According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a safely moderate level of alcohol consumption is one to two drinks per day for a man, no more than 14 drinks in a week, and one drink per day for a woman, no more than seven drinks per week. If a woman is pregnant, then no amount of alcohol is safe, emphasizes HHS. These recommendations are based on a measure of 14 grams of alcohol per drink. A five-ounce glass of wine with a 12 percent alcohol content contains about 14 grams of alcohol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (A 12-ounce bottle or can of beer at five percent alcohol content also contains 14 grams of alcohol.)
Drinking more than this is considered excessive, according to the U.S. standards. Moreover, most states use the 0.08 limit as the drunk test for blood alcohol level; at that level or higher, the constabulary will consider you drunk and not fit to drive. Conventional wisdom suggests that you can stay under the legal blood alcohol limit – that is, stay sober enough to drive -- if you consume no more than one drink per hour, but this is a very rough rule of thumb. Blood alcohol content is highly affected by body size and weight and also by the consumption of food. Drinking on an empty stomach puts alcohol into the bloodstream faster.
The U.S. guidelines and limits are prudish compared to certain other countries, however. In Italy, the recommended limit is two to three drinks per day for a man, one to two drinks per day for a woman. Pregnant women are discouraged from drinking at all, “but, at most, one drink twice per week” is not considered unsafe, according to the Italian government’s “Guidelines for Healthy Eating for Italy” publication. The Irish government puts the upper limit for a man at 17 drinks per week, but it also recommends going alcohol-free two days a week. That means, according to Ireland’s Health Service Executive, three drinks a day for a man is fine, even a little shy of the recommended limit. Hearty consumers of Guinness Stout must be gratified. But even Ireland is conservative compared to Spain, where the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality (yes, that’s the actual name) states that a safe, moderate level of alcohol consumption is no more than four drinks per day for a man, 2.5 drinks per day for a woman.
So how much is too much?
It depends – on whether you’re a man or a woman, on whether you’re an adult or a child, on your weight, on what you ate and how long ago you ate it, on your genetic predisposition for alcohol sensitivity, on your state of mind and emotions, on any number of factors that are difficult if not impossible to squeeze into a general guideline. Moreover, the only limit that matters, legally, is the limit on blood alcohol content while driving. Everything else is just a recommendation based on medical observation. Most of us know someone who shouldn’t drink more than one drink in an entire day, and nowadays nearly every extended family includes at least one person who shouldn’t drink at all. Yet there are other people who seem to be able to drink more than the recommended moderate level of alcohol with no ill effects. Robert Mondavi, the famous Napa Valley wine entrepreneur, once estimated that between tasting wine in his winery’s laboratory each morning, tasting a bit more in the sales room, enjoying a glass or two at lunch and more wine in the evening at dinner, he probably drank the equivalent of a bottle of wine per day nearly every day of his adult life. For a standard 750 milliliter bottle, that’s five or six glasses of wine, 35 or 40 a week. He lived life to the hilt – his autobiography is titled “Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business” -- and he died when he was 94. I have no idea if Mondavi ever got a DUI, but it would be puritanical to suggest his daily wine consumption was detrimental to his health or to his family. Indeed, his family’s fortune was made on wine – growing it, making it, drinking it, loving it.
How much is too much comes down, I believe, to knowing yourself and your own body’s reaction to alcoholic beverages. Something I noticed long ago about myself is that I can drink a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and feel almost no effects, but a single glass of wine at lunch nearly puts me to sleep. I’m useless for afternoon work if I’ve had any wine in the middle of the day, so I never drink it then, not if I want to get anything done. I also know that, for me, my safe wine consumption limit is about half a bottle of wine in the evening with a meal. More than that is too much for me. But that’s my own limit; yours is probably different, and it’s up to you to know it and abide by it.
Remember, too, that the U.S. guidelines are based on wine with 12 percent alcohol content. These days, that’s on the light side. Most red wines are above 13 percent, and a surprising number are above 14 percent. Even white wines, which are generally lighter than reds in terms of alcohol, now commonly reach the 13-14 percent alcohol range. The official U.S. guideline of no more than two glasses of wine a day for a man might in reality be closer to 1.75 glasses, depending on the wine and its alcohol content.
I also believe that the standard-size bottle of wine, which is now 750 milliliters (25.4 ounces) and was changed from the old fifth of a gallon size (25.6 ounces) in 1972 to conform to the European standard, is that size for a reason. Yes, the size of a bottle of wine has changed a bit over the years (before World War II, the standard size in the U.S. was a 32-ounce quart), but the size bottle we recognize as standard, give or take an ounce or three, dates back to the 16th century. There’s a lot of mythology attached to the size – for example, some historians believe that 16th and 17th century glassblowers could blow no larger than an approximately 750-milliliter size wine bottle in one breath – but the fact remains that somewhere around 24-26 ounces of wine in a single container has been considered the standard quantity for centuries.
Why? Wine is meant to be shared over a meal. And what we call “a bottle of wine” seems to be just the right amount of wine for two people to enjoy with a meal without risking over-indulging. Is it too much wine for some? Yes, probably. The real question is, How much is to much for you? The wise wine consumer knows himself or herself and his or her limits and abides by them, and thus the answer is clear.