Cheers! A little wine is good for you and the federal budget


February 24, 1993|By ROB KASPER

WASHINGTON — The luncheon salad was green, crunchy with strips of beet. The luncheon chardonnay, a 1990 BV Caneros Reserve, was perfect. And the main speaker, Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, chairman of the department of epidemiology at Harvard University's School of Public Health, was reassuring. He said drinking moderate amounts of wine, white or red, had more health benefits than risks for healthy adults.

It was a fitting way to kick off Wine Appreciation Week, Feb. 21-27.

But amid the chardonnay sipping and salad crunching at the National Press Club gathering, there was talk of "sin" and "new taxes." And that did not go down well with the nation's winemakers.

John DeLuca, president of the Wine Institute, a trade group, was upset by reports that the Clinton administration was considering paying for its health care programs by putting new taxes on alcoholic beverages.

"We just gave," said DeLuca, referring to the 90-cent-per-gallon increase a federal tax put on wine in 1991.

Moreover, the winemakers didn't like being being lumped in with other so-called sinners as likely targets for new health taxes -- people like cigarette makers, polluters and firearms manufacturers.

"Never again," DeLuca said, "should wine be labeled as 'sin.' "

"I know we are a traditional chicken you pull feathers from," said Barry Sterling of California's Ironhorse Vineyards, referring to rumors of new taxes. "But I do object to linking wine drinking to those kind of health problems."

In another part of Washington, George A. Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, spoke up for the idea of taxing wine to pay for health care.

The higher taxes, he said, would discourage alcohol abuse. The 1991 federal tax increase was the first such increase the wine industry had faced since the 1950s, he said, adding the wine industry's argument that wine is a beverage of moderation with few health costs "broke down" when applied to sales of fortified wines with over 14 percent alcohol, and to wine coolers. Such wines, he said, are not typically consumed either in moderation or with food.

According to 1991 figures provided by the Wine Institute, fortified wine accounted for 7.5 percent of the wine sold in the United States, and wine coolers represented 13 percent of the total. The majority of wine sold, 68 percent, was table wine. Sparkling wine accounted for 7 percent of the total, and flavored wines, such as sangria, were about 4 percent.

Dr. Trichopoulos gave the lunching vintners some good news. He reviewed studies pointing toward a connection between moderate wine drinking and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

He said that daily wine drinking was a common component of the traditional diet of Mediterranean people, whose good health he and other Harvard researchers are studying.

His Mediterranean Diet Pyramid recommends small amounts of meat, big portions of grains and vegetables, daily doses of exercise, and olive oil. It closely resembles the food guide pyramid put out recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture except that the Mediterranean pyramid includes wine, while the USDA pyramid does not.

I asked Dr. Trichopoulos exactly what constitutes "moderate" wine drinking. Two to three glasses of wine with meals per day for men are moderate, he said, or one to two glasses a day for women. Women are generally smaller than men and absorb the alcohol at a different rate, he said.

Drinking the wine with meals appears to have both a moderating effect on the amount of wine drunk and on the way the body processes it, he said.

Dr. Trichopoulos, a native of Greece, said the glasses should be the small "Greek glasses," of about 4 ounces -- not, he said, pointing to glasses on the table in front of him, ones as big as water goblets.

He offered an admittedly unscientific guide to wine drinking: "The first glass is for health. The second glass is for love. The third glass is to fall asleep."

Back in Baltimore, Dr. Peter Kwiterovich, a heart researcher at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, said he was "generally cautious" in making recommendations about wine drinking.

The research does not mean that people should start drinking wine, he said.

On hearing that moderate wine drinking may be good for them, people tend to "go overboard," he said.

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