Katherine Cole on Death and Wine: ‘We’re All Doomed, But It Won’t Be Wine That Does Us In’

By | 15 March 2024

Katherine Cole is the author of five books on wine, as well as host and executive producer of James Beard Award-winning podcast The Four Top.

Picture credit of Katherine Cole profile: She Saw Things

However, amidst all the fuss, an important detail is often overlooked: a glass of wine each night may indeed prolong our lives. Yes, death is inevitable for everyone. But, wine won’t hasten our demise.

A myriad of studies suggest that moderate drinkers experience health advantages – a 10-30% reduction in the risk of a heart attack, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease – compared to those who abstain or drink heavily.

‘These studies are solid, and data overwhelmingly shows that there is a potential cardiovascular benefit from drinking alcohol in moderation,’ says Laura Catena MD. A graduate of Harvard, and Stanford Medical School, Catena was an emergency room physician in San Francisco for 25 years before taking the helm at her family’s wine business, Bodega Catena Zapata, in Argentina. She has been campaigning tirelessly in defence of wine and poking holes in the WHO’s claims.

In a guide issued to journalists last spring, the WHO aimed to discount decades of perfectly good research by alleging sponsorship bias. News coverage dutifully regurgitated this assertion, but Catena disputes it, adding that just 5.4% of 386 widely cited observational studies on alcohol and health were funded by the alcohol industry.

In addition, the WHO’s scare campaign fails to mention the top two global causes of death, heart disease and stroke, focusing instead on cancer.

But just 4% of cancers are attributed to alcohol. By contrast, as Catena points out, there’s a far greater likelihood that diet (30-35%), tobacco (25-30%), an infection (15-20%), or obesity (10-20%) was the culprit. So if you want to quit something, why not start with charcuterie and cigarettes?

‘Among the major international studies, none have been found that don’t attribute the healthiest populations to alcohol consumers,’ notes Miles Hassell MD, a doctor focused on comprehensive risk reduction. For nearly two decades, Hassell’s acclaimed book Good Food, Great Medicine: A Mediterranean Diet and Lifestyle Guide has been in publication.

‘Most of my patients are above the age of 75,’ Hassell states. ‘The healthiest are active, maintain a reasonable weight, abstain from smoking, indulge in moderate alcohol consumption, and prepare their meals at home.’ According to his understanding of the data, mature adults who drink moderately, even post heart attacks or cancer, outlive those who refrain from drinking their whole lives.

The ‘French paradox’ – the speculation that particularly, red wine consumers live longer than those who drink differently and maintain similar lifestyles and diets, continues to hold true, he affirms. Moderate consumption of red wine is beneficial for our cardiovascular and digestive health.

In contrast, the warning from WHO has left other doctors hesitant. A renowned hepatologist I reached out to for this feature refused to engage, but immediately shared a JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) report on his social media. The JAMA report implies that alcohol-related cancers affect the financially disadvantaged disproportionately, while those belonging to higher socio-economic brackets experience the protective advantages of moderate consumption. In other words, excessive consumption of cheap alcohol is leading to the death of the less privileged.

‘To express it, liquor isn’t just a toxin,’ states my colleague and buddy Martín Reyes MW. As a wine vendor, Reyes is a part of a movement within the wine business that opposes abolition. ‘It’s either a tonic or a poison, contingent entirely upon the dosage and rhythm.’

When directed to forego alcohol, individuals look for gratification elsewhere. The use of cannabis has increased. The ‘teetotalers’ are swapping alcohol with psychoactive substances that aren’t regulated. Affluent women are taking microdoses of psychedelic mushrooms. Against all logic, these substances are presumed to be safe because their effects are largely unknown.

Facing a global epidemic of solitude, wouldn’t it be better to relish a drink that has, for about 10,000 years, generated fellowship and alleviated everything, from stress to arthritis? Wine offers healing – if we savor it in moderation, consume it with meals, and prioritize enjoyment and quality over quantity and oblivion.

Upon the arrival of spring, I discover myself longing for affordable, palatable whites such as Cantina Gorgo’s DOC Custoza, an organic mix of indigenous grapes apt for a weekday. While savoring this easy blend of Garganega, Bianca Fernanda (or Cortese), and Trebbianello (also known as Trebbiano Toscano), one can practically smell the scented lemon and orange blossoms that flower in late March around Lake Garda.

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