Whole countries and the societies within them have responded to unacceptable behavior and drunk driving with more stringent laws. Drinking and driving is not a correct combination, and the challenge is to know when you, or a friend, has crossed through the gray area and entered the red zone.

A few weeks ago, on June 23, we wrote a column in these pages about how the body deals with alcohol. The more immediate concern may be at what point one’s blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeds the .08 percent level defined by law as the outer limit of sobriety. Unless we all carry a meter around, calibrated just like the police’s at the checkpoint up the road, how do we know? In a city where the bars don’t close and the parties go late, when should you accept an impaired condition and call a friend or a cab, surrendering the car keys?

These are thorny issues, and in some European countries, as well as in many states, good people just like you have put the wine and cocktail glasses down, enjoying the social aspects of the evening without the adult beverages. A little harsh, but so is time spent in Central Lockup, or pain inflicted on innocent bystanders.

The wine industry has been in almost constant discussion about the rising levels of alcohol in wine, but we have not carried that discussion to the next logical topic: How does that level in the beverage affect the consumer? Does it matter to your BAC if you are enjoying an 11-percent-alcohol-by-volume wine from the Loire Valley in France, or a 13-percent-alcohol pinot noir from Oregon, or a 15-percent-alcohol zinfandel from California?

The answer has much to do with your metabolism, but in each instance, the correct answer is “yes, it does matter.” Women are more affected by alcohol than men because they possess less alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme in the stomach and liver that breaks down alcohol.

Other factors, of course, enter into the argument, such as age, body type and size, and whether you are eating while you are imbibing. Alcohol is broken down quicker in your body if there is also food involved in the metabolism process. Also note that older people do not retain as much alcohol dehydrogenase as in their younger years, so they tend to feel the effects quicker when drinking alcohol. The speed with which you are drinking also causes your blood alcohol level to vary.

But back to the question, “How much can I drink?”

Michael Apstein, a fellow wine writer (he also has a real job, as gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, not to mention as an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School), has put together a little table that defines, in broad terms, what would happen to the blood alcohol level of a 130-lb. woman who consumes two 5-ounce glasses of wine within 90 minutes.
 
Wine’s Alcohol Content            Resulting Blood Alcohol Level
12%                                            0.065%
13%                                            0.073%
14%                                            0.081%
15%                                            0.088%

To save you from doing the math, as the alcohol content of the wine rises by one fourth (from 12 to 15 percent by volume), the resulting BAC in the imbiber rises 35 percent. Note that the last two levels are above the legal limit of 0.08%.

The point is this: Don’t put yourself, your passengers or the community at risk. Be aware and be careful. The law is absolute, with no “wiggle” room. You may not think you are drunk, but the law says differently.

Direct Shipping Wine to Your Home

Unless matters have changed, Louisiana is a “gray” state when it comes to shipping wine directly to a consumer’s home. Wineries are not supposed to do it unless they are registered with the state and collect the proper sales tax to be sent to Baton Rouge. One way around this is the proliferation of wine cubs wherein the purchaser has agreed to the shipment and, in theory if not in practice, is purchasing the wine at the winery and shipping it to themselves. Not illegal, and not taxable by Louisiana.

Internet shippers aren’t supposed to buy directly either, except under similar circumstances.

Still, a bottle of wine here, a case of wine there, who’s ever going to be the wiser? And what is it worth to the state to corner the consumer and demand they pay 4.25 percent tax on that case? Even on a $200 purchase, you are only speaking of $9. Direct shipping volumes and costs of goods are not that great.

Besides, isn’t it just easier to head on over to the well-stocked shelves of our many merchants and get that bottle now rather than two weeks from now, and have a great memory of the wine long before a bottle would arrive via UPS?

Here again, it’s all about you and what you want. Maybe you have found a treasure online, a bottle you have always wanted to possess and enjoy but were too late to buy when the wine was in release and available locally. Maybe you just like the convenience of going to your computer and never leaving your comfortable surroundings. Maybe you just stumbled across something while browsing the ‘Net and impulse buying has taken over your good senses.

There are pluses to buying wine for home delivery (convenience, cost, availability of product, possessing a product that your friends cannot), and there are minuses (time between order and arrival, having to be home at time of delivery, affirmation of product quality, shipping costs, access to product information from an in-person knowledgeable source).

Shipping into the New Orleans area from May through October can be an iffy proposition. Neither UPS nor FedEx, the prime shippers for directly-shipped wine into our area, have refrigerated trucks. The wine rides around in a hot truck on our pothole-infested streets for most of the hot day, then is brought to you. Depending on what kind of wine it is and its age, the wine can be anywhere from unaffected to deeply flawed. The guarantee is that the wine you receive will not be what the winemaker wanted you to experience. There is inevitable deterioration in moving wine.

There is also the matter of receiving the correct wine, or even ordering the correct wine. Are you knowledgeable enough to know the difference between Calistoga Cellars and a Calistoga-grown wine? Do you know how many Bel-Airs there are? How well do you know the wine you are buying?

Buying on-line, or directly from a winery, is a tricky proposition. Maybe even an illegal one. Maybe.

Keep in mind the Latin saying caveat emptor – "buyer beware." Double that for on-line purchases.