Dry January and the wine industry’s elephant in the room

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Dry January is a phenomenon that has been picking up traction in recent years, given the increased focus on the impact of alcohol on health. It’s exactly what it sounds like: abstaining from liquor for the first month of the year, in order to “detox” after a holiday season of overindulgence. Several stories have already been written about the health benefits—or lack thereof—of a month of abstinence; regardless of one’s personal position, it’s obviously true that too much of anything is a bad thing.

I’m not one for jumping on bandwagons, but I certainly felt the effects of too much wine and food over the holidays. Truth be told, I was feeling increasingly weary from indulging throughout much of the rest of the year, too. This is an easy trap to fall into for anyone who works in the liquor/food industry—when you’re constantly reading/writing/talking about all these lovely things to drink and eat, it’s only natural that you want to indulge in them on a regular basis. As long as you’re able to maintain some discipline and moderation, this is no problem—but the slipperiness of that slope can be easy to overlook until you’re already a fair way down it.

I’ve been working in the wine industry for over a decade, and I realized a long time ago that this is the industry’s proverbial elephant in the room: we can proselytize about wine, beer and spirits all day long, but the fact remains that we’re talking about alcohol, and alcohol gets you drunk. Reading through the vast majority of drink discussions out there, it seems like there’s been a collective effort to forget this simple fact: we wax poetic about the history and culture of wine, fill pages describing all the wonderful aromas and flavours in the glass. Wine’s intoxicating effects are rarely discussed in the average context of wine writing—and when it is, it tends to fall into one of two categories: a joke (“I’m not drinking; I’m tasting!”), or a weighty, buzz-killing discussion on binge drinking or alcoholism rates.

A curious thing happens when wine is the beverage of choice for someone who’s overindulging: there’s a general sense that it’s just not as bad as someone who drinks spirits heavily. After all, the alcohol percentage is far less, so it seems natural that wine is just not such a big deal. This has historical precedence: to combat the medical and social problems caused by his citizens’ heavy consumption of spirits, British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone lowered the duty on light table wine in an effort to get everyone drinking wine instead.

In recent years, wine marketing has focused upon women as a major—and previously overlooked—customer base. Much of these efforts have included portraying the overindulgence of wine as something not just acceptable, but praiseworthy and fun. In her book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, journalist Anne Dowsett Johnston discusses this disturbing trend in far more detail than I can do justice to here. Suffice to say, where wine is concerned—and especially when women are drinking that wine—there is a concerted effort to maintain the false notion that there just isn’t a problem.

I want to be clear that I’m not calling out the wine/liquor industry as a pack of alcoholics. But now, at the start of a new year, is as good a time as any to take a good, hard look at our habits and strive to make some changes as necessary. Dry January may work for some, but I personally advocate Moderate January instead—because I’m a wine writer, of course, but also because it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There is still no consensus on whether or not moderate wine consumption is definitively good or bad for you, but there’s no question that too much is definitely bad and increases your risk of cancer, stroke and a host of other diseases and negative health effects. The measure of “too much” is also up for debate and each country has their own guidelines; Canada’s is no more than two drinks per day, 10 per week for women, and three drinks per day, 15 per week for men. Keep in mind that a glass of wine poured at home is often  bigger than the serving sizes recommended in these guidelines: five ounces (about 150mL) is a standard drink of wine; a wine bottle holds 750mL, so that’s five servings per bottle.

Maintaining this moderation is trickier for those in the wine/liquor/restaurant industry, so it’s especially important for us to remain honest with ourselves and ensure that we aren’t making excuses that could lead to much bigger problems in time.V

Mel Priestley is a certified sommelier and wine writer who also blogs about wine, food and the arts at

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