When wine grapes are medicine, forgotten varieties deserve a second look

Autocthonous, adj. – Indigenous to a particular environment, habitat, or geographical area.

Italy, like other places that have vineyards substantially older than their nationhoods, mothers a gobsmacking number of unique, local, autocthonous grape varieties known only to village natives and sleep-deprived MW students obliged to memorize them all. At the risk of offending, most aren’t famous for good reason. International grape varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling, and the like) become international in part because they grow well in diverse locales, in part because of accidents of history, but in part because they tend to make darn good wine. Even as the recent fashion for weird, little-known, and hard-to-get wines means that hyper-local varieties are hearing their names uttered in distant lands (like London and San Francisco wine bars), they’re a niche interest at best.

Nevertheless, lots of scientific work has recently been going into documenting these autocthonous grape varieties. A cynical observer might attribute that to the necessary technology being newly cheap and still trendy, a less cynical one to our renewed appreciation for biodiversity. We could even end up rediscovering lost talent and invigorating new wine styles, like finding the greatest novel of the 20th century as a manuscript in the bottom drawer of your great-aunt’s writing desk and giving it the publication run it always deserved. While we’re waiting for that to happen, there’s actually a different and you might say nobler motive at work. Biologists are hunting for medically useful compounds, and Frosinone in Latium in Central Italy has become their new Amazon rain forest.

Italian biologists have been scouring their countryside for “local, ancient ecotypes” and, beyond the usual business of documenting whether they’re genetically unique, a recent paper takes the extra steps of measuring their concentrations of antioxidant phenolic compounds and observing their effects against proliferating cancer cells. Having first ranked their 37 autocthonous Frosinone varieties by anti-oxidizing and free radical-fighting capacity, they threw concentrated seed extracts at model cancer cells growing in lab dishes. And some of the cancer cells died or stopped growing!

Now, dead cancer cells floating in dishes are clearly a very, very, very long way from wine grape seed extracts being used as the next cancer-fighting miracle drug. But. Compounds from wine grapes likely will (continue to) be investigated as medications. And no matter whether Zimavacca or one of the numerous unnamed “new genetic profiles” from this study become the trendy new somm-bait, we have good reasons to preserve such things. Analyzing samples from odd nooks about the countryside shouldn’t need economic justification: preserving our cultural-biological history is a good fight. But in the present climate, a little economic justification doesn’t hurt.

One more reason why wine is good for you, and not just the red stuff

When it comes to health benefits, red wine tends to get most of the credit.

Cardiovascular benefits have been ascribed to alcohol itself (find a reasonably readable and full-text review here, courtesy of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology). But, of late (as in, say, the past decade), resveratrol has attracted the most attention; as a potent antioxidant, it truncates the chain of events involved in endothelial plaque formation (“hardening of the arteries”). Resveratrol is much more concentrated in red wine than in white. But resveratrol is a polyphenol, one of many. And polyphenols in general, and both red and white wine, have circulatory system benefits in lab studies we can ascribe to other causes.

For instance, NO, which is to say nitric oxide. Polyphenols encourage artery-lining cells to produce more NO. We know NO both as laughing gas and as a potent (if short-lived) vasodilator. NO tells the artery muscular to relax, which increases vessel diameter and lowers blood pressure. Arteries that no longer relax properly are a feature of many cardiovascular diseases and part of the cascade of interrelated faults that progressively damage both the heart and organs like the kidneys and eyes that suffer damage from blood pressure that’s consistently too high. NO also helps makes platelets less sticky with the effect of gently working against that damaging plaque formation.

Antioxidants, including polyphenols, increase NO levels indirectly by countering oxidative molecules that can rapidly destroy NO in the bloodstream. Polyphenols also stimulate NO production directly, and arteries benefit by learning to relax and suffering clogs less readily.

A paper just out in PLOSOne (always and ever open access) convincingly adds to evidence that caffeic acid, a polyphenol in which white wines are particularly rich, increases arterial lining NO production. The research team demonstrated that caffeic acid increases NO, but also that it improves arterial cell function and slows kidney disease damage in mice. Translating caffeic acid-dosed mice to white wine-dosed humans is still a leap we’ve not yet made, but it’s a likely one. Doses mice received were along the lines of what a moderately-drinking wine lover might ingest, and these sorts of mouse experiments have worked well to model human arterial disease in the past.

In short, there’s a good argument to be made that white wine is good for your heart. As good as red? That’s going a step too far, and not least of all because individual wines vary so much in their concentrations of resveratrol and caffeic acid and total polyphenols that we’d need to compare individual wines rather than try to stereotype by color. But the next time someone tries to talk you out of a glass of Chablis or riesling in favor of the red option for the sake of your health, don’t let them. You know more than they do.

In other news: three useful-if-not-groundbreaking reviews arose in recent days, on biotech uses for winery waste products, causes of and solutions for protein hazes, and polyphenols found in oak. Details are here.

