25 Wines in 25 Years: The Dark Side

I’ve been wrestling with 1995 for a few weeks. This is why I haven’t been able to write about it. While there was a lot of drinking that went on, I can’t think of one specific bottle that stands out. Instead, what I remember best is realizing, starkly, that alcoholism was a bigger problem than I had been aware of in the wine industry.

I’m not saying that everyone who works with wine has a drinking problem, or even most, and there is a line between partying a lot and addiction. Yet, after running a wine bar six nights a week and spending a lot of time with people in the biz, I started to pick up on more signs – rapid personality changes, belligerent behavior, inability to control one’s drinking and continuous drunk driving – to name a few.

The restaurant business, in general, is notorious for substance abuse, especially cocaine. It requires physical labor and more people than you can imagine find that a line or two throughout the night helps them keep up. However, I really want to stick to wine here and how its potential for addiction is overlooked.

In 1995, I noticed that various people I knew believed that because they drank wine – often very good or expensive wine – they did not have a problem. One person went through a case of Coulée de Serrant in about a week. No doubt, it is special juice and if I had to choose something to guzzle, it might be at the top the list (though for practical purposes, I’d be more likely to select a bottle that had 11% alcohol). A few years later someone else basically drank through the profits of his venture and had to sell it.

Whether you work in a restaurant, bar or shop, make, sell wine or buy wine, the opportunities to taste are all around. This is why professionals learn the art of spitting. Even with this rather gross practice, you’ll get a buzz if you taste enough wine so you have to be careful. Besides tastings, there are wine dinners, lunches and informal gatherings where no one spits. I had a motorcycle during the 90’s and there were plenty of times when I left it on the sidewalk or street in front of restaurants because I didn’t think I should ride. I’m amazed it was never stolen, especially considering how many nights and early mornings it spent at Zuni.

Why do some people have a problem and others don’t? My guess is that some have a predisposition toward addiction but genuinely enjoy wine while others find that working with wine is a convenient way to enable their habit. 

Is drinking two bottles of wine every day as bad as downing a quart of vodka? Not being a doctor or an addiction specialist, I can’t weigh in on that. I don’t know if there is even an answer. There are plenty of functional alcoholics. Not everyone with a substance abuse problem gets behind the wheel inebriated. However, over the years, I’ve witnessed how people who work in the wine or restaurant industries have seriously abused wine. Granted, I don’t spend nearly as much time socializing with people in the industry as I did 21 years ago but I still see folks drink to the point of oblivion and hear stories. We all enjoy a good buzz but for most of us, that is not what wine is about, especially as we get older.

So, it seems that the recollection from 1995 that sticks out most is not one particular wine – well maybe Coulée de Serrant but not for the reason why it should – but the dark side. Then as now, alcoholism among wine professionals is rarely discussed. With all of the changes that have occurred over the last 21 years, it is a shame that this is not one.

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