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Sniff the Cap

Friday, 16 January 2015 08:00

Sniff the Cap: Drinking With the Top 20

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A bright pink sky glows over trees and rooftops west of Berkeley. In our glasses glows the 2011 Boneshaker zinfandel—a relic of Lodi’s now-closed Cycles Gladiator Wines.

I’m visiting a friend, and she’s enjoying the Boneshaker. She almost always likes zinfandel. I note the grape’s plebian heritage. The grape of the people.

My friend doesn’t drink much these days, she says—a glass or two of wine a month. And she’s selective. An earlier bottle of wine, an average pinot noir from the nearby Berkeley Bowl independent supermarket, didn’t make the cut and sits open and forlorn on the counter.

The Boneshaker is robust, ripe, spicy with a teensy bit of smoke. I’m loving it, knowing I won’t be getting more unless parent company Hahn Family Wines resurrects the brand.

I will miss the Boneshaker zin.

Our conversation turns back to quantities of wine consumed per month. My friend’s dryish habits put her in the midrange of U.S. alcohol consumption, according to Philip J. Cook's book Paying the Tab. Cook’s findings were featured in a Washington Post story, “Think You Drink a Lot?” Catchy title, right?

Bottom line: About 30 percent of adults in the United States don’t drink. Done and done. The next 30 percent drink moderately, like my friend, a glass or two per month or week.

If you drink a glass of wine daily, you’re in the top 30 percent. Two glasses of wine, top 20 percent.

Drum roll, please: To break into the top 10 percent of U.S. adults, you need to drink slightly more than two bottles of wine a day.

I know. It’s wild, right? The top 10 percent of U.S. adults swill down 74 drinks per week—more than 10 drinks per day.

“No way,” my friend says. “I don’t believe that 10 percent of American adults are alcoholics.”

We pull up the statistics that Cook used in his research, which came from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.

The numbers don’t square with my friend’s environment, featuring 30-somethings who simply don’t drink much. They are smart professionals who work hard, relax healthfully and cook organically, on gluten-free or paleo or vegan diets.

“That can’t be accurate,” we conclude. “Something’s missing.”

It’s cool to live in the United States, where we can accept or dismiss scientific evidence based on our own life experiences. (Note to my students: The last sentence exemplifies irony, which is not a black fly in your chardonnay.)

My love of red, red wine puts me in the top 30 percent. I’m comfortable with that. In fact, I’m blissed out about the numbers. At least I am not a two-bottle-a-day’er! Imagine that. I couldn’t afford it, for one thing. Of course, you’d never have a hangover, because you’d just keep drinking.

Perhaps my wine craving is linked to the complexity of its DNA. That’s the theory of Tool’s lead singer, Arizona winemaker Maynard James Keenan. He talks about why people groove on wine in the documentary Blood Into Wine, referencing the movie The Fifth Element. He compares the DNA of grapes to the genetic superiority of the movie’s fictional super-humanish character, Leeloo. “Me fifth element—supreme being. Me protect you.” That’s a cute scene.

Grapes are genetically more complex that other fruit. Hell, wine grapes are genetically more complex than humans. Italian researchers mapped the pinot noir genome and found it to contain significantly more genetic information than the human genome. Vitis vinifera pinot noir has about 30,000 genes in its DNA. Humans have 20,000 to 25,000.

“Wine grapes are so much more evolved and so much more complex … with so much more history,” Keenan says, “which is probably on some level why we respond to (wine) and embrace it.  It’s a supreme being.”

The jury’s out on whether wine, in moderation, is good for you. From aforementioned study: “Given grape's content of resveratrol, quercetin and ellagic acid, grape products may contribute to reducing the incidence of cardiovascular and other diseases.” Then again, one study of dietary resveratrol’s impact on long-term health didn’t confirm a positive link.

I believe in wine’s innate goodness. I dig choosing a bottle of wine from our modest collection, anticipating its genetic complexities as I rotate metal down into the cork. I adore that first whiff of fermented grapes. The color of garnet or plum streaming into my glass. The viscous liquid revolving as I swirl. Inhaled esters. The first sip, savored on my tongue. Texture and flavor. Warmth in my throat. Then the finish, finale, fireworks—suture, catharsis, completion.

I love wine. And with the next sip, it begins again.


The sun’s out there somewhere, drooping over a grey swath of Pacific visible between trees and fog. I’m visiting a winemaker friend and his partner. And guess what we’re talking about? Yup, it’s Cook’s book, and the top 10 percent of U.S. adults downing 10 drinks a day. Here, these stats are met with cool acceptance, shrugs and nods. The numbers fit. We recall relatives and friends who drink a case of beer a day. And that neighbor who downs liter-sized bottles of vodka at an astonishing pace.

My friend’s 2009 nebbiolo is on the table, in our glasses, in my mouth like groovy velvet. It’s one of his finest reds right now and drinking perfectly.

When the Italian researchers mapped the wine grape genome, they found more than 100 genes whose sole purpose was flavor. That’s twice as many as most plants.

“In Italy, I guess a nebbiolo that’s this old would be a Barolo or a Barbaresco,” my friend notes. Indeed, nebbiolo is the noble grape that matures into these bomb-ass wines from either of these regions in Northern Italy.

Genetic complexity. Swirl liquid in glass, inhale, tip to lips.

Wine tastes. So. Ahh. 

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