Wine and alcohol

Every wine columnist walks a tightrope. Wine, after all, is alcohol. And America, and the world for that matter, has been embroiled in a vacillating relationship with alcohol for perhaps 10 millennia.

On one hand, alcohol—particularly wine and beer—have been staples of civilization from time out of memory. Arguments can be made that wine and beer engendered civilization. Others surpassingly wail alcohol imperils civilization. That dispute will not be resolved in a 400-word wine column.

What is not debatable is America’s whip-saw relationship with alcohol. Americans tend to be more dysfunctional about alcohol than other countries. In the 1830s, we drank three times more alcohol than we do today. Again and again, an era of overindulgence morphed into an era of overweening renunciation. Binge drink. Abstain. Binge drink. Prohibition (which did not stop binge drinking). The sad result has been a mishmash of stupid, irrational laws, organized crime syndicates, corruption, chaos, perturbation.

Drinking too much alcohol is bad. No one questions that. But drinking no alcohol is not a panacea. Numerous studies show the bonhomie catalyzed by moderate drinking with other people means you live a longer, happier life. Alcohol does not lengthen lifespan. Happy interaction with fellow humans lengthens lifespan, and alcohol fosters that.

Alcohol—in moderation—enhances creativity. There is a reason many writers struggle with alcohol abuse. When not drinking, words don’t come. A bit of booze, words flow. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer observed alcohol affects programming ability. Drink a little, your programming skills improve. Drink too much, you are hopeless and helpless. Isn’t that the fulcrum? A little releases endorphins, the natural opiates that trigger, among other things, creativity, eating, sex. Too much, fog and error, sometimes regret.

Italians drink a lot of wine. At the same time, Italy has one of the lowest rates of alcoholism in the world. Italians drink almost all of their wine—and beer, for that matter—over meals with other people. Wine is the liquid part of their meal. Spirits, on the other hand, often are consumed before the meal with the direct purpose to create a buzz. Countries where the main source of alcohol consumption is “hard liquor” (in the nomenclature of priggish prohibitionists) have the highest levels of alcoholism. Wine-drinking countries: longer, happier lives, delicious meals. That is an easy call for me.

Last round: I have a firm rule: I only drink wine when I am with someone. OK, sometimes when I am alone.

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