Wine Drinker, Heal Thyself:
Making Wine Part of a Fit Lifestyle

By Bernard Ledermann

wine
On the occasion of my first major heart “event” some thirty years ago, a wise and progressive cardiologist in Rochester, NY, advised this writer that a glass or so [of wine] once a day would “be in order” for a person with my illness. Surprisingly, that suggestion was dispensed nineteen years before the much-discussed and controversial 60 Minutes segment, “The French Paradox,” aired on CBS stations in 1991. Yes, it was my happy destiny to have a doctor who was closely following the current medical literature on wine drinking—a seventies matter then slowly unfolding much as the layers of an artichoke. He could have simply admonished me to drop the pounds (He did), keep them off (I can’t), exercise regularly (I’ve tried to turn “work-out” into “play-out”), and avoid eating animal proteins. (Not entirely, but am doing well). Instead, I heard encouragement to drink something already very palatable that might also be good medicine. What a concept.

Among the earliest scientific inquiries dealing with the value of wine consumption was the seminal study of the British Medical Research Council (BMRC). According to the Council’s report, there was a “very strong relationship” between wine [drinking] and a lower death rate by heart disease. BMRC examiners reviewed the death rates in eighteen Western nations, including the U.S. Interestingly, Italy and France (Mediterranean countries) showed the highest per capita wine consumption of the eighteen. Directly correlated, the adult-male death rate in the U.S. was nearly ten times that of France, where average wine drinking among messieurs amounted to about ten ounces per day.

While the British researchers were unclear about the control mechanism in wine that apparently leads to salubrity, they reported [that] wines are rich in aromatic components and trace elements (over 110 identified) which “may have a protective effect.” It was these trace components, the conclusion ran, that appeared to promote blood platelet formation (related to risk reduction for strokes) and had likely effect on the ratio of HDL (the “good housekeeping”, high density lipoprotein cholesterol) to the evil LDL plasma.

A later ten-year study of over 100,000 men and women by the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan supplied much necessary evidence for the conclusions of the BMRC and other early study groups: moderate (important distinction) drinkers—who had up to two drinks a day, particularly wine—had a longer life expectancy and were twenty-seven per cent less likely to die from all causes; thirty percent were less likely to succumb to heart disease than either abstainers or heavy drinkers. Wine as a possible protector against the epidemic heart disease rates in America? Health pundits were agog. Practitioners of folk medicine who shelled out old acorns like “Have a Madeira, my dear; it’ll cure what ails you”, merely smiled and sighed, “We told you so.”

Fifteen years after the British Council study came Morley Safer’s 60 Minutes report called the “French Paradox.” Citing work done by the French equivalent of our National Institute of Health, the TV story found that the French develop coronary heart disease at less than half the rate of our citizens—despite devouring heavy patés, spending little time with a StairMaster, and chimney-smoking Gauloises (look who’s blowing smoke in our faces). Is it possible we still die younger? After all, we can be quite disparaging about the pleasures of rich diets; we are concerned about the effects of tobacco, and we certainly exert ourselves in gyms and health clubs. What’s going on here?

Is it really possible that the French predilection for wine is the armor against saturated fat and cholesterol ? A comprehensive heart study in Framingham, Massachusetts thinks so. It is one of several probes beyond 60 Minutes that has linked alcohol consumption to a heightening of protective HDL levels, likely promoted by phenols in wine. Phenolic compounds, which include tannins (bitterness apparent in young red wines), are considered antioxidants and seem to prevent the build-up of blood clots that can lead to a major heart attack. Simplified, high HDL acts like Liquid-Plumber, cleansing arteries of fatty deposits.

