My definition of torture: A half day off from work to go to a company-sponsored wine-tasting event. God, am I a whiner or what?! Well, at least I’m not a wino, which I definitely was on the road to becoming.
My fondness for wine started in 10th grade. Annie Greensprings and the apple-based Boone’s Farms, so-called pop wines that peaked—in popularity only—in the 1970s. I was 15 or 16 and for one short summer steeped in the fake ID business. Yes, my boyfriend Corky and I, and Corky’s best friend, a wunderkind with graphics, set up a New Mexico drivers license processing station in Corky’s bedroom. Droid painted an exact simulation of the New Mexican goldenrod yellow and brick red background, Zia symbol and all. (This before the Department of Motor Vehicles went high-tech, with holograms to certify authenticity.)
In 11th grade I was invited to Elizabeth Z.’s dinner party. Elizabeth was a year older than me. She served lasagna in fancy plates on a linen-covered dining room table dotted with bottles of Liebfraumilch, a German wine that was almost as sickly sweet as Annie Greensprings. Yet, it had a name that looked nothing like the way it was pronounced, and the sophisticated Elizabeth was endorsing it. I figured it was the wine choice for people of good breeding and immediately co-opted it as my own favorite.
My love of wine and my continued devotion to cheap wines in particular, got stronger the year I moved to Spain. There wine was like water. You drank it starting at about 10 in the morning (at least people in my neighborhood did). We took our first break of the day, dropped into the little bar for a quick copa de vino tinto, a glass of red wine, and ate a little plate of peanuts or olives, or maybe if the tapas were good, a nice-sized serving of ceviche or a cured-ham-and-hard-cheese bocadillo.
Pepe, the guy who owned my favorite bar, La Llave, which sat one small step across the cobblestone road from my apartment, liked to share with me his private stash of wines made of apples or plums. They were sweet and fruity and reminded me of the time Dad tried his hand at making wine in the garage, one year when he grew too many Concord grapes.
In Spain I took to buying myself bottles of Cortesía, a sweet white wine, probably similar in taste to a Reisling. In addition to hanging out at La Llave, I often sat on the rooftop terrace outside my bedroom and indulged. When I got to finishing off about a bottle a day, I realized I had a wine problem. I noticed a small shake in my hands as I lit my first cigarette of the morning, and it became harder to convince myself to wait out the hours before breaking out that first glass of wine of the day.
As the year progressed I became increasingly bewildered about what I was doing with my life. I’d gone to Spain to write, make art, and learn Spanish, but by eight months into it, I’d dropped out of all my classes, became part of and then later stop going to a still-life art studio, and spent most of my time in La Llave or holed up in my room writing letters, doodling, and drinking wine as I pondered my next step.
Fortunately, my body protested to my wine addiction long before my brain did. For about 15 years after returning from Spain, I continued to drink wine. I eventually learned about and started drinking good red wines. I mostly loved reds on the dry side—sauvignons, zinfandels, and pinot noirs—although I would also imbibe in the occasional chardonnay.
I never became as heavy a drinker as I’d been in Spain, although I had intense wine cravings. I allowed myself two glasses of wine each evening after work, and if I went to a party I allowed three, and on the rare occasion, four, assuming it was a long party and the drinks were stretched out over several hours.
Then what I call “my wine allergy” kicked in. Here’s what I noticed:
- Morning aftertaste: The morning after having wine, even after having only one glass, I could still taste the wine on my breath. It seemed as though the wine were sitting in my stomach, and that all I had to do was exhale and there would be a lusty, boozy smell. It made me feel like I’d already been drinking from the moment I woke up.
- Face blushing: Suddenly, the very first sip of wine caused my entire nose and the area just on either side of it to blush. My sinuses and lips would heat up, and I knew that whoever was looking at me was now seeing a red-nosed reindeer version of me. There was nothing I could do to stop it from happening. Eventually, halfway through the glass, my face would go back to normal, but the blushing was intense and embarrassing while it was happening.
- Smell intolerance: Wine, even expensive bottles, took on a rubbing-alcohol scent. I stopped being able to discern a fruity bouquet or any aroma save for the overwhelming smell of something flammable. A friend could walk up to me, her goblet exuding its eau de vin, and all I could smell was something akin to ethanol.
- Taste intolerance: Same thing finally happened with taste. It all tasted bad to me, like wine from a bottle that had been uncorked for months. My wine connoiseiur friends insisted I try good wines, assuming I was drinking the cheapo stuff (again!). It didn’t matter. Good wine, even great wine, tasted like hootch to me.
People tell me it’s the sulfites. I tell them I don’t know what it is, but secretly I believe it’s divine intervention and my body warning me that there’s not too big a step between me and alcoholism. My body can’t process liquor. The good news is that the allergy killed all cravings for wine. Just the smell in the wine-tasting room was enough to send me outdoors every once in a while.
I can still go to wine-tasting events, watch everyone swirl their glasses and check for “legs” while I eat more than my fair share of olives, salami, and cheese. When they inhale the wine’s bouquet, I sneak out, creep around the place and snap a few shots.
But I’ll let you in on a secret. Now my drink of choice is beer, and to tell the truth, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between wine and beer as far as my body is concerned. Already I’ve noticed some of the same “wine allergy” symptoms starting to appear.
So this is where I stand: on the edge of accepting that I’m not made for any of it. Maybe I started too young, or maybe I got the low tolerance gene that resulted in goofy-drunken-relative stories that both my parents have from their respective families (the great uncle who always showed up to parties drunk). I was a heavy drinker for the one year I was in Spain, but what little I drink now has a big effect, too big an effect, on my system.
I’d like to declare right here that I’m giving it up, too, before my body forces me to. And maybe I will, with all of you as my witnesses. I’ll let you know, but believe me, I just raised the ante on myself.
NOTE: Alcohol addiction is no laughing matter. I’ve actually been kicking around declaring myself alcohol-free for over a year. Somehow I can’t reconcile the fact that I don’t drink very much, yet my body still has an intolerance. It’s probably an excuse, but I think I’d be laughed out of Alcoholics Anonymous if I let it be known that I was trying to wean myself off of a beer a night.
Still, wean myself I must. And, if like me you are even slightly concerned about your own drinking, check out the sources below. You and I are not alone.