Friday, June 17, 2016

Why Did I Feek Like Such Crap This Morning?

A few observations on wine, alcohol, and aging.
The two of us split a bottle of wine last night, so why did I feel like such crap this morning?

Though the process begins at birth and continues throughout life, the last few years of my own aging have manifested in a multitude of ways, some surprisingly pleasant and others less so. Two of those ways relate to wine: taste and how the body processes alcohol. Bitching about getting older is easy fodder for water cooler talk, especially when we feel the cold, hard slap of waning resilience. But that this might be an interesting topic to write about didn't occur to me until I made the connection between the changing contents of our wine cellar and these two aforementioned symptoms.

Five years ago, many, if not most, of the bottles I had put down to age for future special occasions were big, serious reds from Northern California. But on a recent trip downstairs for weekend provisions I only spotted a few left. What dominates now is almost exclusively European, with a strong bias towards Italy. Why this change? Value, certainly, but the rest of the story has more to do with the evolution of aversions rather than wallet-driven intention.

While acknowledging an abundance of ignorance on the complex science of taste, without question my personal preferences have begun a strong gravitational flow from power and heft toward finesse and ease - a journey that applies as much to whites as to reds. Though I still enjoy and respect the winemaking alchemy of a powerhouse vino that manages to keep all its bit in balance, if you strip away density and weight, most average wines are left insipid.  Filling that void is a hankering for artful acidity.

Articulating what that actually means is beyond my skill as a writer. As a proxy, however, I'll offer a few examples which do not require syrupy viscosity to deliver drinking delight:
  • Schiava Vernatsch, a lovely, lilting, and light-bodied red from the Alto Adige region that clocks in at 12.5% and can be had for as little as $12-16. 
  • Macon, the less expensive cousin to Burgundian big boys, is made of chardonnay, and prizes delicate honeysuckle and apricot flavors framed by lacy acids that tickle the tongue. Rarely are these subjected to oak regimens, which not only keeps the bulk in check, but makes them more affordable. You can find many options under $18 in this category. 
  • Finally, Bordeaux. Though we mostly hear murmurs about prodigious reds from chateaux with long histories, there is a vast price spectrum with infinite options coming from this region unified by a shared philosophy to channel place over fruit or winemaking.
With a correction in taste in process, we arrive at the subject of how the body processes alcohol differently as we age.

For the sake of social responsibility, I'll take a moment to state what should be obvious: the cerebral prefrontal cortex does not develop fully until the early to mid 20s. Overindulgence prior to this age has proved to stunt cognitive capacity. Once clear of this developmental stage of life, we reach what we believe to be a never-ending era of invincibility. Then, well, one day we wake up to that hard slap.  Our tolerance drops and we begin to suffer more acutely the effects of booze. That third glass never used to be a problem, but seems to really slow things down the morning after once you hit your mid 40s. Again, my science on this is light, but I imagine it's fairly straightforward: as our stamina diminishes in general, so does our ability to withstand punishing quantities of alcohol.  Quantities that in our thirties we could shrug off like a cold swim.

To complicate matters, this would be an incomplete story without a commentary on the glaring changes wine has gone through in just the last decade. Without question, alcohol levels have risen in step with sugar concentrations, resulting in candy-like beverages. You cannot have a conversation about metabolizing alcohol without recognizing the tremendous role this new world order chemical composition plays in the equation. Though the size of the average bottle remains at the standard 750 mL, what's inside that glass is far more potent and potentially damaging than what our parents generation drank. 

Throw all these variables together and the net result is fairly obvious, as we age we need to take better care of our bodies. Part of that is reducing intake and paying closer attention to what we are drinking. Not exactly glamorous, but neither is feeling like crap in the morning.  And if you happen to still be enjoying your thirties, well, laugh it up while you still can.

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