Monday, April 29, 2024

The (curious) saga of health and drinking wine continues

There are now increasingly vociferous anti-alcohol messages emerging from the World Health Organization. I am concerned about this as a (retired) scientist. I am concerned, not because I have anything original to offer in the matter, but because I do care about scientific and medical data. There appears to be very little data in support of the WHO, in the sense that there is at least as much data refuting their position as there is supporting it (see my post: Science and wine).

The issue is thus that Health risks should be discussed with evidence from all sides: “Alcohol abuse is a serious matter, which deserves a serious discussion. However, any position which aims to stop advancement should provide data to support its conclusion. Doing otherwise does a disservice to everyone involved.”

So, at the moment there are lots of discussions of health and alcohol, some of which I have linked below. Here, I hope to synthesize some of the arguments, in order to clarify them. I have discussed this topic several times before in this blog, over the past couple of years, and I will link to some of those posts below, for further information. Indeed, I have previously asked: Aren’t you sick of hearing about wine and health? Well, my main answer to that is my own viewpoint: A scientist looks at alcohol and health, and is concerned.

WHO logo

My main concern is the explicitly stated WHO claim that alcohol is toxic to the human body: No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health (“Risks start from the first drop” — Dr. Carina Ferreira-Borges, WHO European Regional Advisor for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs). This is patent nonsense within the biological sciences (my speciality), and so the medical people cannot justifiably claim its inherent veracity. I have introduced the WHO’s situation in: Who started the current WHO completely negative attitude towards alcohol?

The basic issue is that almost everything is toxic to living beings at some concentration, and we need to be told this level, if the information is to be of some practical use to us — some things are toxic even at very low levels, while others do not become toxic until there is a lot of it, and we need to know which is which. Importantly, there are actually two things we need to know. There is usually a level below which the substance has one negative effect on us (“too little”), and another level above which it has a different negative effect (“too much”) — in between is “just right” for continued life.

This applies to everything, not just alcohol, including oxygen and water, which I am sure you agree we really do need to have “just right”. Too little oxygen and we suffer what is called Hypoxemia, and too much oxygen is called Hyperoxia — in between we live to a ripe old age. Too little water is called dehydration, and too much is called drowning — in between we maintain our bodies healthily.

This situation is technically called a J-curve (shown in the next picture), which I have discussed in more detail (with examples) in: A scientist looks at alcohol and health, and is concerned. What concerns me most is that WHO makes no mention of this situation at all — to them, increasing alcohol is increasing danger. * However, science shows that for living organisms there is usually a borderline for most substances — above this line the substance is toxic (ie. can cause disability or death) and below this it has a whole other set of effects.

J-curve description

Well, the same thing is true for what we call “drinking” alcohol, also called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. ** The human body metabolizes it to acetaldehyde (by the chemical process of oxidation), which is what causes the hangover — this is because acetaldehyde is a carcinogen, and poses notably greater toxicity in humans than does ethanol itself. In other words, many of the health hazards in humans typically associated with ethanol consumption can be attributed to acetaldehyde toxicity, rather than to the ethanol itself (see: The effects of alcohol on the human body).

However, acetaldehyde also has the J-curve, where there is a lower limit below which it has no noticeable effect (the body protects itself from any harm by converting the acetaldehyde to acetate, a harmless fatty acid), and an upper limit above which the acetaldehyde turns nasty on us. So, if we keep our intake below the latter level, then we are fine. This is very important for a very practical reason: acetaldehyde occurs in all sorts of things that we treat as regular foodstuffs. Indeed, Lewis Perdue (who founded Wine Industry Insight, and ran its News Fetch newsletter) has pointed out (The hidden hitches in Dry January/Mediterranean diet plans) just how long this list is, including: apples, coffee, cheese, yogurt, chicken, green tea ...

You should definitely read that linked article,*** because the list of what we consider to be perfectly normal (safe) foods, but which contain acetaldehyde, is impressively long. An abbreviated version is also available at: Lewis Perdue’s analysis of Dry January & alcohol cancer claims:
Why Lewis Perdue believes cancer links to alcohol are over stated. If you are in the midst of Dry January here is a sobering analysis by US wine and medical writer, Lewis Perdue, into the scientific and medical research and health claims made by certain US government regulators and alcohol control organisations about how damaging drinking alcohol is and in particular the supposed threat of the acetaldehyde compound commonly found in alcohol beverages that is claimed to be linked to cancer. Research and evidence that Perdue believes is far from proven.
The basic point here is that a normal Mediterranean diet contains alcohol, especially with meals. People have been living on this diet for many centuries, but only by controlling their alcohol intake, and consuming it mostly with food. This topic is discussed in more detail in: Underrated aspects of a true Mediterranean diet.

