Up the Valley: Dry Idea

November 8, 2012

The silent suffering of Napa Valley non-drinkers: today’s Column in the Star

I read an article in the Napa paper about a group of heretics in our midst; nonbelievers living among us disguised as normal Napa Valley dwellers but hiding a dark secret: They hate wine.

It’s not that they can’t drink because of alcoholism or allergies or fear of ending up face-down in the mashed potatoes every holiday like Uncle Lou. Nor are they the conscientious who eschew alcohol on religious grounds, some of whom are obliged to fork over a hefty percentage of their incomes to their organizations — a promise I would have thought more easily extracted from believers under the influence of alcohol.

No, these folks just don’t like the taste of wine, or hate the feeling of being blotto. Apparently 49 percent of Americans share their view and drink little to nothing at all. Few of them are my neighbors. This is largely a one-industry town, and the neighborhood is crowded with those who make, market, or pour wine for a living. Instead of stopping next door for a cup of sugar, you can pop by for a quick glass of wine and find yourself sitting in the kitchen sipping a winemaker’s own vintage — insider access to some of the best wines in the world.

Wine is such an integral part of the culture here that school and hospital fundraisers regularly include barrel auctions, and religious and charitable organizations keep their coffers overflowing by filling funders’ goblets with copious amounts of liquid grape (and not of the sacramental variety). A teetotaler in these parts must feel about as popular as a Sonoma vintner, a glassy-winged sharpshooter or a Republican.

Our wine-weary fellow citizens complain of feeling left out — the perpetual third wheel, the girl left holding the purses at a high school dance. It must be a downer to be forever destined the designated driver, surrounded by sloshed friends and family all slurrily repeating the same only-hilarious-if-you’re-drunk anecdote. The only openly appreciated non-inebriates around here are those mythic available men attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, often suggested as the last best hope of single women in the Napa Valley.

I sympathize with the abstinent because, much as I enjoy wines and strong spirits, I find myself increasingly unable to partake of them in large quantities. Of all of Mother Nature’s cruel jokes as the body ages (weight gain, sagging flesh and male pattern ankle baldness, to name a few), a decrease in the ability to hold one’s liquor is surely the most buzz-killing.

Still, age alone may not be the culprit — I have observed several members of the local senior set knocking back repeated snootfuls, although I am beginning to suspect that they have had hollow legs installed along with their artificial joints.

But back to the temperance league, one interviewee in the Napa article mentioned that he hates wine but enjoys a daiquiri or mai tai from time to time. Toward him we can only feel superior, and ask: Would it help if we stuck a paper umbrella in your merlot? I also suspect that those who find wine distasteful have never tasted the good stuff, limiting themselves to jugs, boxes and other dispensary systems involving a spigot. For them we can only feel sympathy, and ask: Would it help if we brought you something with a cork?

I confess, however, to feeling less sympathetic toward those who complain of being improperly rejected for jobs at winery tasting rooms because they had never, and would never, drink wine. It seems a bit like pressing a suit for employment discrimination if you were a lifelong eunuch seeking the position of head of sales and marketing at a brothel.

Of course, one perfectly reasonable excuse not to drink is the expense. Abstinence may not make the heart grow fonder, but it will surely make the wallet grow fatter. And speaking of fat, lots of friends swear off alcohol (briefly) on the grounds that it promotes weight gain, not only due to the wine’s caloric content but for its propensity to encourage polishing off platefuls of french fries with Béarnaise sauce on the side.

Another powerful incentive to limit drinking is the need to avoid driving under the influence. We recall the short drive home from a nearby dinner party, gripping the wheel with trepidation while ticking off a mental checklist of the evening’s wine consumption — what did we drink, when did we drink it, and what was that wine-to-body-weight ratio again?

When I’m serving, I always try to have something for nondrinkers to enjoy, like sparkling cider, gourmet grape juice or flavored sparkling waters. I do not, however, advocate drinking alcohol-free wines. In my opinion, they are just as disheartening as fat-free chips, sugar-free chocolates or adult movies that have had their raciness erased for television. If you can’t — or don’t — enjoy the real thing, why torture yourself with an imitation?