In a recent column, Slate.com wine writer Mike Steinberger wonders why Americans seem to have an obsession with the health benefits of wine. The latest wine and health discoveries are regularly trumpeted in the mainstream news, and CBS News show "60 Minutes" recently ran a follow-up report to its famous 1991 "French Paradox" segment. (The 'paradox' was that the French eat all kinds of delicious fatty cheeses and drink gallons of red wine, yet they're healthier than the fatties in the USA.)
And unlike Americans, Steinberger points out, the French and Italians don't sit around all day yammering about the merits of resveratrol or antioxidants in wine--they just drink the stuff.
Steinberger goes on to theorize that our national wine-and-health obsession stems from the same mania that causes Americans to chase crazy diet schemes. (What, you mean I can spend all day at the all-you-can-eat bacon buffet and still lose weight? Sign me up!) The news that wine might actually be good for us is like finding out that eating fried chicken twice a week can help us live to be 100, and look like Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie while we're doing it. Who wouldn't want to embrace something like that?
While it's likely that there's some truth in the magic-bullet theory, I think the reasons for Americans' interest in wine's health benefits go deeper than that--and further back in history.
Though the Puritans that first settled in America drank in moderation and even made their own wine from local fruits, trouble was brewing. By the early 1800s, a religion-fueled national temperance movement had cropped up to blame booze for all of society's evils. This, of course, led to the buzz-killing social experiment of Prohibition, when for 13 miserable years partaking of the occasional glass of wine or mug of beer was not only frowned upon, but against the law. This happened not in distant centuries past, but during the lifetimes of our grandparents.
Just as enjoying a daily glass of wine is a long-established part of the culture in European countries, abstaining from that glass (or feeling like we should) is deeply ingrained in Americans' cultural mindset. And make no mistake, the effects of Prohibition and the temperance movement are still with us today. Consider this sobering statistic: 40% of American adults don't drink--often because it's against their religion. Translation: Drinking is a sin.
So imagine the thrill we imbibers felt when we heard the news: Wine is actually good for you! Rather than leading to inevitable ruin or eternal damnation, it can make you healthier and help you live longer. Hallelujah and pass the Zinfandel!
Americans have been shamed about the 'vice' of drinking for so many decades that many people actually felt like they needed justification for their mealtime glass of wine. When the "60 Minutes" "French Paradox" segment reported that the French live longer, healthier lives than Americans thanks to red wine, there was nearly a stampede to the Carlo Rossi aisle at supermarkets across America.
And was it because Americans are obsessed with being healthy and living forever? I doubt it. More likely, it was because we were finally being given a license to drink wine--without a guilt chaser.
So let's all raise a glass to resveratrol: To your health!