Is wine a virtue, a vice, or just a beverage? If you're not sure--and you're drinking some right now--you're not alone.
by Theresa O'Rourke
Salinas Horacio Hard liquor tastes like trouble. That's why Sadie* drinks wine-soft, velvety white wine, preferably Riesling. The 34-year-old pharmacist loves the flavor, yes, and everything that comes with it: the gratifying snap of the cork, the beads of sweat on a cold glass, the buzz that still takes her by surprise.
Three nights a week, often after a particularly punishing day at work, Sadie will open a bottle with the intention of drinking no more than half. (Her husband only likes vodka, unfortunately--or is that fortunately?--so there's no sharing of the spoils.) Somewhere around the third pour, those intentions wash away. "When there's about a quarter of it left I think, Oh, let's just put this bottle out of its misery," she says.
Killing a bottle on your own may seem excessive...or not. Fact is, Americans are drinking more wine than ever before. In 2010, for the first time, our consumption surpassed that of the French. Let's try that again: the French! And the majority of imbibers are women. To put it more precisely, women drink nearly 60 percent of all wine in the U.S., a share that's been steadily growing over the last decade, according to the Beverage Information Group.
"Wine is the last great permissible escape," says Adam Hanft, a brand strategist for Hanft Projects, a consulting firm. "It's so ubiquitous in pop culture that there's virtually no stigma to it anymore."
There's no question that women use wine as a stress reliever and an icebreaker. But unlike beer and spirits, wine enjoys a more nuanced profile: It's celebrated as a sophisticated meal enhancer, often with the ringing endorsement of the health and food worlds. Those associations make wine incredibly easy to love--and just as easy to abuse.
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TO YOUR HEALTH
It's ungodly early on a Sunday morning, but in the Spinning room at YAS Fitness Center in Venice, California, students are rubbing sleep from their eyes and seemingly sweating wine from every pore. "You can practically smell the Chardonnay as the class gets going," says Sherri Rosen, an instructor and the vice president of the popular studio.
Not that she's judging. The 48-year-old drinks a couple glasses of buttery Chard herself most evenings. "A lot of our students are winos, and we drink together a lot," she says. "I even use wine as a motivator. When we're getting to a really grueling part in the class, I'll shout, 'You people want to earn a few glasses tonight?!' And the entire room will erupt in cheers."
Many alcohols conjure ugly physical associations: Think beer bellies and whiskey-flushed noses. Wine drinkers, though, often look like the picture of health. And research bears that out, says Sharon Wilsnack, a professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Grand Forks. "Women who drink wine are more likely to exercise regularly, watch what they eat, and take care of their appearance."
If the average wine drinker wanted to justify her habit, she could cite gobs of supporting material. Over the last decade, there's been a steady drumbeat of studies touting just what wine may do for you. For females, moderate wine drinking has been associated with smaller waistlines, lower blood pressure, higher incomes, even better (and more frequent) sex.
With those kinds of fringe benefits, it's no surprise that women have called dibs on wine as their drink of choice. While men may prefer beer to wine for most of their adult lives, a 2010 report shows that more women are loyal to one company: Vino, Inc. If forced to choose one type of alcohol, more than half of women pick wine, says a recent Gallup poll. (Only 20 percent of men claim to favor it.)
Some experts also add that the majority of wine drinkers fit a specific profile: married, alpha-minded career women who are grappling with stress. That scarlet S is the reason one woman calls her wine-shop clerk her therapist. And why another says just opening a bottle of Sancerre feels like a "big exhale." In recent years, "increased wine consumption has been linked to a higher level of education and increased job status," says Amadu Jacky Kaba, an associate professor of sociology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Nearly half of all wine drinkers are college graduates, and just under 35 percent hold graduate degrees, according to Stonebridge Research, an agency that tracks the wine industry. And these educated wine drinkers are more likely to be daily drinkers, says a 2008 Gallup poll.
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That upwardly mobile, high-stress prototype plays out on TV as well: On The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies's beleaguered lawyer doesn't even take off her blazer before pouring a generous glass of wine after a long day. On Cougar Town, hard-driving MILFs drink out of glasses the size of fishbowls. Notes Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, "Wine is now the go-to prop for women on television. It's the identity drink for successful females, just as martinis were for businessmen."
Seeing a TV character pour herself one too many glasses doesn't cause abuse. "But it sends the cultural message that it's OK to be more liberal about the way you drink," says David Sack, a doctor and the CEO of Promises Treatment Centers.
Many have started marketing their elixir as a respite from the daily grind. There are now about 30 brands that specifically target females--with names like Girls' Night Out and MommyJuice--and six of them didn't even exist a couple of years ago, says Neilsen vice president Danny Brager, who studies alcohol sales and trends. "Sales for those brands jumped by 57 percent from 2011 to 2012."
