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When drinking is your job



I can relate to Richard Betts, the 44-year old “alcohol entrepreneur” whose drinking is “endemic to his work.” Profiled in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, Mr. Betts described how he avoids the “belly” and other unpleasant consequences of the near-constant drinking he does as part of his job; the Master Somm is on the road 300 days a year, working for restaurants and running his mescal company.

When I first became a paid wine writer, I quickly grokked that there’s a lot of drinking and eating that goes with this job. That can expand the waistline quickly, and also lead to other, potentially serious problems. So I made the determination not to let it happen to me.

I was fortunate in that, when I was 14 years old, my uncle, who was our family physician, made me go to the YMCA three times a week, after school. He was a union doctor; among his patients at the “Y” were some old Golden Glovers, a little punch drunk but sweet, whom he had teach me the fundamentals of weightlifting. Other kids might have protested against this forced diversion. I didn’t—in fact, I loved it, and going to the gym became a lifelong habit I practice regularly to this day.

A little later, in my twenties, I took up road and trail running and, eventually, when I moved to San Francisco, became a serious competitive runner. Being short, with a low center of gravity and strong thighs and glutes, the City’s hills were a natural for me. I did well in my races; my best performance ever was fourth place in my age group in Bridge to Bridge, one of the City’s biggest races. I don’t run much these days (knees) but compensate for it with 60- to 70-minute aerobic workouts at 24 Hour Fitness, where I do a combination of recumbent bike, stairmaster, treadmill and ellipticals.

The result is that after decades of drinking and eating I’m still close to fighting trim. And when I’m on the road and don’t have the time or opportunity to work out, as soon as I get home I can’t wait to get back to the gym, where I’ll spend hours happily lifting weights and burning calories.

It’s important to work out no matter what your job is, but in our realm of food and wine it’s even more important. I try to eat well when I’m home, because it’s difficult to be selective on the road, where large meals and convenience foods often are the order of the day. I’m also lucky that, when I was in my twenties, I had a group of lady friends who were definitely into being healthy. I vividly remember the day they stopped me when I was eating a Twinkie and gave me a stern lecture on the evils of white sugar and processed flour. They freaked me out; to this day, I barely touch sweet things. You’ll never find cookies or cakes or anything like that in my house, and at dinners with friends, I’m the one who declines dessert (although I will take a bite of yours if you insist!).

(By the way, dental hygiene is also very important for people who drink a lot, particularly when it’s red wine. I’ve seen more blackened teeth in this business than I care to remember.)

So, point being that I feel entitled to give a little advice to up-and-comers. Eat well! Drink well! It’s a great perk of the job. But watch those calories. It’s a lot easier to avoid putting on weight than it is to lose it once it’s there. It breaks my heart to see young bloggers, PR folks, winery personnel and others swell up, men and women alike, after a few years, because they didn’t know that a fun lifestyle can also be a destructive one.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Like sedimentary layers, the extra pounds slowly add on with many middle-aged wine (and food) reviewers.

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (February 23, 1999, Page A1ff):

    “He Sips and Spits — and the World Listens;
    Wine writer Robert Parker may be the planet’s most powerful critic.
    His controversial views influence the industry and its sales globally,
    and have helped increase consumers’ knowledge.”

    [Series: First of Two Articles]


    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    On a chilly early fall morning in the Napa Valley, the Most Powerful Man in the World of Wine — unseasonably attired in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts — stands next to his white rental car in the parking lot at the Meadowood Resort. There’s a boyish half-smile on his lips and a small, inch-thick notebook in his left hand. At 51, his Rabelaisian love of food — and 25 years of drinking two bottles of wine a day — have added 80 pounds to his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. He now weighs 265 pounds, and his walk is beginning to resemble a waddle — a reasonably fast waddle, to be sure, but a waddle nonetheless. …

    . . .

    How much wine does he actually drink — not just taste, drink?

    “I used to drink about two bottles a day” he says, “but when I hit my mid-40s, I figured it was wise to cut back to a little more than one a day.”

    How is his health?

    “I’ve got gout. All that rich food, no doubt. Apart from that, it’s excellent. Twice a year I get my liver examined and my blood tested and I have a top nose and throat guy check my tongue and mouth and lips.”

    . . .

    [Bob’s aside: how much of that excess 80 pounds contributed to Parker’s bad back and back knees health issues?]

  2. When I heard wine critic Cole Danehower died from pancreatic cancer, I thought about a winemaker I knew that died from pancreatic cancer and one who died from throat cancer, and since I taste wine almost daily, I wondered what health risk was for wine writers and critics. It has been established since the 1980s that alcohol is a carcinogen at several sites in the human body: mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, stomach, colon, pancreas, liver, lung and breast. There is a dose-response curve meaning that the risk increases, the more alcohol people consume on a regular basis with smoking tobacco greatly adding to the risk for all cancers. The quantity of alcohol consumed matters most for men’s cancer risk, the frequency of drinking is more important for women’s risk according to Dr. Klatsky, a renowned health and alcohol researcher.

