Ep. 134: Wine: It Does a Body Good

"No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health." Those words were published by the World Health Organization almost exactly a year ago, and the wine world was not happy. But was that declaration accurate? In Ep. 134, we look at conflicting research, scientific bias, and the centenarians who swear by their daily glass of wine.

[00:00:31] Katherine Cole: So let’s get started. I’m Katherine Cole, executive producer of The Four Top, joined by Martín Reyes, MW. I’m so excited for this conversation, Martín. You got me hooked on a terrific Netflix series. Thanks so much for the recommendation. I’m loving it. It’s called Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.


[00:00:59] Martín Reyes, MW:  You know, that’s, that’s my dessert course for today, a sneak peek. So that takes care of that part for us today. It’s amazing. Isn’t it? It follows journalist Dan Buettner. He visits the regions of the world where people have the longest lifespans. A lot of people I think have heard of this. He’s famously the author of the book that introduces the concept of the Blue Zones way back in 2008. And he’s been preaching this gospel. Well, actually, not so much a gospel. He’s been doing TED Talks or whatnot about talking about cultures where people regularly live to be a hundred years old. 


[00:01:35] Katherine Cole: Yeah. The book’s title is, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest. And yeah, there’s a reason you sent me the link to this show and we’re going to kind of talk about it today.


[00:01:47] Martín Reyes, MW:  Yeah. Well, you know, we want to talk about the role of alcohol in health and that’s been making a lot of headlines recently. There’s a lot of attention on this from all kinds of perspectives and well, you know, let’s just play a couple of sound clips from the Netflix series. There’s this town in Sardinia with the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world where they drink lots of wine. And there’s this quote from a village in Greece called Ikaria.


[00:02:15] Katherine Cole: The host Dan Buettner is asking this delightful lady of a certain age about these herbal teas that they make from, you know, herbs that they’ve gathered, gathered in the wild or grown in their gardens. And he says, what’s the best tea to drink on a daily basis? And she answers wine.


[00:02:32] Martín Reyes, MW:  Yeah.


[00:02:32] Katherine Cole: So he, in this series, Dan Buettner, I hope we’re pronouncing his name right. The journalist who discovered these blue zones and wrote about them. He’s finding that these people who live to be 100 are drinking a lot of wine. And that makes sense to me.


[00:03:06] Martín Reyes, MW:  Yeah. You know, study after study has confirmed that the Mediterranean diet, which includes wine and grappa and good fresh food and often plant based diets is the healthiest diet in the world.


[00:03:21] Katherine Cole: Yeah, and it’s not just…you don’t have to physically be on the Mediterranean Sea in order to live and eat this way. I have always been struck by the longevity of famous California winemakers who, of course, have lived drinking great wine their whole lives and eating wonderful fresh food. I mean, Mike Grgich just passed away at the age of 101. Robert Mondavi lived to be 94. Peter Mondavi made it to 101. Dorothy Tchelistcheff just departed from us at the age of 99. Her husband André Tchelistcheff made it to 92. Warren Winiarski is, I think, about 95. I mean, I could just keep going. I could keep going. These guys all live to be really old and we know they all drink a lot of good wine.


[00:04:01] Martín Reyes, MW:  Yeah so as far as we know, they drank a ton or I shouldn’t say a ton. They drank often. And so I guess we can just wrap up this episode, right? Just drink wine and live long.


[00:04:11] Katherine Cole: Yeah, yeah.


[00:04:13] Martín Reyes, MW:  Done.


[00:04:14] Katherine Cole: Yeah, we’re done. Except, except, except.


[00:04:17] Martín Reyes, MW:  Of course, we’ve been hearing nonstop lately that wine is bad for your health, and it can kill you, they say. It’s a marked departure from a generation ago, saying that there’s studies that were supporting wine as good for cardiovascular health and everything. The tone is different now from, in particular, from the World Health Organization. Declared in January last January, 2023, that no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health. And I take issue with that. I think we should talk this through. So let’s sit down and do our two top, shall we?


