What’s the REAL connection between wine and your health?
Anyone who hasn’t been living the past few years on that crazy Lost island (with the ghosts and tropical polar bears and droll plot lines) has likely heard that wine is purported to have benefits to your overall health.
But the connection between better health and wine is not as straightforward as you might think. In fact, far from being a direct link, the wine/health connection is more like a Homeric journey, full of unexpected twits and turns.
A journey that is detailed in this post, with the Dude here acting as your host, as we visit the science lab, examine the (non-Karmic) laws of cause and effect, stop in Galapagos, and give a nod to Quantum Theory, while also troubleshooting my home wireless network. Also involved, unavoidably, is France (hey, we are talkin’ wine here, after all), and we end unexpectedly at MSNBC (where nobody really goes!).
It will all make sense in a minute or two (okay, maybe 5). So pack your intellectual bags, and let’s get rolling on the road to wine & health…
Ever since the (in)famous 60 Minutes special exploring the French Paradox (told you we couldn’t avoid France), scientific studies have been trying to test if wine consumption is the de facto reason behind why France’s high-fat-diet eating residents don’t keel over in their 30s from heart attacks.
To even begin to answer whether or not wine is or isn’t imparting various health benefits, including seemingly being the elixir of long life for the French, I’ve gotta explain the difference between scientific theory, and medical fact.
In science, it can be difficult to prove things as being indisputably true. In fact, whenever scientists state that something has been solved, you can bet within 10 years it will get turned totally on its ear. Which is partly why we have theories instead. Quite often, a scientific theory is never called fact, especially if it’s complex. Over time, if it stands up to enough quantitative evidence then it is taken to be true, even though to actually prove it might remain improbable. Good examples of this are certain aspects of Quantum Mechanics, as well as Dawin’s island turtle-inspired theory of Evolution – it’s unlikely that we can ever prove this theories unequivocally, but because they so accurately predict events in our universe, and are backed up by overwhelming amounts of scientific evidence, you’d be kind of nuts not to treat them as fact.
In science, it can be difficult to prove things as being indisputably true. In fact, whenever scientists state that something has been solved, you can bet within 10 years it will get turned totally on its ear.
That’s a bit different than medical facts. Medicine is concerned with cause and effect relationships. I.e., identifying positively that you have a certain disease that is causing your symptoms, and treating that disease as effectively as possible.
To illustrate the difference, let’s take a practical example. Let’s say your wife calls and tells you that she can’t get to the Internet via your home network. [Editors note: you have my permission to take a break at this point, and get yourself a glass of wine… but I swear to the heavens that this post will eventually teach you something about wine… hang in there, people!]. If when you get home you discover that the wireless router has been turned off, then you’ve got a pretty good case for having proved a cause-effect relationship why she didn’t have Internet access. BUT… I can’t then theorize that I every time she calls you, her Internet access will be down – that prediction would get you into a lot of trouble!
Okay, but back to wine, what does this all mean for the average wine-drinkin’ Joe or Jane?
Certain compounds found within wine have been proven to have potential health benefits. Of this, there can be little doubt based on the scientific evidence carried out in statistically meaningful studies. The potential list of health-friendly (including cardiovascular and anti-oxidant) wine compounds and their effects on your health is a long one so I won’t reprint it here. [ Check out these handy lists from WinePros.org and BeekmanWine.com for detailed info. on that. ]
Little evidence exists to suggest that wine itself is the de-facto cause of those health benefits. At least, not in the ‘Surgeon General can endorse it’ sense. It may feel obvious to normal folks that if wine has compounds that are good for you, then wine is probably the cause of the positive health benefits seen in wine consumers during scientific studies. But scientifically that conclusion cannot safely be drawn from the findings of existing studies (especially not in the medical field). For now, it’s just a guess – a reasonable one, but a guess nonetheless.
It may feel obvious to normal folks that if wine has compounds that are good for you, then wine is probably the cause of the positive health benefits seen in wine consumers during scientific studies. But scientifically that conclusion cannot safely be drawn from the findings of existing studies.