Still think wine’s healing and restorative powers are overstated? Consider some of the twenty-plus additional studies which have dealt with moderate drinking. There is strong evidence that moderate wine drinking (up to six ounces daily) will (1), help calm your stomach by stimulating the secretion of gastrin, a hormone vital to digestion; (2), reduce the risk of some cancers. Studies at Cornell and the University of North Carolina show the substance resveratrol, quite abundant in certain wines, operates like the code to a home burglar alarm, switching off certain cellular mechanisms, thereby releasing more of the body’s defenses to combat invading cancer cells. Wines exhibiting very high resveratrols include the zippy “Fleur de Pinot,” a young-vine Pinot Noir from Dr. Konstantin Frank in Hammondsport. (New Yorkers are so blessed); (3), increase estrogen levels in post-menopausal women; (4), lower the risk of kidney stones; (5), the same for gallstones; (6), increase insulin sensitivity which can benefit some diabetes patients; (7), hold in check nasty bacteria that lead to food poisoning, diarrhea, and Hepatitis A; and (8), later this year look for more studies that show wine drinking may forestall osteoporosis and even macular degeneration in the eyes. If you persist in doubting that a daily dose of wine can be beneficial, try it steadily for a month—no binge drinking, please—and you’ll notice an inevitable keener interest in what tomorrow brings. Salud!

You may be duly cautious about the alcohol in wine. (Is that a reason I find it so glorious?) After all, its action on the human system can cause some unwanted changes in behavior; in particular, reducing our common-sense instincts. Over-loading on alcohol can lead to accidents, dependency, liver damage, increases breast cancer risks in women, and can raise blood pressure levels. It behooves us all to limit wine drinking to convivial times, places, and instances where the effects of alcohol will be diminished. Sipping with food after 6:00 PM, or while relaxing at home or at a place to which no auto travel is required will certainly aid moderation. If doubtful, don’t take the word of an old wine taster; as in all matters related to body and mind, your family physician can inform you best on overall fitness.

With data about the benefits of moderate drinking so plentiful, why haven’t scientific winds blown more the wine lover’s way? (Cue: Sound Of Axe Grinding In Background.) Part of the reason lies with the purblind government agency—and an inappropriate one at that—which persistently puts a smear on wine by categorizing it “beverage alcohol.” This implication makes wine just another substance to be surtaxed, nothing more than a toxin, a “drug” (so is aspirin!), which contaminates body and soul. But so it is with the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, the warning label makers, which has steadfastly refused to post wine’s beneficial aspects along with its possible deleterious effects. Whatever happened to the concept of wine’s being an agricultural, yes, food product, a drink from the benign vine, which happens to contain useful (as a preservative) alcohol as a natural by-product of fermentation? It’s hard to upset the attitude at the BATF and their assertions printed on those ubiquitous labels.

Even more difficult opposition comes from the New Temperance Movement in the U.S., which includes both elements of the political Right and Left—those who consider any alcohol intake “abnormal”—spearheaded by a few venerable federal legislators who sometimes invoke biblical passages (apparently 1st Timothy V:23 doesn’t apply) to justify their inimical campaigns. Odd, that the dialogue about tobacco use is rather muted of late; also curious, the infrequent mention of the many chronically ill people found among abstainers.

There is always a danger to hyperbolize when praising wine’s health benefits. Wine drinking alone is not likely to be a life extender, but when combined as part of the Mediterranean diet (grains, olives and olive oil, supplemented with vegetables and fruit), it is certain to have a beneficial impact on your well-being.

After nearly thirty-two years of reputable and tenable scientific research, it seems we cannot deny that four to six ounces of daily red, when taken with a sensible meal, can be conducive to better health. We know that populations, particularly Mediterranean rim people, who drink under control (never on an empty stomach) and observe generally calmer lives, will endure longer.

Perhaps one day within the next twenty years, when our citizens fully understand the connection between nutritional habits, the stifling pressures of everyday life, exercise, and tempered drinking, 60 Minutes or its successor, will report on “The American Paradox.” May the thrust of the story be the prolonging of life through revised living habits—not the familiar contradiction of billions spent on health care equals no improving mortality rates.

Two books of note which offer useful dietary advice—including recipes that pair well with wine—and sensible approaches to the so-called Mediterranean lifestyle are Eat Right, Eat Well—The Italian Way by Edward Giobbi and Richard Wolff, M.D. (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York); and The Wine Sense Diet by Annette Shafer (LifeLine Press, Washington, DC, 2000.)