Arsenic in wine: A news update, but not a scientific one

The news this morning is full of pieces on Kevin Hicks, proprietor of a consumer-oriented wine analysis company called Beverage Grades, and the class action lawsuit he’s bringing against multiple California wineries for selling wine with arsenic concentrations far exceeding what the US Environmental Protection Agency allows in drinking water. Many of the reports are emphasizing the “wine may kill you” side of this story.

Mr. Hicks contacted me by way of an email and a suggested arsenic-in-wine story — for which he advised me I could pay him by check or PayPal — a little over a year ago, which prompted me to write this post on whether wine consumers should be concerned. My admittedly brief scan of the literature suggests that no new scientific research on wine and arsenic has been published in English since then. I’ll stand by what I wrote in 2014. The key points:

  • Arsenic is definitely found in wine. It’s also found in many other foods and beverages. Arsenic is, in fact, naturally present in water and soil, and unless you’re part of a special population, drinking water is your primary source of dietary arsenic.
  • Researchers have found evidence of higher arsenic intake in wine drinkers, but also in people who drink beer and who eat rice, fish, and/or Brussels sprouts. (Exemplar references here and here.)
  • The FDA regulates arsenic levels in apple and pear juice, but not (yet) in wine. Dietary arsenic isn’t well understood, and whether we have good evidence for the current “safe” cut-offs and what those cut-offs should be has been discussed for decades.
  • Our current best evidence indicates that arsenic in wine isn’t a health concern. It’s fair to say that every food and drink we consume brings minor amounts of potentially harmful substances into our bodies. Risk assessments say that the amount of arsenic in wine doesn’t pose a threat to consumers. (Exemplar references here and here)

The wines indicted in Hicks’ lawsuit weren’t a major part of the studies I’ve listed above. His data may show something amiss with these specific wines, but he hasn’t shared either his methods or his data. When I looked at Beverage Grades a year ago, I was disturbed by the complete lack of detail offered to back up awarding specific wines badges like “HealthyPour™.”

I’m uncomfortable with Kevin Hicks and Beverage Grades’ tactics of withholding rather than being transparent with information, damaging at the best of times and ironic in light of his accusations. If third-party labs can back up Hicks’ claims in the course of this lawsuit, we may well have something to talk about: ways to reduce arsenic levels in wine, new regulations, and/or renewed scrutiny of the EPA guidelines. But until then, the healthiest thing to avoid is likely the inflammatory news headlines.

Nasty plastic residues in wine, elitism, and the real cost of an MW

I’d planned, today, to write about fine research led by Dr. Pascal Chatonnet and company at the French Laboratoire Excell demonstrating disturbingly high phthalate residues in some older French brandies, at least some level of plastic residue contamination in all of the French spirits and many wines they tested, and laying out some really sensible thinking on whether that’s a problem. But instead I find my hackles raised to unignorable degrees by one of the more insulting and ill-advised articles I’ve read on the wine-net recently (and it doesn’t even involve gender!) So here’s an effort to talk about the cost of an MW and plastic residues in wine, both.

From the things that make me spit fire file I offer you the following drivel by Ethan Millspaugh for Grape Collective. The title suggests that we’re talking about “the cost of becoming an educated wine drinker” — a fantastic and fascinating question — but the piece is actually about the cost of making an attempt at the coveted Master of Wine (MW) degree.

Mr. Gillspaugh massively underestimates that price tag at $25,000 (not including travel, not including wines for personal training, not including the time you didn’t spend working, not including babysitters or keeping the right society or purchasing a very good suit), and then suggests to us all that we don’t have to spend that much to become a wine expert. We could spend a very reasonable $60 to attend a WSET-hosted Champagne tasting or something (if, you know, you live in NYC or San Francisco or Chicago). Because really, that’s as good, isn’t it? And hence, once again, we have an opportunity for thoughtful and critical discussion on the internet sunk by smily faces and sheer lack of thinking.

The degree to which attaining the MW is limited to rich (white, preferably European, preferably English-speaking) people is hard to estimate. First, there’s the language issue. While the Institute of the Masters of Wine allows the written theory exam to be written in any language, everything else (study program, practical exam, thesis) is English-only. Then, the Institute headquarters and much of the training is in London, and its heritage is squarely British. And much as wine is becoming very international, it’s fair to say that the residents of some countries will be more interested in highly Eurocentric-trained wine specialists than others. I’m not willing to chalk the notable paucity of MWs in Africa up just to bias and barriers. Nonetheless, the entire continent has three — one in Egypt, two in South Africa, all in the most European of African countries — of 300 total world-wide, and two of those three are British ex-pats. Of five in Asia, only one is asian by nationality; the other four are caucasian and European- or American-born. The overwhelming majority of all MWs, of course, are British.

Scanning the member profiles on the Institute website, another striking thing is their limited range of occupations. Many are in the wine trade, either owning their own distribution company or buying for someone big. Many are self-employed consultants. A few are writers or “educators.” A few with technical backgrounds are now either buying wine or “consulting” in some non-technical capacity. In my thoroughly unscientific random clicking, I happened on not a single MW working in policy, public advocacy, or research.

