Dry January is popular in the US because Americans have never learned how to drink responsibly

School’s out.
School’s out.
Image: Reuters/Victor Ruiz Garcia
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Americans seem to be increasingly concerned about their relationships with alcohol. Over the last year or so, I have come across several articles in which (mostly women) expressed some very strong feelings about alcohol and why it is better not to drink. The implication seems to be that unhappy, privileged types are using alcohol (especially wine) as a crutch, rather than facing up to the causes of their dissatisfaction. The issue weighs heavily over people during the holiday season, a time when liquor flows freely. And now that we are in January, the internet is awash in a whole new crop of stories on Dryanuary, a somewhat controversial tradition in which people give up alcohol for the month.

As a German who spent her childhood on a family-owned winery and has lived around convivial wine drinking all her life, I tend to be less wary of alcohol. But years spent traveling between America and Europe have also made me think critically about the differences between cultures that teach people to enjoy drinking responsibly, and those that lead to alcoholic excess.

I was born into a family of winemakers in Germany. While rewarding, it’s a stressful life with lots of hard work. Vintners are utterly dependent upon the weather. People come and go every day to the tasting room to sample wine and learn how to savor it.

The German concept of wine is different from that of Americans. We are not naïve; we have developed very firm values and rules about drinking that emphasize moderation and community drinking from an early age. Thousands of years of vineyard planting, wine crafting, and wine drinking has left a deep impression on our culture. Even our history books pay homage to it: I love the fact that Benedictine nuns were the first to cultivate vineyards along the river Main in Franconia, where I come from.

I stepped out of this world when I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, for a teaching job. In Birmingham, I experienced my first “dry campus.” I had never heard of such a thing before. I instantly wanted to smuggle in some wine. I learned about for the first time American temperance movement, the Second Great Awakening, and Prohibition in the 1920s.

Gradually, I began to realize that America’s complicated and sometimes unhealthy relationship with alcohol was rooted in its past. The US has not yet developed a healthy relationship with alcohol on a large social scale. While some people reject alcohol altogether, others drink almost exclusively strong liquors. Especially where I was in Alabama, the secrecy of those moonshine  days somehow still lingers.

Wine in particular had a tough time taking root in American society—literally. When the English Puritans, the French Huguenots, and the German Pietists first arrived on the eastern shores of America, they brought over their beer and wine on ships and eagerly tried to plant vines. Sadly, the European vines couldn’t flourish in this climate. Instead, distilled spirits and other beverages like hard cider became the alcoholic beverages of choice.

However, as distilled spirits became increasingly popular, so did the backlash against them. This is where many Americans developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol—the consequences of which no one could foresee. The abuse of strong liquor became a major challenge to American society, spawning the temperance movement in the 1830s and 1840s.

When the 18th Amendment banning alcohol sales or manufacturing in the US went into effect on January 17, 1920, a whole nation became unable to cultivate any open or healthy relationship with alcohol. The consequences of the Prohibition era would last far longer than the actual law, which was repealed at the federal level in 1933.

America’s unusually high minimum drinking age of 21 has arguably made matters worse. Many young people in America still learn how to drink in college with their peers. This is a bad idea. 

In contrast, the legal drinking age in Germany for wine and beer (but not distilled spirits) is 16. (Children are also allowed to drink beer and wine at the age of 14 with parental supervision.) At age 18, young adults can drink distilled spirits. This staggered approach signals the fact that distilled alcohol require more maturity in order to be appreciated responsibly. 

I had my first glass of wine at the age of 14 at my confirmation into the Lutheran faith. As is my family’s tradition, I was allowed one small glass of Silvaner—a fresh, crisp and savory white wine—with dinner. I sipped it very slowly as my friends and family watched. In that moment, I felt incredibly grownup and important. It was a day of feasting and celebration and wine.

My experience was not unique. In Europe, drinking wine is woven naturally into everyday and public life. In many families, it is typical to share a bottle of wine around the dinner table over the course of an evening. The children get to watch their parents as they enjoy wine responsibly and in a setting that nurtures communal life.

In the summer months, we often go to nearby wine festivals and indulge in local cuisine and wine whilst listening to music. In the winter, we stop with our colleagues after work at our local Christmas market and sip a glass of mulled wine before heading home. I am not saying that Europeans don’t abuse alcohol, just like plenty of American families drink responsibly. But there seem to be more opportunities to practice a more wholesome and communal enjoyment of wine, as opposed to bingeing and excessive drinking just do get drunk that I have read so much about int he American press (and experienced firsthand while living in the US).

I understand and validate the experiences of those who worry about attitudes toward alcohol in the US. But to me, these experiences seem far away from my own knowledge of wine or beer consumed slowly around the dinner table—a place of communion, vulnerability, and healing.

In my experience, the more people grow up in a society where drinking is associated with cultural ceremonies and family, the less likely it is that the members of that society will abuse alcohol. In the US, the problem is that too many people are turning to alcohol in an attempt to cure themselves of feelings of loneliness and isolation. This very different relationship with alcohol develops early in life and can have devastating consequences. It takes a village to learn how to drink and enjoy a glass of wine responsibly.