[00:04:57] Katherine Cole: We shall. And once again, as we did last time with our two top, we will break this conversation into four parts. Well, part one just happened. We talked about the blue zones 


[00:05:09] Martín Reyes, MW:  So that’s part one. We’ve done part one.


[00:05:11] Katherine Cole: Okay. So, yeah, we’re, we’re feeling very encouraged, but I think we should do our due diligence. So in part two, the next segment of this conversation, we should talk about the ways in which we do know that alcohol can be bad for your health. It can be toxic and we should just discuss those quickly and make sure everyone knows we’re not encouraging you all go become alcoholics.


[00:05:30] Martín Reyes, MW:  Okay. So that’s part two. Part three. We will discuss ways in which alcohol can be good for your health. 


[00:05:41] Katherine Cole: Yes. And then in part four, we will just try to wrap it all up and put a big bow on it. Let’s jump into the next stage of this conversation and acknowledge that alcohol is actually a tonic and a poison. And we’ll get to the fact that it’s a tonic soon, but let’s talk about the ways in which alcohol is dangerous. I mean, we need to acknowledge that drinking and driving are a lethal combination. You know, drinking can lead to domestic violence, you know, it can lead to all sorts of negative health effects, and we want to be clear in this discussion that we’re not encouraging people to drink to excess.


[00:06:17] Martín Reyes, MW:  Agreed. Katherine, Yes. if you feel like you need alcohol to get through the day, you likely are struggling with alcohol dependency. This has been a real problem for a lot of people since the pandemic. And if you’re grappling with this, you are not alone. 


[00:06:28] Katherine Cole: Yeah, I mean, in Oregon, here where I live, there has been nearly a 40 percent increase in alcohol related deaths over the last three years. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports this has cost the state 4.8 billion a year in health care, criminal justice, and motor vehicle accidents, so this is no joke.


[00:06:45] Martín Reyes, MW:  It’s, it’s serious. And if so, as a public health service announcement, if you’re concerned that you may be drinking too much alcohol, talk to your doctor or call substance abuse and mental health services, administration, national helpline, that number is 800 662 4357. Or you can go to S A M H S A dot gov. That’s Sam H S A dot gov.


[00:07:09] Katherine Cole: Yeah, and you know what, even if it’s not immediately threatening your life and health, we do know that drinking also can, you know, it can be toxic. It can dehydrate you, it can cause headaches, cause stomach aches, it can cause you to say really dumb things you didn’t mean to say and, and you know, hook up and make out with people you’re not really attracted to.


[00:07:26] Martín Reyes, MW:  Maybe I could have been there and done that, but at this point in my life, I enjoy wine as part of a lifestyle. Okay. Wine adds to my quality of life. I’m not referring to knocking back vodka at 10 a. m. to get to the day. I’m talking about a life of cooking dinner, enjoying a meal with friends, family. I almost never drink alcohol until dinnertime. And that’s where that life of, of laughing and conversing, card games, joy, conviviality. For me, wine, more, more than alcohol, wine is a part of a fulfilling life. And if my love of alcohol gives me a little less time, but it’s quality time, I choose a full life with wine in it.


[00:08:06] Katherine Cole: Yeah, I think I agree with you on that. But I’m a little worried about both you and I, Martín, because we work in the wine industry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that men who consume more than 15 drinks a week and women who consume more than eight drinks a week are engaging in unhealthy, excessive drinking. Oh dear. Because, you know, I don’t know about you, but it seems like we have wine events every night of the week in our industry. And I feel like we typically consume that much in half of a week. And that makes me a little worried.


[00:08:41] Martín Reyes, MW:  Katherine, absolutely. But taking a step back, We have an obligation. Yes. To not only practice moderation, but to teach moderation and for us with wine, five ounces is considered one drink. Our obligation is to have moderation and the object of part two is that under no circumstance, are we advocating for heavy consumption. Alcohol is toxic at higher doses than what we’ve discussed. And that is, that is important. We’re not saying that you need to consume a ton of wine. And so it is a poison or a tonic, but the difference lies mostly in the dose. Higher, higher levels of consumption is a poison. There’s no question about that. 


