How to Drink Wine in Moderation
La moderazione per chi lavora nel settore
I love wine.
No, I mean I really, really love it. I love everything about it.
I love the sound of cracking the scotch tape when unloading cases, of pulling spongy and squeaky corks, of splashing it into freshly-polished glasses, of that first sip of something unexpected; the way it fills my mouth as though the liquid were fermented from the late-summer fireworks of my youth.
I love spending Saturdays arranging my personal collection, of browsing stores, cantine and supermarkets the way women think of trying on clothing, with no intention of buying any, but just to be around the stuff: pleasure through osmosis. I love pulling out the horizontal bottles to read the labels, how my mind tries to predict, or if I’ve been lucky, to remember what the contents are like, whether it was sunny that year, cloudy, whether is came from places far away, where farmers train their vines in radically different ways and call their mothers words other than ‘mamma‘.
As a teacher, I love being asked about a favourite wine, of how I’ll adjust my weight in my seat, half surprised myself by the long and beautifully nuanced explanation that seems to channel through me, as welcome as an old friend.
I love books about wine, and have hundreds of them, crammed and jammed into a 17th-century bookcase, four doors wide, the books themselves, marked with my horrific hand-writing and years and years of faded purple rings.
I love the history of a very different Europe, when wine traveled by barge, by clipper ship, where it poured from countless clay pots, crystal decanters and leather pouches.
Of course an attentive reader will notice that I never mentioned the alcoholic effect of wine, which of course that is what this essay is really about.
I love that too, and maybe a little too much.
The funny thing is I never once drove my ancient Fiat into a herd of sheep. No police officer ever flipped the switch on his sirens. No doctor winced while examining my chart. My over-drinking didn’t ‘cost’ me anything dear, the way it needs to happen to many before they decide to cut back. My only hallelujah moment, involved, of all things, frosted cake.
It was listening to an interview with a pastry chef, who, when asked how she kept her tiny waistline being surrounded all day by delicious temptation, said this: “Cake has never made anyone fat. It’s only eating it that does.”
It made my cheeks burn red, the realization that sometimes answers are so obvious. Here was a woman who could work all day long in her chosen profession, remain passionate and relevant in her field, but without it destroying her health and personal relationships. She didn’t mistake the production with the consumption. She had made peace with her profession.
How to Drink Less Wine in 3 Steps
(Assuming you’d like to drink less, and for years, I didn’t want to. If you work in world of wine as I do, you’ll likely either need to come up with a system, such as this one, or maybe you already have one, in which case, I’d love to hear about it.)
1) Start a log
My quest started two months ago, when I Googled “How to Drink Less.” Several articles mentioned keeping logs of my wine intake — I don’t drink beer, cocktails or hard liquor, so we’re pretty much talking only about wine. I suspected that I drank a bottle a day, two glasses with lunch (when I work), two or three with dinner. Then I started to completely empty my glass before refilling it and began thinking in distinct portions or units, rather than a flowing liquid without beginning or end. It became much easier to count.
And it was chilling.
I had been drinking much more than I had thought. The shock of just how much that was, exactly, only reinforced my resolve towards moderation.
2) Develop strategies
a) Many articles made reference to a move called “The Frank Sinatra,” which is clever enough to make the man famous, even if he hadn’t had that satiny voice. Frank lived in cocktail bars and nightclubs, so had to develop techniques towards moderation. The Frank Sinatra is nothing more than sipping a large glass of water between each cocktail. It has, however, a quiet genius when employed as a system.
The beauty of this is that for many, like me, taking a sip of wine was what I did to get rid of nervous energy, when changing subjects. Something I did without even realizing it, which explains why my log was so different from my perception.
(My ‘Frank Sinatra’ is now three glasses of fizzy water between glasses of wine, both liquids sipped in tiny sips.) What I found is that when teaching, especially with a blackboard in my school’s dining room, I used sips as transitional markers, without even realizing it. Stand up to write on the board? Take a drink first. Sitting down? Take a drink. By sipping water, rather than wine, I’m now much better able to monitor how much is going down.)
b) Know thy drinking-buddy. I own and run a cooking school in Italy, which means, my ‘day at the office’ involves eating and drinking with those on holiday, and holidaymakers are not known for moderating their intake. And why would they? It’s a great way to relax.
For me though, it’s my job. Keeping up with them is not an option, as I’m not only not on holiday, but I’m actually teaching at the table as well. “Know thy drinking-buddy” is scaling back, not using other drinkers as a baseline, especially when they tend to consume more than you do. Or want to.
But part of b) also made me avoid drinking wine with those that I know consume too much. I now meet them for an espresso, or troll the wine shops with them, learning more and more but without the icy toboggan ride into over-consumption.
c) Cooking with wine. The old joke “I love cooking with wine and sometimes I put some in the sauté pan too.” My log often reported two glasses, even before I sat down. This was the easiest place to cut, as I almost never really appreciate wine when I’m distracted by cooking. Or better said, I only appreciate the effect, not the flavour. Flavour dictates awareness, enjoyment and concentration of what I consume, things that never really happen when I’m standing over flames. I really missed a glass of wine next to the cutting board, but something had to give and it was either in the kitchen or at the table and the table won out, easily.
3) Stick with it before it DOES cost you something dear
By the way, if you think that all of this self-imposed moderation seems silly, it’s likely that you come from the New World, which inherited much of its alcohol culture directly from England and Northern Europe, hard-drinking cultures to say the least.
Here in Southern Italy, moderation in alcohol consumption makes up part of the Mediterranean Diet. It’s inherent here, woven and braided and stapled into the culture, the way you wouldn’t serve yourself too much food as a guest in someone else’s home. Or drink directly from the bottle in a restaurant. It simply isn’t done. Like drinking from the bottle, few would even want to.
It turns out that two glasses a day for a man, one to one and one-half for a woman, also happens to be the limits of the benefits of wine on human health. A couple splitting a bottle with dinner is nature’s and man’s perfect amount: anything more than that and things begin to unravel, the benefits offset by increasing damage.
Another thing that came back to me over and over again as I began to drink less and less is the almost mantra-like saying of my old wine professor: “I can always tell the serious sommelier candidates by how much wine is left in their glasses at the end of the lesson.” And it was true, in a 4-hour lesson, few of us consumed more than the equivalent of a shot glass full of wine.
Moderation, it seems, is a sign of respect. And without respect, you can’t have any real growth. Or sustainability.
What I had first dreaded as something similar to the “death” of a small part of me has turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in years. I’m sleeping better. My dreams are more vivid. My weight has dropped. I’m out more, not sitting at the table lingering over that last glass as my vibrant city dances outside my windows.
So, if you’re able to, come to Lecce this year and I’ll open some of my favourite Southern Italian wines for you. I’ll keep your glass full, pouring generously. As for me though, things are a bit different now. I’m even more madly in love with the stuff, just now I’m more aware of the sober respect and admiration needed towards maintaining the slow burn, a skill-set inherent to any serious love affair should it be eager and diligent enough to last.