Wine and Health, Wine and Happiness

My current physician says that the definition of an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor does. A friend of mine – a wine lover, of course – told me of his encounter with a French doctor some years ago when he lived briefly in France. At his check-up, he was asked, “Do you drink?” and he answered “Yes, wine with meals.” The French doctor impatiently brushed that answer off: “No, no,” he said; “I mean, do you drink?”

I know many American doctors who drink, and more than a few who love wine. Nevertheless, the overall attitude of our medical establishment toward drinking anything seems decidedly negative. The past few years have seen a spate of mostly contradictory news stories about the effects of wine drinking on health. I’m not sure the research behind those stories was fully understood or accurately reported in the first place, and I have serious questions about the validity of a lot of it, but the general take-away seems to be “red wine may be good for your heart, but all drinking is bad for you.” Ergo, abstinence is best.

Over 40 years ago, when I briefly belonged to an HMO, and before my activity as a wine journalist dramatically increased my everyday wine consumption, a newly minted MD told me that I had to stop drinking immediately, that alcohol was a poison, and that I was already showing signs of liver disease. Well, I’m still here, and whenever a new physician asks whether I drink, I’ve taken to answering “Yes, a lot,” because by what seem to be the standard measures I should have perished of cirrhosis long ago.

Alcohol as poison acts as an embracing category that makes no distinction between wine and spirits, or between beer and spirits, or between any of the above and pure alcohol. This, of course, fails to take into account the circumstances of consumption, and it totally disregards differences in individual capacities and reactions to alcohol: The ounces of alcohol you swallow are the only thing that matters. To that, I can only say: Piffle! – which is as scientific an answer as it deserves.

This is inescapably a very subjective topic, because I can speak with authority only about what I know first-hand, and that is largely myself, so bear with me, please.

I never drink alcohol, ever. I drink wine, the best wine I can lay my hands on, and I drink it with food, the best food I can find, and I take great, great pleasure in it. I don’t get drunk, but wine with my meals enhances my life enormously – and I personally believe quite firmly that being happy is very good for my health.

Have you ever wondered why happiness is never mentioned in medical conversations?  That absence points to a blind spot in the scientific literature, because happiness is not (at least not yet) a scientific category, not yet a subject of medical research. Let’s hope its moment will come soon, because talking about the medical implications/repercussions of wine drinking (and many other things, to be sure) is totally incomplete without it. The individual, the subjective, the idiosyncratic – everything that generalizing science dismisses as anecdotal – is crucially important in talking about drinking (especially drinking wine, I would say) and its effects.

Beyond that: Drinking wine with food is not at all the same phenomenon as consuming alcohol. We all know that cookery is a sophisticated form of chemistry – humble rice and humble beans in combination create a complete, nutritious protein – and serious winos know that wine changes food and food changes wine – but are there any scientific studies of the chemistry there and what healthful consequences it may have? Not that I know of, though I’d be happy to hear about them. But those wonders won’t be found until somebody looks for them. From a lifetime of literary and historical research, one thing I know for sure: Answers precede questions. People find what they’re looking for – and if all they’re looking for is poison, that’s all they’ll find.

Most of the medical advice that I’ve read about drinking seems to me equally blind. The US government’s current guidelines recommend a daily maximum of 10 ounces of wine for men and 5 for women. This distinction is bolstered by an array of allegedly blanket biological differences between the sexes. How valid can that possibly be, given the vast difference in individuals’ (of either sex) metabolisms and capacity for food and drink? That’s stupid on many counts: My wife is as tall as I am, and loves wine as much, so I should give her half a glass of wine for every one I take? That’s the road to divorce for sure. Ten ounces/five ounces is a gross generalization, a one-size-fits-all formula that ignores everything about wine drinking except its possible harm.

