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Wine: Have We Factored Out The Buzz Factor?

2012 February 22
by Mike

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.

32 Responses leave one →
  1. Courtney permalink
    April 11, 2012

    I often have similar thoughts, especially as one who finds herself a wine professional and has been working in the industry for nearly 5 years. On the flipside, I also come from a large family history of alcoholism, and was convinced as a young girl that one sip of alcohol would turn me into an alcoholic. Wine appeals to me for its cerebral and academic joys, as well as the nuanced tastes and smells I’ve learned to discern.

    There have been times throughout my career where I drink a bit heavier on a regular basis, and times I drink less. There have been times where I drink because it’s a part of my job, and not necessarily because I want to (THERE’S a ball of wax!).

    I also do think sometimes that maybe I’m a bit arrogant about wine consumption and its alcohol. I almost never drink liquor, because I don’t handle it well and, for me, liquor’s only purpose is to get drunk with (whereas wine for me is so much more about the knowledge than the buzz). I feel that I can consume and handle a lot of wine, though, because I am a “professional”. It’s true that I have the most experience with that particular category of alcohol, so I am better able to determine when I need to slow down, eat, and when I’ve reached my limit (I think of it as a sloping hill that I am intimately familiar with, whereas my experiences with liquor are like trying to navigate a cliff in the dark).

    I don’t think I’ve addressed all the questions you’ve posed in your post, nor even given a good attempt at answering them. I’m just adding my own thoughts and struggles to an interesting discourse that I’ve had with myself before.

  2. Saúl permalink
    February 29, 2012

    I too agree with Joe’s post. I started drinking wine 7 or 8 years ago and the most enjoyable aspect for me is choosing the wine(s) for the evening and then preparing the foods to accompany it. I just came back from the market with various food items and I look forward to sitting with my wife this evening to enjoy. I thoroughly love the ritual of dinner and wine, especially tasting new wines. I view wine as food, plain and simple and I stick to wines in the 12% and under range. Last night the 2010 Amestoi Txakolina hit the spot at 10% alcohol. If I am ever fortunate to party with Jack Bulkin I will definitely bring the Txakolina rose pool side.

  3. February 26, 2012

    Joe, I love that last paragraph of yours, which perfectly expresses what it is that makes wine so appealing and distinguishes it from other alcoholic beverages. It is a cerebral experience, it is an evocative experience–that’s the real pleasure. I’d love to track down that New Yorker article, which sounds fascinating and is certainly in keeping with what I’ve always assumed–not about the Irish (I’m actually part Irish, but alas, can’t claim any Swiss lineage) but about the different forms that drinking can take and the kind of consumption patterns that are most likely to produce health problems.

  4. February 25, 2012

    Hi Diane, great to see you here (and please give my best to Tom; I owe him a very belated email). That’s a good question. I’m guessing a four-five ounce pour is probably the norm for most people. I fill my Spiegelau Bordeaux stem about 1/3 of the way up; that’s one glass for me.

    Dr. Apstein, thanks for stopping by and for bringing some medical expertise to this discussion via the link to your article. It’s an article that everyone here should read.

  5. February 24, 2012

    A number of variables influence blood alcohol concentration, not the least of which is the alcohol content of the wine.

  6. February 24, 2012

    This post of yours Mike reminded me of an article I read sometime during the mid-aughts courtesy of the New Yorker (if this jogs some one’s memory maybe you can help me track it down.) The gist of it was about two researchers from Yale, or some other fine school in the great American north east, during the 60’s who were conducting research on alcohol consumption within different cultures.

    One of the studies they were doing focused on immigrants from Italy & Ireland. The grossly oversimplified version of what they found, was that the average Italians in their study were consuming as much or more than the Irish, but were beleaguered with fewer health and social problems than the Irish were. The local rehabilitation center had some fabulously disparate numbers in Irish v. Italians in the program; something like 1000 Irish to fewer than 20 Italians.

    The Italians were consuming it with food from mid-morning to dinner, but at no point were reaching stark inebriation. The Irish however would consume most of it in one strong go on a regular basis. Not to try and insinuate stereotypes or cultural pride (since being of Swiss descent I’ll remain neutral on the subject…ha!) but there is an obviously different usage of the alcohol consumed. When treated as a part of a regular moderate diet, no problem, in excess, obvious problem.

