I have been drinking alcohol since I was 15. That was a full lifetime ago, and I still have my starter liver. Most evenings I drink a cocktail and a glass of wine—okay, sometimes two—with dinner. I sleep eight hours a night, eat three meals a day, walk two miles, and go to the gym every other day. I don’t have a problem with alcohol.
Not so fast, Alcoholics Anonymous would probably say. Do you think about that cocktail long before you drink it? (Occasionally.) Do you feel a discernible lift of spirits when you taste it? (Indeed.) Can you easily stop drinking for a short time? (Yes.)
How about for an extended period? (Not easily.) The longest I have ever gone without a drink is six weeks, when I was on a magazine assignment in the high Arctic for National Geographic. I finally got a beer but it was two years old because ice had kept cargo ships out of the harbor.
I may have a problem with alcohol but I definitely have one as a human being. Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery once spoke of alcoholic consumption as part of the basic human need to feel the spirit soar, an elegant theory I recently asked a Jungian therapist about. He agreed with Stu. “People have always been interested in transformation,” the therapist added, “and that includes the transformation of oneself.”
Few things are more transformative than alcohol. Ancient alchemy—the beginning of chemistry—was an early manifestation of that need for elevation of spirit, with heat as the crucial element. Few things are more transformational than wine and spirits, both of which generate heat in fermentation, and in turn generate it in us, physically and spiritually.
The danger of alcohol, of course, lies in the revelation of our alternate selves. Balance is the issue, in people as well as in wine and spirits. Most honest drinkers will admit that there is little difference between having had “enough” to drink and having had a bit too much. “Buzz” is the anodyne word for this, but in fact the exposing of our “other” is often neither pretty nor fun.
Binge drinking is a sign of deep problems that need to be addressed, says the Jungian. Concessions must be made for genetic intolerance for alcohol, which is both real and often tragic. For the rest of us it is a matter of self-knowledge and control of that ancient urge. Without it, the descent can be calamitous.
Some of my fondest memories of Napa Valley involve alcohol, sometimes a lot of it. The lunch meeting of the infamous Napa sybarites, the Gonads (Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissipatory) up on Diamond Mountain involved the drinking of hallowed Napa vintages, eating wonderful pasta, throwing firecrackers, and telling dirty jokes. Justine Meyers, founder of Silver Oak, told one so funny that after it got out he felt obliged to buy his wife a Mercedes for consolation, or so I was told.
My first Napa Valley Wine Auction was certainly an alcoholic event. There was still much community involvement in those days, and less showiness and bragging. I left early and walked back to my room to sober up, avoiding the road and keeping to what I later learned were Bill Harlan’s vineyards, gawked at by drivers wondering who was that fool out there in the dirt.
There’s something uniquely uplifting about a cold glass of white wine on a shaded deck before lunch with agreeable people. It’s not just the alcohol, it’s the promise. I’ve had many such lunches that led to revelation about the other person and about Napa Valley.
One of those people was Robert Mondavi’s publicist, the late Harvey Posert, who explained to me how the valley worked when I was a newbie. Though Harvey tried unsuccessfully to get me to write Robert’s biography, he also took pleasure in meaningful revelation for its own sake and in moral questions. Harvey always said the legacy wineries would go for the money ultimately, not for integrity of the wine or of the land, and he was right.
The tensions around alcohol persist. The industry implies that wine’s good for us and has spent a lot of money advancing the idea. Alcohol unquestionably relaxes and so is probably good for our hearts while at the same time doing other mischief. It’s worth the risk, in my opinion, but not in most doctors’.
One of my best friends, a former Episcopal priest, joined AA because he was drinking most of the day and couldn’t stop. The night he made his confession he invited me to attend the meeting, a gutsy thing to do. I remember him telling me later he felt like he had lost an old friend—bourbon—but now he’s happier than he’s ever been and is still on the wagon.
Before my older brother Frank died we had cocktails a couple of times a week by phone because we lived hundreds of miles apart. Frank’s slow dementia and other problems faded before the power of remembrance. He had no problem recalling the distant past and our happy conversations were full of faces long gone—relatives, colorful characters around Memphis, girls.
You could have done that without alcohol, you’re thinking, and of course you’re right. But it wouldn’t have been the same. Alcohol transformed it into something else, better and more memorable, and I’ll always be grateful for that.