How do you talk to your kids about drinking when they regularly see you enjoying a glass of wine with dinner?
Most parents would rather avoid the subject until the tween/teen years. But as a trained sommelier/wine shop owner--and mother to two young boys--I've chosen to face the topic early, through education and straight talk.
Raising my children in a society that unfairly links wine to hard alcohol, cigarettes and drugs has not been simple. It's a false and unsophisticated equivalency, and here's why.
One day, my eldest, Zach, came home from school proclaiming, "Your job is to get people drunk!" Um, excuse me?
While commanding myself to remain calm, I considered how there's so much more to wine than its intoxicating effects. How to explain the nuances, the intricacies of how wine enhances food (and vice versa) to a 10-year-old?
What I wanted to say was, if you want to get a buzz on, there are quicker and cheaper ways to get one. Light up a joint. Swig a shot of tequila. Have a beer. Or two.
"Wine is not about getting drunk," I responded while keeping my cool. "Sommeliers like me--people who have studied what is known as viticulture and wine-making--think of wine like a seasoning. With the right wine pairing, the flavors of food taste better, richer, and more layered."
I stopped short of telling him I prefer wines with lower alcohol content at the risk of TMI. But it's true. Once you're drunk, you cannot access the wine. I like to keep my faculties while fully enjoying the sights, smell and tastes of my meal.
My husband and I have been educating our boys about wine from an early age, teaching them how to smell and observe, without ever allowing them more than a pinky taste (and that's strictly in the case of a special occasion bottle).
What I've found is that kids have great noses and can describe aromas with uncanny accuracy. Their sense of smell is uncompromised and they lack preconceptions. Zach, for instance, was on the money at age 3 when he noted to my amazement that one wine smelled like blueberry Pop-Tarts!
Since then, he's gotten pretty good at conducting blind tastings: he knows how to select wines, conceal their labels, and pose the questions: Is it an Old World or New World wine? What country does it come from? Can you guess the region and/or the grape? And, of course, what do you smell?
Children soak up facts like sponges--mine know more about wine than the average adult. They can tell you whites get darker with age while reds become lighter. They are well versed about grape varietals and wine-growing regions, and know Mom and Dad prefer wines from France and Italy. It's not unusual to catch our 8-year-old Kyle thoughtfully swirling his milk!
The subject of wine provides much more than a culinary lesson. Learning about wine is a great way to begin to understand the culture of a region. It leads to all kinds of interesting conversations about geography, history, vocabulary and foreign languages, as well as farming and science. We've talked about how different parts of the tongue register acid vs. fruit. Why does champagne taste better out of a wine glass? My kids know.
What do I expect to gain from all this wine chatter? First and foremost, I hope to pass down my passion for wine to my children, and so far I think I'm succeeding. I also hope to make drinking more about quality over quantity for the day they are mature enough to enjoy wine responsibly.
Obviously, I'm in a unique position because of my livelihood and training. But what would happen if all American families were open and honest with their children about the pleasures and responsibilities of wine consumption? Could we reverse the culture of binge drinking that has become the norm among teens and college students? Can we hope to return to the tradition of sharing wine at the table with all generations in the family?
I am not alone in longing for bygone days when children were introduced to drinking in the home, under adult supervision. The American Medical Association found that about one out of four parents in the U.S. with children ages 12 to 20 say their teens should be able to drink at home in their presence.
As you look at many countries in the Old World, such as Italy and France, wine is part of every lunch and every dinner; a spoonful of wine is mixed into the child's water as a symbol that he or she is part of the family. It is not the forbidden fruit it has become this side of the Atlantic.
In the blog "Teenage Drinking: Can Sips at Home Prevent Binges?" Eric Asimov, wine critic for The New York Times, cited a landmark study by a Harvard professor, "Those who grew up in families where alcohol was forbidden at the table, but was consumed away from the home, apart from food, were seven times more likely to be alcoholics than those who came from families where wine was served with meals but drunkenness was not tolerated."
I'm not making an argument for lowering the drinking age; only one acknowledging that--in a controlled environment--exposure to the world of wine can be an enriching part of growing up.
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