Grape Stompers’ feet gave me an insight into alcoholism

That people would drink wine fermented from grapes crushed by our dirty, sweaty, bunioned feet made me realise that minimum pricing won’t tackle alcoholism

If there are people desperate enough to drink the Grape Stomp wine, there are people desperate enough to ignore minimum pricing. Photograph: iStock

If there are people desperate enough to drink the Grape Stomp wine, there are people desperate enough to ignore minimum pricing. Photograph: iStock

 

Near the end of our second day at the Iowa State Fair, my sister and I sat in the shade of a vineyard. This being Iowa, the vineyard itself was just a small bush; but since it was the State Fair, they had something special planned. The Grape Stomp.

You know those pictures from the olden days, where people are making their own wine; standing in a comically oversized barrel and crushing grapes with their bare feet? Well, that’s what the Grape Stomp was. But there was also a competition to see who could foot-squeeze the most.

Obviously, my sister and I were in. We’re from the suburbs of New England and this was clearly going to be our only chance of getting a blue ribbon at a state fair. And we did win-second place. (First place went to a team of toddlers and the third team was disqualified. Second place nonetheless.)

As my sister and I climbed out of the barrels and started looking for our shoes and socks, I started to notice a strange tingling sensation in my feet. They were stained purple from the grapes, but there was nothing to explain the quickly alarming tingle.

The host of the event came out onto a small stage with a megaphone and directed all the participants: “Please start washing your feet at the taps. Ya’ll are gonna wanna get the juice off of your feet right away.”

The pain in my feet was getting a bit intense (I felt like my toenails were going to start smoking and popping off) so, quickly and orderly, I did as I was told. And by that I mean I started shrieking hysterically and shoving the toddlers out of my way.

“Obviously, we don’t use the good grapes for the Stomp,” the host explained to me later. “We save those for the real wine. The grapes you just stomped are too ripe, and that makes them much more acidic.” He looked me up and down. “Although the children seemed to handle it better than you.”

I hastily changed the subject. “What do you do with all the leftover juice? Surely you don’t just dump it out?”

“No, of course not,” he said. “We let it ferment.” I stared at him.

“You let it ferment? Into wine?’ I asked incredulously. “Why? Nobody would . . .” I trailed off as he shrugged his shoulders.

‘It’s free and it’s wine’

“There are people who drink it. Some of them are just curious, but most are exactly who you’d expect – it’s free and it’s wine, and they’re not too particular.”

I looked around at all the people who had just stomped the wine. We had all been walking around in 32 degree heat, eating things like deep-fried butter and turkey legs and sweating profusely. Those of us who had showered in the morning (and it wasn’t all of us, believe me) were now covered in a mixture of sunscreen, sweat, dust and pork fat. If I had scraped my skin, and put it side by side with a spoonful of bacon grease, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. And at least I had started the day with good hygiene. I saw a man who had a toenail so ingrown that it had started growing back out again. The children had been barefoot for weeks, it looked like.

Every single one of us had peeled off our sweat and fat-soaked socks, wiggled our bunions in the mud, then hopped straight into the barrel without even a quick foot rinse. We had crushed the (overly ripe and acidic) grapes beneath our filthy heels, and squished the mixture between our blister-covered toes. And now there were people who, knowing all this, were not only going to drink it willingly – but eagerly.

This wasn’t my first real insight into alcoholism. I know and have known a few alcoholics. I’ve known more than I now currently know. But it was my first real look at it from an impersonal level and it drove home just how all-consuming and irrational alcoholism is. Who would even consider drinking this stuff? It had to taste terrible; it had to be terrible. And it was the exact moment I realised that policies like the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, specifically the minimum pricing, will never work.

If you raise the price of alcohol, you won’t get fewer alcoholics – you’ll get poorer alcoholics. Alcoholism doesn’t care how much you have in your bank account, or how expensive liquor is, or what your partner and your kids and your parents and your friends will have to give up for you to continue your addiction. It’s an itch that needs to be scratched so badly, it will rip your arm out of your body and let you bleed out to scratch it.

It’s an illness

It’s in the genes – it’s an illness. And drink is self-medication. It’s the wrong medicine, but it’s the only one they’re taking and you don’t raise the price of medicine in the hope that people will stop getting sick if they can’t afford it. You educate them, you show them the right medicine. You find a cure, or at least an effective treatment. You don’t punish them for being sick in the first place.

And the most important part of this – the reason I so strongly object to a Bill like this – is the difference between alcoholism and normal illness. With illness, it’s mainly the patient who suffers. With alcoholism, the alcoholics suffer, yes, but their friends and especially their family suffer worse.

If you make alcoholics poorer, it will have little impact on them. The full brunt force of the impact will fall directly on their families – either the partners and the children who will see their safety nets disappear, or the friends, siblings, and parents who will be strong-armed with guilt. The drunk will still just be drunk.

I genuinely don’t believe that anybody is acting out of bad faith here. We desperately need a policy that tackles alcoholism. I’m cheap to a fault (my bank once called me about a “suspicious transaction” – a €1 donation to charity) but I will happily pay more in tax if it helps. But I don’t believe this Bill will help; I think it will hurt. If there are people desperate enough to drink the Grape Stomp wine, there are people desperate enough to ignore minimum pricing.

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