Which brings me back to Chatonnet’s phthalate research. To put it briefly, the group found these common plastic additives — some of which are known endocrine disruptors that can mess with human hormonal systems — in most of the French wine and spirits they tested. Concentrations in 11% of the wines and 19% of the spirits exceeded accepted safety limits, with older spirits generally the worst offenders. Epoxy linings in storage tanks are the source; the solution is replacing old tanks with new phthalate-free ones or even retrofitting old tanks with a simple barrier coating — which they’ve developed, because that’s how awesome this team is.

Maybe the industry, now that they know, will get on that. But I hear from researchers over and over again that convincing wineries to heed such recommendations is one of their perennial banes. What if MWs were involved in helping to advocate for this sort of change?

What do MW’s have that PhDs in enology don’t? Highly public profiles. Broad, international wine industry knowledge. Extraordinarily strong networks. Often excellent communication skills (sporadic among scientists, unfortunately). Lots and lots of prestige. It’s really no mystery why MWs aren’t out leveraging all of those skills to improve awareness and policies around wine science and wine research. The MW is a general industry degree, not a technical one. MWs can earn much higher salaries elsewhere. All very understandable. I don’t want to believe that that has anything to do with the social elitism of being an MW, even if I suspect that it does.

And yet, what if — what if — someone decided to use an MW as a force for public good? I don’t have any specific plans or calls to action here. But with 300 exceptionally trained, driven, collegial wine lovers and more working up through lower levels of the pipeline, I’m sure someone has some ideas.

Are wine drinkers healthier than beer drinkers? Not so fast…

Yet another study was published this month showing that habitual wine drinkers are, all things considered, healthier than habitual beer drinkers. This one was about Dutch people — part of a national dietary survey — but similar findings have come out of the United States and other parts of Europe. We can draw all kinds of conclusions from such data, some of them plausible, but many of them ill-advised. Let’s jump to some conclusions and see where they take us.

1. Wine is better for you than beer – Maybe. Let’s say that you’re a marathon runner who runs the eight miles each way to work every day, teaches yoga in the evenings, eats salads for breakfast and lunch and half a pizza for dinner most nights. Your next-door neighbor drives to his desk job, gets winded walking up the stairs, and eats stir-fried tofu and veggies for dinner most nights. A study could conclude that you, the pizza-eater were healthier than your neighbor, the stir-fry eater, but that wouldn’t mean that pizza was healthier than tofu. Clearly, other lifestyle choices are contributing to your difference in health. The same is true for studies of habitual wine or beer drinkers: wine drinkers may be likely to make healthier choices in general.

In fact, this study came to exactly that conclusion: wine drinkers ate more fruits and veggies and less red meat, soda, margarine, and snacks than beer drinkers. We clearly can’t ascribe the health difference between the two groups just to their choice of beverage. That said, the study found that when the effects of several other health behaviors were accounted for — that is, when we measure and remove the effect of total calorie consumption, or smoking — wine drinkers were still healthier. Moreover, this study looked at healthy lifestyle habits, not at  measures of the participants physical health other than body mass index, and measuring healthfulness by weight-to-height ratio alone is pretty simplistic. This study gives support, then, for the idea that wine might be healthier than beer, but doesn’t give us enough information to reach that conclusion.

2. People who want to be healthier should start drinking wine – Maybe but, again, not supported by this study. We’ve already concluded that beverage alone isn’t responsible for the health difference between wine and beer drinkers. There’s no reason to believe that starting to drink wine, or switching from beer to wine, will help you eat more veggies.

3. Wine drinkers are better educated than beer drinkers – Yes, actually. Among the four groups considered in this study — wine drinkers, beer drinkers, spirits drinkers, indiscriminate drinkers with no preference, and alcohol abstainers — wine drinkers were most likely to have university degrees.

4. Wine drinkers tend to have healthier lifestyles than beer drinkers – Yes. This is the study’s primary conclusion: “alcoholic beverage preference was associated with dietary habits in The Netherlands.” On average, wine drinkers eat more healthfully, consume fewer calories, are less likely to smoke, and tend to have a higher socioeconomic status (which is itself strongly correlated with healthful habits) than beer drinkers. But we don’t know why this is true, though we can say that socioeconomic status and education have a lot to do with it.

So, we can fairly say that regular wine drinkers tend to live healthier lifestyles than regular beer drinkers in the Netherlands. Generalizing these findings to other countries is dangerous. Similar studies in other northern European countries (Denmark, for example) and the U.S. have come to similar conclusions. No surprise: any American could probably guess that American wine drinkers in general tend to be better educated and wealthier than beer drinkers. But that’s a cultural phenomenon. In Italy and Spain, where regular wine drinking in volume is a habit of the old guard, wine consumption doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with healthy eating or other markers of a healthy lifestyle.

The conclusion? Studies such as this are interesting. Maybe they help the medical profession get a better picture of who to target with healthy lifestyle interventions (though education and socioeconomic status do most of the work here). But they tell us nothing at all about whether wine is good for you.