When drinking is in your job description, sometimes the other parents at school just don't understand. Here's what it's really like to be a parent working in the booze industry.
Our daughter’s first day of preschool was a bit more eventful than we ever could have expected, and my reputation was fully formed by the end of that first week. As the kids toddled into their classrooms, they posed the standard getting-to-know-you questions to one another: What do your parents do? Did you go anywhere over the summer? Do you have any favorite foods?
The answers, I found out later that day, were fairly straightforward.
My mommy is a doctor.
We went to the Jersey Shore for vacation.
I like jelly but I can’t have peanut butter because I’m allergic.
That’s not exactly true, of course: I taste wines and spirits. But Sophie failed to mention a key part of the job: I spit every last drop. In fact, unless I’m having lunch with a winemaker or distiller at a restaurant, I have a strict personal policy of not swallowing any alcohol until it’s time to start making dinner.
But as soon as she said those words, my reputation was set. (It also probably didn’t help that I happened to be tasting red wine that day, and arrived at school to pick her up that afternoon with purple teeth, and wearing my home-office finest: My favorite pair of 501s and a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a whiskey producer I had recently visited.)
These are the issues that those of us in what we affectionately refer to as “the booze business” are never really taught to expect. We just go about our day tasting or sommelier-ing or toiling away in wineries or distilleries without thinking how our work must appear to our children.
Interestingly, I was groomed for this field from an early age, though it wasn’t on purpose. My father, a periodontist, has collected wine since he was a dental school student. My mother, an artist, has been honing her considerable skills in the kitchen since she was a kid, cooking at the knees of my grandmother. Great food and wine were always a part of our family’s experience growing up, and from the time I was six years old, my father and I would walk into the kitchen each evening, my mother would announce the menu, and my dad and I would trundle down the basement stairs to the wine cellar. He would pick out a bottle, grab two massive wine glasses from the rack in the kitchen, and sit me down at the coffee table in the living room, quizzing me about what I smelled and tasted from the three-nanometer pour he’d given me.
I taste cherries, Dad.
Good, Bri, but what kind—red or black?
Right! Are they under-ripe, ripe, or over-ripe?
And so it went, night after night, the discussion centering on why any particular wine worked or didn’t work with the meal, and serving temperature, and decanting, advancing all the way to my first night as a Penn State undergrad, where, at a fraternity party my roommate and I decided to crash, I was given a luke-warm Rolling Rock in a red Solo cup. I took a sip and asked the muscled frat brother if he had anything better, maybe a nice Beaujolais?
We were not-so-kindly asked to leave the party.
In hindsight, that experience was the first indication that my lifelong exposure to alcohol had actually been a benefit…getting booted from that party notwithstanding. Indeed, it had never once occurred to me to use alcohol to get drunk (that would come later: I was a Penn Stater, after all!). There was nothing mysterious about it, nothing inherently verboten about the liquid. It was just wine, a beverage to be sipped, and enjoyed with food, and parsed for whatever meaning I could find in the swirling aromas and translucent legs dripping slowly down the inside of the glass.
My wife and I are raising our daughters in a similar way. There’s no guarantee that this will result in a healthy respect for alcohol when they’re older, and a reluctance to engage in the sort of binge-drinking excesses that far too often occurs, but I’m hopeful that it will.
I’m also optimistic that other aspects of working in the wine and spirits world will benefit our girls in the future, too. Travel, for example, has always been an important part of my job, and I average one trip per month. It’s hard being away, of course, but they’re being raised to understand that it’s a big, usually beautiful, infinitely fascinating world out there, and exploring it is always worth the occasional difficulties. And while they can’t join me on my work trips, they still manage to participate in absentia by packing in my carry-on bag a destination-appropriate stuffed doll to accompany me and be photographed along the journey. We now have an extensive photo collection of Disney’s Merida in Scotland, Belle in France, and more. There’s even a not-particularly-flattering picture of Hello Kitty and I enjoying drinks together with a few new friends at a bar in Sendai, Japan. (The kids loved that one…)
I can only hope that, as a result of the many idiosyncrasies of this world I work in, and of the million-and-one parenting decisions that my wife and I make along the way, they’ll grow up with the same appreciation for alcohol that I did. And that they become the kind of people who respect wines, beers, and spirits for their flavors, their histories, their ability to elevate a meal, as well as for the insights into culture and geography and language that they provide. And that years from now, they’ll turn down that first red Solo cup of whatever toxic brew has been poured into it, and wake up the next morning with a clear recollection of the night before, with no hangover or regrets at all.
As for me and my burgeoning reputation at preschool, it all worked out in the end. After explaining to the other parents and teachers in the following days and weeks—through usually purple-stained teeth—what it was I did for a living, I was quickly recruited to be in charge of drinks for the first PTA-sponsored event at school later that month.
It’s amazing how a few vats of pre-batched (and fairly strong) margaritas can make everything right with the world.