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Jefford on Monday: Dionysus and Downing St

January draws to a close. For a few of my friends, that means the end of an abstemious, alcohol-free month.

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Others will chose to wait until Lent begins on February 22nd to hang up the corkscrew (or leave the screwcaps intact). Some try to have an alcohol-free day or two every week; my own strategy tends to mean leaving abstention to fate, but to welcome it when it happens. Any habit is best repudiated once in a while, if for nothing else than the view it gives of a changed world. I’m sure that time spent away from wine, too, can sharpen one’s tasting abilities on return.

You might, of course, regard any kind of restraint as wimpish and contemptible. “Un repas sans vin est un jour sans soleil” (‘a meal without wine is a day without sunshine’), Louis Pasteur is reputed to have said, and some wine lovers enthusiastically agree. Medical opinion, moreover, can usually be found to back up almost any personal alcohol strategy other than that of unmitigated excess.

Individual practice is one thing; debate and lobbying another. When those involved in wine production, sales or promotion discuss restraint or abstention, an element of self-defensiveness seems to sharpen the tone. This is particular evident when the restraint is being urged by governments on citizens for their own benefit (as with the current debate regarding minimum alcohol pricing in the UK).

I’ve spent my working life writing about (and thus in some sense promoting) fine alcoholic drinks including wine, and I’m in no doubt of their beauty, intrigue, cultural depth and civilising qualities. I’ve often witnessed and experienced the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption in lifting the spirits and bringing people closer to one another. A little wine brings spiritual music to secular life. Without alcohol, wine wouldn’t do that. Without alcohol, wine does not exist.

Drunkenness and alcohol dependence, though, are pure horror, both to experience and to witness. I’ll never forget the boiling rage of someone’s aunt, banging the table next to me at a friend’s wedding because the serving staff were slow in uncorking the bottle she was clutching, nor the sense I had of peering into an abyss as I imagined the life she and her mortified husband lived out together. One of the reasons I relish no longer living in the UK is that it’s rare, closer to the Mediterranean, to observe roaringly drunk males sow discord in public places, though you don’t need to be particularly observant to see (and smell) the less ostentatious forms of drunkenness here. Set against these excesses, the calm and serenity of abstention is indeed beautiful.

It’s admirable to drink moderately, and to celebrate and propagate the richness which wine’s long culture has brought to human existence -- but it’s admirable not to drink, too. Beneficial moderation, after all, is defined by intermittent abstention. Dionysus, as Euripides wrote in the Bacchae, is most gentle yet also most terrible to mankind. It’s in our greater interest to maximise the gentleness, and minimise the terrible episodes.

When those in power try to bring this about, it seems to me that they deserve the support of moderate drinkers. (This, of course, is not an argument for prohibition: we would then miss out on the beneficial gentleness.) Those whose livelihoods are articulated around alcoholic drinks should also take a long view.

Between the adoption of the Loi Évin in France in December 1990 and 2008, alcohol consumption fell by 20% -- yet those producing France’s good wines and its fine wines prosper today as never before. Governments don’t always get it wrong. Minimum alcohol pricing in the discount-addicted UK would principally target the cheapest and most alcoholically corrosive drinks: those favoured, in other words, by those in thrall to the terrible Dionysus rather than the gentle one. It’s a sound policy.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com