Mediterranean diet

For most of us, however, there is a catch, as pointed out in that last article:
Most existing research on the health effects of alcohol has been conducted in populations outside the Mediterranean region, where drinking patterns differ significantly from those of the traditional Mediterranean diet. Therefore, future studies are needed to investigate the impact of different drinking occasions and patterns more precisely. These studies could provide a clearer scientific basis for recommendations on alcohol consumption, balancing the need for caution against potential benefits when consumed moderately or as part of meals.
Sadly, doing proper scientific experiments (what is technically called: A Randomized Control Study) is difficult on humans, especially with regard to human behavior. This is because we cannot properly control what the people taking part in the experiment actually do, day by day (see: The fight over moderate drinking: why studies on effects are unlikely to happen). So, most experiments rely on self-reported behavior by the people involved, which is a poor substitute (see, as an example: Why are older Americans drinking so much?). Technically speaking, the studies thus confuse cause with correlation (as done, for example, by the American College of Physicians, in their current policy brief: Excessive Alcohol Use and Alcohol Use Disorders).

It is sometimes argued that Health risks should be discussed with evidence from all sides, but it is actually best to focus only on the best experiments. I have contributed a few posts of my own on this topic:


The bottom line, however, is the increasing negative societal attitude (Is wine heading for an iceberg?), just like the lead-up to Prohibition exactly a hundred years ago in the USA (1920–1933) (How neo-prohibitionists came to shape alcohol policy). In practice, this is leading to the requirement for containers of beer, wine and liquor sold to have cancer-warning labels (Should alcoholic beverages have cancer warning labels?). Ireland, for example, will require them starting in 2026.

This places alcohol in the same position as tobacco (Is wine the “2024 cigarette”? Younger generations say all alcohol is ‘literally poison’), which I have discussed before (Is consuming wine really as unhealthy as tobacco?). Next, they will presumably put these warnings on the sun, which is far and away the biggest cause of skin cancer, especially in places like Australia (where I grew up, and had my first skin cancer removed at age 27).

There are none so blind as those who will not see. The so-called “sober curious” are currently not seeing very much. Even the national liquor chain here in Sweden is getting in on the act: “alcohol consumption in Sweden fell during the past year, by 2.7 percent. It is a positive trend that benefits public health”.

* For a discussion of the WHO and their failure to ever mention the J-curve, see: Wine and health: challenging the ‘no safe level’ claims.

** Wine contains many chemicals, of course; see: The effect of red wine is different from white: did you know that?

*** Disclosure: I made a small contribution to this web page.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Some (new) notes on Rudy Kurniawan and his activities

Rudy Kurniawan is a well-known name in the wine industry, especially in the USA. He was born in Indonesia, but he attended California State University (Northridge) from 1998, and so became integrated into American society. Sadly, he then became a well-known wine forger, and was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in 2013, then being released in 2020 and being returned to Indonesia.

However, it seems to me that some of the numbers cited with regard to his original case do not add up sensibly; and I discuss here some notes from one of my correspondents that might shed some light on the matter.

Rudy Kurniawan

Kurniawan apparently acquired a taste for fine wine in c. 2000, and became a purchaser of old and expensive bottles. Indeed, by the end of 2006 we he was reported by The Los Angeles Times ($75,000 a case? He’s buying) like this:
Kurniawan’s outsize taste for old wine, however, has changed the market, say auction house insiders. Since he started buying, prices for rare wine have skyrocketed. As he stepped up his acquisitions in 2004, a dozen other ultra-rich buyers emerged to compete with him for the best bottles. And the market for old wine exploded.
Not bad for a recent migrant. The newspaper article further notes:
It was at a birthday dinner honoring his father at a restaurant on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf just before he died that Kurniawan took his first sip of fine wine — a 1995 Opus One, the most expensive wine on the list at $150 a bottle. The restaurant is long forgotten, he says, but after that first taste, wine became a consuming passion.
Some of Rudy's discarded fakes

Turning now to the scale of his nefarious activities. Most commentaries tend to be sensationalist, and therefore quote dollar amounts, like $150 million, for the amount of fake wine involved. Few articles have looked at the number of bottles. The best of them is: Running the numbers on Rudy’s fake wines. This article translates the dollar amount as 70,000 bottles, and questions whether this is even feasible in the 10 years available.

