I took snuff once, at university. Students, especially drunk ones, labour under all sorts of delusions, many more harmful than believing they look cool sniffing raw tobacco. Plus, I was drunk too, and the snuff-giver was attractive.
I had no physical reaction but the episode left a feeling of residual horror. I knew nothing about snuff: it could have been anything. It made me more careful – about drinking, that is. I continued to fall for pretentious idiots for years. And it increased my interest in the contents of my intoxicants: my impulse to truly understand wine may partly have come from a casual offer of weird brown powder from a guy whose name I no longer remember.
We all flirt with danger, especially when young. However thick our schoolbooks, some knowledge must be acquired by experience. With alcohol, however, the lessons aren’t simple. How often is too often; how much too much? The government responds with recommended daily units, but I can’t bring myself to see a glass of wine as a unit of alcohol any more than I want to count calories during a superb meal.
A 50-year-old winemaker recently told me that he and his wife drink two bottles of wine, every night. Intellectually, I know this is a bad idea, but the overenthusiastic wine-lover in me wants to believe that it isn’t.
The distance between wilful delusion and unwelcome fact is the width of the road I have walked as an adult, sometimes closer to one side, sometimes to the other. How much is too much is not a question I ever want to answer definitively. But my love of wine keeps me asking. A real adult acts knowingly, even when their actions are unwise.
And when good sense takes over there are, now, interesting alternatives. Even ginger ale, once the only option other than bitter lemon for a temporary teetotaller who likes her sugar fermented, has improved. Merchant’s Heart makes a good one, flavourful but without gingery burn, dry but not boring.
As the world of no- and low-alcohol (or “nolo”) beverages expands, there is even the odd palatable alcohol-free wine, such as Thomson & Scott’s Noughty, a sparkling drink that is also organic, vegan and low-sugar. (How much is too little?) I have never admired Prosecco, which is made in steel tanks and so lacks complexity and is sometimes piercingly lemony: I like lees, the gunk left after Champagne-style fermentation in bottle, which adds texture and warm, bready perfumes I would willingly dab behind my ears. Still, that steely zing works well in alcohol-free fizz; even my stepchildren, aged from 11 to 18, approved. This one-time snuff-taker is now a distributor of nolo nectars, and if my intentions are purer, I’m not sure the lesson will be as valuable.
My kids also liked the new citrus incarnation of Seedlip, Grove 42, which distils oranges, lemongrass and ginger; and Jukes Cordialities, complex fruit cordials, concocted by the wine writer Matthew Jukes, that also tasted, to me, of comfort: I am clearly not the only wine professional to find temperance complicated on several levels.
Our children try small amounts of wine, too. We want to teach them to seek out healthy answers to questions about both quantity and quality – which, in a far broader sense, is what growing up is all about.
This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine