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The Social History of Wine’s Health Benefits​

The Social History of Wine's Health Benefits

Introduction

We hear it all the time; wine is good for our health! But is it, really?

Let’s remember that wine is a product for sale and marketing directives are there to encourage us to increase consumption and profits. Therefore, there is good reason to distrust some news sources. Let’s also not forget that alcohol abuse is often seen as the culprit behind the breakdown of families and society as a whole. Neither side of this debate is new.

And my, how perceptions change!

In the next paragraphes, I’ll share a brief history of society’s attitudes towards alcohol and wine over time. And since Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, we’ll finish by asking the question, is wine an aphrodisiac?

Attitudes to alcohol in the Medieval and Renaissance periods

During the Medieval and Renaissance period, wine and alcohol is mostly used for it’s medicinal properties.
So wine is seen as an important contribution to health.

Where’s the proof? People observed that monks lived longer lives than the rest of the population.

Therefore, it didn’t take long before people made the link between the
benefits of moderate and regular wine consumption and a longer life!

And monasteries owned the vineyards. Monks made wine as wine is a mainstay in the sacrament of the Eucharist during mass.


 

 

But it wasn’t just wine that was praised for its wonderful effects. Even distilled spirits were named ‘Aqua Vitae’ or ‘water of life’ due to their medicinal value.


As we leave the medieval period and enter the Age of Discovery, wine becomes part of the transatlantic trade and an important part of the diet on ships. Rations included 1.25 pints of wine per man per day. In the 1600’s, Samuel Pepys (pronounced peeps) writes of using caudle as an effective treatment against sea sickness. Caudle is a hot drink made with a mixture of gruel with wine or ale.


Still for most people, good wine is really only available to the nobility and upper classes. It is not everyman’s drink.


Then, attitudes shift.

tapestry of Renaissance medical practitioners
Wellcome Collection 'Caricatural Mediaeval : Renaissance medical practitioners' (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The time of the revolutions: Industrial, French, and American

In the UK, gin develops an association with higher crime rates and the working classes. Public drunkenness is at an all time high and the Gin Act raises excise taxes on the product. Despite these efforts, gin sales continue to grow.

 

Gin bad; wine good...

Gin’s image suffers immensely in the 1700’s because it is considered the cheap alternative to the more prestigious elixir of wine. Wine must be imported from foreign countries. Gin can be made anywhere at low cost.

Not that there was a shortage of inexpensive plonk in the world. The working classes in England just couldn’t afford it as 18th century lawmakers slapped expensive customs and embargoes on poor quality wine.

Wine therefore, captures an association with the upper classes. Moreover poetry of the day strengthens the connection between wine, aristocracy and polite society.

Peter Shaw's treatise The juice of the grape- or wine preferable to water (1724) cc by 4.0

Wine spreads to most households

By the 19th century, wine becomes a kitchen necessity. We see this in many recipes in England that make food in ‘the French way’ by adding wine. Caudle, (as mentioned above) is now a common household remedy; the wine being the remediating ingredient for many sicknesses.
 
It’s the Industrial Revolution. A new class forms, the middle class. The upper segment of this includes entrepreneurs, factory owners, doctors and lawyers. Whereas wine was once only drunk by the nobility, it becomes the mainstay of middle class affluence in Britain.
 

But in the wine producing nations of France, Spain and Italy, wine is not separated along class lines in the same way as it is for Brits. Wine is seen as an extension of food and drunk by everyone.

In fact, even today most Italians do not distinguish between wine and food. To Italians, both food and wine offer the same benefits; providing necessary nutrition in their diets.

 

Sketching of London Slums during the Industrial Revolution
London Slums; Gustave Dore(1872) cc Wellcome Images

It’s ok to be drunk if…

Society views drunkenness as fine if you live on a farm and don’t have to report to anyone else for work.
 
But this is the Industrial Revolution. More and more people are moving to cities and factory owners want sober, reliable workers. Protestants especially view binge drinking as anti-capitalist and inefficient. To them even moderate consumption is a sin. Women’s movements grow and recognize alcohol abuse as a main cause of domestic violence, child abuse and lost wages.

 

Disaster strikes

In the middle of the 19th century, 4 North American Grapevine Diseases Destroyed Europe’s Vineyards.

Wine production drops and fraud runs rampant as producers bulk up their stocks with cane and beet sugar. Merchants import raisins to make wine. This, in turn causes grape prices to hit rock bottom. Farmers throughout Europe abandon their vineyards and head for the new world or Algeria.s

The social upheaval this causes can be compared to the failed potato harvests of Ireland.

 At the time this happens, wine is the most traded commodity in the world.

A Man Pours Whiskey into a flask (1869)

The rise of whisky...

As wine shortages plague the world’s 3 largest wine producers, the population turns to Whisky to take wine’s place!

Another twist this century…

With WWI, we see the global rise of temperance and prohibition forces. As the world’s greatest powers battle for supremacy, alcohol is seen as a dangerous disturbance; one that could spell the downfall in war efforts.
 
Even Czar Nicolas II bans vodka in Russia in support of the war. The directives aim largely at the working classes. As certainly, the Czar still enjoyed Champagne and vodka during this time.
 

