Is Wine a White Whale?

Having reached an age where I spend far too much of my life in doctors’ offices, I notice that every time I go to a new one, whether it might be for a cold, or a sprain, or the plague, I am always asked “Do you drink?”

On the face of it, an innocuous question, perhaps even an idiotic one: Of course I drink. Everybody drinks, or we couldn’t survive. But that, obviously, isn’t what the question means: It means do you drink beer or wine or spirits, and it is patently a biased question, implying that it’s wrong to do so.

I’ve noticed that I’m never asked about my consumption of soft drinks, whose to-my-mind tooth-rotting amounts of sugar would seem to constitute a real health hazard. No, the question is only ever about consumption of liquids containing alcohol. “Ahoy! Have you seen a white whale?” Alcohol is clearly the Great White Whale of American medicine.

I have occasionally heard the question put more bluntly, in a way that exposes the underlying bias: Do you use alcohol? I try not to snicker at that: I don’t know anyone who uses alcohol. No, I do not use alcohol; I drink wine – a complex liquid, of which alcohol is usually just about 13 or 14%. Alcohol in its pure form I never touch, so the question is stupid and misleading. No one ever sits down to a nice dinner and a cheering glass of alcohol, and to imply that the alcohol in wine is its center and point is fatuous.

The concentration on alcohol is a perfect example of science run amuck, in which a single element is so abstracted from everything else that it can become a universal villain. Nobody asks flu sufferers if they breathe or if they “use” air – though that may be coming, may it not?

What is left out in that annoying question is the basic fact that the alcohol we wine lovers consume never comes to us as a neat little jigger of pure alcohol. Taking only chemistry into consideration for the moment, it comes bonded to the 86 or 87% of wine that isn’t alcohol. Most of that is water, and the rest is color and flavor elements derived from grapes, plus such trace elements – chemical or mineral – that the vines have sucked out of the soil and transmitted to their fruit.

“Even after the process of fermentation, wine conserves different organic compounds from grapes, such as polysaccharides, acids, and phenolic compounds, such as flavonoids and nonflavonoids. These substances have known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities, and are considered as regulatory agents in cardiometabolic process.” In plain English, there are things in wine that are good for you.

That whole package, of which the alcohol is an integral part, composes what we relish in the wines we drink – the body, the mouth feel, the aromas, the spectrum of flavors that each wine gifts us with. Are we to suppose that the alcohol in a wine is not modified in some way by its integration into such an amalgam?

Drinking wine with a meal is not like pouring neat alcohol down your throat, all by itself. Sure, it can be a poison that way. But in wine, the alcohol goes into a stewpot of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and minerals from the foods, and they’re all acted on by the digestive enzymes as they’re absorbed into your bloodstream. I think there’s more complexity to that process than typical medical explanations provide — maybe even more subtlety than modern-day chemistry admits of.

And that, of course, focuses only on physiology and ignores the psychological, social, and cultural aspect of our “use” of wine. I believe the effects of alcohol on the body are modified or altered not only by the things we eat with it but also by the way we share it with other people and the occasions on which we do so. Measuring alcohol only in the abstract as a chemical falsifies everything about drinking wine.

We must remember: Science is a way of looking at and understanding the world, an often effective and useful way of so doing, especially when judged by its own standards. But they are not the only standards, and science is not the only way of seeing and understanding the world. The questions science answers are only the questions that science asks, and there are rafts of questions that are never asked because they aren’t “scientific.” Other ways of seeing the world can be just as effective and useful, and we need to remind ourselves of them.

One small example: How different a world, how different a set of assumptions would be implied, if your doctor ever asked “Do you enjoy wine?” – and that is a perfectly sensible question. Cheers!


7 Responses to “Is Wine a White Whale?”

  1. Richard Beeson Says:

    Great post, Tom!

  2. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Excellent post. I once had a doctor, whose fingers were yellow from tobacco stain, tell me to lose weight (he was correct). I told him to stop smoking.

  3. What Wine Is all About | Frascati Cooking That's Amore Says:

    […] […]

  4. myhomefoodthatsamore Says:

    Dear Tom, a sensible bon vivant like you truly knows how to enjoy wine. I think the problem lies with people who like to drink in order to get that ‘hit’, as fast as possible, i.e. with or without the meal. That’s what probably worries doctors. Especially ‘ignorant’ doctors who perhaps don’t like to drink wine themselves or understand what wine is all about. Until relatively recently, it was mainly the wealthy and privileged who drank wine outside of wine-producing countries (where even the poor got to drink wine, if not the best quality wine) and so the drinking of wine at a meal was incorporated into the culture that you describe so well above. I describe wine like to this: if is food with alcohol in it. It is not alcohol with some fermented grape juice in it. Wine snobbery is not the way to go forward but I do think that education is a good idea. Yes, but how? TV ads? Maybe …

  5. John Wion Says:

    I love this post, Tom.

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