[00:09:25] Katherine Cole: Well, so this might be a good place to transition to the next part of our conversation in which we talk about ways in which, surprise, surprise, alcohol can actually be good for our health. I warned you I was going to talk about my ulcer, and so I’m going to talk about my ulcer. I have an ulcer, you guys. I’m following my gut. And, but here’s the funny thing. I was doing some research regarding, I won’t get into the gross details, but given my specific problem, I did some research, and weirdly, it turned out that in my case, moderate amounts of alcohol can actually help to reduce stomach bile, meaning it could help my ulcer. And we don’t ever hear this. We don’t ever hear about the positive impact that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may have. So I thought that was 



[00:10:21] Martín Reyes, MW:  Okay. So it’s good to know that I’m not losing my drinking buddy. So, this is what I wanna talk about. The J curve, if you imagine listeners a J, but then it’s sort of, it’s, it’s a J in italics. It’s slanted. It’s like, like almost like a hockey stick. That’s the best way to describe it. 


[00:10:37] Katherine Cole: Yeah, tell me more. Tell me more. I’ve heard of it, but… 


[00:10:40] Martín Reyes, MW:  All right. So numerous studies over the past 50 years have shown that there is this J shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality. And specifically, at low levels of consumption, alcohol lowers the risk of dying of anything. 


[00:10:57] Katherine Cole: Okay. So this is making sense to me because I’ve been thinking about those blue zones. And I also, you know, over the past few weeks have been doing a lot of deep digging on World Health Organization data as folks who’ve been listening to the four top know. And I did notice that, you know, French and Germans both drink a lot more alcohol per capita per day than Americans do. But then I looked up their average life expectancies. And guess what? French and Germans also have much longer average life expectancies than Americans do. 


[00:11:28] Martín Reyes, MW:  Right. So we do not want to correlate alcohol consumption with life expectancy. Okay. And I think that’s the mantra for this episode in general. Correlation does not guarantee causality, but this is the risk. They cannot always parse out the totality of a human life, right? Maybe the Germans and French have better healthcare systems. Maybe they eat better diets, like we referenced. They walk more in general, right? We don’t know if there’s a single contributing factor to the longer lifespans.


[00:11:58] Katherine Cole: Yeah. And I think I kind of know where you’re going to go with this. ‘Cause we’ve been talking about the, you know, all of these studies are, are equivocal. We never know precisely how much alcohol affects longevity and it’s, there are just so many factors in the way people live and any blanket statement, positive or negative about alcohol is subject to question.


[00:12:17] Martín Reyes, MW:  So these studies are ripe for interpretation. Let me give you a personal anecdote. I once conducted a study where I synthesized a large amount of data. Okay. For my master wine thesis and you, you conduct one of these studies and then you look at the data and then you interpret the findings. That’s part of what you’re supposed to do. If you’re a researcher. you’re looking to come to a definitive conclusion. Sometimes you’re biased about it. Sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you see evidence that doesn’t support your conclusion and then you ignore it. And that’s happened. That happens. That happens. That happens.


[00:12:53] Katherine Cole: Yeah, I’m such a fan of science, but science is fallible, you know, it’s not perfect. And so it’s funny because if you start to look up the papers and look up the literature, you can find just as many studies in support of drinking wine as there are discouraging people from drinking wine.


[00:13:11] Martín Reyes, MW:  Yeah, so, so generally, generally, this is what I want to talk about, the J shaped curve.  There’s lots of evidence around cardiovascular health and some cancers as well. So if you imagine that graph, that’s the dip in the J: you drink a glass of wine every night, your chances of dying are lower. But then above a certain threshold, that’s where you see the arm of that J go up and then you’re increasing your chances of dying of some disease or, or cancer or otherwise. if you’re knocking back, you know, Jack Daniels every night, a whole bottle of whatever, your chances of dying increase.


[00:13:46] Katherine Cole: Right, but what we don’t hear about in the news is the bottom of that J, and there is plenty of science out there that points to alcohol being good for our health, as I just discovered. And just this past November there was a great editorial published in Wine Industry Network. It was by the physician epidemiologist Curtis Ellison along with Creina Stockley who teaches at University of Adelaide. And this editorial stated that the risk of age related diseases and total mortality are reduced for moderate drinkers by an average of 11 percent over non-drinkers. That’s right, if you’re drinking moderately, you have significantly lower levels of cardiovascular disease. Why aren’t we hearing about this? 


