But this is by no means the consensus view. I recently corresponded by email with David Rosenbloom, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and an expert on addictive disorders. He told me that “the earlier in life that a person starts drinking, the more likely the person is to develop a period of alcohol dependence. A kid who starts drinking at 13 or 14 is up to nine times more likely to develop an episode of alcohol dependence than a person who does not start drinking until 21.” Rosenbloom said that this vastly increased risk appears to be the result of alcohol “damaging or delaying the maturation of the portions of the brain relating to impulse control—which are the last to mature anyway.” Citing France’s alcoholism problem, Rosenbloom said it’s “an urban myth” that introducing children early and gradually to alcohol encourages responsible drinking, and he noted that heavy drinking among American teenagers has declined in the years since the legal age was raised to 21.
In addition to surveying the academic literature, I was curious to hear what fellow oenophiles had to say about kids and wine, so I recently raised the topic on my website. A majority of commenters endorsed early exposure, which was probably to be expected, but there were a few dissenting views. Several people pointed out that family history needs to factor into any decision about whether to permit kids a sip; if there is a pattern of alcohol abuse in the extended family, it is probably best not to get children in the habit. Some posters noted another concern: Knowingly serving alcohol to a minor is a felony in some states.
I also wanted to talk to someone fully immersed in the wine world, and for that I reached out to Jeremy Seysses, whose family owns one of Burgundy’s most acclaimed wineries, Domaine Dujac. Seysses, 36, told me by email that when he and his two brothers were young children, they were allowed to taste but not to drink. As teenagers, they were permitted small glasses, though by that point they had turned rebellious, and refusing wine was a gesture of defiance in their neighborhood. (“In a winemaking household, if you want to piss off your parents, you either don’t drink or drink liquor.”) According to Seysses, the example that his father, Jacques, set helped frame his feelings about alcohol; he never saw his father inebriated, and the elder Seysses emphasized that the pleasure of wine was in the taste, not the buzz. Jacques made a point of telling his sons about family wineries in Burgundy that had been destroyed by alcohol abuse.
Jeremy attended Oxford University and recalls getting sloshed just twice during his time there. The Brits were prodigious drinkers, of course, but he was stunned by how much the American exchange students consumed. University College, where he lived, had a student bar, and blotto Yanks closed down the place pretty much every night. Now married to an American (winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses, who works at Domaine Dujac and also at her family’s eponymous winery in Napa Valley) and the father of two boys, Seysses says his parents set a precedent that he intends to follow with his own sons—gradual exposure, and with an emphasis on moderation and responsibility. “My model is very much that which my parents used with regards to my two brothers and myself,” he said. “I feel we all have a healthy attitude towards alcohol; they clearly got it pretty much right.”
David Rosenbloom, in our email exchange, told me that parental behavior is hugely important; if kids are raised in an environment in which alcohol is consumed in moderation, they are more likely to follow that example. So while mindful of Rosenbloom’s other points, my inclination for the time being is to stick with what I’ve been doing—to not treat wine as taboo, and to continue to try to set the right example for James and Ava by drinking it only with meals and never to excess. Once their teen years hit, I plan to go into overbearing-parent mode to make sure they understand the risks associated with alcohol and why responsible drinking is so important. Will I let them have a glass of wine at the table? Periodically, perhaps, but surely not on a regular basis. At any rate, I’ve come to recognize that this is a trickier issue than I once thought, and in my case it’s obviously made more complicated by the fact that I write about wine for a living. I suppose it could worse, though: I could be a correspondent for High Times.