Word that red wine is good for you has been around ever since 60 Minutes famously aired a report on "The French Paradox" in 1991. The CBS television newsmagazine examined the question: How could the French eat all that fatty, egg- and cream-rich food and not suffer the kind of heart disease we Americans do? Regular consumption of red wine was part of the answer, the show declared.
Red wine sales shot up dramatically.
Ever since, scientific studies have emerged linking consumption of red wine with good health and aging. Last November, a study sponsored by the Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging found that adding resveratrol, a compound found in nuts, grapes and red wine, to the diet of aging, overweight mice had a beneficial impact on their health and survival.
"The findings are the first to demonstrate that resveratrol, an activator of a family of enzymes called sirtuins, could affect the health and survival of mammals," the institute said.
OK, so that's good news for overweight mice, but what about the rest of us? The institute notes that much still has to be done to determine resveratrol's safety and effectiveness in humans.
The verdict also is out with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Heart Association. Both institutions point out the health risks of drinking alcohol and urge moderate consumption, if at all. The American Heart Association defines "moderate" as one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. That drink is defined by the USDA as 4 ounces of wine. Those who don't drink shouldn't be swayed to start by the claim of health benefits, the association said.
All this is sage advice, but a bounce in red-wine sales was noticed immediately after the mice-study findings were issued.
Red-wine sales grew by 8 percent in just four weeks, according to an ACNielsen report issued in December.
"It certainly appears that the weight of favorable red-wine press, on the heels of the Harvard Medical School report, impacted consumer choice within the wine category," Danny Brager, vice president of client service for ACNielsen's Beverage Alcohol Team, said at the time.
ACNielsen has continued to watch red-wine-sales figures and it's clear from the numbers that the increase was no mere blip on the charts. A recent report shows red-wine sales continue on a "healthy roll."
Red wine trailed white wine in terms of sales growth through last October; then the trend reversed. But couldn't some of that growth be because of the natural shift in taste toward red when the weather gets cold?
Brager said ACNielsen factored in a seasonal shift to red wine by comparing sales figures for the same 16-week period going back a number of years. While red wine's dollar share has grown over this period, which runs through mid-February, every year since 2003, the ACNielsen study found the share jumped from 51.6 percent in 2006 to 52.9 percent in 2007. The increase was only 0.5 percent to 2006 from 2005.
The red-wine drinker also "skews older, and to more affluent communities," according to ACNielsen.
That's not necessarily news to Brager, who said the mainstay of the wine trade, be it red or white, has been older consumers. What ACNielsen is doing is following up on anecdotal evidence that younger people aged 21 to 34 are choosing wine and spirits in lieu of beer.
Increasing red-wine sales are no surprise to Gladys Horiuchi, communication manager for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, a trade group. While news reports on red wine and health may play a part, she also thinks another element is involved: taste.
"I think the American consumer is simply becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable about wine," she said. "They may start out with whites and blushes, but as their taste matures, they are probably trying many of the classic wines, many of which happen to be red."
Bill Daley writes for the Chicago Tribune.