Wine: Have We Factored Out The Buzz Factor?
Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic of The New York Times, is now an op-ed columnist for the paper. He moved to the opinion pages after Frank Rich left The Times last year, and he essentially covers the same turf that Rich did, the intersection of politics and culture. Bruni had a piece in last Sunday’s paper about Whitney Houston’s death. He noted that while there was much discussion about the late singer’s history of drug abuse and the role prescription drugs may have played in her death, little was said about the fact that she had apparently also been drinking and that alcohol might have been a contributing factor, too.
Bruni went on to suggest that Americans have blinded themselves to the fact that alcohol abuse is an enormous public health problem. “Wrongly, perilously, we tend not to attribute the same destructive powers to [alcohol] that we do to powders, capsules and vials,” he wrote. “Because drinking is legal for adults, safe in moderation, the rightful font of epicurean revelries and the foundation of a multibillion-dollar industry, it gets something of a pass.” Bruni was quick to say that he wasn’t advocating a return to Prohibitionist policies—“I’m not about to abandon my white Burgundy” (I guess premox hasn’t been an issue for him)—but that he was simply baffled by the “paucity of public discussion” concerning the damage wrought by heavy drinking.
Bruni overstated his case; there’s been plenty of public discussion about the risks of drinking and driving, for instance, and most people surely understand that excessive alcohol consumption is generally a bad idea. Still, it was a thought-provoking column, and for me it raised an interesting question: have we—oenophiles—deluded ourselves into thinking that wine is more benign than it really is? Although it’s not as potent as, say, vodka, wine is an alcoholic beverage. Yet, judging by the way we think and talk about wine, and the gusto with which many of us drink it, the alcohol element seems almost to have been written out of the equation. In an essay about wine for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik offered the following observation: “Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing…would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. To read wine writing, one would think that wine is simply another luxury food, like smoked salmon or caviar or chocolate; the one idea that is banished is that it is a powerful drug, which can wash away, in a few minutes, the ability to discriminate at all.”
I disagree with Gopnik on one point: while lots of people do drink wine to get inebriated, I think those of us who have succumbed to oenophilia consume wine mostly because we like how it tastes. However, there is no denying his larger point—the rhetoric of wine appreciation does obscure the fact that wine contains alcohol (yes, there has been a vigorous debate in recent years about alcohol levels in wine, but that’s really a debate about aesthetics, not health factors). And I do wonder if this breeds a cavalier attitude about wine consumption and encourages excessive drinking. I generally limit myself to two glasses a day. On social occasions, however, I will think nothing of tossing back four or five glasses, and while I never get drunk, the fact that I have no hesitation to consume that much wine does suggest a certain insouciance with regard to wine’s alcohol content—a belief that wine is somehow different than other libations.
So what’s your take on this topic? Are wine geeks too cavalier about the alcohol factor? Have we conned ourselves into thinking that wine is not truly an alcoholic beverage, or that the alcohol content doesn’t matter in the same way that it does with other potables? Over time, have you become more conscious or less conscious of the amount of wine that you consume? I’d love to get your thoughts on this one.