lightning rod for these tensions. As Turkish journalist Sevgi Akarçeşme wrote in her blog in Today’s Zaman on May 26th, alcohol is always “more than alcohol” in Turkey. It is, she said, “an issue about which you can hardly have a reasonable public debate. … As abortion has a lot more meaning in the US than in many other countries, in Turkey alcohol is not simply about a personal decision to drink or not to drink.” She might also have chosen to refer to the debate about continuing membership of the European Union in the UK. Every nation has a sore spot where emotion seems destined to swamp reason.
It’s hard, looking at the statistics, to see why this topic should matter at all. According to a survey carried out by the polling organisation Konda, only 1.2% of the Turkish population drink any alcohol on a daily basis, while only 5.7% drink once a week. Some 68.5% of the population have never drunk, and another 8.5% once drunk occasionally but have now given up. After consulting these figures, you would conclude that PM Erdoğan’s move is a puzzling effort to demolish his own country’s tourist appeal.
Speak to Turks, though, and you soon pick up on the undercurrents. Secularists will tell you that drinking has, in the Erdoğan years, become so politically incorrect for the mosque-attending but moderate majority of his electorate that they hardly dare admit, even to a pollster, that they sometimes enjoy a quiet raki at home with their friends. Others counter that, in the past, the pressure from secularists in the military and state apparatus sometimes pushed religious Turks into drinking against their will if they wished to sustain their careers, and claim that the current demonstrations are based on ‘secularist paranoia’.
The debate has quickly grown rancorous. Wine producer Can Ortabaş of Urla Şarapçılık was watching a television debate recently in which an MP from PM Erdoğan’s party claimed that Turkey’s children needed protecting from ‘alcohol, heroin and cocaine’. “I was so proud of what we have been doing,” says Ortabaş, “which is resuscitating a 7,000-year tradition on our little peninsula [close to İzmir]. We even won a Regional Trophy at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. And now I am in the same basket with heroin traffickers.”
Whether the letter drafted by Taner Öğütoğlu will stay President Gül’s pen remains to be seen. The outcome of the protests — which were universally unexpected, even by secularists – is as uncertain. All those I spoke to said that the political atmosphere in Turkey, though, had suddenly changed. There is, perhaps, no country in the world where drinking a glass of wine in a public space has more political significance than in Turkey. Just now, that significance extends to a glass of Turkish wine drunk anywhere in the world.
Written by Andrew Jefford