A Spoonful of Vino
Why are Americans obsessed with wine being good for you?
This combination of lab mice, outlandishly large doses, and extravagant claims recently yielded a very funny piece in The New Yorker, one which zeroed in on an essential point: Red wine may contain resveratrol, but it contains substantially more alcohol. Regardless of how beneficial wine ultimately proves to be for the heart, lungs, groin, and other body parts, we already know it has a powerful and mostly salutary psychological influence. Wine—or, to be more precise, the alcohol in wine—leaves us happy; it is a relaxant, a stimulant, a balm. It can make a bad day good and a good one better. All this, coupled with the gustatory pleasure that wine confers, ought to be reason enough to uncork a bottle. So why are we so concerned about these other possible gains to be reaped?
Part of it is that we are a nation infatuated with quick-fix diets and painless remedies; the idea that sitting on a couch nursing a syrah could actually be making us thinner and fitter is irresistible. We are also a culture that fears growing old, and the possibility that a glass of red wine could be a fountain of youth is likewise a tantalizing prospect. I suspect the preoccupation with wine's health impact is a reflection, too, of our Puritan heritage and the conflicted attitude that Americans have always had about wine. Although we are consuming it in record quantities, wine is still seen as something effete and vaguely foreign. That's why the wine vs. beer dichotomy continues to be invoked every election season as a way of distinguishing urban elites from other Americans, and it is why candidates favored by those elites are invariably tarred as chardonnay-swilling swells.
At the risk of tarring myself as one such specimen, I think we should just lighten up and enjoy wine for the immediate gratification. It is great that science is uncovering so many possible ancillary benefits to merlot and pinot noir, and I hope that resveratrol is indeed the cure-all that mankind has been hoping for. But if and when a proven resveratrol tablet hits the market, I won't be liquidating my cellar, nor do I intend to load up on any of the resveratrol-enhanced wines that are apparently coming our way (unless, of course, they happen to be seriously good). Likewise, if it turns out the mice have been screwing with us and that red wine carries none of these magical side effects, there will still be a bottle on my dinner table every night. Wine is a habit that requires no rationale other than the pursuit of enjoyment.
The French, despite being the inspiration for so much of this research, have never much cared about wine's medicinal qualities; for them, a glass of vin rouge is simply a mealtime ritual. (Though, sadly, that is changing.) Jancis Robinson, Britain's leading wine writer , tells me that her compatriots give little thought to the health aspects of wine; they just like to drink (and are certainly very accomplished in that pursuit). In his excellent book A Hedonist in the Cellar, Jay McInerney notes, "In Europe, where wine has been a part of daily life for thousands of years, American oenophiles are sometimes viewed as monomaniacs—zealous and somewhat narrow-minded converts to a generous and pantheistic faith." He goes on to say that "American wine lovers need to broaden their vision and relax: to see wine as just another aspect of the well-lived life." L'chaim.
Photographs of: man with wine glass by Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images; wine on Slate's home page by Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images.