“There is no such thing as safe levels of drinking”. This statement was uttered, unchallenged, by an interviewee on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program on 26 July. News and current affairs programs have recently discussed alcohol-related harm, which is of course a major problem in society. Wine is often mentioned in a negative light. Seldom, if ever, are its many advantages mentioned. The coverage is unbalanced.
What a pity no one speaks of the beauty of wine’s flavour and aroma, its wondrous diversity, its grounding links with the land and environment, or its naturalness, to say nothing of its therapeutic properties. Those who love wine marvel at its beauty much as they might marvel at a sublime passage of music, a masterpiece painting or a superb view. For us, delight in the aromas and flavours of wine and food is comparable to these other aesthetic joys.
Those who demonise alcohol insist that all alcohol is the same. Alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. But this is not borne out by the research, which shows that wine is the alcoholic beverage of moderation, and is most often consumed with food – which moderates its effects on the senses. No one mentions that wine is the alcoholic beverage most likely to be consumed for the pleasure of its taste, while other drinks are more likely to be consumed primarily for alcoholic effect.
The medical benefits of moderate wine drinking are many, and they’re documented thoroughly and concisely by Sydney general practitioner Dr Philip Norrie in his new book The History of Wine as a Medicine (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019).
Norrie, who has a family practice at Elanora Heights in Sydney’s northern suburbs, and a vineyard in the Hunter Valley, has more letters after his name than seems humanly possible. He has published many books on wine history, wine and health, started an organisation called the Australian Medical Friends of Wine Society, and has been advocating wine as a health-giving beverage for more than 25 years. In this slim and easily-read volume, he documents the long history of wine’s medicinal usage (coincidentally asserting that China is where wine was first made, not Georgia, as is widely believed).
He gives us the pronouncements of distinguished statesmen of the past who believed in wine’s positives, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, and writes of the early doctors who prescribed it. He points out its use as a tonic on sea voyages, including our own First Fleet, and the many doctors who planted vineyards in Australia – think Angove, Lindeman, Penfold, and the less-famous ones such as Alexander Kelly, William Redfern and Thomas Fiaschi. Dr Fiaschi’s famous 1906 lecture on the medicinal uses of wine takes up the last 16 pages.
The guts of the book, if that’s not too coarse a word, is the current state of thinking on wine’s actual medical benefits. These include positive effects on the cardiovascular system, blood pressure, reduction of heart attack and ischaemic stroke, the ability to release stress and counter anxiety, and the benefits of its antioxidants such as resveratrol, quercetin and epicatechin. There are apparently many other less-known benefits to conditions including cancer, osteoporosis, deep vein thrombosis, macular degeneration, renal failure, diabetes, kidney stones and gallstones, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. It improves digestion and is useful in nursing homes and hospitals for increasing morale and appetite.
It truly is a miracle drug. As Norrie has often claimed, if a pill could be invented that achieved what wine does, everyone would be taking it. If only the media weren’t so scared of saying anything positive about it.