The Ethics of “Conflict wine”

By Tobias Webb

In my main area of occupation, (aside from obsessing about wine) I’ve seen increasing numbers of ‘things’ labelled as ‘conflict’ in the last 15 years.

It began with conflict minerals, firstly diamonds and then key ingredients of the electronics industry like Tantalum, Cobalt, Cassiterite and other rare/difficult to find minerals. (The move “Blood Diamond” focused on this, a decade or so after the problem had largely been fixed, though not everywhere)

Since then we’ve seen the rise of claims about conflict gold, and conflict palm oil. These associations have been made because campaigners, rightly or wrongly, have suggested that their production, in some cases and places, is associated with human conflict, exploitation and suffering.

So we’ve see the rise of traceable diamonds, palm oil, gold and other minerals to show consumers that the products they are buying, don’t have this difficult association. Intel is even adding conflict free symbols on products, as odd as that sounds when you think about it.

And so, to wine. Will campaign groups jump on the idea of “conflict wine” and the ethics of buying it? Well, if this article in Newsweek (yes, it’s still going, and runs some good articles) is right then perhaps.

The title gives you a clue as to its content: “Grapes of Wrath: Israel’s Settlement Wineries Fight Back Against EU Labels”.

Wine production is up significantly in the Occupied Territories, with at least one producer now up to 250,000 bottles, from 3000 in 2003. But of course, there’s a problem:

“As human rights groups, boycott advocates and anti-Israel campaigners the world over continue to push for a full embargo on businesses located in the 237 Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the EU recently issued guidelines saying that products coming into the bloc from the occupied territories should be labeled with their place of origin. The labeling is mandatory on fruit, vegetables and wine—bottles made in Jewish outposts must now carry the term “Israeli settlement” in brackets. And that means significant implications for settlement wineries, of which there are at least 30 in the West Bank.”

Sales to Europe have now completely dried up, according to Newsweek. But as ever, this is not a simple situation. Newsweek again:

“Critics of the labeling guidelines note that the EU’s move could inadvertently hurt the Palestinians it aims to help. Some settlement wineries, such as Berg’s Psagot Boutique Winery, employ a small number of Palestinian workers, providing them with higher salaries than they would receive in Palestinian Authority-controlled territory. Yet, according to a 2013 report by Israeli civil society organization Keren Navot, 56 percent of the total agricultural area added for Jewish vineyards in the West Bank and East Jerusalem between 1997 and 2012 (17 percent) was built on what was privately owned Palestinian land. Anti-Israel activists say that developing vineyards provides an accessible route for settlers to take control of Palestinian land and “normalize” the settlement enterprise.”

So, what are the ethics of what anti-hardline-Israel campaigners might soon call “conflict wine”? As ever, it depends on your point of view. For supporters of Israel’s expansion I imagine buying the wines feels like a great way to demonstrate that support. For opponents, which seems to cover the whole EU, at least politically, it means not buying it.

Personally, having lived in Israel some twenty years ago, I saw enough of the unresolved land conflicts not to want to encourage any more by buying wine from there. If there was a stand-out wine maker encouraging reconciliation and taking a progressive stance, and the tasting notes were decent, I might be persuaded otherwise one day.

SWR Logo

Sustainable Wine is the free online magazine of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable (SWR).

Join 130+ companies in collaborating to define sustainable wine. Click below for details.

Find out more

About the author

Tobias Webb

Toby Webb is co-founder of Sustainable Wine. He is also founder of Innovation Forum, a leading platform for change in sustainable supply chains. He has spent 20+ years working in business and sustainability and has spent ten years teaching the subject at various London universities. He advises a number of companies large and small on sustainability. Businesses he has worked with include Patagonia, Interface, Bayer, SOK Group, Boots/Walgreens, Metro, Unilever, Nestle, Reckitt Benckiser, Sainsbury’s, and many others. He co-authored the UK’s national CSR strategy for David Cameron from 2006-10. He has been organising events, advising, teaching writing, blogging and podcasting on sustainable business since 2001. His (non-wine) blog is at