[00:14:31] Martín Reyes, MW:  A lot of written blogs and articles over this past year, uh, including my friend Jamie Goode and another friend Jason Haas and Tom Wark. I wish I knew him better. Uh, we’ve got to reference this piece. 


[00:14:40] Katherine Cole: Yeah, this is a great piece by wine journalist Felicity Carter for Meininger’s International.


[00:14:45] Martín Reyes, MW:  So last year she reported on the Lifestyle, Diet, Wine & Health Congress in Toledo, Spain.


[00:14:53] Katherine Cole: Love how you say Toledo. My favorite part of her article, though, was, she’s quoting a professor, Mladen Boban from Croatia, and he and his team are looking at these studies, these alcohol studies, and they, they’re like, wait a minute. These are all self reported studies where everyone who’s talking about being a moderate drinker, they’re all saying they drink two glasses of wine per night, but we don’t really know how much they’re actually drinking. Like, I’m sorry, if you work in the wine industry, are you really just drinking two glasses per day? I don’t think so…


[00:15:24] Martín Reyes, MW:  Okay, sure. So, so, okay. Yeah. So rats, they do not lie, right? So professor Boban and his team, they subjected rats to surgically induced heart attacks. Oh gosh! 

Sorry, I’m just reading this…


[00:15:37] Katherine Cole: Oh! 


[00:15:38] Martín Reyes, MW:  Okay, so let’s, I’m trying to move past this a little bit here, but just to see about the healing process. So how the rats healed from the impact of wine. One group of rats was served a wine. The other groups were served just water. Okay, so what happened? The groups of rats that loved the wine just went bananas over it. They drank in excess. They were the binge drinkers. Surprise, surprise. The alcoholic rats died, poor rats, but here’s what’s interesting. Half of the abstaining rats who drank just water instead of wine, they also died. And the moderate wine drinking rats, ta da, none of them died.


[00:16:14] Katherine Cole: You know what else I love about this study? They were drinking white wine. Everyone thinks red wine is where you get the health benefits, but guess what? As a white wine lover, I was very happy to see that they serve these rats vintage 2015 Croatian wine. Yeah, another highlight of this article by Felicity Carter, she quotes oncologist Justus…Oh, you’re going to say this so much better, Martín. Apffelstaedt, I believe, Oh my gosh, yeah, you, you always get the accents. You’re like the Trevor Noah of the wine world with all the great accents. So, anyway, this doctor is the breast cancer expert for the nation of South Africa, and he states that only 4 percent of cancers in the world are caused by alcohol abuse. And he says, of those, the vast majority were caused by heavy drinking. It is only heavy drinking that stands out for the most common cancers.


[00:17:02] Martín Reyes, MW:  We can go on and on about hundreds of studies that show that drinking alcohol is good, but we enter part four in which we consider: why the controversy. We’re doing this episode because the WHO, the World Health Organization, they have been public about this. There’s a global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol as a public health priority. They’ve stated that no amount of alcohol is safe. And that’s what’s making the headlines. It is a 180 from the two generation consensus that wine and alcohol does have a positive effect on your health. So are we confused yet, Katherine? 


[00:17:42] Katherine Cole: Well, we are confused. 


[00:17:43] Martín Reyes, MW:  Let’s dive into why this might be the case. Remember part two of this Four Top. Alcohol at its base, at pure alcohol, is toxin, but it’s also much more complex than that. As a matter of fact, I think we’ll do another episode about how it works in the body because it’s fascinating. If anybody knows Radiolab, I want to get on there. I want to talk to them. So I’ll stop there for a moment about the science. Okay. We’ll leave, we’ll leave it there for another, another session, but In fact, there’s plenty of studies, on both sides that are often contradictory. Breast cancer is a sensitive subject. It’s an emotional one. There are studies that show both that moderate consumption increases the risk of breast cancer in women and that it decreases the risk of breast cancer. I mean, it’s, I know, it’s a shocker to hear this. I didn’t come up with this conclusion. This is, factually, out there. There are studies that show both sides. What that means is that both sides for and against can cherry pick the studies that fit their narrative.