    I asked Curtis Ellison MD of Boston, the country’s top authority on alcohol and health,if he knew of a study that showed an increased risk of cancer among wine writers and critics and he did not. Another physician, A.H. Finkel MD, responded that assuming judicious spitting, the only two risk among wine tasters are: (1) dissolution of dental enamel, presumably by acidic wine being held in the mouth for long periods of time which can be exacerbated by fastidious individuals brushing their teeth soon after slurping and swishing, and (2) staining neckties but since hardly anyone wears them anymore, the risk as faded (joking). He also mentioned that like all critics, those of wine share the risk from enraged subjects of their trade.

    I tested myself on several occasions after tasting and spitting a series of 8 to 12 wines (multiple passes through each wine) which is my usual tasting regimen. My blood alcohol level was less than 0.08% on every occasion. I believe those critics who taste large numbers of wine on one sitting, even with spitting will exceed that blood alcohol level. We know their is some absorption of alcohol through the mucous membranes of the mouth (alcohol is soluble in both water and fat and thus moves easily across membranes) and some is absorbed as vapor through the lungs. Fortunately alcohol dries the mucous membranes causing secretion of mucous which protects against absorption.

    The jury is out since their is no scientific research to implicate an increased risk of cancer among wine writers and critics. On thing is for sure, however, as Dr. Finkel pointed out, like all critics, those of wine share the risk from enraged subjects of their trade. This stress can undoubtedly be unhealthy.

  3. Thanks for this interesting comment Rusty!

  4. Rusty and Steve,

    For every example of a wine writer/critic who passed away too soon (e.g., Robert Finigan, 68; Andrew Sharp, 57), there is an “outlier” who seemingly lives forever.

    My cited example (who drank and smoked up to the very end):

    From the Los Angeles Times “Obituary” Section
    (December 9, 2011):

    “Wine educator and journalist Robert Lawrence Balzer, who died at 99,
    wrote an influential column in the Los Angeles Times for three decades and championed the California wine industry.”


    By Elaine Woo
    Times Staff Writer

  5. Rusty,

    “… a study that showed an increased risk of cancer among wine writers and critics” would represent a sample size too small to be statistically significant.

    Wine writing/reviewing as a vocation came of age only during the 1960s, and blossomed in the 1970s coinciding with the growth of the domestic wine industry.

    As David Shaw pointed out in his two-part Los Angeles Times exposé of wine writers, most were amateurs:

    Excerpt from Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (August 23, 1987, Page A1ff):

    “Wine Writers: Squeezing the Grape for News”
    [Series: First of Two Articles]


    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    Two years ago, Craig Goldwyn — publisher of International Wine Review magazine — spoke to a couple of East Coast audiences about people who write on wine for American newspapers and magazines.

    Goldwyn, who also writes a monthly wine column in the Washington Post, began by asking, “What is a wine writer?” Then he answered his own question:

    “A wine writer is a physician or a lawyer with a bottle of wine and a typewriter, looking to see his or her name in print, looking for an invitation to a free lunch and a way to write off the wine cellar.”

    Colman Andrews, who writes about wine for Los Angeles magazine, offered an even more acerbic observation in a recent interview:

    “Any jerk can call himself a wine critic and get published.”

    Andrews and Goldwyn may have been indulging in a bit of hyperbole–but not much, judging from recent Times interviews with more than 40 wine writers and 15 editors nationwide, as well as with about 90 other people in the wine industry — wine makers, winery owners, importers, retailers, wholesalers, distributors, publicists, restaurateurs and representatives of French, Italian, German, Spanish and Australian wine, trade and tourism agencies.

    Most wine writers are genuinely enthusiastic proselytizers for the wines they like — so aggressively so that some seem to “forget this is not liquid gold, this is simply . . . grape juice,” says Gracelyn Blackmer, a publicist who represents several Sonoma County wineries.

    Few wine writers are either experienced, professional journalists or knowledgeable students of wine; most are wine hobbyists — lawyers, doctors or others who can afford to drink good wine regularly — or free-lance writers eager for all-expense-paid trips to the vineyards of Europe.

    . . .

  6. Bob

    If winemakers, wine distributors and Somms were included, that would be statistically a sizable number.

    There are over 900 wine blogs and it is true that anyone can get published. Still, no one grows up to be a wine writer or critic, no one majors in wine writing in college. A good number of respected wine wine critics came to wine from other fields – Parker from law, Meadows from business, etc. The fact that a wine writer came to wine as a second career does not diminish the accomplishment or the necessarily negate the capability.

  7. Rusty,

    The autodidact reigns supreme in wine writing/wine criticism circles.

    The late David Shaw’s Los Angeles Times article (quoting serious wine writers of the day) mocked wanna-be wine writers for being in it solely for the freebie hand-outs.

    Nothing like today’s wine bloggers who boast impeccable ethical standards . . .

    ~~ Bob

    [*”There are about 1,450 wine blogs today, of which about 1,000 are nonprofessional endeavors (the rest are “industry” blogs) …”

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