Plenty of evidence exists to link alcohol abuse to poor health. This one is also supported by a great deal of evidence, so it does not follow at all that if wine is good for you, more wine is better for you. In fact, exactly the opposite is true – alcohol abuse can be deadly to your health.
What’s scary is that fewer and fewer people seem to be getting the message. Check out this (non-scientific) poll from MSNBC for starters – not a perfect example but it shows that more people in that survey are drinking daily than not. Add in the rise in health-care costs from rising alcohol abuse in the States and in the UK, and you have a troubling trend on your hands.
Maybe the French Paradox has less to do with what the French eat and drink, and more with how they approach life in general. One of the code ideas of Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat is that French culture teaches how to respect food and wine, leading ultimately to true enjoyment of it with all of your senses (and away from abuse). While we’re probably never going to unequivocally prove that one, there just might be enough evidence to treat it as true…
(images: hwcoc.org, novusvinum.com, wordinfo.info, msnbc.msn.com)
I’m a dog guy.
While I don’t hate cats, I don’t love cats, either. Mostly, I get along best with the cats that think they’re dogs anyway. Since this post is going to be about my schooling of wine appreciation literally going to the dogs, my apologies in advance to those who are cat lovers. I’ve never been taught anything about wine appreciation from a cat (more on learning wine stuff from domesticated house pets in a minute) – though they have taught me the art of totally ignoring people.
Dude here has been given primary Dog Duty at the House of Dude. I’m the one who now has to feed and walk our Weimaraner, Samson (see pic above).
Sammy has been a great sport throughout the whole adjusting-to-the-baby thing, and he is very, very sweet with the baby. Having to walk the dog more often than I used to has made me take more notice of Sam’s behaviors – such as licking the baby, sniffing around, licking himself, sniffing the baby, licking himself, and licking himself (did I mention licking himself?).
By observing Sam, I’ve actually learned a bit about wine appreciation. And no, it doesn’t involve drinking so much that you want to sniff someone’s butt, unless that’s your thing (licking yourself is also optional). Though it does apparently involve startling segues from dog licking to wine tasting… maybe I should have thought about that one a bit more…
Anyway, straight from the home office in suburban eastern-PA, here are 3 Things that Your Dog Can Teach You About Wine Appreciation…
- Short, concentrated sniffs work best. Dogs have some of the best senses of smell around – and Weimaraners have one of the best noses in the doggie business. When my dog smells something, he doesn’t take a long, drawn-out, overly-dramatic sniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiffffff. He takes a burst of short, concentrated sniffs. Sniff… sniff-sniff… sniff-sniff-sniff-sniiiiiifff.
Turns out there is a lot of merit in that approach if you really want to smell something thoroughly – and in the case of wine, smelling is where you will get about 80% of your enjoyment and appreciation. Shorter sniffs help to focus your olfactory senses, and may also help to keep your sense of smell from fatiguing too quickly. The sharper your sense of smell, the more you can pinpoint what aspects you like (or don’t like) about the wine that your tasting.
In the case of wine, smelling is where you will get about 80% of your enjoyment and appreciation for your glass of vino.
- Focus, focus, focus. Ever try to move a dog from a spot when he is smelling it during a walk? If not, I encourage you to do this as a test of your own upper limits of frustration. My dog will frequently stop in his tracks, plant his nose into a smell, and lock all four powerful legs so tightly that it would take a tow truck, steel cables, and an act of Congress to move him from whatever he is sniffing at that moment.When a dog is really smelling something, nothing can break his concentration. At that point, there is no walk, there is no leash, there is no master – there is only the smell. If you want to experience everything that a wine has to offer, you’d do well to imitate the concentration that the average dog gives to any random oder in which s/he gets interested. With that kind of focus, you’d be on your way to wine-tasting pro status in no time.
