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Shawn Whatley: Why we need a flexible, prudent approach to vaccine mandates

Commentary

Pandemics create fear, and fear extinguishes appetite for balanced discussion. Instead, governments take bold, expansive action. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “sweeping federal vaccine mandate” to “target last holdouts” offers a case in point. The public supports vaccine travel passports, but broad mandates fuelled by emotional rhetoric create affective polarization: partisan groups with anger and frustration on each side.

To date, most discussion on vaccine mandates reflects a principled approach. People must choose a side, for or against. Some argue mandates are a necessarily good thing; mandates will get us back to normal; and they serve the greater good. Others argue mandates are intrinsically bad. They insult individual autonomy—the greatest good any country can ever get.

But a principled approach turns policy positions into moral absolutes. If mandates are good on principle, there should be no limit to their scope. We should pursue them with vigour for all the various diseases for which we have vaccines. Restrictions to freedom of movement “should be tailored to verifiable risk,” according to one opinion in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Prudence offers a better way to craft policy. It avoids turning policy into morality. Prudence uses current circumstance to create policy, in the same way we might choose to carry an umbrella if the sky looks grey. Prudence applies general principles, with nuance, based on the particular need at hand. It makes policy flexible and responsive—something pandemic policy too often lacks.

Michelle Mello, Ross Silverman, and Saad Omer tackled this concept in an article that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. They suggested guidelines for mandates based on experience in other infections and pandemics: the 1976 Swine Flu, H1N1, and others. Using past experience, they suggested a five-level rubric to help policy-makers decide whether or not we need vaccine mandates at this time. Paraphrasing their advice, we might consider vaccine mandates if the following things occurred:

  1. COVID has not been controlled by other measures, such as testing, contact tracing, isolation, quarantines, and so on. If hospitalizations and deaths are increasing (not just cases), we might have good reason to propose mandates to help control COVID-19.
  2. Scientific agreement has emerged on recommendations for the vaccination of particular groups for which the mandate was being considered.
  3. Safety and efficacy data have been shared in a clear and transparent manner, which the public can support.
  4. Barriers to access for vaccination have been removed, and citizens have been promised compensation/protection for any potential adverse events. A robust surveillance program for adverse events is in place.
  5. A time-limited trial of voluntary vaccination has failed or fallen short of targets for high-priority groups to prevent epidemic spread.

In summary, failure to control COVID-19, scientific consensus, public trust, access to care, and failure of voluntary efforts should guide policy-makers.

Armed with general guidelines, policy-makers still need to draft good policy. Every policy risks concretizing a fluid situation—staking a position and constitutionalizing it. Thus, policy itself needs to be drafted with a prudential mindset. Great guidelines fail if they become rigid and irrelevant once they leave the press.

In a dynamic environment, we need policy that can adapt. Especially in the face of rapid change, policies should have a clear goal and purpose. Why do we need this mandate? What exactly are we hoping to achieve? The policy background and justification should build on the five elements listed above. Implementation often presents an insuperable hurdle even in stable environments. In a pandemic, we need implementation that highlights expected challenges and explores roadblocks, with as much detail and thought as the mechanics applied to making a mandate operational.

Finally, policy needs a review mechanism. How will we know when the policy has served its purpose? Does it have a sunset clause? Do we have an exit strategy?

A principled approach risks public trust. When we confuse policy with morality, it locks us into one policy position—change becomes immoral. Inevitable, necessary policy change guarantees an eventual erosion of public trust. Absent public trust, even the best policy will never perform as well. A prudential approach will never deliver the rallying cries and exciting headlines (some) politicians need, but it always offers the best performance.

Vaccine mandates are one policy tool in a much larger toolkit of policy options with which to tackle a pandemic. Knowledge is rare and good policy tough to make at the best of times. Given the overlapping political, ethical, technological, legal, and scientific issues impinging on vaccination policy, policy-makers might find better traction and public support using an explicitly prudential approach.

Greatly improved co-operative wineries deserve a second look

Commentary

Last week Zach Geballe, a Seattle-based wine writer and educator, published a small rant at the American wine search engine site, pix.vines.

Geballe’s piece had the full title The Single-Vineyard Wine Scam: Wine lovers’ obsession with terroir gives winemakers a get-out-of-jail-free card and it provoked no small amount of controversy on wine Twitter. The French-invented concept of terroir refers to the environment in which the grape vines that make a particular wine are grown, including factors like soil type, climate, altitude and position relative to the sun (south facing, etc.).

Geballe’s piece is a fun read, not least because he zeros in on an increasing practice among wine marketers who use the concept of terroir to either excuse wine that is, at worst, not very well made or, at best, not very interesting. At the beginning of this century, terroir was an exciting concept among a new generation of winemakers and wine trade that wished to fight against the homogenization of winemaking style around the world.

