Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: Demonizing wine

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Sept. 25, 2020 series
  • Updated
wine barrel

Most people agree that one outcome of the 1919-1933 Prohibition period was that it did a grave disservice to the cause of temperance.

In fact, that very sentiment was expressed by President Abraham Lincoln long ago after a 19th century anti-alcohol crusade swept the nation – a movement that eventually died for lack of a quorum. When Prohibition finally was imposed, it instantly created problems many people never envisioned.

Instead of taking alcohol out of the hands of once-moderate alcoholic beverage consumers, it created huge underground businesses that not only generated criminals out of ordinary citizens, but allowed actual illegality to dominate across the land.

Though Prohibition finally was repealed, it was around for so long that it did much long-term damage, some of which still infects the alcoholic beverage industries.

In fact, vestiges of Prohibition remained in the language for decades. In the mid-1930s, FDR’s Vice President John Nance Garner celebrated with alcoholic beverages, referring to his imbibing by the quaint euphemism: “Let’s strike a blow for liberty!”

There are many reasons to be cautious about re-imposing any form of Prohibition, yet we have continued to see regular recurrences of nanny-state do-gooder-ism aimed at regulations attacking alcohol consumption.

It is, in fact, a tactic of the dry culture to demonize all alcoholic beverages while consciously ignoring the differences between the beverages. This new incarnation of a Prohibition crusade by some bureaucrats asks us to believe that beer, wine, and whisky do the same things to the human body.

They do not.

It has been roughly 30 years since the last neo-Prohibitionist attacks on wine, beer and spirits. But two months ago, the government’s 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) came out with its health guidelines. What I saw were scare tactics.

It suggests that the recommended “dose” of alcohol per day for adult males be trimmed from two drinks per day to one.

The guidelines are re-issued every few years. The committee summarized its findings: “If you drink alcohol… drinking less is generally better for health than drinking more. For those who drink alcohol, recommended limits are up to 1 drink per day for both women and men.”

Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, in a magazine article weeks ago, said:

“This line of reasoning is akin to arguing that the government should reduce highway speed limits from 55 miles per hour to 54 simply because ‘the faster the speed, the more harm can potentially come.’

“The myopic logic fueling this report also ignores the negative consequences that can come from driving too slowly, just as the proposed 2020 Guidelines ignore the benefits that people may receive from moderate drinking, including reduced risk of strokes and heart disease.”

What’s missing here is the overwhelming evidence that beer, spirits and table wines are not only radically different in composition, but also differ in the ways in which they are consumed – a significant aspect of how the human body deals with them, and benefits from them.

I have read carefully researched papers and articles on how to view alcohol’s impact on the human body. One of them, “Wine and Health: A Review” (2011), is a carefully vetted report by researchers Jacquelyn M. Guilford and John M. Pezzuto at the University of Hawaii.

It details how moderate wine consumption has so many healthful benefits.

And there have been far more scientific studies than the DGAC report, many of which more accurately assess how wine differs from other alcoholic beverages and detail its healthful benefits.

In reading the 2020 DGAC report, I was struck by some of the basic assumptions that seem as if an anti-alcohol agenda were afoot. The report ignores much of the material from previous DGAC efforts, none of which have been disproven.

One thing about the 2020 report is jarring. In 26 pages (plus nine pages of bibliographical material), the word “binge” appears 57 times! Really? If you want to binge-consume anything, is it going to be Opus One, Martha’s Vineyard Cab, or Chateau d’Yquem?

The practice of serving fine wine has nothing to do with binge drinking. The way we consume wine cannot be ignored in a supposedly scientific analysis of alcohol use and abuse. (Why does this topic remind me of a plastic baseball cap beer-can holder?)

Wine and food are joined at the hip. They’re as compatible as peanut butter and jam, bacon and eggs, love and marriage. When you choose to have a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, even as an aperitif, often it’s with cheese and crackers, salumi or other nibbles. Cabernet calls for steak. Zinfandel? Pizza/burgers. Chianti? Red-sauced pasta.

