No One Asks About Resveratrol, But They Still Care About Wine As It Relates to Health
By Jim Clarke
The conversation on wine and health has changed. Think about it: warning labels, promotional restrictions and on-premise health notices are all still in effect, but vestiges of last century—now barely noticed, hardly ever debated. Thanks to 1991’s 60 Minutes report drawing attention to a slew of medical research, the healthfulness of wine (especially red) enjoyed in moderation is generally accepted by the American public as a given.
What is important to remember, however, is that since suppliers legally cannot mention health-related factors in their promotional materials or advertising, by default that shifts the conversation to the point of sale. And with today’s society as health-conscious as ever, that means the particular role wine plays in our diets and lifestyle continues to come up, albeit in diverse ways, not always directly related to alcohol.
“I get women saying that sulfites give them headaches, or that they’re allergic to French oak,” says Brittany Hastings, Estate Sommelier at Meadowood Napa Valley, a resort and spa right in the middle of the U.S.’s toniest wine region. “I don’t try to discredit their beliefs, but I try to find a wine to accommodate them.” In an age of dietary needs and intolerances, the customer is still king, whether science is behind them or not.
We’ve all had moments where we’ve wanted to explain to the guest who only drinks white wines “because the sulfites in red wine give me a headache,” that white wines typically have more sulfites, but that is no way to make a sale. (Incidentally, the effect of a sulfite allergy is typically hives, swelling, and nausea, not headaches.) It’s frustrating when guests are misinformed, but one can certainly empathize with someone who’s concerned about their health and well-being.
Healthy Vines + Healthy Minds
In fact, many visitors come to Meadowood for their Wine & Wellness program, launched earlier this year, which combines hiking, spa treatments, meals and winery visits. “It’s easy to market to people who are concerned about the environment and what they’re putting into their bodies,” says Hastings. “We go out into the vineyard and see exactly how things are made.” It’s the farm-to-table spirit applied to the wine world.
The approach to wine and health here is not so much scientific as intuitive: Hastings focuses her program on organic and biodynamic producers. Wine marketing emphasizes the benefits of sustainability and organics in terms of the environment or a wine’s flavor and purity, but Hastings says many of her guests have made the connection between agricultural techniques and healthfulness, just as they do with food. “Obviously those chemicals are going into the soils, and in the long term, into the wine, and straight into your system.”
In retail, customer concerns might go beyond what’s in the wine, to what the wine’s in. The demographic here hinges on those for whom an active lifestyle comes first, and wine gets fit into it. “Cans, collapsible bottles [Tetra Paks], even boxed wine,” do well at Mondo Vino in Denver, says owner Duey Kratzer. With such an outdoorsy population, Denverites are looking for wines that are easily transportable: “You can take them to the park or go camping with them.” Glass bottles are not only heavy, but delicate in those circumstances. And wine is getting taken along, not so much for health benefits as merely fitting into a health-conscious activities.
Specific dietary demands can affect sales, if in mysterious ways. Vegetarians, for example, apparently don’t drink as much. “I’m not sure why,” says Amanda Cohen, chef and owner at Manhattan’s vegetarian destination Dirt Candy, “but it’s definitely true and other chefs have reported the same. We actually get about half our guests who drink as much as I would expect, and a few who drink less, but the graph gets really skewed because there are about a third who don’t drink at all.”
Facing this reality, Cohen tries to maximize her wine list’s appeal to guests who are looking to enjoy themselves, rather than those who are “hung up” on particular health issues.
That means making sure the wines on the list pair well with vegetables. She explains: “Traditionally vegetables get paired with white wines, and I actually think that’s so limited. My heart sinks when I go to a restaurant that specializes in vegetables and their list is just a bunch of Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. I’ve found that Greek and Italian whites go great with vegetables because they’re a little less structured than French whites, and something like a Coda di Volpe has some saltiness that actually enhances the flavor of the dish.”
Cohen says vegans aren’t necessarily even more reluctant to order wine, even though egg whites and isinglass (made from fish bladders) are common fining agents. The fact that she has many natural wines on her list also makes it easy to accommodate them. Other popular diets, like gluten-free or Paleo, also rarely run afoul of wine. The latter is based on our modern understanding of what our early ancestors would have eaten, and while there’s no evidence winemaking goes back to Paleolithic times, Dr. Loren Cordain, the diet’s creator, says it also can help people stay on the diet by giving them a place to indulge a little.
He also points out that, regardless of diet, “moderate wine drinking has been shown to have many therapeutic health effects.” Something to always bear in mind, in case your guests need a reminder.