Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Why I Started Drinking Wine at Age 40

This week I began the first of nine sessions of a Level I Sommelier class. Which in itself would not be very remarkable – many have taken this basic class – if it were not for the fact that… I do not drink.

Indeed, I am what in Italian is called astemia. In English we come close with the word “teetotaler,” which if said outside of Great Britain causes quizzical looks because nobody has any idea what it means, and if they do, they think you’re crazy. Yes, I’m something of a permanent designated driver.

But I suppose that is changing now. I hope you’ll excuse me for writing about a personal decision on my blog – it’s rather out of character. But if you’re wondering what might make someone start drinking rather than stop what is normally considered a vice, do read on.

Me, getting excited about the grapes hanging to dry in a Vinsantaia (at Il Borro, Valdarno, Tuscany)

Me, getting excited about the grapes hanging to dry in a Vinsantaia (at Il Borro, Valdarno, Tuscany)

I am a woman of my word. I tend to make decisions and stick with them. This can make me tough to deal with at times, but it has stood me in good stead and helped me get through some tough times, including graduate school, which, believe me, takes a good deal of persistence. So it happens that one morning in 1994, I uttered five words that I think many of you will also have said, perhaps more than once: “I will never drink again.” So, being a woman of my word, I didn’t.

And so it came to pass that I never had a drop of beer, which frankly I think is disgusting; I never had a drop of hard liquor, which really is just there to get you drunk; I never toasted with champagne at special occasions like at my wedding, which Italians say is bad luck (I figure having given my word to stick with Tommaso ought to suffice and no amount of bubbly or not would change that); and, until this year, I’d not had a drop of wine, either.

No wine, you say? But you live in Italy! In Tuscany! The land of Chianti! And in fact, after seventeen years of Italian living, I guess being here has worn down my resolve… in part because I realized that there was no good reason for that resolve.

This year, I turned 40. I’ve made two conscious decisions alongside this decade change. The first is to stop dying my hair blonde. It turns out that after many years of blonde streaks, my hair has been carefully trained to do this by itself, and has revealed white-grey streaks that every one thinks I paid for. As such, I’ve saved time and money. The second resolution is to start drinking.

This isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, and I mean no disrespect in announcing this when I know there are people who are trying hard to stop. But it actually relates to my job. I manage social media, amongst the many hats I wear. And this means understanding whatever your client offers and breaking it down into storytelling soundbites. This year I found myself with not one but two clients that are hotels with wineries and restaurants. To tell their stories, I could sleep in their bed and write about it. I could eat the food, and write about it (even without eating meat). But when it came to the wine, I know I was being superficial, basing myself on what others had written but not knowing it inside-out myself.

You can only make things up for so long before both curiosity and professional integrity get the better of you. And so I approached a glass of red wine. Something like how a lizard might approach a pond: picture a hesitant hover, and then a tongue, quickly dipping into the liquid.

Hmm. OK, need a bit more.

Try again. Hmm! Interesting! How do I feel? … I seem to be… OK. I am OK!

The latter comes as something of a surprise. Am I not allergic to wine, or to its sulphites, after all? It’s a surprise – I’m allergic or hypersensitive to so many things. So many in fact that it generates fear, fear of what will happen to me if I ingest alcohol, or certain vegetables, or meat, or shellfish. New things in general are not my favourite, to be honest. But I realized that for too long I’ve made my choices based on what others have told me are the causes of my digestion problems, based thus not on empirical fact. For me, tasting wine is a huge risk. But one I had to take.

So I tried it again, somewhat in secret, for not drinking is such a part of my persona, along with being vegetarian, and allergic to garlic, and being a type A personality. My husband was very surprised. My friends, well, they’re finding out right now as they read!

And as an added bonus, it turns out that 23 years of not drinking, and of being hypersensitive to smells and flavours, makes me uniquely qualified to understand wine. Plus, hey, I’m in the right place.

Mostly full glasses and critical notes at the first night of my sommelier training

Mostly full glasses and critical notes at the first night of my sommelier training

Now, my mother always said: if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Maybe it’s for this reason that I don’t tend to take half measures. So I’ve chosen to go back on my word, and instead of not drinking, I will approach drinking – wine, at least, for I still think beer is disgusting – with the intellectual rigour that got me through grad school. We are certainly not talking large amounts of wine: my tolerance is about 1.5 teaspoons. And it has to be good wine. I will not drink plonk with pizza. If the wine doesn’t pass the smell test, I won’t even taste it. But if it’s a valorous vintage, I want to know more about it.

I want to know more about what has made this place in which I live so famous. It’s not just the art, the particularly good food, the charming contadini and the beautiful landscapes. It’s what this earth yeilds in toto, and that includes wine.

And so I find myself at the first lesson of Sommelier training, with a teacher who says he can’t imagine there is anyone astemia in the room. I don’t raise my hand to correct him.


I told this story orally on October 15 at Storytellers Rome, along with more talented storytellers than I. This brilliant event is held usually the second Saturday night of each month at The Beehive, which is also a clean and friendly hostel that I recommend! If you’re interested in participating in this free event, or telling a story, look for the Facebook group “Storytellers Rome”.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.