Is alcohol a good thing?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smOn balance, I do consider alcohol a good thing, and wine better than most other alcoholic beverages in this regard.  But I have to admit, especially for a winemaker, to being more than a little conflicted on the subject of alcohol.

When I say, “on balance”, I mean it.  On the scales measuring how good alcohol is for people, I have to acknowledge that while there’s a lot on the good side of the scale, there’s a lot on the bad side as well.

I think the science concerning alcohol and wine is pretty clear that moderate consumption is a good thing.  Putting the science aside, there’s no questioning that a good glass of wine is a very pleasurable thing.  The wine we had with dinner last night, I have no doubt, greatly contributed to what was a very pleasurable evening.  And what’s the point of living if we don’t experience pleasure in the process.

And I have little doubt that compared with other alcoholic beverages, wine is less subject to abuse than are others, particularly hard liquor.

That said, it’s impossible to ignore that there’s a dark side to alcohol consumption.  Three memories stand out for me.

First, I was sitting at an intersection waiting for a red light to change a long, long time ago.  I heard the screeching of brakes for what was just a split second, much too short a time for them to have slowed down the pickup truck that smashed into me a moment later.  I was lucky.  Despite being pushed forward into the intersection, no vehicle was coming the other way.  If there had been, I could have been killed.

I got out of my car, which was totaled.  The driver’s seat of the pickup that hit me was occupied by an obviously drunk driver who had lost several teeth in the accident, and was lucky that his injuries weren’t much more severe.  For him, alcohol certainly wasn’t, on balance, a good thing.

My second recollection was when I was in Israel in the early 70’s, on a kibbutz for 6 months.  We had a number of newly arrived Russian immigrants join us.  I had never seen drinking anything like that.  Bottles of vodka were gone in minutes.  This wasn’t anything like a glass of wine with dinner.  This was full-throttle drinking, with no purpose other than intoxication.

My third and final memory that I’ll recount was a sailing trip that we took once on a small boat in the Ionian Sea.  A small flotilla of boats were sailed from island to island.  Pretty much everyone but us was British.  Every day a different island, but the agenda was always the same.  Get up after a hard night of partying, sail a couple of hours to the next island, and start drinking again.  As with the Russians, the quantity of alcohol consumed was, if I can pass judgment on the whole affair, simply excessive.  The purpose was inebriation, plain and simple.

What brought all of this to mind was a post by the Wine Curmudgeon on the latest stats on alcohol consumption around the world.  The post can be found at

http://www.winecurmudgeon.com/my_weblog/2012/01/its-true-americans-dont-drink-much-wine.html.  Perhaps of most interest is a world map showing alcohol consumption throughout the world, with red indicating the highest level.  Pretty much all of Europe is red, with America a relatively moderate beige.

I think the red (highest alcohol consumption) on the map probably gives something of an inaccurate impression.   France, where, or so I’d like to think, wine consumption, with some level of moderation, is the norm, is red, along with Russian, where alcohol abuse (with an emphasis on vodka) is widespread.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m puritanical when it comes to alcohol consumption.  And getting downright drunk once in a while is fine, as long as driving isn’t involved, and the binge is only occasional.  But overall I much prefer America’s relatively moderate consumption (even if I’d like to see it go up some, particularly for wine) to the over-the-top and downright dangerous levels of drinking in some other parts of the world.

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One Response to “Is alcohol a good thing?”

  1. Tom Wark says:

    The better question is: “How good is the judgment of human beings when faced with temptation?”

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