60 Minutes recently ran a segment about the health benefits of red wine, specifically the apparently wondrous powers of resveratrol, a polyphenol that is found in the skin of grapes and is thought to prevent illness and promote longevity. This wasn't the first time 60 Minutes has trumpeted the virtues of red wine; in 1991, it called attention to the so-called French Paradox, which posited that the low rate of heart disease in France, despite a national diet gloriously abundant in rich foods, was due to the country's prodigious consumption of red wine. That report not only prompted an outbreak of oenophilia in the United States; it fanned an obsessive interest in the nutritional and therapeutic properties of wine. This seems to be a particularly American fixation, and it raises an intriguing question: Why are we—Americans—so anxious to find justifications for drinking wine beyond the fact that it tastes good and we like it?
Obviously, scientists aren't investigating wine's physiological impact because they are shills for the wine industry and want to encourage Americans to imbibe; the research is being pursued and the results disseminated because it appears that there really is a link between red wine and well-being. (For their part, vintners are not allowed to publicize these findings; federal and state laws prohibit advertising that touts the health benefits of alcoholic beverages.) It is now widely recognized that moderate red wine consumption—generally defined as one or two 5-ounce glasses a day for women and two or three for men, drunk with food—boosts HDL cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol that purges arteries of fatty deposits. In addition, scientists have determined that the flavonoids in red wine have an anticoagulant effect that can help prevent blood clots leading to heart attacks.
Resveratrol is also said to have a role in preventing clots and is believed to inhibit the production of LDL cholesterol—the bad kind. Judging by the headlines, resveratrol seems to be the omnipotent ingredient in red wine—a "vascular pipe-cleaner," as one physician put it. The recent 60 Minutes episode highlighted the work of Dr. Christoph Westphal and Harvard biochemist David Sinclair, whose research suggests that resveratrol can delay the aging process and forestall many gerontological diseases. A few years ago, scientists reported that resveratrol may discourage the onset of one such illness, Alzheimer's. It is also claimed that this antioxidant can boost stamina, reduce lung inflammation stemming from chronic pulmonary disease, and help stave off cancer. Last fall, University of Pittsburgh scientists reported that resveratrol might offer some protection against radiation poisoning. Then there is this joyous news, possibly upending age-old assumptions about alcohol and sexual performance: According to Men's Health in the United Kingdom, resveratrol works to enhance blood flow, which in turn may improve erectile function.
Personally, I'm thrilled to learn that red wine could help me avoid cancer, outlast opponents on the tennis court, survive a nuclear attack, and lead a long, lucid, and Viagra-free life. However, a little caution is in order. Most of the testing with resveratrol has been done on mice, and they have been given ungodly amounts of the stuff. As the New York Times pointed out in a 2006 article, the mice in one experiment were injected with 24 milligrams of resveratrol per kilogram of body weight; red wine contains around 1.5 to 3 milligrams of resveratrol per liter, so to get the equivalent dose, a 150-pound person would need to drink 750-1,500 bottles of wine a day. I weigh 195 pounds and can finish a bottle of Beaujolais and feel no different than if I'd had a bottle of Gatorade, but tossing back 1,100 liters of wine in a 24-hour period? Probably not.