- Don’t rush it. Once my dog stops smelling something and decides to start eating it, he is an shining example of what not to do when enjoying a wine (or any food or drink, for that matter). My dog will inhale food that he really likes. He will eat it so quickly, you would think there was a pack of angry, hungry velociraptors waiting 7 inches away from him ready to steal his morsels should he take more than 14 nanoseconds to eat them. The tastier the treat, the less he chews (or breathes) before swallowing.Which is exactly what you don’t want to do when enjoying a wine. Take your time. Savor it. That glass isn’t going anywhere, man. Relaaaax. See, isn’t that nice? Sniff. Swirl. Focus. And enjoy.Now, go walk that dog!
(images: 1WineDude.com, nytimes.com, galacticpudding, javelinaleapwinery.com)
What’s up with Spain, anyway?
And for that matter, Portugal?
I mean… que pasa, dude??!?
Few wine regions are currently as exciting and vibrant as Spain and Portugal. Not too long ago, they were producing wines of specious quality, suffering from a similar Old World wine funk that once engulfed the (now impressive) wine regions like Chianti of Italy.
But now? Now the Iberian peninsula is kicking out quality wines all over the price-point spectrum. I’ve had killer Vinho Verde and Cava that have made me do a triple-head-take cartoon-style to verify that they really were that cheap. And don’t get me started on the screamin’ Priorats, aged Madeiras, and vintage Ports that I’ve tasted. Yowza!
Case in point – just so you don’t have to take only the Dude’s word for it:
“Spain continues to overperform… the number of truly fine Spanish wines continues to increase, with at least as much excitement at the lower end of the quality scale as at the higher end… Portuguese winemakers have now woken up to the tremendous potential that their country offers, making it a hotbed of innovation.” – Tom Stevenson, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia
BUT… with all of that Iberian awesomeness… why the heck do I find it so hard to consistently recommend good Iberian wines at a decent price point?
I posed that question to the wine blogging world’s resident Iberian wine experts, Gabriella and Ryan Opaz of Catavino.net, when I took part in their 2+1 Iberian wine survey. I’ve reprinted their answer here, as I think it sheds some very interesting light on the marketing situation facing Iberian winemakers and wine distributors today (thanks, guys!). Enjoy…
Mi pregunta: Why are good Iberian wines so damn hard to find in the States? Spain & Portugal are poised to take the wine world by storm in terms of value for money, but most people’s experience with them comes down to seeing a $45 Priorat in their local wine shop and passing it on by, or picking up a $10 Rioja that is plonk and never touching Spanish wine again. Ironically, most of their wines offer incredible quality for the price, except the ones we get here. What’s up with *that*?
Joe, we wish the answer was easier to give. Truth is, there are a lot of Iberian wines available, although we believe the rush to exploit them has been slowed down by the strength of the Euro. Up until this year, everyone wanted a new Iberian wine for their portfolio and were willing to spend a lot of money to obtain them. Today, however, that same money doesn’t go as far. Coupled with this, people are afraid to see Iberian wine as more than “good value”. Many of our best value wines are spreading across the States and selling well, but in the end, it’s time to spend a bit more in order to diversify the availability.
Many of our best value wines are spreading across the States and selling well, but in the end, it’s time to spend a bit more in order to diversify the availability.
Then, there is the country specific problem, i.e. nationalism. Spain will never have the ability to market itself as a brand, no matter how much Wines of Spain tries and fails. There are too many distinct cultures and political divisions throughout Spain for this to work. Thus, Spain will always end up having fragmented marketing campaigns that will never fully co-operate to achieve good, unified branding.
Portugal, on the other hand, is set to overtake Spain, because at least they can have a “brand Portugal”, but sadly, a lot of their brand equity is tied up in the Port houses, and it’s not easy to convince them that they should help the smaller appellations. Additionally, Portugal has a confusing system of Appellations, where you have the highest “quality wine” category (DOC) falling below the wines of the “lower” regional wine category (VR). We don’t think it hurts the retail sector, per se, but it does hurt the in country’s organization and how it presents itself. The final factor that that weakens “brand Portugal”, is the overwhelming presence of the Vinho Verde, Douro and Alentejo regions. Until the smaller regions gain a little spotlight, these main three big guys will always overshadow the smaller ones.
