Slow Lane: Where wine is pleasure, moderation beats repression
Interview with Riccardo Cotarella by Patrizia Marin
Riccardo Cotarella is one of the world’s foremost enologues and president of Assoenologi, the Italian association of wine experts. Born near Terni in central Italy in 1948, one of his first enterprises was to set up a company with his brother that sought to salvage ancient vines and grape types from the territory. He has throughout his life volunteered time and resources to causes such as helping troubled youth learn about rural life and helping a Salesian community make wine near Bethlehem in the Holy Land. More recently, he has consulted for French wineries in Saint-Emilion and above all raised his own Umbrian estate named Falesco. Patrizia Marin asked him some down-to-earth questions about how to reconcile drinking wine with our need to drive.
At this year’s Vinitaly, one of the biggest events on the world’s wine calendar, several dozen wine estates sponsored a campaign in favour of driving safely. What is the relation between those who sell alcohol and the dreaded breathalyzer test?
There is no reason to fear the breathalyzer test. The point is never to be at risk of failing it! And by the way, the campaign was called “In Vino Virtus” and the awareness campaign was run by the Italian police, so evidently law enforcement authorities are not advocating some kind of prohibitionism.
More to the point, another sponsor was the European non-profit Wine in Moderation. Their slogan is that wine is only really appreciated in moderation. That extends beyond the matter of driving safely. There are sensible and absolute limits no matter what – that’s why pregnant women should not drink.
The point of moderation isn’t to limit pleasure but to maximize it. That’s especially the case when dealing with quality products like most Italian wines increasingly are. The pleasure one has drinking them is intimately linked to understanding their unique characters and to slowly sipping to taste the full spectrum of any single wine’s essence. That’s also why wine is often best enjoyed with food – and even a glass of water now and then.
Xenophanes, an ancient Greek philosopher, once defined excessive drinking as anything that would leave one “unable to get home without the help of a servant”. Have things changed in the past 2,500 years?
Well, transportation methods have changed a bit. An ordinary person may have even four glasses of wine and walk home without drama – beyond that and I’d have to protest, as one loses the ability to respect what one is drinking.
On top of that, hospitality is a longstanding Mediterranean cultural trait, and this has often involved having friends and neighbours over to share wine and food. This just underscores how, if we are to keep and fully enjoy our culture, we have to share the idea of wine in moderation. Again, the Italian police campaign is called “In Vino Virtus”; the point is to avoid the dark fare of, for example, Ulysses plied Polyphemus with too much wine in order to blind him.
By the way, there may be instances where having a servant, so to speak, is a good idea. That’s kind of the idea behind a party having a designated driver. I gather that Uber, the bespoke taxi service, is doing pretty well among wine tourists on tasting trips through Napa Valley in California.
But for the aesthetic and cultural reasons I’ve already mentioned, moderation is still best. And this more or less works. For example, per capita alcohol consumption in Italy is not particularly low, but binge drinking as is done in more northern latitudes is quite rare. Maybe that’s because in Italy there is such a broad array of pleasurable quality wines.
How can new generations be taught of the virtue of moderation?
First, don’t tell them that drinking wine is bad. As mentioned it’s part of a millennial pattern of hospitality rituals. Second, instead of focusing on prohibition when they are minors, it would be a good idea to teach them about the history and culture of wine while still in school.
It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn other things too, starting with geography. Italy is unique in the world in having more types of wine than it has churchbells. That’s because there are more vine typologies here than in other powerhouses such as France. So we have territory and variety – which are fundamental Italian attributes. No wonder that wine represents Italy in the world better than any other product, with all due respect to fast cars and fashion accessories!
On top of that, communicating the fact that wine is popular – and by this I mean “of the people” – we will actually contrast the potential that wine be seen as about taboos and excess. This is doubly important as a culture of repression is probably one reason why kids often get drunk as early as 12 or 13 years old.
What other initiatives could help foster awareness of the link – and the limits – between driving and drinking?
One of the kind of fun things at Vinitaly was Ready2Go, a machine that simulates the driving experience. It’s used when people start to learn in order to obtain their licenses. So in Verona we were able to put on special goggles that deform one’s vision and so simulate not only the road ahead but also the state of inebriation. People can learn how hard it is, and hence how – can I say it – stupid!
It would be interesting to push that kind of experiment even further though. For example, while there are general legal limits on allowable alcohol levels in one’s blood, and many claims on what that means – say two glasses of wine – people in fact react quite differently. What one eats and how fast one drinks of course matter. But some people begin to lose dexterity and other skills well below the legal limits, while the same person may retain their visual acuity above them. These are important things to consider, and their complexity bolster the case for moderation.
The best reason not to get drunk and drive is to avoid putting others and yourself at grave risk. That’s clearly a strong enough case. But there’s a second reason I’d like to emphasize: To become drunk means to lose one’s full perception abilities, which means essentially to start wasting wine. Given the great effort that producers are making to put out superb Italian wines, given the centuries that it has been a central part of cultural life here, and given the pride of participation that wine can give us, abusing it is truly an abysmal act.
It’s this second reason that may be easier to teach. Besides, I make wine and have devoted my life to helping people make better wines. Why should I even serve it to people who are going to waste it?