[00:18:45] Katherine Cole: I was thinking back about the earlier point in our conversation where we were talking about alcohol abuse and, you know, I just want to reiterate, the public pays a heavy price, you know, drunk driving is no joke, lives are lost. It’s really easy to slip from a moderate level of what we understand after looking through these studies to be healthy drinking. It’s really easy to slip over that line. And I think we all have people in our lives, loved ones, friends in the wine industry who it’s really hard for them to turn that switch off. I say to friends like, hey, don’t forget right before you go to bed, have a glass of water, don’t have another glass of wine. And there are a lot of folks where they can’t, they can’t turn that switch off and switch to water. So we do want to reiterate that this is, it’s tough. It’s tough to just be a moderate drinker. 


[00:19:32] Martín Reyes, MW:  Not only that, but then therefore that’s where it becomes, you know, government officials, they feel like they have a noble duty, right? Public pays a heavy price, as you mentioned, so they see the statistics. See these deaths, these studies that do show some risk of cancer and they say, aha, look, we need to tamp this stuff down. Okay. And that’s a very fair point to, to want to save lives and have a healthier public, except for the fact that alcohol’s tricky because the nuance of this subject gets lost. And as a matter of fact, as we were planning, planning this episode, I know I sent you that audio of the talk, from Dr. Laura Catena. She’s the managing director of Bodega Catena Zapata in Argentina. She also is a practicing physician in San Francisco. And she points out that not a single government has ever authorized a randomized control study of alcohol and health, right?


[00:20:25] Katherine Cole: Yeah, when you sent me that audio, I was listening, I think I was walking the dog and every single thing she said, Laura Catena, I was like, Yes! Yes. I mean, she had so many good points. One that really struck home for me because I always get frustrated when people try to compare apples and oranges when they’re making an argument. And she says, you know, it’s really inappropriate for governments and organizations to be comparing smoking with drinking. Which is, you know, we’ve touched upon this in the past few episodes of The Four Top with, different governments pushing for increased sort of graphic images on labels of wine and pushing for high taxation of alcohol. And kind of treating it like cigarettes and like nicotine. When, you know, there are so many studies that show that any amount of smoking is bad for your health. There are plenty of studies that show this, whereas limited drinking, unlike with limited smoking, can be good for your health. And in fact, it’s been shown that lung cancer can be reduced. Alcohol can actually counter the effects of tobacco.


[00:21:28] Martín Reyes, MW: Yeah. 


[00:21:29] Katherine Cole: So, yeah, and even, you know, not sleeping well, getting less than six hours of sleep a night increases your risk of cancer. So it’s really, it’s hard to just lump alcohol in there. I’d also like to point out, I’m babbling here, but human beings have been drinking alcohol for at least 10,000 years. It’s been a part of our culture since the beginning of time. And it’s something that I think, personally, because, you know, I’m not a scientist. No, I’m not a scientist. But I just feel like it’s something that it’s easier for us to digest because we have been consuming it for tens of thousands of years. We have not been vaping for tens of thousands of years. 


[00:22:05] Martín Reyes, MW:  Yeah. You know, I’m glad you mentioned the sleep thing. Studies that showed, if you decrease to six hours of sleep, you increase your risk of cancer, like you said. So if you want to, if you wanted that to be absurd, like comparing sleep, like how many packs of cigarettes is one less hour of sleep, you can do that. You can tie anything to tobacco to make it look bad. And that’s what we see in the headlines. So that’s, it’s a false equivalent. Like you said, stop comparing apples with oranges. To build on what you said, Katherine, you mentioned earlier. Here’s the clincher: we talked both about how studies contradict each other sometimes. Lung cancer and breast cancer, there’s for and against. Some show benefits, some show decrease of health benefits from alcohol. 