THE NEW SOCIAL DRINKING
Wine has always served as a social lubricant of sorts, but recently it's moved away from restaurants and bars. In fact, 40 percent of money spent on alcohol for home consumption is spent on wine. And odds are you don't have to go out of your way (or even to the liquor store) to buy it. "In many states, there has been a huge push for wine in supermarkets and convenience stores like Walgreens, and they boast pretty impressive varieties," says Brager. Since women still do the majority of the shopping, it's a lot easier to pick up a bottle or two any old day of the week. That's where things get really slippery.
"For so many women, having wine at the end of a long day has become as typical as dressing their salads at dinner," says Julie Barnes, a psychologist who specializes in addiction issues. "Their homes are stocked. And even if they're just drinking one or two glasses, they have an iron death grip on those glasses." And though wine has connotations of being sipped with fabulous meals, the reality is not quite as gastronomic. A recent study found that a mere 41 percent of wine is consumed with meals. The majority is knocked back on its own, with light snacks or while preparing a quick meal. More and more, wine has become a solo act, not a supporting player.
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The surge of social media has also given us extra permission to indulge at home--or at least to not feel so guilty about it, says Thompson. "I'm sure there were people drinking a bottle of wine in front of the TV before Facebook came around, but you didn't know about it," he says. "Now we regularly see status updates about how Laura just cracked open a bottle of merlot and is settling in to watch a Revenge marathon on TiVo. When that broadcast goes out to hundreds of her friends, the behavior starts to feel less outrageous and more like your average night in."
Despite those cultural messages, you can't ignore one inconvenient truth, says Wilsnack, who has spent more than three decades studying women's drinking habits in the U.S. "Wine is alcohol," she says. "That may seem painfully obvious, but when we survey women about their behavior, the first thing they'll say is 'I don't drink alcohol. I'm a wine drinker.' However, wine contains ethanol, the same pure alcohol found in whiskey."
Such denial has consequences, says Pax Prentiss, CEO of Passages Malibu. "These days, the number-one reason women land in rehab here is for wine abuse and addiction," he says. "It's similar to what we see with sleeping and anxiety pills: If a doctor is endorsing it, then all is fine."
Still, no matter how much women claim to love wine, it doesn't always love them back. For every study touting its benefits, there's another stressing its drawbacks. Wine consumption has been associated with increased breast- cancer risk, and a report from the Nurses' Health Study found that women who drink three to six glasses of wine a week were 15 percent more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. (Those who drank fewer than three glasses per week had no increased risk.) Women may also be more likely than men to suffer from "wine intolerance," a recent German study found. Red wine seems to be linked to the greatest number of reactions, including flushed skin, congestion, and itchiness.
Wine intolerance can also strike in more subtle ways, says Tara*, 38, who used to drink a couple of glasses of wine two or three times a week. "I had been drinking that way for most of my 30s and never had obvious reactions," she says. "But I frequently felt tired and bloated." The Web editor had chalked it up to job stress until she was diagnosed with candida, a yeast overgrowth in her stomach. Her doctor ordered her to cut the wine, and all of her symptoms disappeared. Though Tara says she's never felt better, she really misses the wine: "After work, I hit the treadmill instead. But a runner's high can never beat the kind that comes from a wine buzz."
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ARE YOU A LUSH?
For many wine lovers, the glass is half full...and it's a goblet. Experts pinpoint three ways to stay clean.
Here's a shocker: While 76 percent of American adults agree that wine is good for you, only 30 percent know the recommended limits for wine consumption. For the record, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that women consume no more than one drink daily. Of course, that isn't always practical, and some doctors give a little wiggle room if you're not imbibing every day. "At two glasses in one sitting, you still have virtually no risk and reap many of the benefits of wine," says Stephan Kamholz, a professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. "Once you start moving to three, the benefits evaporate, and your long-term risks for things like breast cancer and liver disease begin to rise."
Size up your glass.
Though there's no "standard" wineglass (they can run anywhere from 8 to 16 ounces), Dietary Guidelines considers five ounces the daily serving size. Wilsnack advises filling an eight-ounce glass to the three-quarter mark.
Check the label.
Even if you're ruthless about your measurements, you may be drinking more booze than you intend. A 2011 study found that labels on many wines underestimate their alcohol percentages, sometimes by as much as more than one percentage point. That's problematic for a couple of reasons: Compared to men, women have a higher proportion of body fat, which can't absorb alcohol. This results in higher levels of alcohol in the bloodstream. In addition, hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle can increase the absorption of each glass by as much as 20 percent. So if you're drinking a wine with over 13 percent alcohol, adjust your consumption accordingly.
*Names and some details have been changed.
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Is wine a virtue, a vice, or just a beverage? If you're not sure--and you're drinking some right now--you're not alone.