I’m by no means lacking in admiration for a little self-restraint, but it’s something I prefer to admire from afar – and never more so than when it comes to Dry January. It’s the joylessness that bothers me. January is not a pleasing month in the northern hemisphere: the sky is dull, the air damp, the wind biting. Yes, days are getting longer and spring is on the way, but that always feels theoretical until at least March. This year, we can’t travel or socialise, and the news is mainly terrible. The pleasures that are left are mostly of the table: fortifying stews and lively conversation. I don’t view it as a concern that I prefer both of these washed down with good wine.
The beginning of the year is an ideal time to question one’s habits as we sprawl, surrounded by leftovers, empty bottles and credit-card bills, beneath an obsolescent Christmas tree. We resolve to behave better, work harder, listen more carefully. We are all thirsty for change – especially this year – and when so much is out of our hands, it feels good to grasp those things that are within our control.
In 2021, maybe I’ll manage to go running more than once a fortnight, stare at social media a bit less, give more to charity and less to commercial enterprises with repellent labour practices. But nowhere on my list is the gratuitous abandoning of any gustatory pleasures; I’d as soon give up reading.
Dry January is not about change but about stasis: a frozen moment between December’s drinks and those of February. It is a form of alcoholic virtue-signalling – “look what I can do!” – with a clearly defined end point, at which point the Smug Drys will revert abruptly to Wetness, quite possibly making up for time lost in their enthusiasm. A person who drinks too much for 11 months of the year is still a person who drinks too much; and if they don’t, why would they need to prove their ability to quit?
In ancient Rome, the gloomy depths of the year were enlivened by the Saturnalia, a celebration of Saturn, god of seeds and sowing, and his consort Opis, goddess of abundance, fertility and the fruits of the earth. To keep this pair happy was to ensure a year of plenty. There was a great deal of eating, drinking and praising of deities, but the Saturnalia was also a festival of misrule: slaves could stop work, gamble in public and disrespect their masters; the pileus, a felt cap given to manumitted slaves, was worn by others to symbolise the freedom of the season. The Saturnalia reminded citizens (and slaves) what the status quo was by temporarily turning that order on its head.
Dry January appears to be a misconceived version of that: an attempt to appreciate, or regulate, normal life by upending it. Which is fair enough, except that the opposite of good drinking is not abstinence but bad drinking. Why not give up substandard wine or over-sweet cocktails, resolve to drink a better bottle but savour it more? We are all guilty of letting even the best wine slip down absent-mindedly at times.
As I write this, I am casting an eye over the week’s empty bottles, and there is a Tressallier (also known as Sacy), a white from Saint-Pourçain in central France that I remember very little about, save that I liked it. Trésaille, from Domaine des Bérioles: I’d drink it again, but don’t ask me for a tasting note.
On the other hand, next to it is Nègre Boeuf from Domaine de Ferrussac, a Terrasses du Larzac which barrelled into my dinner-time consciousness like a gladiator on a bender. It was plush yet elegant, full of sweet berries and mint leaf. I drank it with attention, reflecting on how much I love Terrasses du Larzac, the highest appellation in the Languedoc and to me, the most interesting. My taste buds and my wine knowledge were both broadened that evening, and really, the thought of spending an entire month deprived of that experience is gloomier than a four o’clock sunset. Nothing is darker than ignorance.
The Saturnalia became the Festival of Twelfth Night; in France, we buy a galette des rois and the youngest child hides under the table to pick, blind, who will get the slice containing the fève (traditionally a bean, itself a seed) and become King (or Queen) for a night, a tradition that comes down to us from the Saturnalia’s habit of designating a Lord of Misrule (even asking the youngest member of the household to choose the Lord was part of the Roman festivity).
Midwinter celebrations, from lighted trees to organised mayhem, have always been about fending off the dark and holding in mind the promise of light to come. Wine is part of this. When I drink a rich red in winter, my mind flickers to its birthplace and to the time those grapes were picked: late summer, when the worship of seed-bearing deities and fertility goddesses pays off. These grapes grew fat on sunshine, then poured that warmth out as juice, which the magic known as fermentation, followed by patient maturation, then transformed. If you don’t require sunshine, magic and patience, all seasoned with a little salty chaos, at this trying time of the year, then my admiration is immense. But I have no desire to emulate you; instead, I’ll simply raise my glass.