Monday, January 25, 2010

Drink like a pro

Do professional drinkers get drunk?

It's a good question, and one we tend to shy away from answering. The answer is yes, of course -- but professionally.

Wine critics spit when doing official tastings. But we drink, too, probably more than anyone other than serious alcoholics. It's not unusual for a party of 6 wine industry folks to put away 6 bottles of wine -- after starting with cocktails. I've seen people leave to get a beer afterwards.

So then the question is, how do people who drink for a living avoid the health and legal problems associated with drinking?

And, is there any way that professional drinking behavior can help the average drinker do the same?

I think so. Here are a few keys.

1) Drink early, drink often! Your taste buds are freshest early in the day; this is why most wineries conduct sample testing first thing in the morning. I'm not suggesting wine with breakfast (cereal is difficult to pair) but why not have a glass (or a cocktail) with lunch? We've gotten puritanical about mid-day drinking, but you're better off having one (1!) drink at lunch, one drink when you get off work, and one drink at dinner than three drinks in a row. To me, it's fun to be slightly relaxed or mildly buzzed, but not much fun to be polluted, which I always regret the next day.

2) Drink plenty of water. No professional tasting happens without lots of room temperature bottled water. Room temperature makes it easier to drink a lot, quickly. You have to keep drinking water even when you don't feel thirsty. Make the waiters keep refilling your water glass, and tell them "no ice please." You'll be much happier the next day -- this is the best way to avoid hangovers.

3) Avoid sugary drinks. You never see professional drinkers having a Coke between rounds. Thirst means your body needs water, not sugar.

4) It's not how you feel, it's how you act that counts. If you can't restrain your behavior, stop drinking. Now. Don't finish that sip.
It's expected, at a wine dinner, to be more cheerful and talkative as the night goes on. But if you do something really embarrassing -- disrobe, punch someone, technicolor yawn -- people will talk about it for years, and the wine industry is a small world.
Before becoming a professional drinker, I was never famous for my self-control: I usually speak my mind, regardless of the consequences. But there's a huge difference between speaking your mind and acting out. Once you feel yourself about to do the latter, you have to stop.

5) Eat while you drink. One advantage about writing about wine, as opposed to cocktails, is that food is always served. Coffee won't slow down your drunkenness -- it will just make you drunk and jittery -- but food will.

6) Sniff everything before you drink it, even at dinner, just as you would if you were doing a professional tasting. For one thing, this builds your anticipation. You also get more nuances from smelling a wine than drinking it, so if you haven't smelled it first, your first gulp is just imbibing liquor, not flavor.

7) Sip, don't gulp. I like to drink, don't get me wrong. But if I can get 20 sips out of the same glass where someone else gets only 10, I'm enjoying it twice as much.

8) Don't take two rapid drinks in succession. Let the finish play out before you enjoy the next drink.

9) Plan ahead for how to get home. I rarely drive home from an event, but I know many people do. They are the unlucky ones who stop drinking an hour before the end of the meal and forgo the dessert wines.
If I do have to drive, I'm not ashamed to say, "I'm not ready. We have to sit here awhile." Be honest with yourself -- if you're not sure you're able to drive, then don't.
I like a digestif, but they're even better at home.

10) If you don't like a drink, don't finish it. Waiters are always surprised when I leave nearly full glasses of wine or cocktails I've paid for. I'm surprised that the default use of booze is to finish it even if you don't like it. Why? Do you need to be more drunk? Do you need the extra calories?
You can only drink a finite amount of alcohol in a year; we may not know what the limit is, but we know there is one. Why waste part of your allotment on something you don't like?

11) Don't let teetotallers tell you how to drink. One of the reasons the U.S. has such a poor relationship with alcohol is that we still have plenty of puritans who considers any drinking evil. I was shocked to learn that the CDC considers "regular drinkers" anyone who had 12 drinks in the previous year! In France, you wouldn't be a "regular drinker" if you only had 12 drinks per month.
This is why our alcoholism rate is high, and why young adults nearly kill themselves by drinking 21 shots on their 21st birthday. It's not just the alcohol -- it's the sanctimony. Some tight-cheeked Bible thumper, who doesn't realize Jesus turned water into wine, tells people drinking is a sin, so plenty of people don't incorporate drinking into their daily life in a sustainable way, and only go at it when they've decided it's time to sin.
Wine is a gift from God; it's all over the Bible. Leave grapes alone in a barrel and they will turn to wine by themselves. If that's not part of God's plan, I don't know what is.
Take your advice on drinking from professional drinkers, from your physician (ask if she or he has a glass of wine with dinner), from medical experts. But not from teetotallers. You wouldn't ask somebody who doesn't ice skate to teach you a triple-axle. Think about it -- preferably with a glass of wine in your hand.

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