You can’t be in the wine business and not know an astonishing amount of people with drinking problems. And yet I cannot remember ever reading about that particular subject anywhere. Occupational hazard? Just part of the job? Is that why we don’t talk about it?
I’ve never been a boxing fan. My ignorance on the subject is boundless. And yet I admired Muhammad Ali. I can’t say that about any other boxer that ever lived. Remembering him this past week made me realize the impact he had on the world, and on me. He was not just The Greatest, he was The Greatest Show on Earth. The only thing faster than his hands was his wit. He was the most famous and admired black man on Earth in his time, which made him, also, the most reviled by the racists among us. When he was on television or in the boxing ring, you could not take your eyes off him. Maybe the most beautiful man of the 20th Century. I’ve been fortunate enough in life to have met many people I admire, many famous people from all aspects of life. Truly, I wish I could say that I had had the honor of meeting Ali. If there was ever a man who embodied dignity, it was Ali. I would have liked to have seen that twinkle in his charismatic eyes in person.
It was the occupational hazard of boxing, the relentless blows to the head from unthinkably powerful men, that ultimately killed him. That was the thought that crossed my mind, and led to thinking about the occupational hazard of the wine business. Alcoholism. If not alcoholism, intoxication. We all know a lot of people in the business who are alcoholics, or who regularly overindulge. We never seem to talk about them.
Growing up, I was very close to my grandmother, who lived with us. She had been widowed in the midst of the Depression, a mother of two and pregnant with a third. She was the only grandparent I ever knew—the other three were dead long before I was born. It wasn’t until long after my Grandmother died that I learned that she had briefly remarried. My mother told me about it one day, almost casually. In an effort to survive in that era with three children, Grandma had married a man who would support her and her children. She couldn’t have had much choice. My mother claimed not to remember his name. An alcoholic, it turned out, who was violent. She left him rather quickly, my mother told me, and moved to a suburb of Chicago. My mother would have been about ten years old at the time, maybe a bit older, but the way she talked about those days, the way she was palpably frightened at the memories and kept a calculated distance from them, made me realize it was a terrible time for everyone involved.
I’ll, also, never forget a conversation I had with my mother when I became a sommelier. I’d had a passion for wine for many years before I landed the job I was to work for nineteen years. She knew I loved wine. Hell, it was all I talked about. But one day, not long after I had begun work as a sommelier, I was having a conversation with my mom, I have no idea what we were talking about, and she changed the subject rather abruptly.
“Are you an alcoholic?” she asked me.
I’m sure I replied with a tiresome quip. I always do. Her silence after that let me know she was serious. After divorcing my father, who I never saw take a drink of anything alcoholic even once (I never saw my mom drunk either, that I recall), my mom had dated a couple of drunks. I’d had to throw a couple of them out of our house when I was a young boy--the joy of being a teenage bouncer. One classy guy, in a fit of jealousy, had let the air out of all four of the tires on my mom’s car one night, given her a "full set of pancakes" in my Boston friend's vernacular, and I had to get up very early in the morning, drive the car slowly on all four flats to our neighbor’s Chevron station and re-inflate them so she could drive to work. She was re-enacting her mother’s choices, of course. My hunch is that when she was confronting me about my drinking, she was worried as much about the women I was dating as she was worried about me.
I think we can all agree that alcoholism is a disease. I don’t intend this to be a conversation about how we define someone with a drinking problem. I have my share of diseases, but alcoholism is not one of them. I assured my mom that I wasn’t an alcoholic. Which is what an alcoholic would say. I’m grateful that I’m not an alcoholic, as I’m grateful I don’t have any other crippling, life-changing diseases. Yet.
I look back at my career in wine, my long life of going to wine tastings, judging in wine competitions, tasting a ridiculous amount of wine, and realize it’s a wonder I’m still alive. How many times have I gotten behind the wheel of a car and risked my life, the lives of my friends, and the lives of strangers? Too many. Most of you reading this are probably nodding your heads realizing you’ve done the same. Occupational hazard, right?
My late fiancée drank herself to death. Intentionally. When she was 36. And without me knowing about it. When she was lying in a coma, her soul having fled, a few days before her body quit, a doctor asked me, “Does Josie drink a lot?” No, I told her. I had put a lock on the wine closet so she couldn’t get to the wine when I wasn’t home, which was often given I was working two jobs. She was suffering from terrible agoraphobia so she would not leave the apartment to go and buy alcohol. And there was nothing in the apartment to indicate she was drinking. So, no, I told the doctor, she only drank wine now and then with me, a glass with a meal, maybe. This very kind and compassionate doctor looked me straight in the eye and quietly told me, “She does drink a lot. It’s why she went into full arrest. When you go home, search your apartment carefully. Look behind the water heater. Look in every place you never look. You’ll find empty bottles.” She was right, of course. There were empty vodka bottles right where she said they would be. Before my eyes, Josie had killed herself with drink. Medicated herself out of existence with booze. Ethanol. What I was selling for a living. I wonder that I survived that very thought. If I even I deserved to.
Whether we admit it or not, the wine we all love is more about the alcohol in it than anything else. Babble about terroir all you want, assign meaningless numbers to every bottle you taste, write poetic descriptions of how it smells and tastes, dream of tasting rare and remarkable wines, but without alcohol none of that exists. There is no wine business. There are no sommeliers or wine writers. Who would give a crap about a Grand Cru Vineyard? We have big debates about how much alcohol should be in a balanced wine, but rarely address how much the alcohol means to us, how much we crave its effects. Somehow, it doesn’t come up in marketing materials.
We’re told endlessly to “Drink Responsibly.” We tell our friends as they leave the party, “Drive carefully.” We pour one more taste for people we know have had too much because it’s easier than cutting them off and facing their indignation. They can slur their words like Muhammad Ali before Larry Holmes almost killed him in the ring, and we give them one more taste. Occupational hazard. They knew it when they became a sommelier, when they decided to sell wine, or make wine, or write about wine, or open a wine bar. They’ll wise up before it’s too late, before that last punch that sends them into an entirely different life. And they’re adults, they get to make their own choices. Just don't worry about it.
I don’t want to be a scold. I’m not a scold. I’m a satirist, and a recovering sommelier. I love drinking wine more than anyone I know. And I’m not about to stop, not for 100 days, not for one. Not until I have to. And when that day comes, I’ll be fine. I’ll have hundreds of memories of all the great wines I’ve drunk, and all the great people I’ve met because of wine. I won’t miss drinking wine in the least. I know that about myself. And, amazingly, I will have survived our occupational hazard. I hope.
I don’t think for a minute Muhammad Ali had a death wish that kept him boxing long after he should have walked away. No one believes that. How many blows to the head would have been OK? Was there a right hand that Joe Frazier landed that was one too many, that guaranteed the Parkinson’s disease that consumed the rest of his life, stole his lightning fast hands and mind? Had he known it was coming, would he have retired? God, I hope so. How much better would the world have been if Muhammad Ali were capable of speaking to the world on behalf of justice and his race and his faith for the last thirty years?
I was recently at the wheel of a car when I shouldn’t have been. A smart and funny fool laughing at that right hand of Joe Frazier. Idiot. It could very easily have been the one too many, the final blow that changed my life forever. Or the life of someone else. It doesn’t matter how great you are, it doesn’t matter how special you are, when that punch lands, you’ll never see it coming, and there’s no going back. An occupational hazard killed The Greatest. What chance do you have?