And somehow, wine is wonderfully saved from most boycotts because of the Catholic ceremony of mass. As stated above, wine is an important feature of the sacrament of the Last Supper during Catholic weekly gatherings.

But the United States and almost all of Canada vote for full prohibition (Quebec bans spirits but as a Catholic province continues to allow beer and wine sales).

Prohibition causes far reaching effects on the American wine industry in particular. In the 1850’s Sonoma already had two commercial wineries; Beuna Vista (which is still in existence today) and Gundlach Bundschu. Napa Valley’s first commercial winery was formed in 1861.

So when prohibition was mandated, it completely destroyed a massive industry!  It’s not until the late 1960’s that the area finally began to revive itself.

But is wine healthy?

Ironically, the reasons for alcohol’s success equally has to do with it’s benefits for health as it does for for it’s harm. For a long time, alcohol is safer to drink than water!

Remember, this is before sewage systems and water purification pumps of modern municipalities. This played a major role in alcohol’s rise in popularity over the ages whether it be wine, beer, gin or other spirits.

 

Modern-day Science and Wine

And what is science telling us today?
 

Many articles promote wine consumption and particularly red wine consumption as being good for us.  Supporters point to a component in the skins called reservatrol which act as antioxidants. However, according to Medical News Today, eating grapes and berries (especially cranberries and blueberries) provide a better source of reservatrol than wine.

 

Check out this poster from the Temperance movement in Canada circa 1912. As the quality in public drinking water improves, alcohol is demonized; drinking water is now de rigeur!

Wine + Health and Heart Disease

Wine is also said to promote heart health in various ways such as reducing heart disease by the way it affects the gut microbiome. And although there is much evidence to support this, the truth is that the research is still not conclusive.

Other studies show that moderate wine drinking boosts levels of omega-3 fatty acids in plasma and red blood cells. These are the fatty acids that are found in fish and are linked to lower rates of heart disease.

There’s also evidence showing that ethanol in wine helps to metabolize glucose (and it’s non-alcohol ingredients may help too). One study focused on Type 2 diabetes patients and found that red wine significantly increased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the good cholesterol) and brought the total cholesterol down (the bad type). Unfortunately, the study was only a 2 year project using a small sample of 240 patients – not conclusive, but promising.

 

Wine as an Aphrodisiac and Sexual Health

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I just had to include this part.

Evidence does show that red wine affects sexual function in a positive way, but it’s not clear if it’s more due to diet, exercise, genetics or a combination of all of them. They do know that people with excellent diets, who exercise regularily and drink moderately have lower levels of stress and better sex lives.

 

Your best bet for a healthy sex life is to eat a Mediterranean diet, one filled with vegetables, fish, legumes and grains. It’s linked to lower levels of sexual dysfunction (in a study of 600 women) as well as lower levels of erectile disfunction.

It’s true that wine may elevate our mood and therefore sexual desire, and even improve blood flow. Wine contains quercetin – an anti-inflammatory property that increases circulation. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are also known to improve blood flow so it’s possible that wine (which can increase the level of omega-3 fatty acids in our blood cells) does as well. So wine can improve your sex life, if your problem is low blood flow.

These possible benefits can only be seen when consuming MODERATE amounts of wine (and not beer, not spirits, just wine).

Of course, alcohol dependence and overuse does just the opposite in men and causes mulitple sexual dysfunctions including erectile dysfunction.

More Science

With the advent of scientific reserach, we can now say that there is a indeed a problem with alcohol – when it is overused.

Over consumption of high-alcohol spirits contributes to cirrhosis of the liver which causes death. In intimate partner relationships, alcohol use is strongly correlated with physical and sexual abuse. Studies also show that the victims of assault are often under the influence of alcohol. There are many more known problems related to alcohol consumption.

Market Research

And this information is not lost on the Millenial and Z-Generations. Millenials are that group who were born roughly between 1980 and 1994; Z-Generation between 1995 and 2005.

Previously, marketing studies prepared us to get ready for the Millenial takeover in wine consumption. Since they are the largest numerical group born after the Baby-Boomers, they were posited to become the largest consumers of wine, beer, and spirits. What would they choose to drink? Which one would sway their hearts and minds the most?

But then, something happened. These groups choose to look out for their health instead. They want to drink less, way less. Social acceptance of binge drinking is at an all time low.

This mindset is also forecasted with the Z-Generation as they become of drinking age. Not only are they congnizant of their health and welfare, but the phenomenon is coupled with stagnant wages and less certaintly in economic stability. Remember, Gen-Z’ers were raised during the financial crisis of 2008.

Health cc www.gotcredit.com

Is there a future for spirits?

Even cocktails, traditionally the realm of spirits, are changing. Industry experts at Just-drinks.com say that new cocktails are incorporating wine; port, red and white wine instead of spirits. All this to lower the amount of alcohol in drinks. Further, wines with lower alcohol may actually take center stage over the big, ballsy reds of the recent past. Spritzer, anyone?

How much wine is safe?

For most women, safe consumption is to have one glass of wine per day. For men, you may have 2 glasses. And both of you, leave 2 days of the week open to consume no alcohol at all!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Much of the medical information was obtained through Medical News Today and links to recent research papers from there. Media Bias Fact Check rates MNT as providing information from legitimate science based research.

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