Drinking (Again) for Health

I just noticed that one of the Topics listed on this page is wine. This would suggest that I should cover it semi-regularly, at least. I love wine. I do believe in Bacchus. I do believe in Dionysus. (Not Tinkerbelle.) I drink wine daily, more or less. And I would probably drink a fair amount of wine even if recent articles had not suggested that drinking it in moderation might have health benefits and even promote longevity. Turns out that—like butter, and real sugar, and lard—wine is good for you!

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Bacchus, god of wine, by Caravaggio

I do believe that there are health-promoting substances in wine. I just don't think anyone, at least nobody I know, drinks in what the experts call "moderation." Like, one glass a day. Even the nuns I've known drank more than that. But I do believe that wine is good for you, although I also recognize that it's possible to overdo it and that I have overdone it on, well, several occasions. Like last night. But not tonight.

In any case, I wrote on this blogue last January about how I no longer drink spirits, only wine. So if you'd like to go back and read that as a preamble, I'll wait….

Anyway, wine drinkers are supposedly 32% less likely to get cataracts than non-drinkers, and 43% less likely than beer drinkers! Moderate wine-drinking is also said to cut the risk of colon cancer by 45%. And, of course, red wine is supposed to be good for your heart because it contain tannins and tannins contain procyanidins, which help prevent heart disease.

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Dionysus (with Eros)

Recently I was listening to an NPR chat about a book called The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner of National Geographic. Buettner noted that the place on earth with the most male centenarians is a shepherding culture in Sardinia. It's full of lively oldsters like the 104-year-old Giovanni Senai, who was out chopping wood at nine in the morning, after a glass of the local red, Cannonau. One of the theories on the longevity of the geezers of that region is their culture's long-term consumption of this wine called Cannonau, a red that is particularly full of procyanadinis and anti-oxidants. According to Mr. Buettner, it has three times the anti-oxidants of any other wine.

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Dan Buettner

Anyway, ever since I've been studying the effects of Cannonau. If I'm chopping wood when I'm 104, you'll know it's the vino. Actually the "cannonau" grape is the same known elsewhere as Grenache, which is generally considered to be native to Aragon in Spain, where it's known as garnacha.

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Cannonau, or garnacha, grapes

Some experts, particularly the Italians, insist that the grape is native to Sardinia and it was exported to Spain during their four centuries ruling that big, luscious island.


I have had quite a few bottles of Il Bombarde, which costs less than $15 a bottle and is a fantastically rich wine for the price. The popular blog "Good Wines Under $20" edited by Deb Harkness, who knows her stuff, writes: "The 2003 Santa Maria La Palma Le Bombarde was one of those wines that reminded you that rusticity is something that you happen upon all too infrequently these days when drinking wine. ($18, Bion Divino). Upon first sip, it smelled and tasted like iron—overwhelmingly so—with some gamey notes that made me think I had made a serious mistake with this wine. I left it alone in the glass for 15 or so, then sipped it and the iron tang had gone, replaced by flavors of meat and leather. Another 15 minutes and the meat and leather had melded with a strong, cherry liqueur flavor. In the end it was very much like an older Chateauneuf du Pape, with all the rusticity and funkiness left in and none of its opulence of plushness. Tonight we have Sileno on the menu, from Ferruccio Deiana, under $20. Tomorrow perhaps 'Inu Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva Contini," a bit more than $20 but certainly not too rich for my tannin-thinned blood."

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I know the idea of drinking wine for health is not exactly widespread among Americans, who probably find the concept propaganda from the decadent French and Italians. In fact I imagine there are far more Americans who think they are drinking diet soda for their health than those of us who use that excuse for drinking wine. And I have quite a few friends who belong to a club where drinking is frowned upon. In fact, not drinking is the purpose of that club. Personally, I think such organizations are marvelous for some people, and I have seen their beneficial effect on both friends and family members. But in recent years AA seems to have lost a bit of the chic quality that it had around the turn of the millennium. Let's just say that there are probably fewer non-alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous today than there were back then. A friend of mine used to try to talk me into going to meetings with him. I'd say, "But I'm not an alcoholic." He'd say, "it doesn't matter. You should should see the chicks there. Everybody goes to this meeting. Aerosmith goes to this meeting…"

