Why don’t Americans drink wine with lunch?

We just don’t do it. We don’t drink wine at lunch, at least not in any regular way.

Why is wine at lunch such a taboo in the United States? (Olesya Denysenko/Dreamstime/TNS)
Photo: Olesya Denysenko/Dreamstime/TNS

Even when we dine in restaurants with kitchens that turn out carefully prepared, sophisticated food that begs for wine accompaniment, we don’t drink wine at lunch, for the most part. We say, “I’m fine with just water,” or we upgrade to sparkling water or some other nonalcoholic beverage. We do this partly because returning to the office with boozy breath is taboo in our work-worshipping culture. 

In some European countries, especially the ones known for wine production, wine traditionally has been a natural part of both dinner and lunch. The time of day, or the to-do list waiting back at the office, has had little to do with an Old World person’s decision about whether or not to have wine with lunch. It’s a meal. There is food involved, so there must be wine too. 

Imagine sitting down in an American restaurant (aside from those in the very top tier of fine-dining palaces) and not seeing salt and pepper on the table. In many ways, the Old World’s wine is our salt and pepper. You just expect to see it on the table. 

As the Old World continues to turn more “Western” (or, dare I say, “American”), some of its approaches to living are starting to disappear. But they’re not gone yet. To be reasonable, I know that not every banker and lawyer in Paris, Rome and Madrid (among others) drinks wine with lunch, and that when they abstain, it’s due to the work they have to do for the rest of the day. 

Wine with lunch is a lifestyle for many people in Europe, but it has never been a thing in the United States. But drinking alcohol at lunch certainly was, and clearly that has gone out of fashion, for the most part. 

Wine is more popular than ever in the United States, and still we usually pass on it at lunch — even when the medical world tells us that a glass a day for women, and two glasses a day for men, is not only acceptable but beneficial to our health. Could we not split that allotment in half and enjoy a splash of wine at lunch and another at dinner in the same day? Or could we not spend the entire allotment at lunch and abstain at dinner? (The medical world is pretty clear about the lack of health benefits afforded to anyone who employs creative math, teetotaling through the workweek and then cramming seven days’ worth of daily wine into a single Saturday night.) 

As it is, many of our weekday afternoons include a good solid hour of food coma — that hazy, sluggish, unproductive state brought on by a belly full of food. With a glass of wine in the mix, that could turn into an all-out nap in a locked bathroom stall. With two glasses of wine in the mix, your afternoon could turn into a YouTube research session of your favorite band’s past summer festival appearances. 

Yes, you can nap or kill an afternoon online without having drunk a drop of wine at lunch. But another reason we don’t drink wine at lunch is it makes us happy and more carefree than we were before we left the office. It makes us unfocused on the tasks at hand. When we drink wine, we let our guard down. Usually, when wine enters our experience, we have knocked off for the day, and now our minds and souls are going to another place. Away from work. Drinking wine, for most of us anyway, is the exact antithesis of working. 

I can understand the “fine with just water” stance. I, too, have a hard time putting my nose to the grindstone after I have put my nose into a few glasses of wine. It just sends me in another direction. It makes me say, “Yes, more of this.” More of this luxury, more of this pleasure, more of this sense of well-being. And that often translates to more … weight. 

Perhaps that is another reason most Americans don’t drink wine at lunch daily. We weigh more than we should as a nation, yet we know we should weigh less. Yet we love wine. And dessert. Yet we tell ourselves we shouldn’t indulge. It’s a vicious and cruel cycle. 

Another reason? Cost. We all have our magic number when it comes to how much we are willing to spend at lunch. A glass of wine can push your tab way past your usual daily outlay. On vacation, though? Yeah, bring on the wine. We can agree on that, right? What else do we have to do on vacation besides eat food, drink wine, read, people-watch, nap and get showered and ready for dinner? 

The daylight is a vigilant watchdog, and when we are day-drinking on vacation (or even over the weekend at home), we get a feeling of luxurious defiance. During the workweek, the daylight watchdog keeps us hemmed in, and that is usually the place we want to be — hemmed in — when we return to the office to make afternoon calls. 

There’s also that possibility of a spontaneous drop-in from our boss’s boss. If smelling wine on our breath and noticing that we are a little looser than normal were not a big deal, more of us might enjoy a glass of wine with lunch. But it is a big deal. Drinking wine at lunch is just not a part of our culture — for better or worse. 

Think about when you see people drinking wine at lunch. Immediately you take note of how they are dressed and how they are relating to each other. Is it a business meeting? Is it some kind of nonwork celebration? How loose are the people, and if they are in business attire, does it seem they are heading back to their offices? Or did they just close a deal, and are they all heading home after one or two more bottles for the table? That’s the lunch we all want to be a part of. But sadly, we have to go back to work.

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