We live in an age of intermittent moral panics, health scares and fads which seem to rotate in an endless cycle, with first one thing – then another thing – good or bad for you, acceptable or unacceptable. However, there’s one thing which seems fairly unassailable these days, and that’s drinking wine. Sure, here and there trash newspapers like the Daily Mail will wonder aloud whether respectable folks (read: women) are drinking just a little too much chardonnay, but this doesn’t seem to put that much of a dent into wine consumption. This year, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association found that 60% of adults now choose wine over any other alcoholic drink, and the market for wine has remained pretty steady, despite financial uncertainty in the form of Brexit and, let’s be fair, a very broad range of other options to try. Wine has crossed the divide from being something once enjoyed by connoisseurs at dinner to the go-to drink of choice for a wide range of adults, and more importantly, it’s become okay to drink it throughout the week if you fancy. No one will raise an eyebrow if you polish off most of a bottle every night. It’s become completely culturally acceptable, in a way that no other alcoholic drink enjoys.
When faced with the ongoing onslaught of pictures online of people posing their wine glass in front of their garden, their TV, or whatever else they’re doing that evening, I always imagine a can of beer in its place. Part of this is devilment, but also it’s interesting to me how wine has been given such a pass to become part of everyday, respectable living, and excess seems part and parcel of that. Now, I’m not here to demonise alcohol – that would be a fairly weird thing to do on a blog about alcohol – but rather to ponder why this is the case. At least part of this must stem from a lack of understanding of how strong wine actually is, and how many units you end up consuming when you have a glass or two a day (with possibly more on the weekends). Most wines come in at about 14% ABV, and two large measures – two generous glasses, let’s say, or about a third of the bottle – will give you around six units. Do that every weekday and, even if you have a sober weekend (Instagram would suggest not many people do) then this comes in at thirty units. Quibble on the revised NHS-recommended safe limit if you like – that’s probably a topic for another time – but that brings you in at over double the maximum amount, which is now 14 units. Are people simply unaware of this? Or is wine deemed to have some sort of magical quality where it doesn’t keep company with other kinds of alcohol?
Gender surely plays a part, too. Wine manages to strike a balance between its old connotations of refinement and taste with its current incarnation as relatively cheap and widely available; it’s often marketed directly at women, and as a drink which is easy to consume at home, it now enjoys a tacitly-accepted space in the fridge or on the kitchen worktop. In short, wine isn’t just enjoyed by so many women because of how it tastes. It isn’t so long ago that women who went out and kept pace with their male counterparts, drinking beer (in pints!) rather than wine, were dubbed ‘ladettes’ and regarded with suspicion and hostility by the mainstream media for their unfeminine behaviour. Oddly enough, a pint of 4% beer has fewer units of alcohol than the glass of wine mentioned above, but only one of these drinking behaviours is considered unseemly – and even now, decades on from the phenomenon of the ‘ladette’, the assumption is always that women don’t really drink beer – not really. An article in the Telegraph last year bemoaned the risks of excessive alcohol consumption (there’s increasing parity between the amounts which men and women drink) but automatically measured women’s units in wine glasses, men’s consumption in pints. The assumption is there. Women at the school-gate probably wouldn’t dream of announcing they were looking forward to a couple of pints of IPA after they got Junior to bed, but would likely be happy to look forward to ‘wine o’clock’, and say as much too.
Even if we put the two issues of health and gender aside to an extent, we’re still left with the point that people limit themselves massively by what they deem to be safe and acceptable – drinking regularly, but never considering other things to try. Wine – like many generic lagers and bitters – is the dependable option. It is such a shame that, in a time when the choice and quality of beer has never been better, so many people still shy away from it, using received wisdom to designate beer as loutish, common or simply horrible-tasting. The fact is that you can drink moderately, affordably and well if you drink beer. Craft beer continues to boom and there’s seemingly no upper limit to the flavour combinations achievable.
In an ideal world, I would like to see a few things happen. Firstly, people need to be aware of their wellbeing, but balance that against the pleasure you can get from imbibing. Secondly, and I’m looking at women in particular here, though certainly not exclusively – try something different. Don’t assume that beer isn’t for you. You are probably missing out on a great deal because of some needlessly entrenched attitudes, and the same goes for male drinkers who automatically order a pint of Carling when they could try a half of something novel, made by small-scale brewers with great ideas. And, if you don’t know where to start, then ask around: if you’re out, most good bars will let you try some of the beer before you buy it, and every good barkeeper will be able to guide you in the right direction if you tell them just a little about your tastes. If your tastes have only ever stretched to a bottle of cava, however, then you may be in for a surprise or two. There’s a great big world out there, and habit needn’t be a part of it.