Part 1: My Story
The Beauty of Wine
I never enjoyed red wine until I visited Spain for the first time. I was exploring new places, discovering new ways of life, and tasting new things. My first sip of Ribera del Duero wine during my first night in Madrid on my first ever trip to Europe epitomized the romantic notion of expanding horizons. It was a magical moment. It instilled in me a curiosity, a desire to understand what was happening in my glass that made the wine so enjoyable. Clearly, there was much that I didn’t know about wine and its endless potential for flavors and sensations. The world of wine was vast and teeming with mystery, and I wanted to know it.
In many ways, I approach wine the way I approach most food: with intrigue and an eagerness to learn. Food and wine always have a story to tell. From history to processing to its place on my plate, I try to understand what I eat and why. Wine, therefore, is a natural subject of interest for me. It’s steeped in history, the production process is as much science as it is guesswork and hoping for the best, and it’s an integral part of dining rituals and social gatherings around the world.
For these reasons, it became something of a mission for me to learn as much as I possibly can about wine, with the resources that I have, for the short time that I’m in Spain this year. I’ve read books, I’ve hosted a wine tasting, I’ve sampled countless wines at restaurants and tried to identify the qualities of each one (which I’m not very good at, I’ve come to realize). I’ve visited a wine cellar in Portugal and recently I was finally able to visit a winery at the source of my love affair with wine in the Ribera del Duero region of Spain.
Walking through the facilities of Bodegas Portia, I contemplated the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of wine. Everything you need to make it comes from the grape (sugar, water, malic acid, yeast). Just add a little time, and you have wine. Yet the quality and the subtleties of the final product are dependent on a complicated matrix of varying factors: type of grape, region, climate, terroir, yearly rain, time of harvest, type of fermentation, length of fermentation, length of aging, type of wooden barrel, whether or not the barrel is new or used, whether or not the wine ages in the bottle, whether or not the wine was exposed to bacteria at any point.
And despite all of the craftsmanship of wine, flavor is entirely subjective. It depends on your mood, your personal preferences, where you are, what else you’ve eaten that day, even what type of music is playing. One of the wines we tasted at the winery, called Portia Prima, was as magical as that first Ribera I tried: full and creamy and complex. The girl across the table from me absolutely hated it and didn’t touch the glass again after one sip. Meanwhile, I savored every drop of mine.
The whole experience was like a dream. I caught myself, as I often do, sitting back and watching the scenes as they played out around me, in awe of how fortunate I was to be there. I snapped out of my stupor when the group photographer walked up to my table for a picture, raised a camera to his eye and said, “Smile and say ‘I’m an alcoholic!’”
The Ugly of Wine
I wish I could say my relationship with wine ended there. That I’m a student of the world, drinking wine on a noble quest for knowledge. That my passion comes solely from a place of curiosity and objectivity. That when I drink, I always do so in a virtuous and dignified and calculated way. While my interest in wine is part of the story, it’s not the whole story. And while it’s easy and natural to talk about wine, it’s difficult for me to talk about alcohol. I’ve consciously tried to dissociate the two, but recently I’ve realized the need to fuse them back together.
In the beginning, I drank with the trepidation of someone who was raised by an alcoholic parent. Growing up, alcohol was omnipresent, like the air filling the space around us. Its ubiquity meant that there was never any need to acknowledge it, unless my parents were already fighting. Then, at even the slightest suggestion that there was a problem, the house would start to quake from the explosion of insults and accusations that flowed out of my father. I spent many nights trying to sleep while covering my ears.
I grew up thinking alcohol was a monster, like a three-headed dragon with one head that was your pet and another that would swallow you whole if it got the chance. It kills you slowly. It deteriorates your body. It changes your personality. It makes you depressed. It destroys your relationships. The worst part, though, is that it does so blamelessly. The monster, I eventually learned, was also like a vampire who looks in the mirror and sees nothing.
