I wrote an article for the January issue of Spanish magazine Society Marbella about a post-holidays smarter approach to drinking. I think many of us are good in the early days of January, with or without New Year’s resolutions, but we tend to drift back to old habits by the end of January, and now is a better time to reflect on our drinking habits.
January is a cringe month for many people. Here’s an expanded version of my magazine article because I think we all need to remind ourselves now and again what our wine drinking is really about.
Those boozy cringe memories
Navigating social relationships when booze is suddenly offered at every turn can be tricky. Memories linger in January of the party over the holidays where you told someone what you really thought of them in words you can’t soften or take back; the roadside pullover by police who discovered your mate had indeed had more than the legal limit; the boor who groped half the women and the woman with the neighing whiney voice who told you the same story three times.
Some memories never leave you: for me it’s the company Christmas party where my best friend’s celebrity beau told her boss – the head of a large international corporation – everything awful she’d ever confided about him. Sloppy drunk beau then proceeded to punch the boss. Goodbye party, farewell beau, and alas! critically, goodbye great job.
Even if you’re a sensible moderate drinker, consider this: things change. We get older, we want to do more sports, we and our friends and family move on so that comfortable routines shift, we’re suddenly more aware of our health or we simply want to have a healthier lifestyle.
Wine in particular has been a source of shared pleasure for millennia, a way to help people relax and enjoy the company of others. And for just as long, it’s often been a problem, and not one limited to the Big Daddy of drinking problems, alcoholism.
Recently, we celebrated the wedding anniversary of a couple with a group of their friends and, when I sent a message of thanks the next day I received a sad note back. “I was so ashamed at how much wine we drank…” said the woman, who had recently given her husband a copy of my wine book because wine is his hot new interest. She is very much a moderate drinker. They are financially comfortable people, but he had been carried away ordering expensive wines, and more bottles than we really needed.
Her message gave me pause. Ashamed? It’s a powerful word. It sums up perfectly what we feel when alcohol gets in the way: instead of being a source of shared pleasure, it’s suddenly the demon culprit for things gone wrong. She might be ashamed of the money spent anesthetizing ourselves when projects she works on desperately need funds. Or she might have been ashamed that the men did not make it to their early morning golf appointment the next day. Or maybe that what could have been an opportunity to deepen friendships disintegrated into boring monologues.
Then I spoke to her at a small party over the holidays and she was surprised when I mentioned her choice of words. The evening had been a good one after all. But that sense of something not quite right had lingered, for both of us. When you’re young you assume others don’t notice your alcohol-laced missteps, but as you get older you realize they do, or did and never said anything. If you like to drink to excess, and many of us do at several points in our lives, you need some red flags to head you back to common sense.
Moderate drinking and all that
Ask yourself how much you drink and how often. Be honest. There are at least three good reasons to drink moderately: to avoid making a fool of yourself, stay in good health, and be in a position to actually enjoy your drink. A good way to get a clearer picture is to spend a couple of weeks where you drink no alcohol for at least two days a week, then track exactly what you drink for the other five. Plan ahead and don’t allow yourself any excuses.
The totally confusing health pros and cons
No need to remind you about making a fool of yourself, so let’s move on to health. If there is an area where people are confused, this is it. Every government has recommendations for moderate drinking, and they vary. The evidence to back each of these up also varies. Research is contradictory, except on one point, which the renowned Mayo Clinic in the US puts neatly. “If it seems confusing, that’s because the evidence about the possible health benefits of alcohol isn’t certain. Any potential benefits of alcohol are relatively small and may not apply to all individuals…While moderate alcohol use may offer some health benefits, heavy drinking — including binge drinking — has no health benefits.” Read the article in full, one of the most balanced I’ve seen.
Ask yourself how to cure a hangover
Sports are not designed to purge your head and body of excess, so forget the self-punishment routine of sweating it out. Forget about pumping your system with caffeine. There is little evidence either of these works. Water, water and more water, and a day or two off alcohol. Take 2 minutes to ask yourself how to avoid a hangover in the first place.
Take control of the amount you consume
Make daytime drinking a rare exception. It’s just too, too easy to have that day stretch to evening and later. There’s a lot of self-delusion in thinking in terms of how much you drink in an hour and ignoring how much alcohol you’ve had in a day or a week, which matters.
Decide how much you’re going to drink in an evening, in advance of a party, a dinner, or just even sitting around at home. Keep track and stick to your goal.
At home, I keep an eye on how much of a bottle I’m consuming. Most wines are 75cl, or 7 glasses. The UK’s most recent guidelines are considered extreme by continental Europeans, but then the UK has a major problem with heavy drinking. I tend to drink 1 to 1.5 bottles a week of wine, no beer or liquor, at the outer edges of acceptable moderate drinking.
When you’re in a bar or restaurant, don’t let waiters or friends refill your glass if there is still wine in it; put your hand over the glass when they come around and signal when you’re ready for more. It’s the safe way to see how much you’re drinking.
Driving? Don’t drink alcohol at all. The second glass is so much harder to turn down than the first one. Designated drivers, take your job seriously.
Drink for pleasure, not to get drunk
Wine professionals spit out the wine they taste not because they are saints but because after one glass of wine your senses begin to lose their sharpness. You simply can’t find the magic in a 1985 Bordeaux if you’ve already had three glasses of wine. Try it: buy some good wine, pay attention while you sip a glass and put the rest away. Corking it can often work as well as the vacuum closure systems, which tend to hoover up the aromas.
Look forward to tomorrow’s drink.