Vintners Rally Against Criticism

Times Wine Writer

Responding to what he believes are unfair attacks on wine in the United States, wine maker Robert Mondavi last week unveiled his plan to defend the beverage by discussing it in terms of art, music, history and culture. His defense plan even includes a discussion by physicians of its health benefits.

The so-called Mondavi Mission was a one-day series of seminars here in which experts in various fields tried to show that wine, unlike its cousin potables, beer and spirits, is historically part of fine dining. They praised it as a beverage of health when consumed in moderation, contending that it enhanced life and did not warrant being called into disrepute.

Safety Concerns

Still, all speakers acknowledged that the product could be abused, and many warned that their comments should be tempered by the fact that wine did, after all, contain alcohol, which lately has been under attack because of possible effects on unborn babies and allegations that alcohol consumption causes cancer and has other side effects.


Mondavi said he created this symposium as an answer to what he said were Neo-Prohibitionists who want all beverages that contain alcohol to be banned or at least labeled as a health hazard.

“It is time for physicians to tell people of the healthful benefits of wine taken in moderation,” said Mondavi, 75.

However, a wine industry consultant who asked for anonymity said he believed Mondavi created the Mission because he was “furious that the (Wine) Institute and Gallo haven’t done anything to promote wine as a healthful beverage.” The consultant said the San Francisco-based institute, the industry’s trade association, “is so fearful of product liability lawsuits that they aren’t saying anything” that might make a health statement about wine.

John De Luca, president of the institute, said, “I have supported what Robert Mondavi has done because many of the elements (of the symposium) are similar to things we have done in the past. But Mondavi brought it to a state of perfection that we never did.”

By coincidence, last Thursday, the day after the Mondavi symposium, the executive committee of the institute met in San Francisco to hear complaints from several wineries who believe their product has not been adequately defended by the trade association.

The Smaller Wineries

The meeting was precipitated by a petition signed last April 27 by 55 smaller wineries--all with production of fewer than 200,000 cases a year. The petition sought a more active voice for smaller wineries in how the institute’s campaigns are coordinated.

In particular, the smaller wineries (which included such prestigious names as Matanzas Creek, Arrowood, Girard, Sonoma Cutrer and Jordan) asked the institute to begin “wine with food programs to offset prohibitionist threats.” The wineries suggested that the institute initiate a campaign to promote the premise that “wine is the answer, not the problem.”

The smaller wineries also wanted the institute to address “warning label issues from the point of view of premium producers.”

The institute responded by forming a small-winery committee to study the suggestions. But a source close to that committee said the institute fears that an affirmative-action campaign such as the one suggested would be dangerous and could lead to liability lawsuits.

Moreover, it was learned last week that an official of a foreign trade association, that asked not to be named, said he offered institute president De Luca funds to participate in a campaign to discuss the health benefits of wine. That offer was rejected, said the official.

It was learned last week that a series of free educational and promotional booklets that the institute used to distribute to the public have been sealed by the institute. De Luca said the literature was under review by the institute’s outside attorneys, who are checking if the booklets could possibly contain claims for wine that the attorneys feel may not be warranted by scientific facts.

At the executive committee meeting, Mondavi and Jack Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards presented separate plans to develop active campaigns outside the purview of the institute. One insider at the meeting called it a “mini-revolt.”

‘Steam Is Building’

A winery executive who asked for anonymity commented on the small wineries’ irritation at its own trade organization: “The steam is building up. We want the services of a trade association and what we’re getting is apparently an attempt to combine with the brewers and distillers to make political deals.” De Luca said no political deals have been made with distillers and brewers.

Bill MacIver, co-owner of Matanzas Creek and one of those who signed the April petition, said in an interview late last week: “Wine is under attack today and the institute has done little if anything to bring out the scientific facts about the benefits of wine.”

The health issue was discussed the day before at the Mondavi Mission as various speakers pointed to wine as a natural part of many cultures down through the ages, including its religious use, largely by Christians, Jews and Egyptians, and as a beverage that may have benefits when consumed with reason.