Collectively, nothing’s changed. Those studies have been there this whole time. There’s hundreds. You can pick and choose. The anti-alcohol scientists often choose to exclude a large number of studies in their meta analyses. It seems they select studies that reflect what they want their results to show and exclude many studies that do not support their chosen result. It’s, it’s clearly evident that there is a public agenda. It’s a noble one. They shouldn’t stop, you know, dealing with the crisis of not just alcohol, but other substance abuses, too. But the fact is regular moderate alcohol consumption protects against fatal and non fatal cardiovascular disease and all cause mortality. It’s small, but it’s there.


[00:23:32] Katherine Cole: Thank you. I know I get so frustrated when I see these headlines and I’m like, dude, I go to yoga, I eat a Mediterranean diet, can I just have my wine? And I think after this episode, I feel like I can. Thank you. Thank you, Martín.


[00:23:43] Martín Reyes, MW:  Well, there you go listeners, we, we got to tell you there’s a, there’s a few more shockers that we could fit into this episode, but it’s getting long. So we have decided, I have to make an executive decision that we are going to review this in another episode in which I can revisit The Four Top. Katherine, you give me permission to stop by in a few weeks again.


[00:24:04] Katherine Cole: Of course. Absolutely. 


[00:24:07] Martín Reyes, MW:  Excellent. There’s, there’s, some fun stuff to get into. I just hope Radiolab listens. 


[00:24:11] Katherine Cole: Yeah. Well, you just have to bring your jokes and all of your amazing accents and impressions. 


[00:24:17] Martín Reyes, MW:  But of course, bien sûr.


[00:24:21] Katherine Cole: All right, well, let’s move on to our dessert course. And Martín, since you are the guest, please serve up some dessert.


[00:24:28] Martín Reyes, MW:  You know, I’ve, I mentioned at the beginning, I’m happy to say it again, the Netflix special it’s called Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. That’s what started this whole thing. And I highly recommend everyone watch it. And wine plays a central role in the lives of these people who live to a hundred. So it’s a perfect, the perfect dessert course for, tout le monde aujourd’hui.


[00:24:51] Katherine Cole: Oh, it’s so good. Remember when you were watching it, you kept messaging me, you’re like, you’ve got to watch this. And then I watched it. And then I started messaging all my friends, you’ve got to. 


[00:25:01] Martín Reyes, MW:  Yeah. Yeah. Shout out to Wendy for telling me that. Good friend of mine here in Benicia.


[00:25:05] Katherine Cole: Oh, thanks, Wendy. Well, with that, this has been The Four Top podcast. I am our executive producer, Katherine Cole.


[00:25:13] Martín Reyes, MW:  And I am Martín Reyes, MW.


[00:25:15] Katherine Cole: And Kielen King, silently in the background, is our sound supervisor, and he also composes and performs our wonderful theme music. Please visit our website, thefourtop.org, to learn more about us and listen to back episodes, and if you have not already subscribed on your favorite podcast app, please do so, and it’s really important, if you have a moment, to 

leave us a rating. 


[00:25:39] Martín Reyes, MW:  Hey y’all. This is important. Every reading feeds the algorithm and helps new listeners find The Four Top. 


[00:25:45] Katherine Cole: Well, from Portland, Oregon, where I am going to have a glass of wine now, This is Katherine Cole signing out. 


[00:25:51] Martín Reyes, MW:  From Benicia, soon to be in Calistoga for a sparkling bubbly release from my friend Megan Vergara, this is Martín Reyes signing out. Thank you, Megan. Stay safe out there. And hey, that might mean having a glass of wine, just one glass tonight, and thanks for listening. 


Sources & Citations

Citations reference first appearance, without repeating for subsequent usage:

[00:13:59] Wine Industry Network: Expert Editorial: Why Is Moderate Wine Consumption Being Villainized in 2023?

[00:14:35] Winemag: Jamie Goode: How much of a threat is the New Prohibitionist Movement?

[00:14:36] Tablas Creek: Wine, health, and the fool’s gold of “zero risk”

[00:14:37] Fermentation Blog: Wine and the Pleasure Calculation

[00:14:41] Meininger’s International: Wine and Health: Challenging the ‘No Safe Level’ Claims