    The buzz is a nice side effect but the real pleasure, I think, comes from experiencing unique and interesting flavors that speak to a culture, tradition, or place. It is easy to get drunk, but more challenging and interesting to find something that stimulates the intellect and imagination.

  7. Diane permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Mike and others — May I ask for a bit of clarification on the “two glasses” a day issue? How much wine do you consider to be a glassful — four ounces? six? eight? If six, then two glasses would be half a bottle, which sounds just about right to me.

  8. February 23, 2012

    Robin, that’s pretty scary–if people want to drink to excess, that’s their prerogative, but to then get behind the wheel is just so irresponsible. I do not enjoy being around people who are sloshed, either, and I, too, find that it’s harder and harder to avoid them. If you get four or five couples together for a dinner party and the wine is flowing, chances are someone at the table is going to be shit-faced by the end of the night, and it can become an uncomfortable situation.

    Scott, that’s exactly my point–we all seem to treat wine as if it’s not really an alcoholic beverage. I’m certainly guilty of that; I would never drink four or five beers in a single sitting, whereas I don’t hesitate to toss back five or six glasses of wine if the mood strikes. We all seem to regard wine as being somehow different, and as I said, I do wonder if this breeds a cavalier attitude about the alcohol content and encourages excessive drinking.

  9. Scott permalink
    February 23, 2012

    One thing that always kind of shocks me is the discussion of whether high alcohol wines are too heavy to drink more than a glass of. The example content is always somewhere around 15%. That’s about thrice the cutoff between session beers and overweight beers. If you saw someone polish off a wine bottle’s volume in beer, you would not hesitate to call him an alcoholic.

  10. RobinC permalink
    February 23, 2012

    I was just thinking about this very subject. My husband and I often go to a weekly wine dinner where 4 value wines are served and refills are frequent. The last dinner we went to, the woman next to us drank 6 glasses of wine and her husband had more. This was over 2 1/2 hours and they had a 45 minute drive home. We are the only ones who ask for a spit bucket. We drink very little wine if it’s not really good. At home, if the wine is very, very good we may split a bottle. At least one of our friends drinks because of the kick that wine gives and our friend doesn’t really care which wine it is. I am very uncomfortable around people who drink too much, but it seems to be more and more difficult to avoid them.

  11. February 23, 2012

    Ross, I completely agree that an inebriated person can delude himself into believing that he is not inebriated. However, I know when I’m drunk, and I know when I’m buzzed, and while wine certainly has a mellowing effect on me, drinking four or five glasses over the course of a three-hour meal does not leave me remotely inebriated. Tolerance varies from individual to individual, and for better or worse, I have a pretty high tolerance for alcohol, or at least wine. I never drink hard liquor–have never had a taste for it nor the desire to drink it–so I don’t want to overstate my tolerance. But, again, I can drink four or five glasses at a dinner party, do some work late into the evening, and wake up feeling perfectly fine the next day. Perhaps that will change as I get older, but for now, the occasional indulgent evening doesn’t seem to have much effect on me at all.

  12. Ross Williams permalink
    February 23, 2012

    “will think nothing of tossing back four or five glasses, and while I never get drunk,”

    If you drink four or five glasses of wine over a couple hours, you are likely drunk whether you think so or not. One of the problems with alcohol abuse is that our judgment about our ability to hold our liquor is effected by how much liquor we have had.

    I remember a New York Times party planning story in the 1970’s that suggested you plan on one bottle of wine for each guest. They must have assumed the guests were leaving by cab or subway. Because after drinking that much wine, they were not going to be close to sober. No matter how much they had to eat.

  13. February 23, 2012

    Anon, thanks for the comment and for sharing your own experience. I know of one MW who doesn’t drink now, and I met a winemaker just the other week who has been sober for almost 25 years. And I think your point about the different facets of alcoholism is spot on. Drinking to excess is just one manifestation of it, but if you find that you can’t do without those two glasses in the evening, that’s a pretty good indication of dependency, too. I know from experience that I can go a week or two without a glass of wine and not feel any particular craving, and I want to make sure it stays that way. I think with wine–and this was really the point of raising the subject–it is just very easy to fall into a pattern where you are drinking to excess, telling yourself that it’s okay because “it’s only wine,” etc.

