Thursday, June 9, 2016

EPHEMERA: Muhammad Ali and Occupational Hazards

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?


Thomas said...

Hear, hear.

Not only have I been behind the wheel when I should not have been, I once tried to exit a moving car. Happily, those days are deep in the past...and I escaped harming others.

Just last week I attended the funeral of someone I had known since the fourth grade. At the funeral home, I entertained images of us in our youth, when we drank far too much and did too many stupid things.

Warren said...

I suspect your reflections were written under the influence of coffee, and not wine. I say this as I am drinking my second cup of java this morning.

Having heard from only the humorous side of you in the past, it was nice now to hear from the real man. Probably most, if not all, of your readers share your concerns, and your linkage to Ali seemed quite appropriate.

Thanks for reminding me of a concern that I keep repressed most of the time.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

This is a breathtakingly beautiful and powerful piece of work. I feel lucky to have read it. Feel so much more lucky to know and Love You. Thank you for this.
I love you so!

Unknown said...

Deep stuff, Ron. Not easy to write, nor easy to read and nothing to which any of us can apply an emoji (enough of that shit already).

Thanks for being honest and for sharing your past. These depths have their place: we don’t always have to be cheerful facsimiles of ourselves. We are in fact creatures who have many layers, some of them raw as hell…beautiful.


Bob Henry said...

Being in the wine/beer/spirits industry gives alcoholics a "cover story" for drinking throughout the day. Only it's called "field research" attending trade tastings, or traveling on wine junkets. Or "socializing with the customers" running the bar.

I knew a wine merchant who sold some of the best product in the world. Producers you would venerate. But his potent potable of choice -- polished off as entire six-packs -- was the cheapest, most insipid domestic brand beer sold in the store. He hid the empty cans behind cases of fine wine in the back storage room.

And purportedly this retired wine merchant now has dementia.

Thomas said...


I should also have mentioned that your characterization of Ali is spot on.

Unknown said...

I can only hope that writing this piece was as cathartic for you as it was for me reading it. It is a beautiful reminder to remain reverent to our roles in selling alcohol and not just to those who make it.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Common Taters,
Thanks to everyone who commented, and thanks to everyone who read this piece waiting for the laughs. As usual, there weren't any.

I had been thinking about Ali's life, and what a shame it was that he was boxing far past when he should have been. Somehow that translated into occupational hazards, and that became the subject no one likes to talk about in the biz--overindulgence and alcoholism. What the hell, I thought, I'm just going to write about it. As I did, I reflected on some of the ways alcohol has changed my life, and the lives of people I love. Ironically, it was sobering.

Never fear. Back to the comedy on Monday. Some days my overindulgence is this idiotic blog.

Clare Tooley said...

Thanks to everyone who commented, and thanks to everyone who read this piece waiting for the laughs. As usual, there weren't any.

phew, a laugh!! my British self needed one after that piece. Great read, great writing, always. I would hazard a guess that the great social taboo that is alcoholism is more respected, feared and considered amongst those of us in the wine trade than in most other fields. I agree we need to talk about it more not just write essays - my final MW exam essay was on this very topic, and that was real bundle of laughs..
I, like you, am grateful every day for my glass and for the guardian angel.
Thank you, as ever, Clare

Unknown said...

Ron, the driving drunk part no doubt reverberated with every reader here, no excuse for it, especially now with Uber.. but I'd like to contrast two writers, Hunter Thompson and Winston Churchill.. to me Thompson has to be the most overrated hack whoever put hands to a keyboard.. he needed massive editing to make his whacked out of his head thoughts semi-coherent, even as a teen I was bored out of my mind reading his booze addled crap, to me it's like some obnoxious drunk keeps coming up to you at the party and telling you how loaded they are.. I just don't get it and never will..
Churchill supposedly drank from the moment he woke up till he went to bed, champagne to scotch to champagne, but he was never drunk, lived to his 90s, kept life long drinking, writing painting and traveling.. as he said in his later years, I've gotten a lot more out of alcohol than alcohol has gotten from me."' Guess which writer I prefer to emulate...

