Food & Drink

As beer and wine scenes flourish, red flags for alcohol abuse remain the same

Assorted beers in a flight ready for tasting
Assorted beers in a flight ready for tasting

With more than 50 craft breweries open in the Sacramento region as well as 45 wineries in Amador County and another 85 in Lodi, you might wonder about the consequences for a consumer base eager to explore and partake.

For many, business is booming and visitors are more than happy to have so many options. But nestled among all those enthusiasts, collectors and budding experts are those who just might lose their grip on something that began as a pastime. They can spend too much time and money obsessing over and buying up the new and elusive releases. They can roam social media sites until the hours turn into days, posting pictures of their latest haul. And for some, they can overdo the tasting until all that fun turns into a drinking problem.

This may be an area where those who work in the alcohol industry and those who buy the products have something in common. The temptations are there, and the red flags are often the same. If it’s a potential problem, how widespread is it?

“This question is a terrible one because it has to do with a lot of things people don’t want to talk about,” said Darrell Corti, the nationally known wine expert and owner of Corti Brothers, the grocery store best known for its gourmet food, wine, beer and spirits.

“People who work in alcohol actually walk a very thin line, a real razor edge. You can either live with it or you’re going to have to live without it. When you get to where you like the product too much, then it’s a real problem.”

Corti, who began his career in the 1960s, is well known in certain circles for his monthly tasting sessions of more than 100 bottles of wine.

“I deal every day with people who want to sell me their product. They come by and say, ‘Can we taste you on this product?’ It’s the constant sip, sip, sip that’s dangerous. You’d be drunk every day.”

He responds by limiting all that sipping and analyzing to once a month. How does he get through such marathons? By dealing with them like a pro.

“You spit,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “When the wines are really good, you actually swallow a little bit because it’s difficult to taste without swallowing.”

While no one is suggesting that enthusiasts at home sip and spit the wine and beer for which they paid good money, there is something to be said for showing restraint.

At brewfests like the event at the California Craft Beer Summit in Sacramento in September, 160 breweries poured 450 beers. For patrons who paid $60 to enter, there were no tokens or stamps – and no limits to the amount of beer they could taste. Many handled it well. Some overdid it. And some of those beer enthusiasts overindulge every time out.

But because craft beer, wine and whiskey are often seen as hobbies, the obsession and/or alcoholism tends to be muted or laughed away for some time.

“If one does have an alcohol use disorder, it’s easier to continue if you’re in a setting where drinking can be seen as an important part of your life,” said Martin Leamon, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction at the Sacramento VA Medical Center in Mather.

But Leamon doesn’t think alcohol is something to be feared – he’s a whiskey enthusiast who has been known to attend whiskey club events.

“It’s absolutely the case that most people who drink alcohol have no problems whatsoever drinking alcohol at any point in their lives,” he added.

Another addiction expert, Michael Dickerson, said he’s a craft beer aficionado.

A psychologist and counselor at California State University, Sacramento, Dickerson pointed out several warning signs of those with a possible drinking problem: lying or hiding alcohol use from loved ones; drinking alone or isolating themselves; difficulty stopping once they start drinking; neglecting responsibilities because they have drunk too much.

A home brewer and craft beer fan, Dickerson, like Leamon, said most people are able to keep their alcohol use in balance. His key for moderation? He doesn’t drink on weekdays.

“Really be aware of what you’re drinking. A lot of the craft beers will have much higher alcohol content than a light beer,” Dickerson said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which launched its Alcohol Program in 2001, heavy drinking is defined as eight drinks per week for women and 15 for men. Binge drinking, measured on one occasion, is considered four or more drinks for women and five or more for men.

Louie Toro, a longtime craft beer enthusiast, has visited hundreds of breweries. He collects. He trades locally and through the mail. He attends bottle shares. Over the years, he’s seen more than a few such beer geeks lose their way.

“It’s mainly the new guys because beer has become trendy and impressive,” Toro said. “They’re looking to get a lot of experience under their belt in a short amount of time. They go too fast. They spend too much money.

“I’ve been guilty of that sometimes myself – too much time, money and resources. You get so caught up in the bombardment of new releases and limited availability. So yeah, I sometimes take a break.”

Toro says there’s a long-running joke he hears occasionally: “Thank you, craft beer, for turning my drinking problem into a hobby.”

Kimio Bazett, a partner in four restaurants and bars in Sacramento, including Hook & Ladder, has seen employees and consumers alike fall prey to the joy of trying new things until it’s no longer fun. Recently, he took a hard look at his own drinking habits.

“I’ve learned quite a bit more about alcoholism lately, having some people around me who are in treatment or recovery,” he said. “I’ve had some concerns lately that if there exists an alcoholism spectrum, I might be somewhere on that spectrum.”

He added, “You can get in a cycle, especially in this industry, where a slight fogginess and the semblance of a hangover is the norm. I know plenty of people – good friends – who are feeling that way five days a week. For a while, I was one of them. If I’m going to have longevity in this business, I have to see the big picture and be responsible.”

The “final straw,” as he calls it, was the Paul McCartney concert that christened Golden 1 Arena in early October. He said he drank too much, was embarrassed by his behavior and called a temporary halt to drinking. Doing without, he said, would help him decide where alcohol fits into his lifestyle.

Bazett said he sees some beer, wine and cocktail enthusiasts get into the scene as a hobby and social outlet, and then struggle to keep things in balance.

“Yeah, I have seen that a lot. It tends to get romanticized a bit. People want to experience that and then they get caught up in it and find themselves in over their heads,” he said.

Corti’s life has been largely devoted to making the best wines available to his customers. His store has greatly expanded its craft beer selection in recent years. He said he doesn’t allow himself to wonder who might have an alcohol problem.

“I have literally never stopped to think about it, primarily because I don’t want to think about it,” he said. “There’s a sort of schizophrenia – we want to be able to drink, but we don’t want there to be consequences. I don’t feel guilty because it’s up to you. If I sell you a bottle of wine, I don’t tell you to go home and drink it all at one time.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob