In a little ristorante off the Piazza di Santo Spirito in Firenze, I experienced wine in its totality for the first time. I was 20 years old and had been studying abroad in the Netherlands, when a group trip brought me to Firenze. As a relatively straight shooter and academic, my time had always been more devoted to my studies or a steady girlfriend than parties or drinking. As we ate whatever the kitchen had decided to send us (none of us spoke Italian), we drank red and white out of carafes, most likely local trebbiano and sangiovese. Having never been intoxicated before, at one point in the evening I realized, “Oh, yes, this is what it’s like to be drunk.”
And that was the first time; it was the most natural progression. Hours later, we all bumbled on to the street and back to our hostel, having shared not just a meal, but a real experience. This event played a pivotal role in my passion for wine, beer, and spirits. Five years later, I am seriously pursuing my interest in these cultural touchstones as a career.
Alcohol is not just a condition-inducer. It comes in large bottles for a reason; you’re supposed to share it. Social lubricant, sadness-reducer, celebration-inducer, when used responsibly, it provides us a way to get to know one another, an excuse to gather. The people who sat around that dinner table, although I’m not in touch with many of them currently, helped to change the course of who I am. What we had that night was an experience, not feeding time.
Meals are to be celebrated, because they are when we gather and share. My parents taught me this. Without fail, I was expected to have my butt at the dinner table every night, come hell or high water. The Harris family dinner table, as those who have attended know, is clearly a place for sharing: grievances, medical diagnosis, jokes, insults, grossly inappropriate comments, revelations, triumphs, despairs, but most of all, the sort of tactile existence that only comes from people colliding with one another.
My parents, commited gin martini (really, the only sort of martini) drinkers, gave me my first taste of alcohol. They let me try everything. I thought their table wine and herbal, juniper-based spirits (my father loves scotch and dubonet rouge as well) were all disgusting as I child, but I’ve always liked weird tastes, like black licorice and quinine. My mother used to keep a bottle of quinine (or collins) water in the fridge, and we’d take “naugty drinks” out of it late at night, straight from the bottle. One of our favorite candies is Good-And-Plenties. No one likes that shit, except for me and my mother.
Discovering all this with family, at the dinner table or elsewhere, was so integral to my upbringing and I am so thankful for it. I think a lot about wine and spirits, because I love them, but what’s most important is that they bring people together. Not to say that the only legitimate way to gather is by getting drunk, but that it is a way we, as humans, have been gathering across societies for centuries. My father is continually entertained by the fact that all the settlers drank was cider and ale, and so all of them, even the kids, were probably half-drunk all the time.
Alcohol and food bring us together, so make your meals and drinking dates a time for sharing, for learning about each other and the world around you. Not to beat a dead horse, but discovering something new with someone else is one of the most powerful, meaningful experiences we can have in this world. Share a meal. Share some drink. Share yourself.