A Spoonful of Vino

Why are Americans obsessed with wine being good for you?

Doctors are researching red wine’s salutary effects

60 Minutes recently ran a segment about the health benefits of red wine, specifically the apparently wondrous powers of resveratrol, a polyphenol that is found in the skin of grapes and is thought to prevent illness and promote longevity. This wasn’t the first time 60 Minutes has trumpeted the virtues of red wine; in 1991, it called attention to the so-called French Paradox, which posited that the low rate of heart disease in France, despite a national diet gloriously abundant in rich foods, was due to the country’s prodigious consumption of red wine. That report not only prompted an outbreak of oenophilia in the United States; it fanned an obsessive interest in the nutritional and therapeutic properties of wine. This seems to be a particularly American fixation, and it raises an intriguing question: Why are we—Americans—so anxious to find justifications for drinking wine beyond the fact that it tastes good and we like it?

Obviously, scientists aren’t investigating wine’s physiological impact because they are shills for the wine industry and want to encourage Americans to imbibe; the research is being pursued and the results disseminated because it appears that there really is a link between red wine and well-being. (For their part, vintners are not allowed to publicize these findings; federal and state laws prohibit advertising that touts the health benefits of alcoholic beverages.) It is now widely recognized that moderate red wine consumption—generally defined as one or two 5-ounce glasses a day for women and two or three for men, drunk with food—boosts HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol that purges arteries of fatty deposits. In addition, scientists have determined that the flavonoids in red wine have an anticoagulant effect that can help prevent blood clots leading to heart attacks.

Resveratrol is also said to have a role in preventing clots and is believed to inhibit the production of LDL cholesterol—the bad kind. Judging by the headlines, resveratrol seems to be the omnipotent ingredient in red wine—a “vascular pipe-cleaner,” as one physician put it. The recent 60 Minutes episode highlighted the work of Dr. Christoph Westphal and Harvard biochemist David Sinclair, whose research suggests that resveratrol can delay the aging process and forestall many gerontological diseases. A few years ago, scientists reported that resveratrol may discourage the onset of one such illness, Alzheimer’s. It is also claimed that this antioxidant can boost stamina, reduce lung inflammation stemming from chronic pulmonary disease, and help stave off cancer. Last fall, University of Pittsburgh scientists reported that resveratrol might offer some protection against radiation poisoning. Then there is this joyous news, possibly upending age-old assumptions about alcohol and sexual performance: According to Men’s Health in the United Kingdom, resveratrol works to enhance blood flow, which in turn may improve erectile function.

Personally, I’m thrilled to learn that red wine could help me avoid cancer, outlast opponents on the tennis court, survive a nuclear attack, and lead a long, lucid, and Viagra-free life. However, a little caution is in order. Most of the testing with resveratrol has been done on mice, and they have been given ungodly amounts of the stuff. As the New York Times pointed out in a 2006 article, the mice in one experiment were injected with 24 milligrams of resveratrol per kilogram of body weight; red wine contains around 1.5 to 3 milligrams of resveratrol per liter, so to get the equivalent dose, a 150-pound person would need to drink 750-1,500 bottles of wine a day. I weigh 195 pounds and can finish a bottle of Beaujolais and feel no different than if I’d had a bottle of Gatorade, but tossing back 1,100 liters of wine in a 24-hour period? Probably not.

This combination of lab mice, outlandishly large doses, and extravagant claims recently yielded a very funny piece in The New Yorker, one which zeroed in on an essential point: Red wine may contain resveratrol, but it contains substantially more alcohol. Regardless of how beneficial wine ultimately proves to be for the heart, lungs, groin, and other body parts, we already know it has a powerful and mostly salutary psychological influence. Wine—or, to be more precise, the alcohol in wine—leaves us happy; it is a relaxant, a stimulant, a balm. It can make a bad day good and a good one better. All this, coupled with the gustatory pleasure that wine confers, ought to be reason enough to uncork a bottle. So why are we so concerned about these other possible gains to be reaped?

Part of it is that we are a nation infatuated with quick-fix diets and painless remedies; the idea that sitting on a couch nursing a syrah could actually be making us thinner and fitter is irresistible. We are also a culture that fears growing old, and the possibility that a glass of red wine could be a fountain of youth is likewise a tantalizing prospect. I suspect the preoccupation with wine’s health impact is a reflection, too, of our Puritan heritage and the conflicted attitude that Americans have always had about wine. Although we are consuming it in record quantities, wine is still seen as something effete and vaguely foreign. That’s why the wine vs. beer dichotomy continues to be invoked every election season as a way of distinguishing urban elites from other Americans, and it is why candidates favored by those elites are invariably tarred as chardonnay-swilling swells.

At the risk of tarring myself as one such specimen, I think we should just lighten up and enjoy wine for the immediate gratification. It is great that science is uncovering so many possible ancillary benefits to merlot and pinot noir, and I hope that resveratrol is indeed the cure-all that mankind has been hoping for. But if and when a proven resveratrol tablet hits the market, I won’t be liquidating my cellar, nor do I intend to load up on any of the resveratrol-enhanced wines that are apparently coming our way (unless, of course, they happen to be seriously good). Likewise, if it turns out the mice have been screwing with us and that red wine carries none of these magical side effects, there will still be a bottle on my dinner table every night. Wine is a habit that requires no rationale other than the pursuit of enjoyment.

The French, despite being the inspiration for so much of this research, have never much cared about wine’s medicinal qualities; for them, a glass of vin rouge is simply a mealtime ritual. (Though, sadly, that is changing.) Jancis Robinson, Britain’s leading wine writer , tells me that her compatriots give little thought to the health aspects of wine; they just like to drink (and are certainly very accomplished in that pursuit). In his excellent book A Hedonist in the Cellar, Jay McInerney notes, “In Europe, where wine has been a part of daily life for thousands of years, American oenophiles are sometimes viewed as monomaniacs—zealous and somewhat narrow-minded converts to a generous and pantheistic faith.” He goes on to say that “American wine lovers need to broaden their vision and relax: to see wine as just another aspect of the well-lived life.” L’chaim.