For complete on-line text of “The French Paradox” as presented on ‘60 MINUTES’, see http://smartwine.com/fp/60mintrs.htm.

RECOMMENDATIONS
It's been our recent privilege to taste several resveratrol-packed and phenol rich beauties which also happen to taste like dynamite.

For fanciers of superlative French Rhône reds, there's good news: nearly eleven years have passed since there were such memorable back-to-back vintages as the 1998/-99. There's bad news, too—extraordinary press hype has put a supply crimp on the 1998s. Rarely a week passes that a distributor friend doesn't lament this shortage; this means you should get out to your retailer's now and rake those shelves. Right at the top, consider the Chateau La Nerth Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998, which, at $29.95, is definitely a bargain. Heaped with spicy black fruit flavors and intriguing touches of pepper and tarriness. Great richness yet surprisingly drinkable now, although you won't go wrong cellaring it for at least five years. You might put away several bottles to cover those "off" years in the Rhône.

Another worthy Rhône entry, the 1998 M. Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage ($20.99), shows early smoothness and attractive refinement. Exhibits mounds of blackberry and cassis fruit. Fashionably constructed with ripe Syrah grapes, the character of which shines through to near-perfection. Enjoyable now, but will improve over five years.

One can't fault the imagination of California winemakers, even though their pricing structure occasionally leans toward the looby. Of great personal interest are the efforts in the so-called Cal-Italia blends (employing those grapes traditionally grown in the premium wine regions of Italy). A remarkable one is the 1998 Valley of The Moon (Sonoma) version of Sangiovese ($15.99), the mainstay grape found in Chiantis and super Tuscan blends. As exciting as the dramatic silk-screened bottle in which it's contained, this medium-bodied dinner wine shows silky cherry-berry flavors, rich approachable tannins, and just a touch of spiciness. You may detect an underlying leathery tone, but that's typical of the Sangiovese grape.

Another solid wine in this category is the 1998 Rabbit Ridge Montepiano Grand Reserva ($12.99). Winemaker Erich Russell has numerous detractors who accuse him of attempting to produce a much too enormous stable of wines.

Maybe so, but please let this Tuscan-inspired wine stay around. In keeping with the Russell (or should we say, Russellini) style, this wine has plenty of beef (minus the fat) and a lush softness that comes with the addition of Merlot to the base wine, Sangiovese. Harmonizes well with any number of rich foods (discouraged earlier, but it's not always easy to thrive on watercress).

Really stupifying me at a spring trade show was the 1998 Heron Winery California Syrah (at an astounding $10.99). Definitely in a "new world" style, but showing great density and a good balance of full-flavored black fruit and a layer of spices. Its long, lush pepper-accented finish will have you crying for more. Have your retailer comb every possible source for this one.

Lest we forget, white wines also contain many trace elements that are vital in maintaining a sound body. When Dr. Konstantin Frank in Hammondsport, NY issues a new vintage of its dry Riseling, you'll find me at the head of the line. It would be an anvil palate that didn't care for the 1999 ($10.99). There's an arresting hint of anise combined with bright apple-y fruit flavors. You'll give in fully to the suave creaminess of the wine; a certain crowd-pleaser. Try it with freshwater fish or a simple seafood stew.

Finally, the 1999 Rouquette Marsanne (70%) / Viognier (30%) white Rhône blend from Robert Kacher Imports ($9.99) is the "cure" for those sated with plump, plodding Chardonnays. Here's attractive tropical fruit after stainless steel fermentation that shows just a twist of refreshing citrus on the finish. Keep some bottles around for warm weather drinking. Quite friendly with ocean fish, roasted birds, and sea scallops. A Bernie's Best Buy.

Bernie Ledermann, our correspondent on wine matters, has lived with chronic heart disease since 1972. While he cannot completely credit his survival to the moderate consumption of wine—regular exercise and a diet of mostly traditional Mediterranean food complete a triad to which he adheres—there is strong feeling about wine’s (especially red’s) cardio-protective effects.


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