Wine & Health through the Ages

Posted by Keith Wallace

Medical Wine Knowledge
Gundlach Bundschu Label, Circa 1889

Wine must be a magical elixir. Otherwise, how can we explain why a restaurant wine list often turns a CEO into a pouting child?  I have seen powerful doctors in bespoke suits turn into doe-eyed wallflowers with nothing more than a quick twist of a corkscrew. Wars have been waged, and religions sanctified in the name of the wine.  No less an authority than Plato said, “nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was ever granted by the gods to man.”  Obviously, this stuff is powerful arcane stuff that mere science cannot explain.

Or can it?

Ancient History

Throughout history, wine has been seen as both healthful and beneficial. As early as 2000 BC, the Sumerians were using wine medicinally.  Hippocrates himself was a proponent of the health benefits of wine, as were most physicians in the ancient world. By the middle ages, wine was being used to clean surgical wounds and as a base for many homeopathic tinctures.  Above all, wine was seen as a safe substitute to the often polluted waters in and around cities and towns.

Ancient Egypt

If we can quickly shuffle through the papyrus scrolls of ancient Egypt, we will find the first known denunciations of public drunkenness; hundreds of them. This is the eternal conflict that draws a direct line from the ancient world to today: drinking in moderation may be healthy, but drunks are really annoying.

American Puritans

In the early modern age, wine continued to be embraced as a healthy beverage.  En route to the Americas, the Puritans stocked more wine & beer in their ships than water.  Can you guess what was served at that first Thanksgiving dinner? (hint: it wasn’t cranberry sauce).

At the same time, writers such as William Vaughan in England were writing books recommending a balanced diet that included red wine. A century later Louis Pasteur would conclusively write that “wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.”

American Prohibition

The first half of the 20th century saw an international push to do away with drunkards once and for all. For the first time in history, large sections of the western world faced complete prohibition of alcohol. The world was changing in profound, radical ways, but what matters to this article is just a tiny thread: Prohibition severed us from the eons of wine knowledge in the USA.

It’s been over seventy years, and the country still is having a hard time trusting Benjamin Franklin’s anecdote that “wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Wine, Health, and the ’90s

The first renewal of faith came in 1991 when the television show “60 Minutes” ran an expose on what they dubbed “The French Paradox.” The show featured a study that showed that the French suffered a much lower percentage of heart disease than Americans, despite enjoying a cholesterol-rich diet. Wine, red wine in particular, was cited as the cause for this paradox.  Sales of red wine skyrocketed overnight.

Modern Science

More than a decade later, the scientific studies have stacked up and the results are encouraging: Plato was right, after all. Modern medical research suggests that moderate consumption of red wine (1-3 glasses a day) may decrease the risk of some diseases including (take a big breath): Angina Pectoris, Peripheral Artery Disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Thrombosis, Ischemic strokes, Renal cell carcinoma, Thyroid cancer, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Diabetes, Peptic ulcers, Gallstones, Kidney stones, and Osteoporosis.

Health Implications

The downside? Heavy drinking reverses all the health benefits, and adds a few nasty diseases of its own, including alcoholic hepatitis. If you smoke and drink, you also run higher risks for nose and throat cancers, along with breast cancer.

In the end, all available data shows that wine drinkers probably live longer than their tee-totaling peers. So with the holiday season rapidly approaching, grab your corkscrew, and have a glass in celebration of 4,000 years of good health.  Let’s see what type of wine knowledge scientists discover in the next decade. 

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