Wine Is a Language. Do You Lose It When You Stop Drinking?

7 mins read

Credit: Illustration by Meredith Digital Design

When my dad moved to Soho in the 1970s, he and his downstairs neighbor, Lee, would take long walks around the neighborhood together. Often they'd end up at a small nearby wine store, where they would chat with the owner, who would recommend bottles and on occasion send them home with free cases of wine. 

When my dad tells this story, one of his favorites, he talks about how the wine store owner taught him to understand and appreciate wine. They talked about how to discern the technicalities and nuances of it, grapes and regions and good years and bad years, tannins and notes, how to know what he was buying and how to appreciate drinking it. When Lee tells this story, she talks about how this nice guy liked them both a lot and was always so happy to see them, and how she and my dad would take home the wine he sold them and sit in her living room drinking it and talking for hours. 

The older they get the more these stories diverge until they do not seem to be the same story at all. But they're both right— wine is about acquiring knowledge and expertise, and wine is also about friendship, about sitting around talking more and more candidly as you get deeper into a shared bottle, an acquaintance becoming a close friend from first glass to third glass. Wine is a language that can be learned; it is also a means of intimacy with other people. I used to know a lot about wine, and maybe I still do, but mostly what I liked knowing about wine was that after a glass and a half of it, it felt easier to believe that people liked me, and to believe that I liked them.

Early in my twenties, I often asked my dad how I could learn about wine. "Just talk to your local guy about wine!" he would say, as though that were an easy and normal thing for everybody to do. But my point in asking wasn't really about wanting to know about wine—it was about wanting to connect with my parents, for whom wine is a language, a shared code. My parents are both nerds about wine, and have been since they first met, when they stayed up late standing across the kitchen table in their minuscule apartment, sharing their opinions on a bottle, or when they saved up to go on vacations to dusty, fragrant chateaus in Burgundy, my mom striking up friendships with winemakers. I wanted to be friends with my parents, and learning about wine offered one way to do that. When I was growing up, my parents and I were nervous and volatile around each other, three high-strung people living in the same house and often coming into conflict. I wanted them to like me in the voluntary way that friends like each other, to move beyond the itchy closeness and resentment that comes with being born obligated to love someone. After I moved out, I was always trying to find ways to start over without baggage, to get to know each other as though we were new friends, just three interesting people striking up an acquaintance. This is an impossible thing to achieve with one's family, but wine was one way I tried to achieve it, and sometimes it almost felt like it worked. 

There is a way of knowing about wine that is about trivia and one-upsmanship, about speaking a code language that lets the fewest number of other people in on it. It can be tempting to make ourselves feel special by trying to make the things we like as inaccessible as possible. This is where the cliches about wine as snobbery and pretension come closest to being true, and it is also the least interesting way to relate to wine and wine-making. I understand it, though, and have been guilty of it myself. I have always been drawn to the quick-fix rote-memorization solutions that promise an easy way to be loved or a shortcut to being impressive. Wine, like many things, can embody the desire many of us have for there to be a right way to do our lives, checking the correct boxes and getting a perfect grade. Sometimes people learn about wine in order to polish and disguise themselves, to label themselves a person who knows what's good. It's at once obnoxious and very human: People use a knowledge of wine to signal that they are sophisticated, or wealthy, or special, but maybe what people signaling each of these things are doing is simply trying to mark themselves as safe. 

There are lots of jokes about the florid language in which wine people talk about wine— "notes of petrichor, coffee, and the inability to appreciate one's youth while it is happening," or whatever. But there's also real joy in any kind of expertise, in drilling down into a topic and coming out richer and heavier, loaded with knowledge that can be applied to the external world. Wine was a way to get closer to my parents because it was an interest I could share with them, and also because getting a little drunk with people often makes it easier to like one another. Being comfortable around my parents for the first time also corresponded to that glowy, things-are-ok feeling that I would get after a glass and a half of wine.

When I stopped drinking in late 2018, talking about wine with my parents was one of the first things I worried I would miss; talking about wine, not wine itself. I had never gone and found the wine guy in my neighborhood and made him my friend, but I had over the years acquired enough knowledge to be able to keep up with a conversation. I could never predict the slightly magical times when an evening with a good bottle of wine made my family seem comfortable and cozy, everyone laughing at every joke, everyone happy to be in the same room together. Every time we drank together, or discussed wine, wasn't like this; these times were in fact pretty rare. But they did happen, if only occasionally. Not drinking meant the answer was guaranteed: I wouldn't ever have exactly this kind of good evening with my family again.

My parents tried to be supportive about my choice to stop drinking, but they still offered me glasses of wine regularly. Wine was how to mark celebrations and occasions—how could we really know something mattered, or had happened, or was worth celebrating, if we weren't having a glass of wine about it, if we didn't open a special and particular bottle? How were we supposed to celebrate anything, to make any occasion, if we couldn't use this language to do so? 

I was lucky that these were mostly only minor annoyances on both sides. In my case, no longer drinking alcohol was a matter of changing a habit rather than overcoming an addiction. I didn't like drinking anymore, so I stopped. This meant I could for the most part brush off the fact that my parents still thought "not drinking" must surely mean "except for special occasions," because how could an occasion be special if you weren't drinking wine about it? These were the patterns my family had created, and ones I had been happy to participate in for more than a decade. While I was content with my choice not to drink, I worried I had frayed the edges of my family's connections, and that my parents did not know how to include me in celebration. 

The year after I stopped drinking, I went on a vacation with my parents that involved a bunch of wine-focused activities. I was nervous about it, wondering if the fact that I didn't drink would make things weird and awkward for everybody, myself included. But instead, I noticed how much the point of wine tourism wasn't really the wine. It was being in a beautiful place, talking to someone— a tour guide, a winemaker, a sommelier— about something to which they had dedicated their life and about which they were excited to share their expertise. I didn't try any of the wine, but I could still breathe in the smell of the damp and earthy tunnels underground at a winery. I could still smell all of the wine, too, and for all the jokes about the word "nose," it amazed me how much of the experience really did live in just the smells of wine, from caves to vines to bottles to a small glass fizzing or settling, the scent breathing up toward the rim. So much of what I knew about wine could be applied without ever tasting it. I could still ask someone about the year and the one previous, about what was most exciting right now in their industry, and I could still enjoy knowing what to ask, and understanding the answer. It wasn't the same, but it was close enough.

What spending a wine trip not drinking did was to show me that much of the ritual around wine was perfectly accessible without actually drinking. That this is the case also points out why the language around wine is a little ridiculous: it has to do with wine, but it can also be separated out cleanly from the actual drinking of wine. On that trip, I realized I could still have almost the same conversations with my dad I had had about wine previously. I still knew all the things I had known before; I just wasn't drinking while I talked about them.

My parents still got to share a bottle of wine and ease into the buzzy early-evening glow it offered, and I could sit in the reflection of that same glow, and become comfortable with them by way of it. The slight distance of not drinking offered me the opportunity to listen more, to make more space for my parents' stories and their knowledge, rather than trying to prove I knew enough to earn my place in the conversation. So little of my dad's stories about the wine guy in his old neighborhood, I realize now, were actually, literally about wine— what they were about was talking and listening. They were about people in a room together. It was strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, to be in a room where wine was the subject without actually drinking wine. But the strangeness allowed me to focus on why I was in the room in the first place, to sort down to what mattered, not the language but the reasons for speaking it, the thing it was trying to do.