It all started in 1991, when “60 Minutes” aired a segment about “the French Paradox,” an observation that wine must somehow be healthy because the French have a low risk of heart disease — despite a diet rich in cream, butter, cheese, red meat and other sources of cholesterol and saturated fat.
These days, hardly a week goes by without a study being published that indicates wine can help absolve us of our dietary sins or cure us of our bodies’ ills. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, kidney stones, obesity. You name it, and wine — particularly red wine — is pronounced as the elixir.
This also would seem to extend to dental care, says Dr. Sam Castillo, a dentist and owner of Castillo de Feliciana, a winery on the south side of Stateline Road near Milton-Freewater.
“Red wine tends to have polyphenols,” he said. “And that blocks Streptococcus mutans.”
Streptococcus mutans creates a sticky substance that can cause tooth decay, Castillo explained. But compounds found in red wine have been found to have the ability to block this, he said. He added that red wine also can help limit periodontal disease.
He said with a chuckle that he always prescribes Tempranillo — a red wine made from the Tempranillo grape, which was originally from Spain — to his adult patients.
The key piece of the health puzzle as it relates to red wine is resveratrol, a naturally occurring compound found in the skin of dark-skinned berries, including blueberries, raspberries and grapes. According to various studies, resveratrol is shown to reduce inflammation in the body, and that can help in many situations.
The key would seem to be moderate consumption of red wine (or grape juice), which means one or two glasses per day. Chad Johnson and Corey Braunel, owners of Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla, have had a motto for several years that goes something like: “The first two glasses are for your health, and the second two glasses are for ours.”
After the “60 Minutes” story on the French Paradox aired in 1991, sales of red wine skyrocketed, particularly in the United States, where they went up about 40 percent. It is interesting to note that in 1991, Washington winemakers crushed 20,750 tons of white wine grapes and only 5,250 tons of red wine grapes. By 2012, red grapes moved ahead of white in Washington for the first time — 94,500 tons vs. 93,500 tons.
Certainly, many factors have played into Washington becoming a wine region that favors red grapes, including higher prices for red wine. But the interest in the purported health benefits of red wine undoubtedly plays a part.
Is red wine good for us? Medical experts and scientists are uncertain. One 2012 study indicates that perhaps it’s all the blue cheese the French eat with their red wine that causes the French Paradox.
Either way, here is a rundown of medical maladies and how red wine might contribute to our health.
Heart disease: According to the Mayo Clinic, resveratrol and moderate alcohol consumption might increase HDL (good cholesterol), which can protect arteries from damage. At least one study indicates a person who already has heart disease cannot necessarily reverse it simply by drinking wine.
Stroke: Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say red wine consumption could help protect the brain from damage after a stroke, this according to studies done on mice. Again, resveratrol could be the key ingredient. A British doctor told The Guardian newspaper he has prescribed red wine to more than 10,000 of his patients, claiming it can cut the risk of stroke by about 20 percent.
Cancer: According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, red wine can help reduce the risk of some cancers, thanks to resveratrol and its abilities to lower inflammation. Interestingly, researchers found that wines from grapes grown in cooler, moister areas tend to be higher in resveratrol. (The Walla Walla Valley has some of the highest rainfall in Washington wine country.) Again, moderation is a key, because excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to damage cells and actually increase the occurrence of cancer. Those who have recovered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a blood cancer — have a lower risk of the cancer coming back if they drink moderate amounts of red wine.
Obesity: We have all been told that alcohol is nothing more than empty calories, but a researcher at Purdue University found that piceatannol, a compound similar to resveratrol, could actually block immature fat cells from developing. However, if you already are obese, the potential health benefits of red wine could be blocked. In other words, drink red wine to keep from becoming fat, but if you are already overweight, you’ll need to drop the pounds before red wine can help with your heart disease.
Dementia: While heavy drinking can increase the onset of Alzheimer’s, studies indicate moderate red wine consumption could reduce the risk.
All of these can, of course, change when another study comes out. But for now, here’s a toast to your health.