I went to college without ever tasting an alcoholic beverage. After my parents’ separation, my mother never kept it in the house. She was anxious about my predisposition to alcoholism, given the probability that my brother and I inherited the alcoholic gene from our father. She never dabbled, never drank in front of us at restaurants or on special occasions (spare the singular wine cooler once a year at our family reunion). She feared alcohol, and for good reason. It had ruined my father’s entire life and 13 years of hers. She wasn’t going to let it ruin ours, too.
My first drink was on my birthday of my first year at Smith College. It happened to be the night of a presidential election debate between Obama and Romney, and I ended up at a viewing party at a cool upperclassmen apartment. I remember someone was knitting on the couch and complaining that the cat had tangled her yarn. I remember laughing when everyone else laughed, though I didn’t have much of a grasp on politics back then. I split a hard cider with my friend and only took the smallest sips, terrified that I would get drunk and make a fool of myself but grateful not to be left out.
Needless to say, things changed. Drinking became more routine. Wine was used in times of celebration and heartache, both of which were ample during those years. It was also used to cope with stress. Before long, I fell victim to the burn-out culture of a competitive college. Like my peers, the drive to perform well was coupled with the desire to, well, drink a lot. Somewhere along the way, I let my guard down and alcohol quietly secured a small place in my life.
Of course, this part of my story is unremarkable. It’s well known, and practically expected, that college is a gateway to not only a better career and a higher standard of living but also habitual binge drinking. College is where many young people like me learn how to drink and once it’s learned, it’s difficult to unlearn.
Nowadays I drink a lot less than I did in college, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I suddenly “know how” to drink slowly and intentionally and in moderation, especially in group settings. I’ve also noticed recently that I tend to reach for wine more than any other alcohol. In writing this post, I’ve forced myself to think about why that might be.
The more I’ve dug into this topic, the more complicated the answer has become. Why do we (women in particular) choose to drink wine?
Part 2: The Bigger Picture
In my research, I came across some *sobering* statistics. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, two-thirds of American women drink alcohol regularly (one drink or more in the last week), most citing wine as their beverage of choice. 25% of them meet the criteria for “binge drinking,” defined as four or more drinks at once or eight drinks over the course of the week.
For a woman, four drinks at once is technically binge drinking. I read that and cringed a little.
The study also found that the rate of binge drinking is growing faster among women than men, increasing 18.9% in women between 2005 and 2012 and only 7.3% in men during the same period. It found that the demographics most at risk for problematic alcohol use were affluent adults in their 50’s (you know, the bankers and the politicians and the people responsible for running the world) and women in their early 20’s. AKA me. AKA all of my friends.
But binge drinking on occasion doesn’t have to be problematic, right? Four drinks over the course of several hours is a pretty typical night out for many of us. And a Saturday night of blowing off steam with your friends doesn’t make you an alcoholic. Of course not. HOWEVER. Another study conducted by JAMA Psychiatry found that one in eight American adults showed signs of alcoholism or alcohol dependency. For people under the age of 30, that statistic increased to one in four.
One in four Americans under 30 show signs of alcoholism or alcohol dependency.
Now, I’ve never done the “It Would Never Happen To Me” song and dance. Quite the opposite, actually. I’ve had to reckon with alcohol my whole life, knowing I was more likely than my peers to develop a problem, contemplating the consequences of becoming dependent on alcohol as an adult. And yet I still make the choice to drink, heavily at times.
Why are we drinking so much?
Where to begin… the patriarchy? Let’s start with the patriarchy.
Women, you may have noticed, do everything. Many of us are working long hours, as much as men (or more) for less pay. We are undervalued, talked over, and interrupted daily, only to be reminded of how lucky we are to be there in the first place. We’re made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe by men who only understand us as sex receptacles.
Then we come home and are expected to do more unpaid, undervalued work. Though to a lesser extent today then, say, four decades ago, women still face the traditional division of labor within their homes. In other words, women are statistically performing more housework and household tasks than men on a daily basis, regardless of how much we’re working outside the home. Still.
Plus, we have to look a certain way doing it. And have smiles on our faces.