This symbiosis is one of the crucial factors that’s usually lost when a bunch of scientists who think they know something about wine’s role in the issue of alcohol use and abuse gather to draw conclusions about how we should all live our lives.

I spoke with Dr. Keith Marton, a medical doctor and one of the nation’s most authoritative experts on wine’s role in society. “A new temperance movement comes around about every 30 years,” Marton said, “so this one is right on time.”

I first met Marton when we both attended a two-day symposium in 1988 in Los Angeles on wine’s impact on humans.

Wine is distinctly different from the other alcoholic beverages,” he said. “And one vital fact is in how it’s used. He added that with wine there is no regular “abusive behavior.” Yet no one in the wine community has pointed out how different the three beverages are.

“We do need to differentiate between wine, beer and spirits, and how they are typically used,” Marton said.

The definitions in the 2020 report are fun to read. This is verbatim from the report: “The following definitions were used: Standard drink in the United States: 14 grams (0.6 fl oz) of pure alcohol (ethanol)… equivalent to 12 fl oz of 5% ABV beer, 5 fl oz of 12% ABV wine, or 1.5 fl oz of 40% ABV (i.e., 80 proof) distilled spirits.”

When was the last time you saw a wine with 12% alcohol? About 1958? Anyone using such outdated material must be living in a cave and thinks wine is usually consumed out of brown paper bags in gutters.

The panel that created the 2010 guidelines for wine was chaired by Dr. Eric Rimm, now director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology.

Dr. Rimm has said that the 2020 guidelines’ panel was “overly conservative” in its findings. Dr. Marton said he thought it sad that wine’s benefits were so completely ignored.

The San Francisco-based Wine Institute wrote to the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services and asked both agencies to reject the advisory committee’s proposal.

The Institute’s letter said in part that the committee’s “conclusion has not been made based on a preponderance of evidence, and the DGAC does not appear to follow its own pre-established processes and provides no transparency in how conclusions were reached.”

Also, in the Institute’s letter was material from the 2010 guidelines: “strong evidence consistently demonstrates that compared to non-drinkers, individuals who drink moderately have lower risk of coronary heart disease.”

The Institute’s letter continued, “Since that time, observational studies and meta-analyses of observational studies have affirmed the ‘J-shaped curve’ for coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke demonstrates higher risk among those who do not consume alcohol compared with those who consume low volumes of alcohol…”

Now a new book on the subject has been published (October, 2019) that could clear up some issues. It is “Wine and Health, Making Sense of the New Science,” by Dr. Richard Baxter.

Among his conclusions are that wine drinkers live longer and with fewer mental issues than do abstainers. Baxter’s conclusions have met with broad support in the medical community, including from Marton and many others.

As for the book, Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, professor of medicine and public health at Boston University, said, “The science is balanced and sound.”

For now, the 2020 guidelines remain a proposal yet to be finalized.

Wine of the Week: 2018 Kettmeir Pinot Bianco, Alto Adige-Südtirol ($17) – Alto Adige is a cool/cold region of northern Italy that makes some stellar white wines, notably Pinot Gris. Pinot Blanc also does well here, mainly since temperatures are cool enough to keep acids high. This version of that lower-image grape is stylish because of its minerally/flinty character with faint traces of citrus and fresh fennel. Crisp and lean, it’s excellent with ceviche or poached fish dishes.

Watch now: Harvest 2020 at Schramsberg

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

 The definition of “wine” really is more complicated than most people realize. In some places, “wine” may refer to something unfamiliar most Californians – and here it gets murky. 

If 10 winemakers each got one ton of exactly the same grapes, all picked at the exact same moment, and were told to turn that fruit into a wine, the result would be 10 different wines.

Definitions of success in wine often relate to how much a wine costs, how hard it is to find, or how many points a reviewer gave it. But if the wine is a varietal, shouldn't success be determined how authentically it conveys the aroma and taste of that varietal?

In a year when more than 200,000 Americans died because of a rampant virus; and when normal life nationally was shattered by wide-ranging weather catastrophes, a bad vintage in wine country might seem trivial.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News