We sit down to dinner with friends. I’ve tossed a spinach salad with dried cherries, blue cheese and balsamic vinegar, and baked homemade rolls to go with the grilled New York strips and bittersweet chocolate mousse. We’ve already passed around champagne glasses brimming with a sparkling California ros’ while snacking on artichoke appetizers, but I smell trouble when Amy declines hers as if she’s been offered a rotting carcass by the dog instead of a 91-point bubbly brimming with strawberries and sunshine.
At the table, my husband opens a Zinfandel I brought back from a trip to Lodi, California. The wine’s deep fruitiness will, I’m sure, please even the apparently unrefined palates of our friends.
“No, thank you.” Amy turns her head again as if my husband were passing her a Playboy opened to the centerfold. He hesitates, then sets the glass down in the middle of the table, thinking she might change her mind. “I just don’t like alcohol,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “It’s just a personal preference.”
“Mom, can I try it?” One of her middle school-age boys looks hopefully at the wine.
“No.” She is adamant and horrified.
Is she worried we might think she is a bad mother if she says yes? Or is she against allowing her kids to sample alcohol?
“He’s welcome to have a sip as far as we’re concerned,” I say, playing the good hostess.
The boy brightens. “Please, mom?”
“No.” She saws at her steak with a vengeance.
I’m embarrassed, because I gave my five-year-old, Kate, a taste of my bubbly in the kitchen as Amy and I stood chatting. I wonder if Amy is thinking of going straight home and calling Social Services. We do live in the Bible Belt, after all, where the joke is that Jews don’t recognize the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the Pope, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.
Nationwide, Americans succumb to extremes, and to excess. We weigh the spectrum from morbidly obese to morbidly anorexic. We eat fast food every day, or only locally-grown, organic fare. We binge drink, or we abstain altogether.
Our country has a stormy history with alcoholic beverages, from the saloons of the Wild West to the bootlegging of Prohibition. Even now, the tenuous post-Prohibition ceasefire still harbors a deep-seated horror of alcohol in general (witness the absurd blue laws), and a special fear of exposing our children to alcohol.
This self-righteous attitude is a touchy trigger for adolescent binge-drinking. Throughout history, children have been inexplicably drawn to the forbidden. When they hear all their lives (while we’re feeding them Oreos, Goldfish, and hot dogs) that alcohol is one of the very worst things you can put into your system , they quite naturally want to try it out for themselves. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Organization, 10.1 million twelve-to-twenty-year-olds use alcohol, and almost half of those binge-drink.
In another recent report on binge drinking, British psychology professor Adrian Furnham suggests that parents play the central and the most powerful role in establishing drinking patterns in their children. Since they were tiny, our children have taken sips as we teach them the difference between Prosecco and Champagne. Parents usually plant their feet firmly in one camp or another, either forbidding alcohol altogether and preaching its perniciousness, or throwing parties in their own home for teenagers, figuring they’re going to drink anyway, so let’s not let them drive.
I have chosen a different path for my kids, one that winds through center camp.
I write about food and wine for a living. Because of my work, I know a glass a day for a woman, and two glasses for a man, is considered a healthy amount that helps ward off heart disease and a host of other health problems. Because of my work, I also regard wine as a food, as generations of Europeans have done. And I see it as best enjoyed at the table as a compliment to the meal.
When five o’clock rolls around, I pour a Vouvray to sip while chopping ingredients for supper. Since they were tiny, our children have watched their parents enjoy a mealtime glass, and even taken sips for themselves as we teach them the difference between Prosecco and Champagne, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. (Sophia is partial to reds, I’m proud to note, and both girls love to clink glasses together in a “cheers” and to try to master the swirl of liquid around the glass.)
I may be a renegade in the United States, but many European parents share my philosophy. In France and Italy, most notably, children are brought up in a food-and-wine culture, taught to appreciate the pleasures of the table in many forms. The French writer Colette wrote in Earthly Paradise:
At an age when I could still scarcely read, I was spelling out, drop by drop, old light clarets and dazzling Yquems. Champagne appeared in its turn, a murmur of foam, leaping pearls of air providing an accompaniment to Birthday and First Communion banquets . . . Good lessons, from which I graduated to a familiar and discreet use of wine, not gulped down greedily but measured out into narrow glasses, assimilated mouthful by spaced out meditative mouthful.
Colette captures the key to growing up with wine: in moderation. Many European parents share my philosophy. Just as my five-year-old understands that an occasional cookie is fine for a treat but an entire package in one sitting is not, she also understands that a glass of wine (or in her case, a taste) is a present to be unwrapped slowly and with savor, not an excuse to binge.
In choosing the middle path between teetotalers and heavy drinkers, I walk a fine line. By making the choice to expose my children early on to the pleasures of drinking wine with meals, I’m making the commitment to lead by example, to walk that line of wine-as-a-food and not cross it.
When I was a teenager and a curious cook, I once sampled my mother’s sherry, hidden away in the top cupboard above the stove. It was cooking sherry, cheap and salty, and years of absorbing the heat of the stove hadn’t improved it one bit. When caught, I was duly punished. Like my friend Amy, my mother didn’t believe in children drinking, so I satisfied my curiosity in secret.
It’s true that I’m addicted to wine: its culture, science, philosophy. I compulsively seek out the variety, the vintage, the vintner. The nuances of the bottle are endlessly fascinating to me, and I hope to impart some of that pleasure onto my kids, just as I hope to instill other precious values into their characters. So I raise my glass to the pleasure of wine: wine at the table, wine as a food, and wine as a family.
Photo by Reza Mazaheri