It sounds hyperbolic but it’s not. It’s really no wonder working women (and by “working women” I mean literally all women, homemakers too) drink. It’s purely for pleasure, for a break, for a moment of selfishness in a world where we live for other people. This is why women are more likely to abuse alcohol while alone at home, to unwind from a stressful day, in contrast to men who are more likely to drink too much in social settings.
Plus plus, Trump is still President of the United States. A study in Vice found that alcohol consumption has ebbed and flowed with the news cycle since Trump got elected. Drizzly, an online wine, beer, and liquor provider, saw a peak in sales of 86% the night of the election compared to the typical Tuesday. New terms like “election stress disorder” and “headline stress disorder” have become mainstream. Add this layer to the stress and anxiety of everyday life and it’s not terribly surprising that women would choose to self-medicate.
Now let’s revisit the glory days, the college campuses where it all began (for me, at least). Gabrielle Glaser, author of the book Best Kept Secret, argues that “female drinking starts insidiously in the male-oriented college environment.” In other words, college drinking culture began with male-dominated frat parties and tailgating activities, and those traditions trickled down into other spaces. She notes that college-educated women take this approach to alcohol with them to their first jobs in male-dominated industries like law, tech, and business, where expectations around drinking change very little.
For these reasons, women in the modern workforce are likely to feel pressured to “keep up with the boys” in order to garner respect from their colleagues. “I thought drinking was shorthand for being a socially liberated female,” says Sarah Hepola, the Dallas-based author of the best-selling book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. “Like many women, I felt like I had value when I could throw back drinks and keep up with the boys.” As if a requisite for assimilating in the workplace is the ability to drink as much as your male colleagues.
This mentality ignores the fact that women process alcohol differently than men. According to the CDC, fifteen drinks per week is considered binge drinking for men. For women, it’s only eight (that is, for the AVERAGE woman; if you’re smaller than the average woman, like I am, the number of drinks should be fewer). For this reason alone, keeping up with the boys is not only unrealistic (wait, more unrealistic expectations??) but can have serious consequences for women.
While I do believe frat-mentality carries over from college into real life for a lot of women, I want to point out that the issue of college drinking is more nuanced than this, especially coming from a school that was all women and still had a culture of binge drinking. I think college is also where many women learn to handle stress by drinking, a practice Jan Bauer, author of Alcoholism and Women: The Background and the Psychology, calls “oblivion drinking.” She describes it as a way for women to step out of their perfectionism, to relieve the pressure placed on them by both society and themselves.
In her article “Alcohol as Escape from Perfectionism,” author Ann Dowsett Johnson discusses her mother’s use of Valium in the 70’s and the implications of modern perfectionism. “Perfect has been the way to be for several generations of women. I don’t remember my grandmothers suffering from this syndrome: women who raised families during the Depression, who baked and gardened and read well; who were fundamentally happy, and felt no pressure to look like stick figures… But those Mad Men years took their toll.” She goes on: “it never occurred to me—not for years—that alcohol was the mother’s little helper of my generation. But it is.”
Putting all of these factors (and many, many more) together, Glaser sums it up nicely: women lead overwhelmed lives and don’t know how to moderate their drinking.
At this time, I would like to invite you to take a brief intermission from this post to read Kristi Coulter’s brilliant essay “Wine. Immediately. The depressing reason so many women drink.” Click right here. Do it. Her writing is affirming and infuriating and hysterical. Treat yourself to a few laughs and maybe a good cry.
Here’s an excerpt of her piece that shook me:
The longer I am sober, the less patience I have with the stranger who tells me to smile. The janitor who stares at my legs. The men on TV who want to annex my uterus….
The magazines telling me strong is the new sexy and smart is the new beautiful, as though strong and smart are just paths to hot. The Facebook memes: Muscles are beautiful. No, wait: Fat is beautiful. No, wait: Thin is beautiful, too, as long as you don’t work for it. No, wait: All women are beautiful! As though we are toddlers who must be given exactly equal shares of princess dust or we’ll lose our shit.
And then I start to get angry at women, too. Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. But for being so easily mollified by a bottle. For thinking that the right to get as trashed as a man means anything but the right to be as useless.
This isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about what we can afford. And we can’t afford this. We can’t afford to pretend it’s fine that everything we do or think or wear or say yes or no to is somehow wrong. We can’t afford to act like it’s okay that “Girls can do anything!” got translated somewhere along the line into “Women must do everything.” We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating.
There’s a scene in the movie The Big Sick where Emily, the lady lead who gets the big sick, opens up to her partner Kumail about a past relationship and its accompanying drinking problem. The topic comes up because the two are drinking and Emily seems to know a lot about wine. She explains (and I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the exact quote online) that being knowledgable about wine was a way for her to disguise her issues with alcohol. As if knowing a lot about wine justified constantly consuming it, when in fact the reverse was true.
I felt personally called out by this line. I shouldn’t have to be told that pursuing an interest in wine doesn’t justify excessive drinking, I thought.
While I’ve carried this minor epiphany with me ever since, I know this is only one piece of the puzzle. Once I had the question ‘why wine?’ in my head, more and more justifications for drinking more and more wine started appearing and I started noticing.
Women make up about 60% of the wine market. According to a study conducted by the Wine Market Council, women under 30 are out-buying their male counterparts 2 to 1. In my case, this can’t simply be explained by my effort to educate myself on wine or even the fact that it’s so cheap in Spain (to the tune of 3 Euros a bottle, by the way), since I prefer wine even when I have to pay a little more. So why are millions of women reaching for wine over any other beverage?
For me, wine certainly seems like a more “natural” option. It’s naturally fruity and sweet and flavorful without any additives or extra sugar. For those of us who try to be health-conscious, a glass of dry, red wine might seem like a better option than a beer or mixed drink. Plus, we’ve all heard that a glass of red a day has health benefits, so maybe part of that very American “more is always better” mentality has convinced me that if one glass is good, then two and three should be fine too. If wine is healthy then it must be harmless.
It’s also what fancy rich people drink, so drinking it makes me feel classy. Perhaps there’s something to be said about wine as a social signifier, as if drinking it suddenly makes you more sophisticated and worldly (though this idea is pretty comical considering how much box wine Millenials consume). Wine also goes well with other indulgences like cheese and chocolate, so why not round out a night of self care after a stressful week with a few glasses? It’s a treat, a way of pampering yourself, even a part of your self-care regimen. How could something associated with class and comfort be dangerous?
Wine, it seems, is different from other alcoholic beverages. In a way, wine is exempt or at least detached from the narrative we’ve developed to understand alcohol and alcoholism. It’s a bit of a conundrum, this strange notion that wine is somehow different from other alcoholic drinks, that it’s safer or better or healthier. I think it can be explained, at least in part, by a growing trend taking place in the US: the normalization of wine in everyday life.
As Coulter points out, wine is everywhere. It’s practically inescapable. It’s a given at celebratory events like baby showers, of course, but also in contexts that make less sense, like the “Vinyasa and Vino” yoga and knife skills (???) classes she mentioned. I recently saw a video about a wine-themed marathon in France that offers 23 samples of wine along the 26.2 mile course, which sounds to me like legal mass murder. In an article in Vice called “The ‘Rosé All-Day’ Movement is Trivializing Alcoholism,” author Katie Fustich mentions wine in gummy bear form and the “Rosé is Bae” shirt in every spin class, noting “rosé’s unspoken exemption from our stereotypes about alcohol abuse.”
Of course, and this goes without saying, this trend of normalizing alcohol is certainly perpetuated by the media and in advertising. There’s scarcely a Netflix series that doesn’t heavily feature alcohol (did they make Annalise Keating an alcoholic because it makes her more relatable, and if so, what does that say about the show’s intended audience?). Wine marketers know their audience well and cater to them with skillful precision, so today we have brands such as “Mommy Juice” and “Mommy’s Time-Out.”
As Johnston puts it, “We look at red wine like it’s dark chocolate. We know the downsides of the tanning bed and trans fats, but not the downside of our favorite drug.” And as long as things stay that way, we’ll keep buying and drinking more and more wine.
