Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Wine & Health

December 2014. When President John F. Kennedy once received a whole party of Nobel prize-winners in the Oval Office he told them that their presence represented the biggest concentration of human intellect in that building since President Thomas Jefferson had sat there alone during his own presidency, 1801-1809.

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Jefferson certainly was an exceptional man: lawyer, statesman, architect, oenophile, scholar, and all-round man of the enlightenment. It was he who was largely responsible for drafting the United States Declaration of Independence, surely one of the most eloquent and inspiring texts ever composed. He was also, of course, one of the country’s greatest-ever presidents. It was he, incidentally, who brought off the Louisiana Purchase, thereby doubling national territory at a cost of only $15 million – a huge sum in those day, no doubt – but even allowing for inflation surely not much compared with an estimated cost of restoring the Houses of Parliament (a relatively small project), today, for £3,000,000,000!

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As US Plenipotentiary to France in the 1780s, Jefferson travelled all over Europe, visiting most of that continent’s wine regions and becoming a formidable collector and judge of wine in the process. His stay in Europe taught him much, not only about how different societies function, but also about food, wine, and the art of living. The overall sobriety of the wine-drinking Mediterranean peoples greatly impressed him, and led him to firm conclusions that have deep implications for society today.

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No nation is drunken where wine is cheap”, he observed, adding crucially: “and none is sober” where wine is so dear that the populace sees no reason not to opt for cheap spirits instead. Hard liquor, aptly named, since it’s the hardest on the system of all alcoholic drinks.

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Positive proof of this has recently been supplied by researchers at the University of Colorado’s Cancer Center, who have concluded that the consumption of strong spirits – as distinct from that of wine – can lead to cancers affecting the head and neck. Meanwhile, studies carried out jointly by the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (JGU) and Vienna University have not only given further support to the assertion that resveratrol – a substance found in red wines – reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, but also found that it may prevent those very types of head/neck cancers from developing.

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Thus, while wine and hard spirit both contain alcohol their respective effects on human health appears to be of a very different nature.

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Why can’t the authorities see the simple truth? Where people drink wine – decent wine, that is – and eat good food with it, alcoholism is virtually non-existent. That’s still largely the case in Europe’s wine-producing countries, where obesity is still a rarity. In Sweden, by tradition a spirit-drinking nation, where alcoholism was once endemic, the powers-that-be were intelligent enough to see that, if they couldn’t stop people drinking at all, the best way to wean them off hard spirits was to get them drinking wine instead. For many years the country’s retail wines and spirit monopoly carried out an unceasing propaganda campaign, their aim being to persuade consumers to switch from spirits to wine. This strategy was largely successful. And even if spirits are still the beverage of choice for many Swedes, alcoholism there has declined noticeably in tandem with the burgeoning consumption of wine.

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To my bafflement, I’ve just learned that the Chief Executive of Public Health, England, Duncan Selbie, has recently declared that “a large glass of wine is the same as downing three shots of vodka.” I don’t know how Mr Selbie’s intellect compares with President Jefferson’s, but his grasp of this particular situation seems to lag far behind Jefferson’s wise and humane appraisal. How could a man in such a key position get things so completely wrong?

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How will young, inexperienced people interpret this statement? If in any way influenced by it, it’s not unlikely that the next time they order a drink they may well order vodka, or some other spirit, rather than wine. Wine, that has been shown to be beneficial to health, if drunk moderately, in literally hundreds of medical studies all over the world?

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The Mediterranean diet has been widely acknowledged as the healthiest regime on earth, comprising as it does of good (non-industrial) wine with most meals, a daily mix of olives and olive oil, fruit, nuts, fish, salad, vegetables. Taken together with exercise and good company, these nourishing and delicious foodstuffs, washed down with good wine, are a virtual guarantee of well-being. Damage sets in when people, ignoring such an approach, drink high-octane alcohol of any kind (there are rotgut wines as well as rotgut spirits) while neglecting to eat. Medical studies have shown that good wine does not normally harm the system when those who imbibe it also eat properly. And decent wine, in itself a kind of litmus test of food, positively imposes a need to eat good food. And when such food accounts for a major part of a person’s nourishment, with wine in moderate quantities, there are rarely undesirable side-effects.

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One cannot fail to notice that, when studies show the benefits uniquely conferred by wine, those benefits are often ascribed in the media to “alcohol” in general, rather than to wine in particular, so that many may well think that whisky, gin, and vodka are equally beneficent. In this way strong spirits gain a reflected glory, a spurious credit, by association with wine. The corollary of this is that, when alcohol does cause damage, it’s sometimes wine that’s blamed (in this particular case by Duncan Selbie) rather than hard liquor, inferior wine, or chemical beers.

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© Frank Ward 2014

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