About four weeks into my first and so far only pregnancy, I was prescribed Promethazine, a drug often given to cancer patients struggling with extreme nausea from chemotherapy. For me, morning sickness fluctuated between mildly miserable and totally incapacitating, and I was grateful for something — anything — that might make it better. Promethazine definitely did the trick, but it also felt like a knock-out drug, so I limited my intake to bedtime the night before days when I absolutely had to be productive.
I never questioned the safety of the drug because it was prescribed, seemingly without hesitation, by a doctor I trusted. More than a year later, I looked it up online and saw that it was classified by the FDA as a Pregnancy Category C medication, meaning that its risks to the fetus are unknown. What is known, according to the FDA, is that Promethazine can cause fatal respiratory depression in children under age two, and that several cases of gangrene requiring amputation have been linked to its injectible form.
Now, you can probably find comparable horror stories about any drug on the market — from aspirin to Accutane — if you look hard enough. But there was only one ingestible that took me down that rabbit hole during pregnancy, and it wasn't Promethazine, sleeping pills, pain killers, goat cheese, lunch meat, bacon, tropical fruit, coffee, or herbal tea. It was alcohol. From the moment I got the definitive "you're pregnant" on New Year's Day 2009 (causing me to ruefully ditch my Bloody Mary), the question of whether and how much I could drink was the background noise I heard for the next eight months. What follows is an account of life in the rabbit hole.
February, March, & April: Not a Drop to Drink
In February, when I was almost ten weeks pregnant, I was scheduled to attend a wine writers' conference — a four-day affair at the Meadowood resort in Napa Valley. By this point I was seriously struggling with morning sickness — I had lost weight, rather than gaining any — so the idea of being wined and dined at lunch and dinner, with afternoon tastings and winery tours in between meals, was daunting to say the least.
It had gotten hard enough just tasting wines for Wineau, my column at the time in the Express. I was used to spitting out the wines I wrote about, so consumption wasn't the issue, but lately even the act of sitting down to face three bottles of $10-and-under Cabs and Chardonnays was enough to make me wretch. For the column, I had been leaning heavily on Peter, my husband, co-taster, and resident winemaker. But at Meadowood, I was on my own. And sitting down to taste three wines once a month was nothing compared to four solid days of wine flowing everywhere you looked.
At the conference's welcome dinner, the guy to my right quickly introduced himself as Wolfgang Weber, senior editor at Wine and Spirits magazine. With his pressed tweed sports coat and perfect hair, Wolfgang was not a dinner companion who inspired breathless confessions. I didn't let that stop me, however, and our initial conversation went something like this:
Wolfgang: Hi, I'm Wolfgang Weber, Wine and Spirits.
Me: I'm pregnant!
After gauging Wolfgang's level of interest in my news — which was, appropriately, nil — I cast about for another confidante and soon found one in Laura Holmes Haddad, the "grrl" behind the blog GourmetGrrl and author of Anything But Chardonnay: A Guide to the Other Grapes. At the same conference a year earlier, Laura had explained to the group at the welcome dinner that her participation would be limited because she'd just had a baby. Laura will understand, I thought, so when I caught her eye at a reception the next night, I forgot that we didn't know each other and repeated my offense with Wolfgang.
Me: I'm pregnant!
Laura: Nice to meet you.
Even if my social skills seemed to be on the fritz, at least Laura got it — as I knew she would. Soon we were dishing about wine, work, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and how those things could possibly fit together. And we broached the topic that was increasingly on my mind:
Can you drink while you're pregnant, and if so, how much?
I had, of course, asked my ob-gyn the alcohol question before coming to the conference — not because I wanted to drink, but because I knew that in that setting, with those people, I'd feel like a contestant in a pie-eating contest who'd recently sworn off sugar. My doctor had said that sips were okay, but that until I hit my fourteenth week of pregnancy, a full glass was inadvisable. After that? There's no amount known to be safe, she'd said, but if it were her pregnancy, she'd probably have one glass of wine a month.
One glass a month! The bleakness of this suggestion didn't hit me until I was fake-drinking Sauvignon Blanc with Laura as she told me that, although she hadn't felt like drinking until her sixth month, at that point she'd felt okay drinking a glass a day.
Shortly after the Meadowood retreat, I was working on a piece for Taste, the semiannual food-and-drink-oriented special section of this newspaper. My topic was Dr. Salvatore Lucia, a Berkeley grad and Bay Area-based epidemiologist who wrote seven books on wine and health before his death in 1984. Lucia has been something of a folk hero to me ever since I stumbled upon his Wine Diet Cookbook in the early 1990s and fell in love with his impassioned manifesto on the healing powers of wine — which he called "the most important medicinal agent in continuous use throughout the history of man."