“Drink no longer water,” wrote St. Paul, “but use a little wine for thine stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” (I Timothy 5:23).
Ten years back, research from France suggested that fermented grapes might be good for your heart, too. Lower rates of coronary disease, despite a fat- and cholesterol-rich national diet, seemed attributable to the prevalence of wine on French tables. I remember the relief in friends’ voices as they cited this news before knocking back a glass or two, especially at what might seem an untimely hour. It wasn’t exactly the return of the three-Martini lunch, but it was a respite from the Perrier asceticism of the 1980s.
The puritans would not give in, of course. Along with less moralistic skeptics, they countered that enophiles enjoy better health because they tend to be wealthier than consumers of beer and spirits. Disparities in longevity would thus depend on other lifestyle factors than wine-drinking. After all, there are more likely reasons for a rich person’s hardy state than the 1982 Bordeaux in his cellar.
Now a long-term, international study indicates that the correlation between health and wine is at any rate closer than that between health and affluence. As reported in the latest Economist, scientists in North Carolina and Copenhagen have found that even within the same socioeconomic brackets, wine drinkers “lead more sensible and healthier lives” than those who take their alcohol in other forms — or who abstain altogether.
“Those who drank no alcohol had the worst habits: they ate fewer fruits and vegetables and more red meat, and also smoked more,” the Economist notes, whereas wine-drinkers “practiced reasonable self-discipline in matters of diet, exercise and smoking.”
Having turned into an enthusiastic consumer of wine after three years’ residence in Italy, I’m naturally glad to learn this, but I also know the dangers of complacency. Fortunately, my last week’s reading also included a cautionary message, in Kingsley Amis’s 1986 novel The Old Devils (scandalously out of print in the States, like most of the author’s books, but still available from Britain).
While the title characters in this poignant and hilarious story are putting away whiskey and gin at their favorite pub, their wives are at home getting sloshed on Soave Superiore and white Rioja. They also smoke with abandon, and if they pay any attention to diet and exercise, the reader doesn’t learn about it.
So what if most wine has a fourth of the alcohol content of Scotch? That just means you have to drink four times as much.
Last night, for instance, under stress from humid weather and a baby who refused to sleep, I consoled myself with a bottle of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, a local sparkling white wine. My wife graciously accepted a couple of glasses, allowing me to claim that we shared it.
Lest any reader think that this revelation is meant to promote alcohol abuse, I hasten to point out that I consumed the Prosecco with food — I just can’t recall what kind.
That should be enough for real drinkers out there to know that these are the words of a lightweight. I don’t feel like a lightweight, though, living where I do. For a country with such a big wine industry, Italy is awfully abstemious. Visit someone’s house and you might wait ten minutes before he offers you a drink; and then you’re unlikely to be offered a refill before you get to the table.
There always is a table, because no social occasion here is conceivable without food, to which booze — even wine — is indisputably subordinate. The idea of a cocktail party strikes most Italians as slightly less civilized than cannibalism.
Naturally this tendency benefits society. Alcoholics Anonymous exists here, but there can’t be more than a half-dozen chapters. You hardly ever see obnoxious drunks yelling or puking in the street, and the local version of English “football hooliganism” consists of unfurling banners with impertinent slogans during soccer matches.
Nevertheless, for someone raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture (as the United States still was, though barely, last time I checked), the dryness of Italian social life can be tremendously irritating — easily enough to send me back to the Prosecco.