In my opinion, the happiness that wine can create should at very least be weighed against any harm it may cause, and individuals have to decide for themselves where their balance lies. I know that if I had to choose between a possible extra year or two of life with no wine and boring food (please pass the fiber, dear) and, on the other hand, a possibly sooner death, with wine and food pleasures and all that flows from them intact, I have no doubt what I would choose, and I think I would have so chosen any time these past 40 years. Until medicine can factor the happiness quotient in its diagnoses, I will remain a skeptic and what dour old St. Paul (“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake”) called a winebibber. Long live (I hope) the winebibbers!

Cartoons from Le Vin, © HA ! Humoristes Associés, 1980


17 Responses to “Wine and Health, Wine and Happiness”

  1. Linda Austin Says:

    I have a particularly outrageous anecdote about the poisons of alcohol. This, from a friend: when he answered, on a health questionnaire, that he drank two glasses of red wine a day, his physician told him that he was an alcoholic. If, the doctor added, my friend needed to relax, he offered a prescription for ritalin.

  2. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: A very fine piece, and one that serves as common sense, a quality that seems to be vanishing these days, given many individual’s propensity for getting information via social media outlets. As you wrote, “people find what they’re looking for.”

    I raise a glass – make that several glasses – of wine to you!

  3. John Wion Says:

    What a nice read for a sunny day in Maine! Thanks, Tom

  4. Andrew Higgs Says:

    Great article, and unlike so much of what our respective governments say, well thought out and full of common sense! Successive governments in the UK have used health scares (often published by the Department for Health…) about alcohol as justification for raising taxes on alcohol on an annual basis! How convenient for them….

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You raise an interesting point: No government taxes sugar-laden drinks and foods which are demonstrably bad for everyone’s health. I wonder why?

  5. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Well-stated. i have shared this with several friends.

  6. fromthefamilytable Says:

    Great post! I’ve known many, many physicians in my life, and I can think of only a few who didn’t enjoy their potentially intoxicating beverage of choice. Lots of them are/were wine fans. That reminds me of the old adage, “Do as I say…” You have certainly captured the value of the intangibles and pleasure of a glass of wine with a well-prepared meal.

  7. Ed McCarthy Says:

    The only doctors I listen to about drinking are those who actually drink wine themselves. The story about that doctor saying all alcohol is poison is laughable. What a quack! BTW, I’m going to buy some milk thistle.

  8. Philip H Christensen Says:

    Christ’s first miracle, as recorded in St. John’s gospel,even trumps (unfortunate word choice!) St. Paul.

  9. Gloria Varley Says:

    Bravo Tom!

    Many years ago, I had a doctor who tended to the ‘harm’ view of drinking. Wine with dinner? Danger! Wine almost every day? Death is right around the corner. Oddly (?), like you, I’ve survived for 40 years beyond her dire predictions. My new GP had a different take. Do you drink? Wine with supper? Good, she murmured, entering the note on her computer.

    Perhaps milk thistle can take a bow? I’ve been taking a 150mg capsule twice a day ever since I began serious wine study and tasting in 1979. My liver seems to like it.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You’re the second person today to mention milk thistle, which until today I had never heard of. Obviously, I should look into it.

  10. MIke I Says:


    Whenever I go to a major wine tasting, and if I ever feel the effects of alcohol after drinking socially, I take one or two milk thistle capsules just afterwards and it reduces the symptoms and severity significantly. Jancis Robinson, the UK wine reviewer, was once asked how he health was not affected by drinking so much wine each day and her reply was milk thistle. Actually, it’s so powerful in cleaning out the liver of toxins, that if you are a death cap mushroom – the kind that would kill you – and were rushed to an emergency room anywhere in the country, they would give you milk thistle to save your life. It’s a natural substance taken from the flowers of the milk thistle plants and has been used for centuries by native American Indians and Chinese herbalists as a cure for liver disease. I actually take a few every 6 months as a way to clean out my liver from other toxins that may have built up from foods or the environment. Google the term milk thistle and read up.

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