"I thought it was supposed to be anonymous," I'd say. My friend just shrugged. But I knew about several meetings attended by friends that were packed with sharing, qualifying celebrities. Anyway, now several of my friends who used to be teetotalers in that club now drink again, and I must say that I find it to be something of a relief. It's okay that it took them ten years to figure out that they were heroin addicts, not alcoholics. Whatever it takes. As for the long-term members of the club, I must say I believe that some of them have literally had their lives saved by the program. But then there are others, even some whom I might have called drunks at one time, who have achieved long term sobriety and still I'll think, "Maybe he should go back on the bottle." A delicate balance there. Personally I believe in cutting down. Temperance is not abstinence; it is moderation. If you think you're drinking too much, read Under the Volcano and switch to beer for a while. I recommend drinking Guinness. Unless you're Brendan Behan you'll likely get full before you get drunk.

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Brendan Behan

I once heard a story that back when the late, great Behan was Ireland's de facto poet laureate he was approached by the beer-making giant Guinness to come up with a slogan for their famous stout. According to the story, Behan said that he was interested in the project but thought he needed some of the beverage to inspire him. The company arrived with a large quantity of stout, and Behan told them to return the next day. Supposedly the executives arrived, knocked and knocked, but got no reply. The door was unlocked, however, and they let themselves in and discovered Behan lying on the living room floor unconscious. Scrawled on the wall in large letters was the slogan: "Guinness…it gets you drunk." Undoubtedly this story is untrue, but I choose to believe it anyway. In fact one slogan that the stout used for years was "Guinness is good for you." Some macrobiotic folks I used to know called the stuff "Irish miso" and believed it was very beneficial. I make a point of having one now and then, particularly if I'm in a pub where they have it on draft. The bottled stuff, in my opinion, is not so good, although that magic pint can they've developed served up a genuine draft quality drink. I also find Pilsner Urquell in the magical draft pint can quite excellent.

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I admit I have had a doctor tell me to quit drinking. He may have been drunk when he said that. I believe he was definitely smoking a cigarette. Of course there's the old joke about how a doctor knows if you have a drinking problem: if you drink as much as he does. I once had a very, very old and wonderful doctor. He was so old that his hand shook so much I used to ask him if it was okay if I stuck the needle in when he was taking blood. (He never let me, so I always got a big bruise.) I don't think he was shaking from drink, but he did drink, which is maybe why he was practicing well into his 80s. He said, "Son, I'm not out to make a teetotaler out of you." Which meant I could continue going to him. I remember seeing Tom Waits on Broadway years ago. He had a set on stage, with a table, a chair, and a refrigerator. Several songs into the show he went to the fridge, took out a beer, and opened it. "I went to the doctor and he told me to to quit drinking," Waits said, "Now I'm the doctor."

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That was, of course, some years ago. I hear that now Tom's wife is the doctor. Anyway, we all have to find our own path. Right now I'm drinking wine for health, one day at a time. I'm the doctor, my doctor, but not your doctor. To your health!

A Personal Philosophy of Drinking

Keith Richards, who is about to publish a book of his sayings that’ll make him the Yogi Berra of Bohemia, once named his personal hobby band the X-pensive Winos. This handle is an appellation I can subscribe to because for the last…maybe ten years…it’s hard to say exactly, because of the wine, I have more or less limited my consumption of alcohol to wine. It’s not that I’ve taken a modified pledge or anything. I have at least one margarita annually and the occasional beer (probably a Guinness), but after considerable years of trial and error imbibing I came to the conclusion that I was better off sticking with the wine.


One reason I came to this conclusion is that humans have been drinking wine since prehistory, whereas we’ve been drinking distilled spirits for less than a thousand years. From this I speculate that the human liver has had thousands of years more time to adapt to the wine habit. As a believer in evolution I know that we may not have developed the antibodies to deal with flavored vodka, but somehow I’m confident that my body is equipped to handle a liter of Barolo. I also know from experience that spirits present more danger. It’s easier to go too far with them, particularly if you tend to confuse thirst with Thirst. Do shots? That’s okay, darling, I’ll drive.