    Christina, thanks for stopping by, and you make some excellent points. You are right: this blog probably wouldn’t exist if wine didn’t contain alcohol. “Grape Juice Diarist” just doesn’t have quite the same ring. And as I said to Toby and Ryan, the mellowing effect is clearly part of the pleasure of wine, even if we don’t always admit that to ourselves. That’s very interesting regarding the day-after effect, and the impact that even just a night of reasonably moderate drinking can have the next morning. Whether I skip wine the night before or have my usual two glasses, I don’t feel any difference come the morning–I’m still my usual groggy self (I’m a night owl). But if I’ve had four or five glasses the night before, I am certainly slower out of the gate the next morning.

  14. February 23, 2012

    Toby, that’s a great point regarding spittoons. And I agree–even just two glasses in the evening will have a mellowing effect, which to Ryan’s point is part of the pleasure (particularly if it’s been a frustrating day). But it is a reminder that wine is, at heart, an alcoholic beverage.

    Ryan, do you find that fellow oenophiles tend to understate the alcohol factor?

  15. Jack Bulkin permalink
    February 23, 2012

    Anon, I have to repectfully disagree with your AA comment. ( if you drink 2 glasses of wine every night like clockwork those are signs you have addict behaviour. If you can not sit by the pool without a bottle of Rose’ that too is a sign. Alcoholism has many facets to it. ) I was raised in a family that never consumed alcohol at home. I experienced alcohol for the first time in College when I drank a beer and found it not to my tastes. I drink two glasses of wine with dinner because I can and enjoy it with food, not because I need to. I never, may I state never drink when I drive. I frequent restaurants much less frequently now because I will not drink wine and drive. I instead take a Town Car if driking is involved. I frequently don’t drink for days and don’t really think about it. Why, I am not an addictive personality. Many of my friends are, my ex, is I am not. I am not better than anyone else, I merely let judgment drive my decisions and not need. There are many who are like me but many more like you describe. By the way, I don’t drink Rose by the pool either although many guests ask me for Rose when they are by my pool.

  16. Christina permalink
    February 23, 2012

    A couple of comments on this. I think we oenophiles are deluding ourselves when we say that the fact that wine has alcohol in it isn’t one of the reasons we drink it. If it were somehow possible to make a very complex grape-based, alcohol-free drink, this blog might not even exist. I think it’s OK to admit that one reason we enjoy drinking wine is because it relaxes us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, in moderation, of course.
    On another note, I’ve actually had a similar conversation with fellow wine drinkers recently. I and many of my wine “connoisseur” friends also happen to try to eat well and exercise regularly. However, I definitely notice a big difference in my workout capability if I haven’t had any wine the previous day. Yes, I am a big lightweight, and I don’t always drink enough water while consuming wine. But several of my friends have independently made similar comments about cutting back on their wine drinking for health reasons, and none of us drink excessively. So long story short, we are noticing the effects of alcohol, and it is certainly frustrating when wine consumption, which we love, even somewhat negatively affects other aspects of our lives that are important to us.

  17. Anon permalink
    February 23, 2012

    I think this is a good subject to discuss. Having been in the wine trade for a couple of decades I have met plenty of Wine Geeks with lots of money drink way to much wine for the effect, if you drink two $100 bottles or two $4 bottles a night you are still achieving the same effect. I have been sober for almost 4 years because it was to easy to drink to excess. One of the main things I learned in recover is that ANYBODY can have a drinking problem, if you drink 2 glasses of wine every night like clockwork those are signs you have addict behaviour. If you can not sit by the pool without a bottle of Rose’ that too is a sign. Alcoholism has many facets to it. Believe it or not, the number one sign that you have a problem is to deny it and make excuses for what your drinking or how much… I am still in the trade and us Wine Geeks that are sober are growing in numbers, I know of two! LOL. Many of alcoholic never end up on the street or divorced from family, but many do and they all don’t drink Vodka because it is faster.

  18. Ryan permalink
    February 22, 2012

    I do think oenophiles, as a whole, tend to understate alcohol’s role. Not in the sense that we’re denying grave problems, although sadly I’m sure they’re very real for some people. But in the sense that some people protest too much when this subject comes up. Alcohol affects us even when it isn’t consumed to the point of outright drunkenness. I think people want and enjoy that experience, more so than they acknowledge. Just ask the Inebriati . . . .

  19. February 22, 2012

    The existence of the spittoon is itself evidence that alcohol in wine is secondary in importance to taste for most oenophiles. Mind you, the only time I ever seem to use one is, again, in reaction to the flavour of a wine rather that its alcolhol content.

