Time to Gear Up For A Battle Over Wine and Health

Over the past decade or more few people engaged in the business of wine have given much thought or devoted much commentary to the subject of wine and health. This is contrary to the explosion of concern with the issue of how drinking wine may positively or negatively impact our health that flowed over the wine industry and the U.S. culture in the 1990s.

However, over the past two decades, the scientific and research community has been very busy concerning themselves with wine and health. So too has the Health Industrial complex been busy pronouncing various declarations on the subject. Last year the prestigious journal The Lancet published a study that declared “There Is No Safe Level of Alcohol Consumption” and that “The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising”

This declaration along with other anti-alcohol messaging from other corners led wine industry analyst Rob McMillen of Silicon Valley Bank to declare in his 2019 State of the Industry Report that “The cumulative impact of negative health messaging — absent offsetting promotion of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption — is negatively influencing consumption, particularly for the millennial consumer.”

In that same 2019 report, McMillan reminded his readers that the positive health messaging surrounding wine in the 1990’s, including the wide promotion of “The French Paradox”, helped propel a significant and long term increase in wine sales that lasted two decades. It should be no surprise that negative information about wine and health can be equally important in slowing wine sales.

But let’s cut to the chase. The idea that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption is, of course, absurd. Moreover, there is a vast amount of evidence that the various properties of wine, consumed in moderation, provide the drinker with many benefits.

If it is true, then, that wine sales are significantly impacted by negative news and reports on its role in human health, and if it is true that the claim that wine consumption is bad for you is far from the truth, then shouldn’t there be an effort to combat this bad news?

Rhetorical questions aside, the better question is how should an effort to promote the place of wine in a healthy diet be undertaken? This is a question best answered by people like myself and other marketers and publicists who understand the value of public and media relations in educating the public. To my knowledge, there exists no current organized effort to combat the bad news that has prompted the likes of McMillan and others to warn that wine sales are and will continue to be negatively impacted by anti-alcohol and anti-wine news.

It’s true that anyone licensed to sell wine in America is barred from promoting the health benefits of wine. However, this prohibition on wineries telling its customers that wine can be healthy when imbibed moderately in no way prohibits organizing and collective action to combat anti-alcohol and anti-wine reports. That’s exactly what should happen.

Unfortunately, the wine industry possesses very little history of working successfully together to advance a specific goal. Finding an example fo large wineries working with small wineries, wineries working with brewers, retailers working wineries or California wineries working non-California wineries to advance a common cause is tough to identify.

Still, such an effort should be organized and organized now.

All this leads me to introduce this audience to a tool that would be particularly important in any effort to rebalance the subject of alcohol and health. I recommend to everyone a new book by Dr. Richard Baxter: “Wine and Health: Making sense of the new science and what it means for wine lovers”.

Without a fundamental and layman’s understanding of the state of the research concerning wine and health, you cannot push back against the notion that drinking wine is unhealthy in every circumstance, a view supported and promoted by many today. Without that understanding, one may as well look the opposing side of this debate reply, “Neener, neener, neener” — a legitimate, but not particularly effective response.

Dr. Baxter’s new book is exactly what those concerned with the “neo prohibitionist” trends need. Baxter’s “Wine & Health”, though concerned with the science and the studies and the research behind the issue, also provides an easy to read and easy to understand discussion of the current science. Dr. Baxter devotes considerable attention to all the primary concerns that have historically animated the debate over wine and health. These include the impacts on health from phenolics in wine, resveratrol, the wine/cancer link, wine’s impact on mental acuity, wine and heart health, and much more.

“Wine & Health” is a guide book for those who might organize an effort to push back against claims that wine is unhealthful. Where to start in leading the public in a more thorough understanding of the role that wine can play in a healthful lifestyle is embedded in Dr. Baxter’s new book. Moreover, it is a far more useful tool for understanding this role than the often very complex studies released by academics, journals and health organizations and that often end up as headlines along the lines of, “Wine: Bad!!..No Drink”.

In the end, I rather doubt that the wine industry will find the wherewithal to fund an effort by professionals to highlight the evidence that wine can, in fact, be an important part of a healthful diet. If the issue is taxes being levied on the industry or tariffs, then you can expect a slightly organized response from the wine industry. But when it comes to efforts to positively impact the longterm health of the wine industry, it’s far less likely that you’ll witness the industry agree to organize and fund such an effort. This is shortsighted.

But Rob McMillen and others are right. There are headwinds facing the wine industry that include an increasingly concerted effort to cast wine as the enemy of health. This latter effort will, in fact, harm wine sales and the wine industry. In Dr. Baxter’s new book, we have a road map for educating the public on the value of wine as part of a healthy diet. The question now is if the tool will be left in or taken out of the industry’s toolbox?

6 Responses

  1. john hinman - November 14, 2019

    this item from this morning’s regulator alcohol reports caught my eye. If it can happen in Ireland it can happen here.


  2. Mark Storer - November 14, 2019

    As usual, great reporting. I’ve been interested in this for some time–and you’re correct that the notion of “no safe level of alcohol consumption” is absurd. I’m trying to get inside the mind of who would say that–what end does it serve?

    PR is a constant battle–and this is a hill worth fighting on. It’s time to lead the charge.

  3. Jeanne Savelle - November 15, 2019

    There are some in the industry who are promoting both wine and health. See A Balanced Glass founded by Rebecca Hopkins and Cathy Huyghe.

  4. Tom Natan - November 15, 2019

    Most of the “no safe alcohol level” studies have flaws in them and it’s important to recognize them, plus learn about potential benefits (most of those studies have their limitations, too). Learning how wine fits into our overall diet and health is important. But I don’t understand the desire that wine automatically has to be “good” for us.

  5. Rob McMillan - November 15, 2019

    Tom –
    Thanks for talking about this important topic. We truly have been asleep at the switch. It starts with the World Health Organization:

    “Alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally as well as to the disabilities and poor health of millions of people. Overall, harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease.”

    In the WHO Global status report on alcohol and health 2018, The start with villifying all alcohol attributing (cut and pasted from the Table of Contents) Risky sexual behaviour and sexually transmitted infections, Viral hepatitis, Tuberculosis, Major noncommunicable diseases, Cardiovascular diseases, Cancers, Liver diseases, Injuries, violence, homicides and poisonings, Traffic injuries, Aggression and violence, and Homicides.

    Once everyone accepts this is scientific proof of all of these bad things, then they can start the process of clensing all alcohol from the face of the earth without discrimination or thought of the benefits, lifestyle, or health benefits of moderate consumption.

    Here is the dashboard of their game plan:

  6. Julie St John - November 15, 2019

    Thank you for the information on the book; I bought a copy right away. Great article on this important subject. Just not sure who will lead the charge-a groundswell effort with one voice from the wine community would be key.

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