The spirit of those times was caught in Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondo Vino and the Alexander Payne film Sideways, both of which were released in 2004. Nearly twenty years later the term is getting tired.

I enjoyed Geballe’s piece so much I asked him to join me this week in a Zoom conversation, which he did. He cheerfully explained that the essay came from his frustration with a growing occupation with where a wine comes from over how it was made or even tastes.

He said, “I felt like that we, as a wine industry, are at a precarious place where people have lost sight of wine’s central purpose, and it’s not to explore tiny plots of geography in a glass.” Geballe wants to know what happened to the descriptions of the people that make the wine, or praise of the fine art of blending.

In his piece, and in our conversation, Geballe goes further in his interrogation of terroir, pointing out to me in a tone of frustration, “agriculture is also a human endeavour.” Indeed, the history of wine is the history of human intervention, and every glass of wine is the result of a long and complicated flowchart of decisions, beginning with how the vines were planted and trained to what vessel the wine was made in to how long it was aged in the bottle before it was shipped to the store at which it was bought. Geballe’s piece resonated because a lot of wine people agree that actual wine making deserves credit again.

One kind of wine that usually isn’t too precious about terroir, and is never about a single vineyard, are the ones made by co-operatives. Co-operative wineries, which are owned collectively by wine growers, by definition source their grapes from many vineyards and their wine making teams must blend and intervene and generally work on the wines to create a consistent product. Co-operatives still make a large amount of wine in Europe, South America, and South Africa, though much of it is kept for domestic production.

Co-operatives, especially in Europe, are having a bit of a renaissance and making some very good wines at very good prices. This is a bit of a secret. The co-operatives from very famous wine regions, like the Produttori del Barbaresco or the Kellerei Bozen – Cantina Bolzano, take the name of their location and more or less advertise their collectivity. But many co-operatives obscure the nature of their corporate composition on the fear that the wine buying public might judge their product to be inferior to those made by aristocrats in a Château or a small salt of the earth family winery.

That fear is not unfounded. The trend through the late twentieth century, especially in Western European wine regions, was for wine growers to pivot from selling their grapes to the local co-operative to making it themselves “on the estate.”

Co-operatives, especially in Europe, are having a bit of a renaissance and making some very good wines at very good prices.

Co-operatives have the advantage of guaranteeing to buy all of a farm’s grapes at a set amount and began in France in the 1930s as an answer to the deprivations of the Great Depression. But that security meant that the income from the grapes would be lower than income drawn from vertically integrating and selling wine made from the grapes.

Many wine making families also turned towards making their own wine due to the increasing professionalization of wine in general. Agricultural colleges gave younger farmers the opportunity to study viticulture and vinicultural and the tools to break away from the co-operatives. And by integrating all aspects of the wine production to the family estate, that professionalization provided employment to many members of the family from multiple generations. A winery could have a vineyard manager, a cellar manager, an export and sales manager, and so on.

The wine world is cyclical, and what comes out of fashion eventually comes back, if in a somewhat different form. This can be hard to discern at a glance because things work slowly from vintage to vintage, so it can take many years for a stylistic change, like less oaky wines or the usefulness of the term terroir, to manifest. In this way, the professionalization of wine production turned out to be of great use to the co-operative in the long run and is largely behind their reinvigoration.

As the agricultural colleges graduated professional winemakers, not all of them had family farms to return to. And the farmers who continued to sell grapes to the co-operatives were also professionalizing and seeing the need to upgrade the co-operative wines. So was born the new co-operative that emphasizes quality over quantity, overseen by professional wine making teams under the ownership and control of professional farmers.

The good news for consumers is that even though the quality of the co-operative wines has greatly improved in the last 20 years to be competitive with the privately held producers, the prices have not. The co-operatives still extend buying guarantees to their grape growers, and so still need to make a set amount of wine that needs to be sold every year to make way for the new vintage. Also, notwithstanding the examples above, the remaining co-operatives tend to be situated in up and coming regions that are competitively priced.

Next time you find a wine you like for around $20, do a Google search and don’t be surprised if it turns out to be made at a co-operative.

Here is a list, which is by no means complete, of some co-operatives making some very good wines at good prices:

Bodegas Eidosela: https://www.bodegaseidosela.com/

Cantina Bolzano: https://www.kellereibozen.com/en/

Cantine Settisoli: https://cantinesettesoli.it/en

Cave de Tain: https://www.cavedetain.com/en/

Domäne Wachau: https://www.domaene-wachau.at/en/

La Guardiense: https://www.laguardiense.it/

Mezzacorona: https://www.mezzacorona.it/en-us

Produttori del Barbaresco: http://www.produttoridelbarbaresco.com/index.php?lang=en

Vignerons de Buxy: https://www.vigneronsdebuxy.fr/?lang=en

Vignerons Castelas: https://www.vignerons-castelas.fr/