By Dave Broom

Out Of Fashion

Is there still room for wine on the table?
At least it wasn't going to attract many people. That at least was the consensus as we stood outside the tractor shed at 9am on the Sunday morning. I mean, who in their right mind would be up at this hour? If they were they'd be having breakfast or, this being Ireland, may already be on their way to chapel. Those who had been drowning in the ample hospitality of the Big Shed until the early hours would certainly still be a-bed. Like we wished we were, having been among that same carousing throng.

On the off-chance that there were some hardy souls, how many would contemplate sitting down and listening to five people debate whether wine was going out of fashion? The bright spark who thought that topic up was the Irish Times' drinks correspondent, the always excellent John Wilson. I suspect he thought it up at the last minute, not thinking that Colm McCan would ever accept such a ludicrous proposal.

John had clearly forgotten that the Ballymaloe Lit Fest is based around such vexatious discussions. We had also underestimated the stamina of the people who had paid good money to see the world's top chefs and wine writers discuss their work.

We took to our stools on the stage, looking like some pensionable boy band and looked over the empty tables in the drinks shed. (Ballymaloe, being a working farm, converts its buildings for the LitFest. The world of booze is ensconced where the tractors usually reside). A chat between ourselves? That would be just grand. I wanted to hear what my fellow panellists: mixologist supreme Nick Strangeway, gin distiller extraordinaire Desmond Payne, brewmaster of genius Garrett Oliver - and wise John had to say on the topic.

What none of us expected were the two people who came in and took up position in the front row. It's bad enough debating wine's potential unfashionability, it becomes somewhat terrifying doing so when faced by Jancis Robinson and Nick Lander.

The shed filled and we kicked off.

Looking straight at Jancis and Nick we squeaked. "I drink wine! I love it!" I drink more wine than whisky. (Right enough, if I drank the same amount of whisky as I do of wine I'd be dead).

After that less than glorious opening we settled into things. The fact is that spirits are becoming if not more fashionable, then more acceptable.

There is now this thing called bar culture. Nick Strangeway is one of the people responsible for that. The rise of the craft brewing industry globally also speaks volumes for the democratisation of drink. As Garret pointed out in his usual articulate fashion, this represents a return to the greater choice available in pre-Prohibition times. It was the 20th Century that was the anomaly.

The same, you could argue has happened with gin and with whisky. I recall meeting Desmond for the first time in the 1980s when the idea of anyone drinking gin was becoming faintly ludicrous. Now there are five new gins launching every week. The day before I'd sat on a panel discussing the renaissance of Irish whiskey where Tomas Clancy of the Sunday Business Post revealed that there could be 30 whiskey distilleries in Ireland by the end of 2016.

Is there great value wine out there?

Yes - but you have to go to independent wine merchants to find it. Recent experience suggests that the mid-priced wine in supermarkets have deteriorated dramatically in quality.

Wine will have to fight that little bit harder for share of throat because of the dangers of commoditisation and the fact that there are now also great beers, and craft ciders. Do you want a mediocre glass of wine, or a well-crafted ale with your meal?

Where then does that leave spirits?

With a real opportunity, but only if the category can begin to leverage some coverage in the press and on TV.

Distillers also need to grasp this and talk up provenance, and terroir. In other words, see the parallels with wine.

It also needs to show itself as being as versatile as wine and beer. Not every potential spirits drinker will want to drink neat single malt. They might however enjoy a Highball.

Wine isn't dead, we concluded, but it needs to watch out. I think I saw Jancis nod in agreement.