Some years ago, I had a very mixed experience working as a sommelier. I say mixed because I was in the job for less than six months, I had blagged my way into it, and it wasn’t right for me at all, but I thought for about three of those months that I really REALLY wanted to be a sommelier. Then I realised that I didn’t. One of my jobs was to write wine lists – at the time we sold a decent selection of house wines by the glass in either 175 or 250 ml measures.
During my short time working for this business we received notification from the relevant authorities that the law was changing to ensure that businesses like ours were also offering a 125ml glass. Our managers had been resisting it. Their reasons were as follows:
- A 125ml measure of wine would look ludicrously small in the mammoth bottle-sized glasses they offered.
- They had already agreed on the wine list design and didn’t really want to have to change it.
- No one had ever, as far as they knew, asked for a 125ml glass of wine in the establishment.
- If they did offer it, and people opted for it, they would probably sell less wine.
Good reasons, or not? Well… whether they are good or not, they seem to side-step any element of social responsibility to our guests that were driving. Although, of course you can argue that it is nothing to do with the establishment whether the guests decide to drink and drive or not.
Still, I felt a little uncomfortable about not offering that 125ml glass. You know when you are driving and you just want a tiny glass so you feel like you are part of the evening, maybe even diluted with a drop of sparkling water? The measures we did offer were called ‘standard’ and ‘large’ and so when we asked our guests if they wanted ‘standard’ or ‘large’ and they said ‘oh just a small one please’, perhaps it ought to have been clearer to them exactly what ‘standard’ means, and give them the option of having a smaller glass. If they went for a 250ml glass and then drove home, they were automatically over the limit. At 3.2 units in a 13% 250ml glass of red, this would send you well on your way to a DUI if you were breathalysed.
As for me, while I was agonising over the semantics of this issue, I was taken aside and informed that I was not really cut out to be a sommelier, and the decision was taken out of my less than capable hands. I became a wine writer and began to grapple with much less important issues, so I’m not sure how they resolved it in the end.
I used to have a really useful thing in my wallet – a credit card sized leaflet that contained information about the units in a glass of wine, beer, spirits, so you could refer to it if you were driving. I think I lost it though, and in any case, in recent years it has become a lot less clear cut what we can drink to stay under the limit. It depends on your gender, weight, age, metabolism, how stressed you are, and how recently you’ve eaten. Just like the units of alcohol in a glass of wine depend on its size and strength – the average drinker might not be aware that a Californian Zinfandel or an Australian Chardonnay is pretty strong compared to a delicate German Riesling. Allocated drink driving limits (like the ones on my leaflet) can’t really protect us from the anomalies of modern drinks – which is why the standard advice now is not to drink at all if you are driving.
This isn’t the sort of topic we normally discuss on 12×75 – we’re much more comfortable with philosophising about whether Jancis or Parker would win in a race and inventing new games to play at wine tastings. But sometimes it is good to confront topics that make us a little uncomfortable – looking at the Drink Aware site and others that I used to research this piece have reminded me of the reasons why this is such an important topic.
It’s coming up to Christmas now so it’s likely we’ll start getting the usual ad campaigns on TV reminding us with visual shock tactics not to get hammered at the Christmas party and attempt to drive home. Ultimately though, some people will still take the chance, and many of them will not be caught. This year though, instead of having my usual pint of lager shandy and making it last all evening, I’ve made the decision to go cold turkey if I’m the designated driver. It seems like a good habit to get into. Why take the risk? Just save it for another night.