Dr. Keith Marton, chairman of the department of medicine at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco, spoke of the dangers of all alcoholic beverages:

“There is clear-cut data that show that if you drink lots and lots of alcohol you die pretty early--you get cirrhosis, you get cancer of the liver, you get cancer of the esophagus. And if women drink very large amounts of alcohol, a pint to a quart of whiskey per day while they’re pregnant, they are very likely to have children who have very large defects . . . known as the fetal alcohol syndrome.

“On the other hand, there are data to show that alcohol consumed in modest amounts doesn’t necessarily translate into the same kinds of effects. As far as heart disease goes, those data are very clear; that people who drink the equivalent of one to two glasses of wine per day have a significantly lower level of heart attacks and cardiovascular morbidity and mortality than people who either drink no alcohol or people who drink large amounts of alcohol.

“Alcohol (raises) high-density lipoproteins in the blood, which is the protective form of cholesterol, but those high-density lipoproteins begin to fall once people stop drinking that amount of alcohol.”

Regarding allegations that consumption of alcohol causes breast cancer, Marton said, “The data are really unclear. Two recent studies (one done at Harvard Medical Center and one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta) indicate no correlation between alcohol and breast cancer.”

As for fetal alcohol syndrome, Marton said public concern over it “has led to concern that the consumption of any alcohol would lead to increased numbers of birth defects. There have been no data showing that consumption of the equivalent of one to two glasses of wine per day has any adverse effect on unborn children.”

Marton said it was a matter for each woman to decide. “I see some women in my office who say, ‘Wine is a very important part of my life. What will happen if I continue to drink a glass of wine a day during my pregnancy?’ And I tell them, ‘Nothing. Your chances of having a child with a problem will be no greater than they would be if you drank no wine at all.’ ” But he noted that for those who want to feel risk-free, abstention from all alcohol may let them sleep easier.

Study Is Difficult

He said it is difficult to do a controlled study of the effects of alcohol because “it’s very hard to find a person who is a pure alcoholic but who lives a very healthful and nutritious life otherwise.”

Typically such people smoke, consume caffeine and other drugs, and scientists can’t determine the effect of alcohol alone: “Is it the alcohol or is it some other aspect of their behavior that contributed to the problem?’

Moreover, with cirrhosis and cancer and other “diseases that take many years to develop,” he said, “there usually are not unifactorial causes. There are multiple causes that are interrelated.

“What it comes down to is the issue of balance. There are risks and there are benefits, and you have to understand that they are a matter of magnitude. Every substance we encounter has some kind of risk,” he said.

Marton was asked his opinion on the warning labels on wine that say “Contains Sulfites.” He said, “I think those labels are really funny . . . to think someone thinks they can have an effect with that kind of label.”

He added, “The amount of sulfites in wine is really minuscule and I am personally unaware of anyone who has ever had a serious allergic reaction to sulfites in wine.” Queried about a link between migraines and wine consumption, Marton said he could not link headaches to wine consumption, and that he could not find any example of wine causing headaches.

However, in a British study, reported in Lancet, March 1988, Dr. Paul Scholten of San Francisco wrote about the phenomenon of red wine, but not white wine, causing migraine headaches in subjects who were prone to migraines. Scholten said the only difference between red and white wines was that red wine contains phenolic flavinoids; white wine does not. Among those flavinoids are anthrocyanines, which are enzyme inhibitors and which could be a cause of such headaches, he said. Anthrocyanines diminish as a wine ages, and thus migraines are not as likely to be caused by older red wines, Scholten theorized.

After the symposium, Mondavi announced he had received $35,000 in donations for a wine cultural fund and would seek to get the word out about wine’s place in society. It was learned that a good portion of the funds had come from overseas. Robert Mondavi did not reveal it, but other sources said that most of the funds he collected for a wine educational and cultural fund came from Italian and French contributors, probably trade organizations eager to combat the growing tide of prohibitionism in the United States.

Wine of the Week: 1987 Brander Chardonnay ($12)--Striking example of depth and delicacy. Half of this wine was fermented in stainless steel, the rest went into oak for an extended amount of time. The result is a spicy, delicate aroma with some tropical fruit flavors. There is a load of complexity in the mouth, yet the overall impression is lean and relatively straightforward. But with a year or two in the bottle, it should grow into something dramatic.