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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Paradox Redux

In the New Testament, Timothy, on the advice of his mentor, St. Paul, said to “drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” The Bible, as well as far more ancient civil and religious texts, are replete with references to the healing properties of wine and its place in spiritual life and practice. The ancients knew that wine - in moderation - was an aid to health, and so encouraged, even celebrated its use as a daily beverage.
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and an ardent lover of wines, spoke in support of wine as a national beverage of moderation. Jefferson said, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey... Who will not prefer it? Its extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle.”
In the modern world, Timothy’s dictum and Tom’s declaration have been accepted as gospel by many, and questioned or rejected by many more. Nearly the entire Moslem world eschews the consumption of alcohol; “alcool” is Arabic for “like a monster,” certainly not a linguistic incentive to imbibe. Other religions wail against the evils of drink, and even in those societies where alcohol is not banned, the secular consumption of alcohol, including wine, is often viewed as a negative societal trait.
Although much of the Mediterranean is populated by Moslems, the European sector of the Mediterranean countries - Italy, Spain, southern France, Greece are the major nations - have, for centuries, embraced wine as a part of a healthy daily diet. These countries have rich wine histories and wine cultures, and produce more wine than any other area of the world. Wine consumed with meals is part of daily life in the European Mediterranean, coupled with the world’s highest per capita consumption of fruits, grains, and vegetables, with most fat calories coming from virtually unrestricted intake of olive oil, a largely monounsaturated fat.
As Americans celebrate the culinary cultures of our nation of immigrants in restaurants and homes, there is serious interest in wine as part of the meal. Americans have become interested in healthy patterns of eating and drinking, and have looked to the traditional Mediterranean diet as a model to follow. We know the benefits of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and consumption of olive oil is at an all-time high in the United States. In our homes, red meat consumption is down, even as we eat more fish and poultry. Of course, wine is part of the Mediterranean diet, and is widely seen as what it always has been, when consumed in moderation; a healthy beverage.

The French Paradox
France is often thought to be the land of artery-clogging, heart-stopping foie gras, rich cheeses, buttery croissants, and Gauloises (although McDonald’s is ubiquitous in the country, and smoking has been ineffectively banned in many public places). Why, then, does France, along with the other Mediterranean nations, have some of the lowest rates of coronary heart disease - America’s number one killer - in the industrialized western world? The answer may lie in a glass of wine.
Dr. Serge Renaud, who was director of the nutrition and cardiology department of the French National Institute of Health Research, studied the relationships between alcohol - especially wine, and in particular, red wine - and health for 40 years. Renaud posited that the moderate consumption of wine is an important element in overall health. He observed that the French consume the same amount or more dairy fat - a definite link to heart disease - than the British and the Americans do, yet the French are 66% less likely to develop coronary heart disease or suffer fatal heart attacks. Renaud claimed that moderate consumption of wine with meals coupled with an absolute prohibition against binge drinking is a prescription for a healthy heart, lower rates of cancer and stroke, and even accidents.
How much is moderate? Renaud had a surprising answer. “For every 18 milliliters of red wine you drink in a week, you decrease your risk of heart disease by one percent. It’s only a drop of wine, just a taste, almost an empty glass. You don’t have to drink it, just sniffing it is enough.”
Renaud’s research was amplified and affirmed by physicians and research scientists in the United States, and found particularly eloquent support in the detailed and long-term work of R. Curtis Ellison, M.D., Chief of Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology and Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Boston University School of Medicine, as well as Arthur Klatsky, M.D., Chief of the Division of Cardiology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California.
It was not a scientist, however, that captured the attention of the health-conscious, wine-drinking American public. Instead, in November of 1991 – almost 20 years ago - the French Paradox was revealed to the masses by Morley Safer, a wine-loving co-anchor of “60 Minutes.” In a 13 minute segment featuring a ground-breaking interview with Serge Renaud, Safer posed this question to Americans:

Why is it that the French, who eat 30% more fat than we do, suffer fewer heart attacks, even though they smoke more and exercise less? All you have to do is look at the numbers. If you’re a middle-aged American man, your chances of dying of a heart attack are three times greater than a Frenchman of the same age.

Safer seemed almost messianic in his answer. While he did mention that the French diet included more fruits, vegetables, and bread than the American diet, he reserved his greatest enthusiasm for red wine, when he reported that:

There has been for years the belief by doctors in many countries that alcohol, in particular red wine, reduces the risk of heart disease. Now it’s been all but confirmed.

33.7 million people watched “60 Minutes” that evening, making it the highest-rated television show broadcast that week. The effect of the “French Paradox” report on the American wine-buying public was dramatic and measurable. The very next day all US airlines ran out of red wine, and sales of red wine began to skyrocket. For the month following the report, red wine sales were up 44% (about 2.5 million bottles) over the same month of the previous year. In July of 1992, the same show was re-broadcast, and sales of red wine went up 49% for that month. Sales of red wine for the entire year following the initial broadcast were up by a factor of about 39%. It seemed like a portion of the American public embraced red wine as the newest health food - the oat bran of the ‘90’s. And since the early ‘90s, Americans have never turned back.
Many of today’s American wine drinkers were children or teenagers at the time Morley Safer made it safe to enjoy red wine in moderation. Most wine drinkers in this country have no idea what the term “French Paradox” means; they drink wine – red and white and sparkling – because they like it and because enjoying wine with food is one of life’s pleasures. Although I am at an age now where I often bemoan the lack of historical and cultural perspective of my younger friends and colleagues, I also think it best that we think of wine as one of life’s small pleasures, and certainly not as medicine, no matter what age we are.
As we began to look deeper into the research on red wine, we became enamored of such terms as “antioxidants,” and some of us can even talk about the beneficial effects of resveratrol, quercetin, and catechin, the primary antioxidants found in red wine. There’s evidence that red wine could have a positive impact on high density lipoproteins (HDL, the “good” cholesterol), and that it could help to dissolve the artery-clogging platelets in our blood.


