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Grape Expectations

Image credits: vitalsine
Image credits: vitalsine

Flora Carr’s parents are the Jedi Masters of alcohol. But her housemates are little more than  rookies (or possibly Wookies). The dilemma presented to her: the bolt or the bouquet? Disarrono or decanter? The chunder or the Chardonnay?

In Freshers’ Week, you find yourself answering the same questions over and over. After a while, you find the answers come almost as an automatic reflex. “So what’s your name?” Flora. “What’re you studying?” English. “You in catered?” Yeah, I love the puddings. “What do your parents do?” They’re both wine tasters.

It’s around this point that people do a double-take.  “You’re serious? That is so… cool. That is such a cool job. It’s like being a chocolate taster, only for grownups.”

For a while I attempt to explain that wine tasting isn’t just getting drunk all day, before launching into a brief account of my parents’ separate careers. Usually, however, the talk then shifts towards whether or not I’m supplied with alcohol regularly, and it’s at this point that I remember that in the mind of the average student, the concept of ‘alcohol’ is quickly replaced with the word ‘DRUNK’. Usually in big, multi-coloured letters. I would know. Because I’m a student too. And apart from the usual challenges of getting lost on campus and spending a month’s worth of student loan on a single Cheesey Tuesday, a further challenge I’m currently facing is how to reconcile the ‘Student-Flora’ idea of alcohol with the way I have been taught to treat alcohol all my life.

As a teenager I found myself in the midst of the ‘down-it’ culture. The familiar chant of ‘We like to drink with —’ became the background music of my years at secondary school. At house parties, whatever was tucked at the back of the cupboards – be it whiskey, beer, rum –  was emptied into single containers and downed as quickly as possible. No-one wanted to be left sober and joyless in the corner – it became a competition to see who could drink the fastest, get drunk the soonest, stay drunk the longest. I loved it. Like any young teenager I was swept away by the heady, seductive appeal of losing myself in a haze of almost hysterical happiness, a world where you could do anything you wanted, say whatever you wanted, dance however you wanted, and blame it the next day on the tequila. It’s a culture that unsurprisingly is still going strong a few years later; between 2012-2013 an estimated 6,500 people under the age of 18 were admitted to A&E. Drinking is part of the young teenage culture, a means of experimentation whilst also standing as a yardstick for popularity and ‘coolness’.

Looking back at my 15-year-old self, remembering how a house party wasn’t a party until someone was locked in the bathroom throwing up WKD, I can’t be judgemental. How can I be? My entire social group held the exact same views at the time. However, there’s a difference between a 15-year-old whose only worries included the faint threat of GCSEs and where to hide empty beer cans and a 19-year-old thinking about finding a house – a REAL house – with bills and rent and cleaning rotas. And yet I feel nothing has changed. I still drink to excess. My new friends drink to excess. There are even charts on certain floors in my accommodation that award points for each person’s number of ‘chunders’. A survey conducted by MoneySupermarket.com in 2012 showed that, during Fresher’s Weeks across the country, an average of 14 shots would be consumed per student, 1,258,881 pints would be drunk by male freshers and 7,133,659 single spirit measures would be drunk by female freshers. I have friends who staggered home after sports initiations, hair threaded with beads of sweat, traces of vomit around their mouths, mumbling to themselves. Ironically their nappies were usually the only part of their appearance still intact. Even after Freshers’ Week this culture of excess remains; friends who decide last-minute to go out down half a bottle of vodka to ‘catch-up’, whilst I’m regularly sent Snapchats of the inside of A&Es across the country, the tag line being ‘Not where I expected to be on a Monday night’.

I can forgive 15-year-old Flora for neglecting her upbringing. After all, isn’t that what those early teenage years are all about? Rejecting everything your parents ever tried to tell you? Going through (with relish) the checklist of exactly what they told you not to do? But Student-Flora should-theoretically- know better. She has come to realise that yes, she should have listened more closely when her mother told her how to warm milk for hot chocolate (in a microwave, not a kettle). She has accepted that there are things her parents know more about. Like budgeting. And the correct footwear for the ever-rainy Exeter. And, again, budgeting. So why can’t she – I – also remember what my parents taught me about how to treat alcohol?

My parents are both Masters of Wine. This makes them Jedis of the wine-tasting world. There are only 303 in the world, whilst my parents are – last time I checked – one of only three sets of married Masters of Wine. The ‘MW’, as my parents refer to it, is a qualification, requiring the entrant to take a bunch of written exams as well as the expected wine-tasting and food and wine matching. In all honesty, there’s probably even more to it, but at home wine is so often a topic of conversation that you learn to tune it out very quickly. In fact, the only interesting thing that ever came out of their jobs was the time my mother came to my school to give a talk during one of those ‘Parent Career’ days. She gave volunteers Jelly Babies whilst they were blindfolded and asked them to identify the flavour. This, she said, is the basics of wine-tasting. But once the sweets were gone I soon lost interest again.

However, I do remember the repetition of a single word: savour. “Savour that, Flora. Savour the flavour –  what does it remind you of?” At first I would usually respond to this question with a made-up response, the more ridiculous and pretentious the better.

“Tarmac. It tastes like tarmac on a spring day. With a solid grounding of- wait for it- mahogany. Yes, mahogany. It’s that autumnal smell that gives it away.”

But as I grew older, I began to appreciate the easy access to quality wines. I would be given a glass of Chardonnay in exchange for a pause, a slowly taken sip, a comment or two on how sharp it was, whether or not I liked it. Liking an alcoholic drink or not doesn’t even matter for most students. If it’s alcoholic, who cares? You drink. You get drunk.

So how can I even begin to reconcile these two contradictory outlooks, my two contradictory selves? How can I pause to appreciate a drink whilst trying to bolt it in ten seconds? Slowly however, I am trying to find a middle ground. As the honeymoon period of Term One wears off, friends are less intent on getting me and themselves paralytic. After a weekend trip home, I arrived at Exeter St David’s armed with a bottle bag filled with Prosecco my mother had got from work for free. At first during pre-drinks I would pour some into a mug to mask the contents, nervous of being branded an alcohol snob. However, after giving a friend a sip, the word has spread about the beauty of my mother’s wine, and I now feel able to wander into the common room with a bottle of white wine tucked neatly under my arm. Although I’m sure there will still be nights to come where Student-Flora will take over and leave me with the hangover to prove it, I’m giving her – and me – a rest. Just give me a moment to savour it.

Flora Carr

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