BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. So we’ll pick up and extend Iain Gately’s Jekyll and Hyde idea here by observing that since civilization’s dawn we’ve viewed the transmogrification of grain or the grape as both Mother Nature’s miracle elixir and deadly decoction, our source of creative inspiration and moral impairment, our “hiva.”
Today, this mercurial relationship often plays out on the news, where we learn that red wine will kill us.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Wine, even a little bit of alcohol, can actually increase the risk of breast cancer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or save us.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Ladies, drink your red wine. It could prevent breast cancer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or kill us.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I probably told you hundreds of times that red wine is good for your heart, but recent news is raising questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or save us.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It’ll help you with good cholesterol, it lowers blood pressure, lowers stress and, overall, just has many, many health benefits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or maybe not?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So it might be good to relax at the end of the day but it is not good for lowering your blood pressure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Screw it.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: These studies suggest that red wine is exercise in a bottle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That the fruit of the vine fermented could actually be medicinal is a tempting yet potentially dangerous conclusion.
Robert Taylor, assistant managing editor at Wine Spectator, tracks that notion back to its birthplace, a 60 Minutes special from 1991.
ROBERT TAYLOR: Well, the 60 Minutes piece couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time for the wine industry, really. In the ‘80s, America was obsessed with fitness. I think every house probably had a Jane Fonda VHS tape.
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ESPN’s daytime bread and butter was aerobics shows and weightlifting shows. The ‘80s were a tough time for wine, especially red wine, and most people drank white wine, a lot of Pinot Grigio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just ‘cause it’s easy to drink.
ROBERT TAYLOR: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s not so complex or chewy. [LAUGHS]
ROBERT TAYLOR: [LAUGHS] It goes down easy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you also had the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving at the time who, you know, were very effective in changing the discussion over alcohol and the safety of children and anyone on the road.
ROBERT TAYLOR: Absolutely. The Reagan era War on Drugs and Alcohol had a very significant impact on the culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, November 1991, this piece airs on 60 Minutes.
MORLEY SAFER: There has been for years the belief by doctors in many countries that alcohol, in particular, red wine, reduces the risk of heart disease. Now it's been all but confirmed.
ROBERT TAYLOR: It was viewed by nearly 22 million households. It was really one of 60 Minutes' most popular segments, at the time. They revisited it frequently. Morley Safer certainly was enthusiastic about it. He loved red wine. The impact on wine sales in America was immediate. In 1992, red wine sales rose 39% in the US.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
ROBERT TAYLOR: And they maintained that popularity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To this day.
ROBERT TAYLOR: To this day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, some of the assertions in the piece are pretty wild, like this one.
DR. SERGE RENEAUX: A moderate intake of alcohol, prevents heart disease by 50 percent. I mean, this is --
MORLEY SAFER: Fifty percent?
DR. SERGE RENEAUX: Fifty percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who is this guy making these assertions?
ROBERT TAYLOR: Well, Serge Reneaux was really a maverick at the time. He was a French-Canadian medical researcher and scientist who moved from Bordeaux to Canada at age 20, when he was struck by the incidence of coronary heart disease in North America versus that in France, where people ate so much more fat, you know, the stereotype of the French just eating cheese and butter and foie gras all day long and drinking wine and smoking cigarettes, and yet, they had a significantly lower instance of coronary heart disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he came up with the idea of, quote, the “French Paradox.”
ROBERT TAYLOR: Well, he didn’t coin the term but he is considered the father of the French Paradox, and he was the first doctor to examine this relationship and postulate that red wine was the key. And his findings led to a groundswell of scientific research, which continues to this day, decreased impacts of aging, better heart health. There are so many benefits that have been associated with moderate wine consumption since that time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the mid-‘90s, your magazine put a doctor on the cover with the headline, “Toasting a Long Life.”
ROBERT TAYLOR: We did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So did it seem like the relationship of alcohol and health at that point was settled?
ROBERT TAYLOR: Settled? I would say that it was beginning to become a reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have a wonderful clip from a tribute to Morley Safer after he died, given by the Wine Enthusiast.
ADAM STRUM, CHAIRMAN: After that story ran, sales of red wine exploded by more than 40%, jumpstarting the sale of wine for decades to come. So let’s raise a glass in memory of the TV journalist, Morley Safer.
Hey, he unraveled the French Paradox. [CLAPS HANDS] May you rest in peace and thank you.
ROBERT TAYLOR: Morley did a lot for the wine community. He followed up on that 1991 report in 2008 with a report on resveratrol, which really seems to be the most promising of the polyphenols found in wine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. The original 60 Minutes piece portrays France as the ideal place where the cultural relationship with wine leads to good health. And I’m wondering, do the French media talk about alcohol in the same way?
