When my son James was 10 months old, he was baptized into my religion. The ceremony took place in Bordeaux, and I performed it myself, rubbing a small amount of 2000 Château Pétrus on his gums. Yes, the kid started well. Since the age of 4, he has been allowed to dip his finger into my glass pretty much whenever he wants. (He says he especially likes Champagne; I’ve told him that’s what his allowance is for.) All along, I’ve assured myself that my wife and I were being a sensible, forward-thinking parents—that if we didn’t make wine completely off-limits and instead permitted James, now 10, and his 7-year-old sister, Ava, to satisfy their curiosity about it (within reason, of course), they’d be less likely to abuse alcohol later in life. Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder if that’s really true. Does early exposure promote responsible drinking, or is it better to treat alcohol as forbidden fruit?
This second-guessing isn’t the result of anything my kids have done; I haven’t caught James sneaking unsanctioned swigs, and Ava, having tried wine a few times, has no desire at the moment to taste it again (although she does a wicked imitation of me sniffing and swirling my glass). Rather, it’s a closer examination of French drinking culture that has given me pause. French child-rearing is much in the news at the moment thanks to Pamela Druckerman’s best-seller, Bringing Up Bébé. I don’t believe Druckerman addresses the question of bébé and booze. But like many people, I’ve always viewed the French as beacons of common sense when it comes to this issue. They don’t regard alcohol as a vice, it has long been their custom to offer children a sip à table, and presumably as a result of this liberal attitude, French teenagers and twentysomethings seemed far less prone to excessive drinking than their American peers.
However, that isn’t the case—not now, anyway. NPR recently aired a story looking at the rising incidence of binge drinking among French youths and growing doubts in France about the wisdom of giving children an early introduction to alcohol. What accounts for the upsurge in hell-raising? One possibility is that French parents have become more like us: They aren’t drinking nearly as much wine as they used to, and fewer children are being introduced to alcohol in the home. But here’s the thing: Early exposure has historically not encouraged moderation in France. Alcoholism has long been a major public health problem there. (In fact, the incidence of alcohol-related road fatalities got so bad that in the mid-1990s the government enacted some of Europe’s toughest drunk-driving laws.) The bottom line is that the seemingly more enlightened French approach hasn’t actually produced healthier drinking habits.
I grew up in a household where a French sensibility held sway. My parents had wine with dinner pretty much every night. I didn’t touch the stuff as a teenager; when I started drinking, it was strictly beer. My parents drummed into my head the importance of drinking responsibly and would even let me and my friends drink at the house in order to keep an eye on us and keep us off the road. Sure, I went a little crazy went I got to college; for a time, I was even the proud (and sadly skillful) owner of a beer bong. But I knew my limits, was generally good about staying within them, and never drove under the influence. I suppose fire-and-brimstone types might regard the fact that I ended up writing about wine as evidence that my parents failed me, but that’s obviously not how I see it.
However, self-doubt seems to be a condition of modern parenthood, and even though most days I think I turned out OK, I now find myself wondering if a permissive approach is best. As you would expect, there’s a large body of research concerning children and alcohol. Dr. George Vaillant’s ground-breaking 1983 book, The Natural History of Alcoholism, compared the backgrounds of alcoholic and nonalcoholic men in the Boston area and found that those who grew up in households where booze was not allowed were seven times more likely to succumb to alcoholism than those whose families had consumed alcohol with meals. Vaillant’s conclusion was that letting teenagers drink wine with family dinners promoted responsibility.
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.