In 1991, a 60 Minutes piece became the tipping point for wine sales in America. The segment described the "French Paradox," the French eat a fatty diet but have a lower incidence of heart disease than Americans and proclaimed red wine could be the difference. The morning after CBS reporter Morley Safer concluded the report with a lively finish of, "So the answer to the riddle, the explanation of the paradox, may lie in this inviting glass," wine sales exploded (with a 39 percent climb that first year) and have risen ever since.
It marked one of the first times Americans linked wine drinking to good health and it has proven to be a successful blend ever since. Whenever a study or report comes out touting the health benefits of wine, the public responds by buying more wine. So much so that Wine Spectator, a leading online and print source for oenophiles, maintains a separate "Wine and Health" section on its Web site, so enthusiastic consumers can get the latest health news as they sample, for instance, a tasty and good-for-you burgundy.
One of the latest breakthroughs in both bioscience and wine sales was a November 2006 study by Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging, which reported when obese mice were fed an antioxidant found in red wine, they lived longer than other fat mice. After the study's results were made public, November wine sales increased 8.3 percent over the previous year.
While there is little disputing that the positive research and widespread media coverage results in sales growth, there is still some reasonable doubt whether that extra bottle of Bordeaux is going to help you enjoy your life or actually extend it. It's not that there haven't been a number of studies conducted, and continue to be; what can be questioned is the type of study that's been carried out. For the most part, the benefits of drinking wine have been derived from a form of epidemiological research that follows a large population of people over a long period of time and tries to determine positive and negative behaviors affecting that population's health.
Epidemiological research surveys a population with a series of questions in the case of alcohol, questions like: Do you drink? How often? What kind of alcoholic beverages? and then tries to pinpoint what are healthy behavioral patterns. Dr. Tim Harlan, an internist at Tulane University who hosts his own Web site, "Dr. Gourmet," (www.drgourmet.com) explains that this kind of research is valid, but the conclusions are only inferred, not absolute.
"We know that there are benefits to alcohol period, at the base line," Harlan says. "We know that for folks who drink for men, two to three drinks-a-day on the average, and women one to two drinks-a-day on average. Epidemiologically, it appears that red wine is probably better than white."
Researchers have conducted other kinds of studies, involving lab animals such as the one involving obese mice conducted by Harvard Medical School. In that case, scientists gave one group of mice reservratrol, an antioxidant found in wine, and no resveratrol to a second group of mice. The resveratrol mice outlived their tee-totaling counterparts, and the news was greeted with headlines like The New York Times' "Yes, Red Wine Holds Answer. Check Dosage."
Although the evidence seems at least for the mice conclusive, Harlan isn't convinced.
"A lot of people want to use that as an argument," Harlan says. "Certainly, the Wine Spectator would like to and can't blame them for that, but personally, I don't think you can go from mouse study to human."
So why all the media hype for something that only appears to be true? George Hacker with the public advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, attributes much of it to irony of the news rather than hard scientific evidence.
"It's a 'man bites dog' kind of story," Hacker says. "The media love it. They love to put out a headline like, "Great News: Drink Booze." And 15-20 lines down the story if the journalist is doing his job the study's creator will say they're not advising people to drink for their health."
After surveying numerous studies throughout the years, Harlan does conclude that moderate wine consumption prevents disease. While he doesn't translate this belief into prescribing wine for his patients that don't imbibe, he does reassure his wine-drinking patients that the habit might be good for them. What he doesn't agree with, however, is the idea of a French Paradox. Harlan says the French eat more fresh, whole foods than Americans and walk everywhere, so it's not surprising they have less heart disease. Wine isn't a separate activity it's part of their diet and lifestyle.
"Instead of the French Paradox, it's more like the American Dilemma, in that the quality of the ingredients and the added chemicals are really what's causing the problem," says Harlan. "The French are doing what they've always done."
- Dr. Tim Harlan, aka Dr. Gourmet, advises caution when interpreting the health effects of wine drinking.