The French Paradox was full of good news, and the American wine industry was reborn, as were restaurant wine lists, which used to feature lots of white wines and a smattering of reds unless the restaurant was a steak house. Today it is not unusual to find fish restaurants with as many reds on their wine list as whites, sometimes more. Cabernet became the King, and for a while Merlot appeared to be the Queen, until so much of it was relegated to the role of Court Jester. The 2004 film “Sideways” kindled an ever-growing interest in Pinot Noir, as Americans continue their love affair with the media as harbinger of what’s “in” and what’s “out.”
Recently I had a procedure known as a cardiac catheterization, which is a fiber optic probe of the arteries that pump blood to the heart. Happily, my results were good; my arteries are clean as a whistle. I must admit that I credit my moderate consumption of red wine (and olive oil) for the positive outcome of this scary procedure. And so I am not immune to thinking of wine as medicine, but one that I will always be happy to take as a prescription for life. If we live longer we get to experience more of life’s pleasures, so perhaps the wine-as-medicine model is not without its merits. Perhaps. But to be completely honest, unless Morley Safer can prove to me on next week’s “60 Minutes” that wine will permanently and irrevocably wreck my health, I, like most of us, will continue to enjoy the gift of nature that delivers so much pleasure and just happens to be good for me, too.


As we look at life and lifestyle in the early 21st century, here is what we find about the links between moderate wine consumption and health, based on the most reliable scientific data, as of late 2009.

• Moderate intake of alcohol, especially wine, is associated with improved cardiovascular health. Alcohol exerts protective effects on the heart by raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and inhibiting blood clotting. Antioxidant properties of the phenolic compounds – the compounds that give wine its color, aroma, and taste - in red wine, greatly reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attack, by a factor of as much as 60 percent.

• Moderate drinking reduces risk of both ischemic strokes and hemorrhagic strokes. People who abstain from alcohol and heavy drinkers may be at almost twice the risk for ischemic stroke than moderate drinkers.

• Researchers have found that starting to drink a moderate amount of wine during midlife, even after not drinking during younger years, is beneficial to the heart. In one study, wine drinkers were found to have a 68 percent less chance of having cardiovascular illness. Also, the antioxidants in red wine help to improve blood circulation and improve cholesterol levels in people of all ages.

• Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with hypertension, but low to moderate consumption (one to two drinks per day) may actually assist in lowering blood pressure, and, among men, lower the risk of heart attack by a factor of 30 percent.

• Because of wine’s antioxidant properties, specifically the resveratrol in red wine and the quercetin in red grapes, wine may be helpful in cancer prevention and suppression. It is also useful in lowering stress in cancer patients.

• Moderate alcohol consumption leads to higher levels of cognition and memory, and the moderate daily intake of wine, tea, and dark chocolate by elderly men and women can lead to enhanced cognition and memory. In several studies, light to moderate wine drinking has been shown to be highly effective in helping to reduce dementia, as much as 56 percent over those who do not consume wine. Results improved when light to moderate wine drinking was part of a traditional Mediterranean diet.

• Red wine (and tea) have shown promising results in helping patients with type 2 diabetes properly metabolize sugars and starches. Also, the antioxidant resveratrol, found in red wines, may help to prevent type 2 diabetes.

• Dry red wines made from particular grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah—have been found to assist in killing harmful bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella strains, while not killing off beneficial bacteria (probiotics). Wine consumption inhibits the growth of Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers, with best results (30 percent less bacteria) shown among those who consumed three glasses of wine per day.

• Both white and red wine can kill streptococci, the bacteria that can cause sore throats (“strep throat”), as well as tooth decay. Scientists found that the acids present in grapes and wine are able to kill the harmful bacteria. Antioxidants in grape pomace (skins, pits, stems) have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause plaque in teeth and gums.

• Drinking a glass or two of wine per day on a regular basis can cut the risk of catching a cold by as much as 50 percent, compared to adults who abstain from wine, or drink beer and/or spirits.

• Quercetin, an anti-inflammatory polyphenol found in red wine, has been shown to reduce the growth of prostate cancer and the replication of the influenza virus.

• Moderate daily wine consumption is actually beneficial to liver health, lowering by 50 percent the incidence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

• Light to moderate wine consumption—one to two glasses per day—results in a lower risk of kidney failure and kidney cancer than abstaining from alcohol.

• Moderate wine consumption may reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

• Resveratrol, an antioxidant, inhibits the growth of tumors in the prostate, and has been found to enhance life and to suppress the ravages of aging, including keeping the heart, eyes, kidney, and bones healthier. Resveratrol has been shown to be a useful tool in obesity research, as it prevents the development of fat cells, which can be linked to type 2 diabetes and clogged arteries. This antioxidant shows potential in attacking cancer cells, making chemotherapy more effective for cancer patients, including pancreatic cancer, which is particularly resistant to chemotherapy. Researchers are beginning to develop resveratrol-based dietary supplements, medicines, and patches, as a promising new part of the pharmaceutical industry.

• The research dealing specifically with wine consumption by women, who metabolize alcohol somewhat differently from men, is not all good news, especially when it comes to risk for breast cancer. For women who consume one glass of wine per day with healthy meals the risk for breast cancer was 40% lower than for women who are nondrinkers. However, two glasses of wine per day increase the risk for breast cancer by a factor of 10% to 20%. A 10% increase is the same level associated with women who smoke a pack of cigarettes every day. If a woman consumes more than three glasses of wine per day, her increased risk for breast cancer may rise as high as 41%.

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