The healthfulness of wine drinking

By Jamie Goode | 9th November 2023

In a week’s time I’ll be heading to South Africa again, but this time on holiday with my partner, who has never visited before. I’m looking forward to showing her some of my favourite places, and of course making some new discoveries together. We have just 8 days, and we’ll be spending much of it in wine country: the various wine regions around Cape Town, including Stellenbosch, Constantia, Franschhoek and Hemel-en-Aarde. And although this is holiday, there will be wine involved, both in terms of eating out, and also visiting a few wine farms.

The healthfulness of wine drinking

Wine is part of the tourist offering of the Western Cape, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who has even the slightest interest in wine not being enthralled by a visit to wine country here, whether it’s to the grand estates of Stellenbosch, the history-rich wine farms of Constantia, the gastronomic hub of Franschhoek or the boutique sophistication of Hemel-en-Arde’s wineries. But there is a cloud on the horizon, and this is the growing motivation of public health officials to make alcohol the new tobacco by claiming that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

Yes, it’s clear that when alcohol is abused that it can cause significant health and social problems. But the answer to mis-use is not dis-use, but correct use. Many people, if not most people, enjoy the social aspects of alcohol and use it safely. And the science is quite clear: if you look at a population level, and plot mortality on the x-axis of a graph against alcohol consumption on the y-axis, the curve takes the shape of the letter J. That is, taking people who don’t drink as a baseline, the risk of death goes down with alcohol consumption, reaching the lowest risk (the nadir of the curve) at moderate consumption levels, and then rises. This is a reproducible finding and remains when other factors are controlled for (e.g. income level, exercise) and never-drinkers are used as the baseline (weeding out people who have stopped drinking alcohol because of ill health: the sick quitters).

The spectre of prohibition was raised during the Covid lockdowns in South Africa, when the sale of alcohol was banned. The motivation was to relieve pressure on hospitals, but it caused a lot of problems for the wine industry. Could this be a glimpse of the future?

Against this backdrop, I think it’s important to focus on how wine can be healthful, and a great positive when used correctly. It would be entirely wrong to think, like some public health officials seem to, that if we can save 10 000 (or however many) lives a year by giving up our selfish desire to drink alcohol, then we should. First of all, prohibition like this has been tried in the USA from 1919 to 1933 and it didn’t work, creating as many problems as it was intended to solve. Secondly, it’s a very impoverished view of life. Aside from the strong evidence that for some groups (particularly those at risk of cardiovascular disease) moderate drinking actually benefits health, the culture of drinking wine with meals or sharing a drink with friends at a bar is incredibly life affirming.

We are social animals. We love to congregate and enjoy each other’s company. We spend lots of money in eating together, and when we eat together we are invariably presented with a wine list. Why? Because when people sit down and share a glass of wine, they tend to open up to each other. Wine (and other alcoholic drinks) play an important social role. It’s also interesting to note that wine also serves a religious role, perhaps most notably in Christianity where it is symbolic of the blood of Jesus. It is deeply ingrained into many human cultures. Historically, if you take someone from a traditional wine-producing country and transplant them to Australia, New Zealand or the USA, for example, one of the first things they will try to do is either plant a vineyard or get hold of grapes to make some wine: the culture of drinking wine with meals is firmly entrenched in these countries, and it’s a very positive one.

There’s a cultural richness about wine that transports people to a time and a place through the liquid in the glass. Combine this with the healthful effects of socializing with friends and family, and wine drinking becomes a compelling, attractive activity that we should be celebrating. Yes: we do need the reminders about the potential dangers, but if we were to live a risk-averse, sheltered life, the extra years we might gain from not travelling in a car, not going skiing, avoiding city centres after 10 pm, not cycling, never eating a dessert and myriad other activities that carry some risk would probably be rather dull. I get quite annoyed by the public health officials who want to strip us of all our pleasures, especially when the evidence really does suggest that moderate drinking is beneficial to health.

So I’m really looking forward to next week. It’s a holiday, so I won’t be doing what I normally do on a work trip and arranging back-to-back winery visits, with lunches and dinners (although I do enjoy trips like this). But as well as exploring the lovely scenery of the Western Cape in early summer, we’ll be eating and drinking, and visiting a few wineries as tourists. When we do this, we won’t be thinking about the potential health effects, positive or negative, associated with each sip of wine. That would be weird. We will drink in moderation, although my definition of moderation might be different to that of some others, and I think it promises to be a lovely time. I can’t wait.