This summer, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s monthly Sunset Sips series — which invites visitors to enjoy adult beverages (even on the train), food, music, and unique views every third Thursday until September — adds a new component: the “Wine Down” talk, in which an expert speaks about their field. June featured a beekeeper pouring mead, July saw the sisters of Le Sorelle discuss olive oil production, and Sandy Newman of Cebada Winery will talk port-making and berry farming in September. But the August 18 speaker is inimitable winemaker Wesley Hagen of J. Wilkes Wines, who wants to educate people on what animals ingesting alcohol tells us about humans and intoxication. He told me why below.
What made you interested in speaking about animal intoxication and how that relates to humans? Intoxication is basically how nature attracts animals to fruit that was missed in its fresh form. [Nature] wants animals to eat fruit, put the seed in their gut, travel, and drop the seed. Now if that doesn’t work, the fruit basically has coevolutionary relationship with certain fungi and bacteria that will ferment the fruit within the skin, kind of like a beer can. In the end, not only do almost all animals seek intoxication, but to me, that also brings up a really interesting philosophical question: Does a reasonable level of safe intoxication give us insight into what nature wants for us? It wants us to relax, eat delicious things, be with the people we love. … What I find, in my own life, is that the greatest moments that I’ve had all involve three things: a table, delicious things, and someone I care about. Wine just extends that experience.
Can animals process alcohol like people do? Yes. There is an evolutionary process in most animals’ liver that produces the enzyme dehydrogenated four (DH4). Without DH4, fresh baked bread could keep you drunk indefinitely, since it has about 1 percent alcohol by volume that it blows off as it cools. An animal or human will drink alcohol, and the DH4 detoxifies it so it can be used as an energy source.
What is the best story you have about an animal becoming too intoxicated? I would say it’s the yearly orgy of drunkenness on the African plains with the marula fruit, which is pretty epic. But there is also an island somewhere in the South Pacific where the macaque monkeys come grab your drink and climb up a tree and slowly sip a cocktail ’til it’s done. Or there is a great story about a little Madagascar tree shrew, which consumes the equivalent of its body weight a day, which is upward of 30 drinks. It basically lives on booze and does so extraordinarily successfully.
The S.B. Zoo’s upcoming Sunset Sips series are August 18 and September 15, 5:30-8 p.m. “Wine Down” speeches start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30; ages 21+ only. See sbzoo.org.