Another thing about spirits; I know that the sophisticated palette is supposed to like Scotch and cognac and so on. It’s an acquired taste, they say. Whereas I remember my grandma giving me a sip of her beer as a toddler and liking it. Mmm, beer good! I also remember thinking wine wasn’t so good. I later realized that it was probably from a vineyard in Lake Erie. Wine tastes good. But anything you have to put fruit juice in or is “an acquired taste,” I think it’s quite possible that you are fooling yourself. I did go through a period of drinking Scotch about twelve years ago, but that was because I realized I would never have more than one. I know that sounds terribly unsophisticated but it’s the truth. My grandfather, whatever heavenly bar he may be frequenting now, could be disappointed that I have grown gray without ever finishing a martini, but he’d probably give me credit for sticking to my tastes. He did give me my first sips of Château Haut-Brion, the Bordeaux that bears my surname, and Château d’Yquem, so maybe he spoiled me.


When I first embarked on the wino lifestyle I even attempted to drink the fruit of the as the Romans did, diluted with water. I only did this with white wine—I think it would spoil a good red—but most of us have enjoyed a spritzer, and really a spritzer is how the Romans drank—without the ice, of course. (Although if they had snow they would spritz with that.)


In some of the classic literature, drinking wine full-strength is referred to as drinking “Scythian style.” The Scythians, of course, were equestrian, trouser-wearing nomads considered relatively uncivilized, and so this was not a chic practice (nor, we may assume, was the Scythian practice of throwing hemp flowers on their campfires until they giggled.)


There is much to be said for the dilution of wine, particularly when one is making a long evening, or day-and-evening, of it, and I still enjoy spritzing my wine when I have a night during which a clear head is important, and I also still like spritzers in summer before dinner. But I have resorted to Scythian style imbibing, which is really the only way to go when one is dealing with serious vintages.

Serious vintages are also a good way of keeping oneself from overindulging, at least if money is an object for you. I don’t know about Keith Richards, who might be able to drink Petrus out of the bottle like it was Jack Daniels, but I find that if I’m drinking a bottle of Château L’Angélus or Ducru-Beaucaillou, I’m less likely to open that second bottle and then cork a leftover half, and if I do I’ll feel a little guilty. (But I’ll probably have less of a headache than if it was a ten dollar Chianti.)

In monitoring my wine intake I have also observed that if I drink a nice full-bodied red that I will drink less. I love white wine, especially in spritzing season, but it seems that there’s something about white that makes you keep drinking it. I used to think it was a blood sugar thing, but it may just be that there’s something in red that makes one mellow. White is more high-energy hilarity. At least that’s the way it seems with the ladies who lunch. I myself have on numerous occasions regretted that second bottle which seemed to go down so easily. But I never have much problem getting that first glass to go down. Maybe it’s a demon in me, but maybe it’s a healthful impulse. I genuinely believe that a good vintage is one of the finest forms of health food.

The distillation of alcohol, a great scientific breakthrough ironically attributed to the Arabs, and prized by the alchemists and physicians, of course led to the creation of cognac, whiskey, vodka, tequila, all of the drinks we know as spirits, as well as a wide variety of liquors and liqueurs whose origins are in herbal medicine—such as Fernet-Branca, which was discussed here some months ago. (And which we have a sip of now and then for medicinal purposes.) But in some way I can’t help but think that the cultural enthusiasm for liquor as a daily source of alcohol, which probably peaked in the 1950s or 1960s, before the wine revival, is related to what I consider one of the greatest of Western fallacies: the active ingredient.


Today it’s crack not the coca leaf, heroin not opium, and overproof not vino verde. Scientists are always looking for that one thing in the ancient potion that does the trick, but there’s the trick. I remember a kindler, gentler herb before scientifically inclined growers began to believe scientists that THC was the “active ingredient” in cannabis and to disregard other ingredients such as CBD, giving rise to the sensimilla industry and making the naturally benevolent plant into something resembling what its enemies claimed it was.

Today we are finding more and more health claims for wine’s healthy properties, such as its antioxidant effect. Maybe it’s time we start believing that old Bacchus knew a thing or two.

My house wine? I almost hesitate to say, but we seem to be running toward Château Brillette, a nice, well-balanced Cru Bourgeois Haut-Médoc that rated a “90” from Wine Spectator for the 2005 vintage and costs under $30. That’s enough to keep me from swilling it like water. When it comes to white we’re pouring: Kratos by Luigi Maffini, which, despite its Greek name, is a Fiano that comes from Campania, and costs about $20. I’m also keen on a white Torrontes called Crios from Argentina, made by the talented winemaker Susana Balbo. It’s about $16 and unbelievably heady and complex in a floral way. The cats who make Sassacaia turned me on to it.

I wonder what Keith is pouring tonight.