Monday, 15 February 2010

Wine and health

More than ever, we live in a world of symbols. In a strange form of metonymy, our interpretation of what goes on around us often takes the radical part to symbolise the whole. Artists are a crazy bunch of pig-tattoists, Muslims are all potential terrorists, and all wine drinkers are alcoholics.

Alcohol abuse now has to stand for everything, from a few beers down the pub, to a Valentine's day bottle of fizz, to dropping neat vodka into your eyeballs. Soon, all bottles of wine will carry health warnings - along with anything else that contains alcohol. Like the whole school being kept in an assembly until someone owns up to breaking a window, it has become not only academic to group all alcohol together in one massive social problem, it has become imperative to punish everyone for it.

Health warnings are an unusual thing in that, because they feature on a product one takes home, they represent an attempt to regulate our private lives. For health warnings not to be so duplicitous, they would have to be inscribed in wine glasses in bars and restaurants.

In a bizarre compromise to the foundation of our society (business), health warnings do not prohibit one from buying such a dangerous product, they merely invest us with a feeling of guilt once we have done so.

And here we enter into Slavoj Zizek territority. The Slovenijan cultural critic claims that the freer we are, the more we want to censure our freedom.

From whence we get butter without fat, laxative chocolate, virtual sex, and, yes, you guessed it: low-alcohol wine.

Here another aspect comes into play: the need in our society to be seen to be doing the 'right' thing. Low-alcohol wine is the talk of wine journalism at the moment because it combines the enjoyment of wine without the guilt of alcohol. That would be great if we were all going out to buy German Riesling, but we're not. Big producers are getting the Reverse Osmosis machines out, and while we try to do better by ourselves we de-naturalise the very thing we love.

Unnaturally low-alcohol wine is a horrible con, perpetuated by our desire to be seen to be 'doing something'.

And who are we doing it for? Denis Saverot, editor of the French wine magazine La Revue de Vin de France' argues in his book In Vino Satanas that the health lobbies and scientists, responsible for making clear the dangers of wine, are mostly funded by large pharmeceutical groups. It is no coincidence, says Saverot, that wine consumption in France has declined, while the taking of pills and drugs (a massive phenomenon in France) has increased. Essentially, he says, its drugs versus drink.

Saverot might be overstating the case, but it is worth remembering that much scientific (health) research is paid for, often indirectly, by pharmaceutical companies. I doubt I need to make a case against these massive businesses, but it is worth remembering that while the likes of Alice Feiring may despair at the state of the wine world today, she has no compunction about divulging which pills she drops to get through a long-haul flight.

So, as we watch our pleasures getting driven indoors by the health police, it might be time to wonder if we really should be listening to those who tell us they know best. It might be worth bearing this in mind:

"The state is based on this contradiction. It is based on the contradiction between public and private life, between universal and particular interests. For this reason, the state must confine itself to formal, negative activities."

Karl Marx

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