    But I definitely do think of wine as a drug, and even at the 2-glass-a-day level it usually has a pleasant (if barely perceptible) effect. Nowadays it’s very rare that I would get at all drunk, it’s still fun from time to time. Although I find I don’t bounce back the next day as readliy as I used to…

  20. February 22, 2012

    Chris, great comment, and thanks for the kind words. I agree–most of us who are besotted with wine drink it for the taste, not to get buzzed. But I do think that we have sort of written the alcohol content out of the equation, and this does perhaps lead to exactly the kind of accidental byproduct you describe. Anyway, I thought this was a subject worth raising in light of that Frank Bruni column, and I’m glad you agreed.

    Dan, I’m not sure the drinking age is the problem; I think it’s the fact that a lot of American kids still grow up in households in which alcohol is taboo, and they go wild when they finally get the chance to taste the forbidden fruit. On this score, I agree with you: government is not the solution. It’s up to parents to teach their kids responsible drinking. But the fact that a lot of parents are still failing in this role doesn’t mean that we should lower the drinking age to 18. If an 18-year-old hasn’t learned responsible drinking at home, he or she is surely not going to learn it in a bar.

  21. Dan McCallum permalink
    February 22, 2012

    Those 5 glass dinner parties most probably entail a four hour session, so the blood alcohol measures may not be in the trouble zone. The trouble is all about the amount accumulated in excess of the metabolic rate of conversion. But I’ll challenge you gently on your earlier comment regarding the role of government. I suppose at some level of individual or familial failure, the government has a role in almost anything. But I’d venture to say that our minimum age 21 laws do more harm than good. In most of the world, if a minimum age exists at all, it is more likely to be 18. And there is no evidence that the rest of the world has a greater teenage alcohol problem; but there is plenty of evidence that we have a worse teenage drug problem. Our prohibition at this level just leads to covert binge drinking; and / or drugs. In most of the USA it is easier for a 19 year old to buy drugs than beer.

  22. Chris Wallace permalink
    February 22, 2012

    I am glad you did a post on this subject, it is an important one. Wine is an alcoholic beverage and needs to be respected as such. I think that most oenophiles, or any person with a keen interest in wine, drinks wine primarily for the sensory experience and not to get drunk. (Perhaps I am imposing my own M.O. on others…) But wine-lovers do like to contrast and compare wines and that experience can lead to over-consumption and drunkeness. It has happened to me enough and I have certainly seen it happen to my friends in the wine community. I want to continue to enjoy wine for the rest of my life, and I know that in order to have that privlege, I need to be careful about my consumption. I don’t want to say that I am too cavalier on the subject of right levels of consumption, nor do I think many in the wine community are. The adverse effects of too much alcohol is definitely something that I think about and I think that is true of most wine drinkers.

    Wine is not the most potent drink, nor is it the cheapest drink, and so I think wine would be an unlikely choice for someone who just wanted to get drunk. The isuue to me is not so much about intending to get drunk, but the accidental by-product of enjoying what is in your glass and having a good time with fellow wine drinkers. We need to self-regulate and publishing your post is a good reminder to us all of that need.

  23. February 22, 2012

    Dan, thanks for those comments, and I suspect the controlled experiment would yield exactly the result you predict. I agree that overdoing it is rarely on the agenda for hardcore wine geeks, but as I said, I do wonder if we are a little cavalier about the amount we consume. I don’t drink hard liquor, but if I did, I am sure I would never consider having four or five cocktails in an evening. I occasionally have a beer, but I likewise would never toss down a six-pack in an evening. However, I won’t hesitate to drink five or six glasses of wine at a dinner party if I don’t have to drive, etc., and I do wonder if that’s because I don’t really think of wine as an alcoholic beverage (even though I obviously know that it is one).

    Frank, I didn’t make the point about drinking wine to get drunk; Adam Gopnik made that claim, and as I said, I disagreed with him. And, yes, your wife is indeed a wonderful woman–that’s very thoughtful of her to pour her wine into your glass and to give you a lift home, too!

  24. February 22, 2012

    Jack, I think it’s a terrific that Arizona takes such a draconian approach, and while it obviously hasn’t eliminated the problem, I would assume these laws have had some effect as a deterrent.

