Or, the most useful thing I ever learnt from The Catalyst Club
It is perhaps somewhat of a cliche that writers and wine have a special relationship. Like Reagan and Thatcher, like a sprain and brace, one provides appropriate support for the other. If you want to have a successful book launch, and you’d like lots of writers to attend, you’d better provide wine. Preferably free wine. Writers appreciate free wine most of all because, contrary to public perceptions, many writers (unless they also have Proper Jobs) are strapped for cash. Thus, understandably, all charitable contributions to the writerly gullet (both solid and liquid) are gratefully received. Wine is perceived as more sophisticated than beer, and writers like to feel sophisticated. I prefer a good still cider to a glass of wine any day of the week, but am considered an oddity among my writing colleagues. In any case, my affinity for cider is largely explained by a previous affinity for wine.
The key to good writing is not to struggle, but to relax and allow it to flow. A little wine can help. Sometimes a lot of wine. When the children were very small, by the end of the day (the only time I’d have left for writing), thanks to the antics of said small children, I’d often find myself at the very tense end of the relaxation spectrum. By bedtime (or often, by teatime) I’d be rather wound up. Wine seemed the fastest, easiest way to wind down, and I’d sometimes start my preparations ahead of time. (Six isn’t too early to open a bottle, surely?) After a glass or two, one is less hung up out getting it perfect (the enemy of creativity) and happier just to pour whatever comes out of the brain on to the page or screen. Quality control would come the next day in a window of sobriety, but to loosen up the brain sufficiently that I could write anything, wine was a great catalyst. Not that I’m advocating drunkenness. But for me, at that rather unhappy time of my life and like many better writers before me, drunkenness was often the result.
Eventually I became happy, and started drinking more tea than wine. For a couple of years, since, as Tolstoy observed, happiness writes white, the writing and drinking dried up in unison. I was, however, left with one lasting memento of my drunk writing life. For a couple of years, even the smallest sip of wine would create an instantaneous, banging headache. My body wasn’t going to let me go down that particular road again. Thus, it had helpfully developed a wine allergy. I had to give up red wine completely, but after a few months I found I could drink a glass or two of white and only get the headache the next day. Alright, so that headache would be a right-eye-focused migraine and last four 48 hours, but it was an improvement, and at launches where wine was the only tipple it would give me a small window of enjoyment. Although they became milder over time, I accepted them as an inevitable consequence to the consumption of wine. Until, that is, a recent evening at Brighton’s Catalyst Club.
I’ve learnt many entertaining but useless facts at the Catalyst Club. That the British postal system is still in a class of its own, and you can stamp and address almost anything – a pair of pants, an apple, a five pound note – and expect it to arrive. That there is delightful Japanese woman who makes a living as a bum-reader (like a palm-reader, only with bums). That the inventor of socks-with-sandals hailed from Brighton. But at January’s Catalyst Club I learnt something incredibly useful: my wine allergy (which apparently is very common) is completely eliminated by taking the natural extract Quercetin an hour before imbibing.
The speaker was a wine lecturer from Brighton University. She explained that it’s the histamine and tyramine in wines that people like me are allergic to. Sparkling wines and champagnes are high in histamines. (That’ll be right. Champagne and other sparklies are irresistible to me.) She advised avoiding South African wines (which have the highest levels of histamines) and any bulk-shipped wines (these will be from far-flung places but have “bottled in the UK” on the label) because they have higher methanol levels… and it’s the methanol that will have you waking up in the middle of the night and find yourself unable to go back to sleep. She explained it’s a myth that you shouldn’t mix red and white, but true that you shouldn’t mix grape and grain – distilled spirits have large amounts of methanol in them, and the ethanol in the wine delays the breakdown of methanol, leading you to be more badly affected.
All good advice, but the real miracle from my perspective was the Quercetin. Quercetin is extracted from grape skins, so essentially it’s like putting the grapes back together again (I’m not allergic to grapes). It’s also in the skins of all red and black fruit: cranberries, redcurrents and blueberries. You can get Quercetin capsules from most health food shops – she advised those with wine allergies to take one an hour before drinking. I haven’t remembered to do that yet, and have, on three occasions now, taken one with the first glass of wine. And despite one of those occasions being my birthday, a time of considerable sparkling-alcohol indulgence, I haven’t had a headache since.
So bless you, Catalyst Club! And if you’re a writer with a wine allergy, but hate drinking orange juice or water at book launches, I advise you pop down to Holland & Barrett right away.