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Guy Woodward: The elephant in the room

Published:  17 January, 2023

I don’t know about you, but I drank wine every day over the two-week Christmas dormancy. And I’m not just talking about a glass with dinner. We got into an agreeably unhurried routine: a lazy breakfast over Wordle, the papers and some idle scrolling; the deployment of any necessary chores (mostly either purchasing or preparing food); a long walk with (followed by washing of) the dog; then changing into what I’ll generously describe as loungewear before opening a bottle and getting some snacks going. This generally took us to around 4pm, whereupon the rest of the day was spent in a fug of board games, TV boxsets and eating and drinking.

All in all, I reckon I was at that pleasant state of very modest fuzziness around 33% of my yuletide waking hours. We were drinking better wines than normal, of course, and the recent acquisition of a wine fridge lent a further frisson to the daily selection. As a result, I would argue that my intake remained dictated by quality rather than quantity – even if it was at least twice its normal volume.

Now, with the sudden switch from indulgence to abstinence, comes the pressure to essay Dry January. It’s a pressure I’m resisting. Partly because I don’t like being pressured into anything, but mainly because, if I’m honest, I would miss that early evening buzz.

I have a routine in non-festive times too – a glass around 6pm as I prepare dinner while my wife, the deputy head of a primary school and therefore already on to her second glass, decompresses. We both have another glass with dinner, though rarely anything further after that. At the weekends, however, there’ll be one or two more glasses, and the possibility of the odd blowout dinner. Then of course there’s generally at least one wine trade event a week (I try to limit it to one these days), adding further units.

The NHS’ maximum recommended intake is a single 175ml glass of wine a day, plus one day off a week. I am racking up at least double, possibly triple that. A cause for concern? My doctor would say so. I would argue that, while my intake is higher than she would like, it’s managed, and never excessive or reckless. I don’t drink alone; I have the odd night off; and even when working at home throughout lockdown, I never drank during the day.

But I can see how even this regime could slide. I’m about to embark on a new, largely solo career, which will involve working more flexible hours, from home. I’ll be 50 this year, and retirement is no longer a distant prospect; when it comes, will that Christmas routine become the norm?

Steven Spurrier once told me candidly (though without any trace of embarrassment, let alone shame) that he averaged over a bottle a day. Steven too was a man of routine – in his case, work in the morning; a half-bottle most lunchtimes; less work, and often tasting, in the afternoon; and an aperitif before dinner with his wife, over which they shared a bottle.

Steven managed his intake, and wasn’t dependent on it to function. There have been – and still are – several members of the trade who tread a finer line. We all know one or two who would meet the NHS definition of alcohol misuse through drinking ‘in a way that is harmful’, or means ‘you are dependent on alcohol’.

Who knows if my own constant intake will, ultimately, prove harmful. As for dependency, I know I could go about my life just as easily without wine, but I also know it would be much less fun.

I look forward to that 6pm glass, that feeling of anticipation and relaxation that comes with the choice of bottle and first sip. I would miss it hugely were it not there.

Primarily, I see wine as a hobby. A constantly varied, culturally diverse journey of learning and discovery. I enjoy the escapism it provides – both on a mental and physical level. And yes, part of this is down to the alcohol.

I’m sure I’m not alone among members of the wine trade in adopting this philosophy and I’ve tried to be honest in my assessment. The question is, are we being honest enough?