Unknown said...

Mr. Washam (Yeah, I'm being serious and I don't really know you other than through your writing)

Your satire is wonderful (often over my head or outside my understand, which I love). This piece was achingly beautiful. I honestly don't think anyone was waiting for laughs, and I'm sure nobody stopped reading.

Your self-deprecation and downplaying of your ability with words, is not appropriate with this piece. You spoke honestly about an important topic. You paid homage to a great man. Homage to your mother. You gave credit to the intelligence of your audience and just published.

Just say thank you for the comments, and push away from the keyboard.

Well done, sir.

Thank You.

Samantha Dugan said...

I want to be Churchill when I grow up....

Marcia Macomber said...

A sobering HoseMaster turn...but most eloquent. My memories of The Greatest are the same: I had zero interest in boxing, but he was so compelling, eloquent and elegant in his own right. I was fascinated by him.

His poetry (words, not his form in the ring) was beautifully simple and amazing coming from someone of his profession. (We simple aren't used to boxers being thinkers!) Once Parkinson's had stolen so much from him he was still riveting to watch. He focused intently on what he wanted to convey and then a gem would come out.

Unknown said...

This is so true. Every bit of it. And incredibly well written.

Bob Rossi said...

"to me Thompson has to be the most overrated hack whoever put hands to a keyboard"
And here I thought I was the only person who thought that. Although Joe McGinnis and Jay M. could give him a run for his money.
Oh, also, a great post. I was sort of a boxing fan when I was a kid, but I think I was really more of an Ali fan.

Aaron said...

I do think some of your best writing on here is not your satire (as wonderful as it is!) as it is pieces like this. When you reflect, and bring your intellect to seriously say something, you do so in such a way as to make people think. Thanks!

Bob Henry said...

Two contributors to our consuming more wine alcohol than we think: higher ABV wines, and deceptively large stemware.

From the San Francisco Chronicle "Food & Wine" Section
(August 7, 2011, Page G6):

"Alcohol Levels Can Make Big Difference"

By Michael Apstein
"Health" Column

Accompanying exhibit found in print edition of this article, but not online:

Alcohol Content . . . Blood Alcohol Concentration

12% . . . 0.065%
13% . . . 0.073%
14% . . . 0.081%
15% . . . 0.088%

-- and --

From The Wall Street Journal "Personal Journal" Section
(May 1, 2007, Page D1):

"The Accidental Binge Drinker: How Much We Really Pour"

By Tara Parker-Pope
"Health Journal" Column

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks for sharing, Ron.

great insights....

Don Clemens said...

As a fellow "recovering sommelier", but one who is still on the periphery of the biz - part-time wholesale stuff - your post really struck home. I'd be a less happy man without my daily dollop, but I have been far more careful as the years have stacked up. I seriously doubt that anyone in our business can say that we have never been blindsided by an overindulgence in alcohol. Happily, for me at least, the result has generally been a feeling of sheepishness, combined with a bit of self-directed anger for being less than perfect. Glad to have made it this far!
Thanks for this very powerful post, Ron.

Bob Henry said...

As they said in the squad room of the TV show "Hill Street Blues": be careful out there this holiday weekend.

Excerpt from Los Angeles Times “California” Section
(December 31, 2005, Page B3):

“[New Year’s Eve] Effort Targets Drunk Drivers;
Imbibers are urged to use taxis or free ride plans.
Extra CHP, LAPD officers are on duty”


By Wendy Thermos
Times Staff Reporter

In California, a driver with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08% is legally presumed drunk. Experts say that’s about four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach for a 170-pound man, or three drinks in an hour for a 137-pound woman.

But DUI arrests and convictions can and do occur at LOWER blood-alcohol readings, because the law also takes into account a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle, according to the CHP’s Clemente.

“What we look at is impairment. I’ve made several arrests for 0.04%, 0.06%,” he said. “We always say, ‘One drink is one drink too many.’ “