To Drink, or To Taste?


One should always be drunk. That's all that matters...But with what? With wine, with 

poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But get drunk. 

                                                                                    Charles Baudelaire


There seems to be only one word for tasting, that is tasting, but many for getting drunk. Words such as: sloshed, hammered, ripped, trashed, ossified, shit-faced, plastered, blotto, well-oiled, bombed, crocked, pickled, sloshed, and many more are available for describing having partaken of too much wine. You think with so many synonyms available the idea of “drunk” would be more accepted in wine society. Like pre-marital sex, I think everyone knows about it, but no one is talking about it.

As Mary Douglas wrote in her collection of anthropological essays entitled, Constructive Drinking, the three functions of drinking are: 1) drinking has a real social role in everyday life, 2) drinking can be used to construct an ideal world, and 3) drinking is a significant economic activity. It seems like she left one out, #4 to put a buzz on. Much like the fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Douglas suggests there is an important distinction to be made between drinking socially and drinking to get drunk. Anthropologically, one performs a social and ritualistic function, the other is closer to a social pathology.

In Semiotics of Drink and Drinking, Paul Manning explains various ways drinking affords different kinds of social interactions than eating or other social activities. You can only eat so much and generally choose to do so three times a day, but you can always have another drink (technically until you pass out) depending on social circumstances. As Manning suggests, drinking allows for a more “flexible alibi for off-the-cuff sociability.” We may not be able to fit in another meal, but there is always room for another glass of wine.

There are limitations placed on who can drink (age requirements), where you can drink (liquor laws), why you should drink (to celebrate), and why you shouldn’t drink (to enhance your personality). From the moment Puritans arrived on the eastern shores through Prohibition to the present day, we have been warned about the evils of drinking. Many laws have been passed to stop or drastically curtail access to wine, beer, and spirits. Leviticus in the King James Bible tells us, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die.” Drink or die, rather harsh I might add.

In the book Sideways by Rex Pickett, and subsequent movie directed by Oliver Payne, Paul Giamatti plays the main character Miles Raymond. In a fabulous scene, Miles crosses the line between social and pathological drinking when he grabs the spit bucket at the vineyard tasting room and dumps the remaining swill in his mouth and on his head because he is determined to catch a better buzz to alleviate the tribulations in his life. His actions are way outside the bounds of the social expectations of a tasting room, though they make for a hilarious part of the movie and book.

There are many books written about tasting wine, from “how-to” books to scientific discussions about the biological and sensory apparatus we draw upon to taste. Jancis Robinson, a prominent figure in the world of wine and wine tasting, subtitles her book How to Taste with the descriptor A Guide to Enjoying Wine. In her “foretaste” she states, “being an informed wine taster (as opposed to an ignorant drinker) you can maximize your enjoyment.” Pleasure comes from knowledge and the practical way you serve and drink it. There is no place for Boones Farm or Thunderbird wine in these books. Robinson even goes as far as to call wine tasting an important sport.

The basic assumption is the more you know about wine, the more you will enjoy the experience of drinking it. Or is it tasting? These two terms may delineate the distinction between sociability and pathology. To taste is to engage in a ritual designed to honor the complexity and aesthetics of wine, to drink is to get hammered. Drink-Drank-Drunk. I have never heard a person say they were going to a fancy wine tasting to get hammered, yet many attendees do in fact get sloshed.

One way to distinguish between tasting and drinking is the practice of spitting, or more accurately expectorating into a spit bucket in order to taste the wine but prevent any alcohol getting into one’s system. There is an art to expectorating and several wine experts have written about how to do it properly. At Brooks Winery in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, they offer free postcards you can use to write home to someone from the winery. One of the postcards features a fancily dressed woman spitting wine in an arc that must cover six feet in the air. It is a spectacular image.

Others have written about the impoliteness of spitting. In The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne a wine expert was told by an Italian vintner that he would only allow him to sample his wines if he promised not to spit it out. Seems to make sense to me. However, trying to taste thirty wines at a tasting would definitely require letting some of the wine go or one would find oneself crossing that line from sociability to inebriation.

There seems to be the difference between drinking and tasting in wine publications and stories. Drinking is the biological act of consuming wine (which any novice can accomplish), while tasting is the act of savoring, truly experiencing a wine, and rendering meaning or judgment. Connoisseurs taste, while heathens drink. There are many books that include the word taste in their titles; Robinson’s How to Taste, Veseth’s Money, Taste, and Wine, Old’s Wine: A Tasting Course, and Goode’s I Taste Red. But there are few if any books called drinking wine. In fact, if you search for “wine drinking” on the website, your search will offer numerous t-shirts, wine gadgets, and a racy novel, but no experts on wine.

So, to taste or to drink, that may be the question. Can’t we do a bit of both? Can’t we learn about and enjoy the complexities, nuances, and varieties afforded us by tasting wine, and still like to put a little buzz on? Isn’t one of the purposes of social drinking to loosen one’s tongue, to let one’s hair down, to unwind after a long day at work, to relax by the fire with a glass of wine? I guess it depends where you are and who you are with. Throwing back a few glasses of Thunderbird at a biker bar is different from tasting wine at the French Laundry to be sure. And unlike Miles Raymond, one must always remember where one is drinking!

© Frank Serafini 2019