    Lee, I don’t think there’s much Prohibitionist sentiment here in the US; quite the opposite, in fact. I think there was some truth to what Bruni wrote–alcohol abuse is a major public health problem in the US, but we don’t pay nearly as much attention to it as we do to issues like obesity, smoking, and illicit drugs. I certainly think it is the government’s role to regulate the sale of alcohol (although the three-tier distribution system here in the US is a farce), and per my comment to Jack, I’m in all favor of strict drunk driving laws. But I don’t think I’m expressing any Prohibitionist sentiments in saying those things, and I don’t really see any Prohibitionist tendencies here in the US.

  25. Frank permalink
    February 22, 2012

    I have a good friend who is 40+ years in AA. He doesn’t drink wine, obviously. But when he was drinking, he he didn’t either – wine didn’t work fast enough. So I’m not sure how much your statement that some people drink wine to get drunk applies generally. In my experience, alcoholics prefer a quicker and cheaper fix.

    For myself, there are times when I don’t feel like it’s a good idea to drive after wine. We’ll get something to eat or just take a walk for an hour or so. And sometimes, my wife – wonderful woman! – will announce that she’s driving home, and pour most of her tastes into my glass.

  26. Dan McCallum permalink
    February 22, 2012

    I’d say that in the ‘fine’ wine world the alcohol impact is by and large ignored. But I wouldn’t say that is cavalier. Rather, it seems to me that by the time a consumer advances to the wine hobbiest/geek/connoisseur level he/she has already come to peace with the issues of alcohol and overdoing is rarely on the agenda. I see the destiny of 100,ooo or so bottles / year and have varying degrees of familiarity with their consumers. In all honesty I see very near no indication of alcohol impact among my customers; and most certainly far far less then I observe in the population at large. I see vastly more when I exit the shop and walk sown the street.
    I’d project that if we were to undertake a controlled experiment examining two groups; 1) those who own 100+ bottles of wine, and 2) those who own 10 or less, the occurence of alcohol maladies ( liver disease, DUI’s, whatever) would be higher among the 10 or less.

  27. Lee Newby permalink
    February 22, 2012

    I am shock by this prohibitionist attitude I have come across lately in the US, there is nothing like it in Canada, well some First Nation Reserves by censuses are dry. But there have always been and will continue to be Dry counties in the US so I can see its growth is not unprecedented.
    I think responsible drinking should be taught in every home and yes the wine community I know and love are by and large responsible drinkers.

    If you didn’t learn to be responsible at home, is it the nature of Government to force you to toe a line? Alcohol is largely legal (with constraints and regulations) in much of the Western World, yes youth and some other abuse it, but should government remove it to save us all from its evils???

    Ahh, what year is this????

  28. Jack Bulkin permalink
    February 22, 2012

    Mike you had a post a couple of weeks ago about drinking wine with or in front of kids. My son is so accustomed to seeing me drink wine with dinner that he frequently pulls my stem while I am setting the table. I have had zero negative parental decision making or execution with 2 glasses of wine. The very rare times that I drink more then I usually regret it when my son is around.
    AZ has the toughest DUI laws in the Country. A first arrest can result in 45 days of jail for a very high BAC. That hasn’t stopped drinkers who drive. We also have an increase in bankruptcies due to the fines and jail costs imposed by the Communities on drunk drivers. Abusing Alcohol can cause devastating results here. Our economy has had little to no improvement. We are based on Real Estate and it is still declining.

  29. February 22, 2012

    Jack, that’s really interesting, and I guess not surprising–as you say, this is a period of economic distress (even if there is a whiff of recovery in the air), and people can create all sorts of nasty cocktails with which to ease the anxiety, frustration, etc. Two glasses a night seems about right, and if there’s anything to this resveratrol business, perhaps we are even doing ourselves a favor by having those two glasses. And for you and me, there’s another factor–we both have young children. With young children, there’s no such thing as off-duty, so that obliges us to limit the intake, and we also want to set a good example by drinking in moderation.

  30. Jack Bulkin permalink
    February 22, 2012

    I have seen a dramatic increase in drinking coupled with sedatives, barbiturites and other sedatives in DUI’s and criminal other cases of late. Mixing Alcohol and sedatives are a recipe of disaster. Certainly many merely abuse alcohol. The numbers are up in these times of economic distress. I drink 2 glasses a night like clockwork. I had more last week one night at an 83 Bordeaux dinner but skipped the next night so no real uptick for me Mike.

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