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My Six-Year-Old Prefers Malbec Over Merlot

Courtesy Weldon Owen

My youngest son leans outstretched over the table, his maw agape, grinning like a fool. With my index finger plugging one end, I hold the straw over his mouth. We resemble some sort of animal rescue mission: the injured baby bird, and the veterinarian with the eyedropper.

I release my finger, dropping a tablespoon of 2011 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio right behind his lower incisors. He swishes it around—a technique he did not learn from his mother or I—and swallows. He grins. Grins. Still grinning. The baby bird opens his mouth again. I say that’s enough for now.

For years now, my wife Brandy and I have said Tanner will likely be one of two things: a chef or a sommelier. His sense of taste is hyper-acute. He loves typical kid fare (chocolate bars, chocolate doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies), but also raw onion, lemon juice and salmon. His sense of smell is even more so. Like a beagle, there’s very little that comes into his orbit that he doesn’t sniff. (Exhibit A: Two weekends ago, I handed him the hotel room key to carry. He smelled it, and then put it in his pocket.) He has sniffed or tasted just about everything in our kitchen and pantry. Since the adults in our household enjoy wine, that’s something that comes into his orbit as well. His first taste of wine was about a year ago. He watched me uncork (or was it twist open?) a bottle of Malbec. Can I try it? Pause. I splashed some into my glass. “Just a little sip, okay?” He slowly tilted it back, took a small pull while looking me in the eye, and let out a satisfying ahhhhh. Grin. More?

Since then, he has tried a few different wines, one-eighth of a strawful at a time. And let me be clear: This isn't some routine practice. We don’t host G-rated wine tastings every Thursday. (Ooh! Pair the Bordeaux with the Teddy Grahams!) It’s something that happens every so often, like Kardashian weddings and pregnancies.

I understand that in my home, my six-year-old is simply tasting a Cabernet. But out in the world, this scenario gets distilled into something much more sinister: I give my kid alcohol. I just Googled “giving preschoolers alcohol,” and I’m pretty sure I just ended up on the Department of Children and Families watch list.

Is this a uniquely American paranoia? From strict Chinese Tiger moms to involved Swedish stay-at-home dads to the laissez-faire French parents in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, we’re hearing more and more about what we can learn from parents in other countries and cultures. Surely France, a nation blanketed by vineyards, knows how to smartly introduce wine at the family table, right? Uh, maybe not: The number of French teenagers who drink heavily is on the rise, says the alcohol and addiction office at the French National Institute on Health and Medical Research. The evidence points, at least in part, to French kids being allowed to drink at an early age at home.

But it’s not like we can rely on American know-how on this one. The U.S. has a troubled, hypocritical approach to alcohol. It's a taboo that our highest holy order partakes in every Sunday (and then some). Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults drink alcohol, the highest that figure has been in nearly 30 years. Television commercials for beer and spirits follow advertisements for DUI attorneys. It was only last fall that beer and spirit advertisers were legally prevented from advertising to minors on social media outlets.

To me, letting Tanner take a sip was a way to demystify it, to normalize it. Because as a society, we really don’t know how we feel about it. Tanner, you know that commercial with all the guys and girls going down the slip-and-slide? That’s a beer commercial. And that stuff is bad for you. It’s so bad for you that I have 12 bottles of it in our fridge.  

It was also supposed to be innocent. Those little sips were not about alcoholism or law breaking or delinquency or college fraternities or hanging from chandeliers. It was a little something for him to try. It was something of Mommy and Daddy’s that he was curious about. But I get it. This isn’t like stumbling around the house in Mom’s high heels. No one’s liver ever failed doing that.

Now that I'm really thinking about, and now that I'm really writing about it, I guess the Bean household is going to change its policy. I can only hope our Prohibition goes as smoothly as America's last one.