Spain will always end up having fragmented marketing campaigns that will never fully co-operate to achieve good, unified branding.
Think of it this way. French wine is considered good, with wines of quality coming from Bordeaux, CDP, Burgundy, etc. Here, Rioja wine is great, which happens to be from Spain. Port wine is historic, but that is from the English (seriously people have told me this). Vinho Verde is fresh and vibrant. Cava is the “other sparkling wine”. Clearly, we’re fragmented. Portugal and Spain both need to be known for great wine. As you say, people see the $45 Priorat, and only associate it with the region, but never the country.
You can read the entire article over at Catavino.net.
For more on Spanish wines, you can check out The New Spain by John Radford.
(images: catavino.net, about.com, wine.pt)
For those of you in the U.S. of A. – apologies again to my (now probably seriously dwindling) International readers! – it’s Memorial Day.
That time when we in the U.S. partake in the American pastimes of family gatherings, and patriotic remembrance, and – best of all – charing meat over an open flame until it is covered in crispy, tasty, blackened carcinogens.
And also trying not burn our houses down.
There is but one method of cooking appropriate for Memorial Day – and that is good ol’ fashioned grilling.
And for good ol’ American grilling, there is but one (okay, maybe not just one but certainly one of the best) good ol’ American wine to pair with your holiday backyard barbecue masterpiece…
…And that wine is Zinfandel.
Never mind that Zin is actually the southern Italian grape Primitivo. Or that it’s probably originally from Croatia. If there is one country to embrace a melting-pot Italo-Croatian creation, it’s the good ol’ U.S. of A., baby! Zin is the (fruit) bomb. It’s over-the-top jammy goodness (we’re talking the unadulterated Zin grape here, not the sweet, blushy White Zin). It’s so good that it’s got its own fanclub.
Especially at the BBQ. That’s because Zin’s flavor is so bold that it stands up to just about any char grilled goodness (including your famous, spicy-sweet, secret-recipe BBQ sauce) that you might concoct this long holiday weekend.
Zin has been grown in some way/shape/form in the U.S. since the 1800s, taking off in CA after
speculators turned from the Gold Rush to agriculture for their fortunes. As a result, CA has a good amount of old Zin vines. And the older the vine, the lower the grape yields, the more concentrated the fruit, and the higher the potential quality of the resulting wines.
Zin grapes tend to ripen a bit unevenly in tight clusters. What this means is that if most of the grapes are left to achieve full ripeness on the vine, some of the grapes in the same cluster will have shriveled into concentrated, raisiny goodness. Hello, alcohol! (More Zin facts and history can be found in The Oxford Companion to Wine).
Like us Americans, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, Zin grapes are thin-skinned. Also like us Americans, Zin wines are brazen and bold (okay, and sometimes a bit obnoxious). They are not afraid to tell you what’s on their mind. And what’s on their mind is tons of in-your-face, jammy fruit. And booze (Zin wines can reach alcohol contents of 14.5% or higher).
That fruit is gonna successfully go toe-to toe with anything that you can throw at it this weekend – just like us Americans.
As for recommendations:
For those on a tight budget, you’d be hard-pressed to find better Zin value for your buck than Ravenswood.
For a bit more cash, Frog’s Leap makes a killer, earth-friendly Zin.
On the “let’s splurge!” end of things, I like Duckhorn’s Paraduxx Zin blend.
So this holiday weekend get your party on, get your grill on, and get your Zin on. And have a safe and happy one (when Due here went to the emergency room on Memorial Day a few years ago, the hospital staff told me that they expect spikes in emergency room injury visits due to accidents during this holiday weekend – don’t be one of them). Enjoy responsibly!
(images: healthline.com, winecountrygetaways.com, alderbrook.com, bbqreport.com)