ROBERT TAYLOR: Well, the French media can’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] They can’t. What do you mean?
ROBERT TAYLOR: Well, the great irony of what was happening here in the United States in 1991 is that in France, while coronary heart disease rates were low, alcohol-related deaths were quite high, far higher than here in the US, then and now. That’s including cirrhosis, liver failure, as well as drunk driving fatalities. In fact, even today in France there are estimated to be approximately 50,000 alcohol-related deaths a year, and that’s in a country of 67 million. Here in the US, that number is 88,000 alcohol-related deaths, and that’s in a country of 323 million. So the incidence in France is 1 per about 1300, whereas here in the United States, 1 per about 3600. So in 1991, trying to address these issues in France, they passed what is known as the Evin Law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nineteen-ninety one.
ROBERT TAYLOR: Nineteen ninety-one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s the same year that the 60 Minutes piece ran.
ROBERT TAYLOR: Absolutely. And what that did was prohibit alcohol advertising on television or in film and it limited how alcohol could be advertised in print. In 2008, it restricted internet advertising for alcohol.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing I thought was really fascinating is that advertisers were prohibited from correlating alcohol with happiness or alcohol with sex, and there was a picture of a lovely blonde woman with a Mona Lisa smile on her face and a glass of red wine next to her. That’s all. She isn’t dressed sexy, she isn’t lounging over the glass or [LAUGHS] a bottle or anything. And this was controversial.
ROBERT TAYLOR: Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which suggests, in a kind of screwed-up way, that a pretty woman can’t be separated from sex.
ROBERT TAYLOR: And one of them actually included a smile showing teeth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was that an issue?
ROBERT TAYLOR: That was, [LAUGHS] that was among the issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Say you grew up in France, under Evin’s Law, and then you show up in the United States, what would strike you about the advertising here?
ROBERT TAYLOR: To arrive in the US and to see advertisements on television of young, healthy, beautiful people having a wonderful time consuming alcohol, that's 100% foreign. Anyone who saw the Super Bowl with the Yellow Tail ad, the Australian wine brand, with an animatronic kangaroo named Brew and a model and Yellow Tail guy in his bright yellow suit.
YELLOW TAIL GUY: Hi.
SUPERMODEL ELLIE GONSALVES: Hey.
YELLOW TAIL GUY: Uh, want to pet my Roo?
ELLIE GONSALVES: Sure, I’ll pet your Roo.
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ROBERT TAYLOR: The kangaroo is DJ’ing at a party. They’re enjoying red wine.
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You wouldn’t see that in France. You couldn’t see that in France.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You couldn’t see it for beer either.
ROBERT TAYLOR: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you can barely turn around in the US without bumping into a beer ad.
ROBERT TAYLOR: No, which also can’t happen in France.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote an obituary for Morley Safer when he died in 2016. Nearly 30 years later, do you think the story that he did still influences the way Americans talk about alcohol?
ROBERT TAYLOR: A hundred percent. I think to this day people consider a glass or two of red wine a night to be preventative, especially for those at risk for cardiovascular disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ROBERT TAYLOR: There is evidence now that moderate wine consumption may delay the onset of dementia. The key is “moderate” and a lot of the medical community is hesitant to promote wine in this way because they also don't trust us to drink in moderation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s the nanny state at work.
No, I mean, seriously, why should they? [LAUGHS]
ROBERT TAYLOR: Even the cover of Wine Spectator that you mentioned in the mid-‘90s with the doctor on the cover, looking at it now, I can tell you that the amount of wine in that glass clearly appears to be more than five ounces.
That’s a bit of an over pour in that glass. And people do have a hard time sticking to the recommended daily dose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you happen to know if Evin’s law has been effective in reducing alcohol-related deaths in France?
ROBERT TAYLOR: I know that it’s been very effective in reducing alcohol consumption. In fact, wine consumption, in particular, has fallen by more than 50% in France since 1980. The anti-alcohol movement in France existed well before Evin’s Law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ROBERT TAYLOR: However, per capita consumption in France still dwarfs that of the US. In 1980, the French were drinking approximately 80 liters of wine per year, per person of drinking age, compared with about 7 liters in the US. In the US, that number has been steadily rising, up to about 11 liters per year, compared with France, which is now down to 40 liters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Still, substantial.
ROBERT TAYLOR: So, significant changes in those habits in the US and in France, in opposite directions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is a lot to chew over. I just wish we had a really good Cabernet to go with it. [LAUGHS]
ROBERT TAYLOR: [LAUGHS] Brooke, that would be day drinking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
ROBERT TAYLOR: It’s been a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Taylor is assistant managing editor at Wine Spectator.
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