Before the pandemic, Kristi Devlin Delovitch, a Washington, D.C.-based director of sales for the wine importer and distributor Winebow, kept her home and professional lives rigidly separate. Often away on business, she’d excitedly schmooze with winemakers and wine bar owners. But once back at home with her husband and three kids—aged five, 12 and 15—wine talk was kept to a minimum.
“Now it’s all meshed together,” says Delovitch of life after March 2020. While the pandemic lifestyle shift was challenging in the same ways it has been for so many parents, it also revealed an unexpected silver lining. Raising her kids around wine is beautiful, she says. The realization came after one evening of filming her Facebook livestream, It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere, during which she interviews wine professionals from around the globe.
“When we finished, the kids would just hop on my lap or sit down next to me, and just chat with the winemakers and the owners,” says Delovitch.
Her husband, Ross Delovitch, agrees. “It’s brought Italy, it’s brought France—people from those countries and their culture into our house,” he says. “It’s allowed us as a family to see the world and to experience it from the comfort of our own home.”
The Delovitches aren’t alone in this sentiment. They join other wine industry parents who believe that raising kids around wine can be not only enriching and world-expanding, but also, when deployed wisely, potentially protective against alcohol’s more dangerous qualities. It’s an ethos starkly at odds with the prevailing mainstream American narrative that children should remain shielded from alcohol until they’re of legal drinking age.
“We don’t make wine a taboo subject,” says Jeremy Parzen, a Houston, Texas-based wine writer and educator. Every evening, Parzen and his wife drink a glass or two of wine, he says, and they never conceal their consumption from their daughters, aged eight and 10. “We talk about how wine is a type of food, how it aids digestion, and how it can be a healthy part of your diet,” says Parzen. “I believe that they will have healthier attitudes about wine as a result.”
Shelby Hearn Ulrich, general manager for Suhru Wines in Cutchogue, New York, believes that her own exposure to wine at an early age encouraged her to develop self-control around alcohol, rather than encouraging excess. She credits her early wine education to her father, Russell Hearn, a career vintner who served as the original winemaker for Long Island’s Pellegrini Vineyards from the early 1990s until 2012. Hearn went on to found Suhru Wines with wife Susan in 2008.
“My parents enjoy wine with a meal but are not big drinkers, so I never saw them drunk or drinking as a stress relief or in a negative context,” says Ulrich. “Wine was always a beverage to complement a meal or to enjoy with friends and to celebrate special occasions. I think this attitude toward alcohol has served me well in life and in the long-term, although you could say it also made me a little boring in college.” Now married and contemplating starting a family, Ulrich says she hopes to replicate this experience with her own children.
An appreciation for wine beyond its inebriating qualities is key for many parents who’ve chosen to raise their children around wine. Austin Johnson, a manager of sales and events for Dakota Shy Wine in Napa, California, says that she and husband Erik, the estate director at Patrimony Estate in Paso Robles and the former head sommelier at The French Laundry, run informal training sessions at dinnertime with their daughters, aged four and five.
“Like all kids, they can be squirrely at dinnertime, but one thing that always captures their attention is what Mom and Dad are drinking,” says Austin. The couple has one rule: The girls are allowed to hold the adults’ glasses and sniff the wine if they make educated guesses about its qualities. “We go through the basic principles of tasting, ‘What color is it?’ and ‘What does it smell like?,’” she says of a routine in place since each child turned two.
Not that either kid is a master sommelier just yet. “We have only scratched the surface of sophistication here—their answers are, ‘It’s red,’ or ‘It’s white,’ or ‘It smells like grapes and carrots,’” Austin says.
Many say their liberal attitudes toward wine and kids is a reaction to the taboos that seemed to surround the subject in their own childhoods. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have had a safer experience with alcohol had my parents talked more openly about it with us,” says Parzen. “It was a generational thing, of course. But it led to some excess and abuse of alcohol when I was a kid.”
It’s a similar story for Austin and Erik Johnson. “We were both raised with a lot of fear around alcohol and that may explain a lot of poor decisions as young adults,” she says. While she believes wine education fosters a deeper appreciation for wine, it also makes it seem ordinary—boring, even—which she hopes will offer a check against overindulgence when her kids are older. “My goal is to make alcohol and wine so uninteresting to them that they keep a level head about drinking,” she says.
Of course, substance abuse issues can emerge in an individual as a result of myriad influences. A genetic predisposition to alcoholism, for one, can majorly impact whether early exposure to alcohol will have a negative effect on someone. Additionally, the right approach to raising children around alcohol is hardly a one-size-fits-all equation—so much depends on a kid’s (and a parent’s) temperament and involvement, the environment in which everything takes place, and countless other unknown factors. But many experts agree that addressing the topic of alcohol consumption head-on with kids can have more effective and positive outcomes than ignoring or dismissing it outright.
“Children are little sponges and are incredibly observant,” says Amanda Kuda, a sober coach who ended her relationship with alcohol in 2017. “When children observe their parents drinking, they make a subconscious note about alcohol and what it is used for. This can frequently inform how the child interacts with alcohol as an adult.”
Dr. Nancy B. Irwin, a clinical psychologist at the Seasons in Malibu substance treatment center in Malibu, California, agrees that talking about drinking with children and teens is better than sweeping the issue under the rug.
“Tell them that, like anything else, it can be abused,” says Irwin. “When you have an open, honest line of communication with your kids—and you back that up with the appropriate choices for yourselves—most of the time the kids will make the right choice. Or at worst, will learn and correct.”
The aim of many wine professionals is to cultivate appreciation for wine in a way that enriches their kids’ lives, rather than detracts from it. Ryan Prichard, winemaker for Three Sticks in Sonoma, California, says he’s eager for the day he can pop open a bottle to enjoy alongside his daughter and son, now 10 and 12, respectively. Like other parents, Prichard has chosen to raise his children in a wine-positive environment. Education, normalization and appreciation of wine as an agricultural product are key pillars of his parenting style. But he’s all too aware that even the best laid plans can go sideways.
“I know the hardest part is still ahead of me—raising a teenager around wine certainly has its risks,” says Prichard. He’s nonetheless hopeful and largely confident that the lessons he’s worked hard to instill in his children will stick. “Their time will come and when it does, [I hope] they will treat wine with respect and be really careful with it,” he says. “Until then, I’m going to have to invest in some good locks for my cellar doors.”