Part 3: Stigma is Dangerous
I almost didn’t write this post. I started and stopped and ended up finishing it one small increment at a time. This topic is deeply personal and difficult to confront, so the writing itself was exhausting. But more than that, I was worried about how people would receive it, particularly my personal bit (opening up on the internet to both loved ones and strangers is not that easy, it turns out). Would they judge me? Would those who drank with me in college call me a hypocrite for all the times I instigated or enabled others’ drinking? Would they label me as having an alcohol problem simply for addressing my relationship with alcohol and for wanting to improve it?
Here’s what I figured out: the immediate pain and discomfort of acknowledging the effects of alcohol in my life are much less severe than ignoring the issue and letting it fester uninhibited until it develops into something more serious. I don’t fall into the technical definition of a person with a drinking problem. But I can see how my drinking habits might someday lead to that if left unchecked. That’s why I’m checking in with myself now.
I don’t want to end on a cliché, but the truth is that developing a healthy relationship with alcohol is a journey we all have to take. And it looks different for everyone. Some people choose not to drink at all and some make creating, selling, and embracing alcohol a central part of their lives. Both are okay and both can be healthy.
That said, what may not be a problem one day can slowly and insidiously transform into one. One glass a day to take the edge off can easily lead to two or three until we’re regularly finishing an entire bottle and blacking out on weeknights. While not all drinking is problematic drinking, we are all at risk, especially young women. No one is immune to stress, clever marketing, and/or peer pressure.
But just as trivializing alcohol use is a problem, so is stigmatizing it. Women are dealing with enough bullshit right now, we don’t need to pile shame for drinking too much wine on top. In the face of what some are calling a “looming health crisis,” Glaser simply urges a national conversation on what moderate drinking is.
That’s exactly why I appreciate the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You and their episode “Are women using wine to cope with the patriarchy?” (check it out here). It’s simply a candid conversation between the two hosts about the ways in which alcohol “turns up” in their lives. They talk about being mindful of their alcohol consumption and how acknowledging the presence of alcohol in your life and wanting to improve your relationship with alcohol doesn’t mean you need to “ship yourself off to rehab.” In fact, being able to take a step back and become more mindful of your drinking might be the best way to prevent more serious measures. As host Emilie puts it, when you’re not drinking mindfully, it’s as if someone else is handing you the drink. And by the way, that drink is NOT juice.
For me, being mindful has meant asking myself hard questions:
Am I happy with my alcohol intake? Yes, great! No, adjust accordingly.
Is alcohol making me more happy or less? Depends on the situation, but I can normally identify the scenarios where drinking more alcohol will make me significantly less happy and avoid them. I recently started noticing, though, that while alcohol makes me more happy in the moment, I sometimes feel off and even sad the following day. Noticing this was a bit of a wake-up call.
Can I stop if I want to? This one is tricky, especially in the context of drinking with a group of friends. I’d say mostly yes, but not always. See below.
Can I refuse a drink when everyone else in the room is getting hammered? There’s a term for this, which I heard for the first time on the SMNTY podcast. It’s called “drink refusal self-efficacy.” It’s when you’re in a group of people, at the bar or a networking event or some other boozey social gathering, and you’re offered a drink and refuse it. It’s not easy, especially when you genuinely feel like you need a drink to have fun or survive the evening. As the hosts say, this takes muscle and that muscle needs to be flexed over time. The more I flex it, the easier it becomes and the stronger I feel.
For anyone reading this and thinking they might need to take a closer look at their alcohol consumption (I’m looking at you, fellow 20-something’s): 1) There’s no shame in it. 2) I’m proud of you. 3) It’s never too soon but someday it could be too late to prevent a more serious problem. 4) Be gentle with yourself. 5) You deserve to be able to enjoy wine or whatever it is that you love without feeling like it controls any part of your life for any amount of time. 6) You never need to justify to other people why you choose not to drink. 7) Listen to what your body is telling you. 8) What’s right for you might not be right for the person next to you. 9) The above questions are a good place to start (at least they were for me). 10) Here’s a bunch of resources to check out!
Sources/resources for further reading (in no particular order):