The Next Round: What happens after you change your drinking?

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Close-up of someone drinking red wine from a large glass

Struggling with drinking wine and cutting down?

In my experience supporting people on Club Soda’s courses, drinking wine is a hard habit for many to shake.

Beer and spirits are more straightforward to cut down than wine. And they are certainly easier to swap out with alcohol-free alternatives if you take a break or quit.

But wine is uniquely tricky, especially if you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption.

I think there are ten important reasons why wine is hard to moderate. The first five reasons actually have to do with the wine itself. The other reasons are about your experience of drinking wine. Some of these factors are more easily controlled than others, and some you won’t be able to change at all.

But understanding why wine is causing you problems will be the first step to change your relationship with it. Let’s dive in.

Why wine is hard to moderate

Here are five key reasons why it’s hard to cut down when you’re drinking wine. These factors are unique to wine itself:

  1. Your wine glass is too big. Just as larger plates lead us to eating more food, so larger glasses encourage you to drink more wine. Wine glasses today are on average seven times bigger than they were 300 years ago. And they have ballooned in size (pun intended) in the last twenty years. In the UK, wine in licensed venues can only be served in measures of 125ml, 175ml or multiples of these. But servings of 125ml are rare. At home, many of us will happily pour a third of a bottle into a glass without thinking. That’s twice as much as a standard measure. But you’d never notice it in your pint-sized wine glass.
  2. Wine is getting stronger. There are many reasons to be worried about climate change, but increasing global temperatures are increasing the strength of wine. The natural sugars in grapes are turned into alcohol through fermentation. And hotter summers mean sweeter grapes. Wine varies widely in strength from Rieslings at 7%-8% ABV (alcohol by volume) to Chardonnays at 13%-14.5%. But some wines, especially Californian reds, can top out at 16% or more. This puts these wines in the same range as sherry or port.
  3. Wine bottles are a uniform size. While glasses have got bigger and wine has got stronger, we buy most of our wine in 750ml bottles. There is a lot of folklore about how this volume became the standard, from the lung size of medieval glass blowers to the practicality of wine transportation. But regardless, we think about wine consumption in standard bottles even though the content varies widely. And studies have shown that people tend to drink less wine from half-sized bottles.
  4. Wine is sweeter than you realise. Most of us will say we prefer a dry wine. But wine often contains residual sugars left over from alcohol fermentation. While this tends to mean that sweeter wines have a lower alcohol content than dry wines, your taste buds are an unreliable guide to sugar content. Wine makers will balance of a grape’s natural sweetness with its acidity and bitter tannins. Though a wine may be marketed as dry, many sparkling wines are really off-dry. So they may have around 25g of sugar in the bottle. That’s about a teaspoon of sugar in each glass (depending on the size of your glass, of course).
  5. Wine isn’t (generally) bubbly. One of the other factors that makes wine drinkable is that it isn’t fizzy. If you are drinking beer, you’ll know the discomfort that comes with a large quantity of fizzy liquid in your stomach. Drinking just 300ml of a carbonated drink can lead to gastronintestinal distress. But wine is much more easily digestible, because – aside from sparkling wines – it is flat.

Drinking wine and you

Here are some more reasons why it’s difficult to moderate when you’re drinking wine. These are to do with you, your experiences and your habits. They may not be true for you, of course. But they are observations about typical wine drinking behaviour:

  1. You have a high tolerance for alcohol. If you live in a northern European country, you’ve probably come to wine drinking later in life. By the time you started drinking wine, you had built up some tolerance for alcohol. Tolerance is a sign that your body has adapted to alcohol’s repeated presence, so you need to drink more to feel the effects. Your tolerance will lead you to choose bigger glasses and stronger wines.
  2. You keep topping up your glass. You may have picked up this habit from wine waiters who are keen to ensure your glass is never empty. Some people get very angry about it. If you don’t finish your glass before you pour more, you will always lose track of exactly how much you have drunk.
  3. You think about finishing the bottle. The psychology of wine drinking is complex, but you don’t need an alcohol addiction to be tempted by an almost-empty bottle. Drinking alone, a couple of glasses may be enough to drink without getting drunk. But you might as well finish it, right? Shared with friends, one bottle may not go far enough, so you open another. Standard bottle size works against you.
  4. You are distracted when you drink. Whether we’re alone or with other people, drinking wine is often combined with other activities. And it is harder to be mindful about your drinking when you are distracted. And alcohol, of course, diminishes your ability to pay attention. And sweeter wines, even the ones you can’t taste, will mean you drink more quickly.
  5. Wine drinking has become part of your identity. This is the most compelling reason you’ll keep drinking wine, even though you want to cut down or stop. You think about yourself as a wine drinker. It’s not just that you are immersed in wine culture. Being a wine drinker is part of who you are. And research shows that this identity will drive your behaviour, leading you to consume more over time.

How to cut down when drinking wine

If you intend to continue drinking wine but want to cut back, you’ll need some clear strategies. Hoping for change isn’t enough. You’ll need practical tactics to drink differently.

In Club Soda’s short course, Rethinking Your Wine Drinking, you’ll discover how to make concrete plans to reshape your wine habits. In the long term, you may find that moderation works for you. Or you might decide a better option is to take an extended break to reset. Or you could stop drinking completely.

But if you want to cut back on your wine drinking, here are some additional approaches that might work for you.

Begin by paying attention to the situations in which you drink more wine than you want to. Notice your triggers for drinking. For example, if you can’t moderate at home but find it easy to stick to one glass in a restaurant, decide to drink wine only if you are eating out. Or perhaps there is a group of friends you always overdrink with. Switching to brunch rather than evening drinks to maintain your connection, but without alcohol in the picture.

Alcohol-free wines have had a poor reputation historically, but there are many excellent options available now, and the category is improving all the time. Some alcohol-free wines are widely available in supermarkets, but it is worth seeking out smaller producers and premium brands if you want a high-quality wine-drinking experience. Generally, sparkling and white wines are a safer bet than dealcoholised reds. But remember to judge each drink on its own merits. Wine is a huge family of drinks with a very wide range of taste profiles, so “it doesn’t taste like wine” might not be a fair criticism.

You will also want to try other types of alcohol-free drinks. Many former wine drinkers switch to alcohol-free beers when they cut down or stop drinking. And there is huge variety in the alcohol-free wine space, with drinks that will offer you a balance of sweetness, acidity, bitterness and astringency. Cold-brewed sparkling teas can also offer tannins, and delicate flavours to match the complexity of grape varietals.

But if you feel any resistance to the idea of switching away from wine, examine whether the identity of being a wine drinker is restricting your choices. If wine culture has become a cult, it’s time to break free. Whatever reasons you have to keep drinking wine, imagine for a moment that none of those reasons are true. It’s just a thought experiment. And you will reach your own conclusions. But it could lead to lasting change.

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