Obviously it is not feasible, but nor are some of the other numbers bandied around. For example, the 2016 Sour Grapes documentary notes at the end: “It is estimated that there may be as many as 10,000 of Rudy’s bottles still in private collections”, while The Globe and Mail review of that documentary (Caper-tale doc explores a world of greed, wine and money) suggests 40,000.

Let’s do some basic maths. Even the most wildly optimistic estimate might suggest that Rudy spent 30 minutes to create a fake bottle of wine — from sampling the fraudulent wine blend for verisimilitude, creating the fake front and back wine labels using his laptop computer and digital scanner/printer, marking up the cork, and affixing the “correct” looking capsule. That’s only 2 fake bottles per hour of time, perhaps three.

So, 10,000 bottles equals 5,000 hours. A 40-hour week yields 125 full weeks of doing little else than bottle wine. Is this likely?

My correspondent in answering this question is Bob Henry, a wine consultant based on the west coast of the USA.* He comments:
I knew Rudy fairly well. We first met when he would hang out on weekends at Pasadena Wine Merchants, near Caltech. I managed the wine bar on Fridays and Saturdays; he visited and sampled. He later joined my wine-tasting luncheons here in Los Angeles, each based on a “theme”.
He liked to drink and eat and have long conversations about the finer things in life. He hated actually “working”. I can’t see him having created that many fake bottles of wine. Rudy is many things, but having an indefatigable “work ethic” to crank out tens of thousands of fake wine bottles is not one of them. He liked to party very late into the night with his wine friends (not me), and then sleep in late.
An Opus One line-up

Bob (a former administrator for one of the leading law schools in the U.S.A.), and his friendly acquaintanceship with Kurniawan, should not, of course, be misconstrued as him condoning any of Rudy's nefarious deeds.

Anyway, one of the wine-tastings that Bob mentions above is especially worth looking at here (see the table below). Bob continues:
Rudy attended many of my organized wine-tasting luncheons here in Los Angeles. His participation preceded his nefarious deeds… The first event he attended was a 20-year-vertical of Opus One [1979–1998], in 2001 (or perhaps 2002). The first “great” wine he claimed he ever tasted [see the quote above]. Before the tasting began, Rudy predicted from his first-hand drinking experience that the 1996 vintage would show best / be the preferred wine. And he was correct.
He brought to the event the first three vintages in magnums. I sourced the next 17 consecutive vintages in 750ml format. The wines were not tasted “single blind”, because I wanted to showcase how the wine’s style evolved over time, through successive “hands” of winemakers. First “style” from the outset was very “French-like” due to the influence of the folks at Mouton. Second “style” was more of a hybrid between France and California. Third “style” is distinctively Californian. No-one confuses it with a red Bordeaux these days.
Results of the Opus One vertical tasting

For reports on more recent Opus One verticals, by other people, see:
Anyway, there you have it. It seems to me that Rudy Kurniawan was credited by those who met him with having a superb wine palate, especially for older vintages. It seems to me that, with a palate like that, he might have done a lot better by creating his own legitimate wines, rather than by misleadingly imitating those of others. Sadly, his fame apparently continues, in SE Asia, where the drinkers know they are getting a re-creation: Wine forger who duped Hollywood producers and California billionaires strikes back.

* Bob Henry CV:
  • consumer goods marketing advisor
  • nonprofit fundraising advisor
  • wine advisor to Los Angeles area wine stores
  • wine advisor to Los Angeles restaurants
  • wine-tasting luncheon organizer
  • current and former wine judge for magazines and county fairs
  • private wine-locker organizer
  • personal wine shopper for private wine collectors
  • wine blog commenter [the one that introduced him to me].

Monday, April 15, 2024

American producers are making the current wine problem worse

Last year, I wrote a post expressing my disbelief at the poor reaction of much of the global wine industry to the ongoing issues regarding the fact that global production exceeds global consumption (When is the wine industry going to wake up to itself?). This situation is illustrated in the graph below, showing that production has exceeded consumption since 1960 (taken from: The smallest global wine production for 55 years?).

Well, it turns out that, at least in California, things are worse than I thought. So, it is worth writing about this topic again.

Global wine production and consumption

In a previous post (Why does world wine production always exceed consumption?), I noted that, in most countries, wine production is not increasing, so that increasing global over-supply must logically involve decreasing consumption. That is, the wine industry presumably sees the situation as “under-consumption” rather than over-production!

As has often been reported, this is happening because younger people currently prefer both beer and RTD to wine. That is, changing consumer preferences are a key driver of the downward trend in the wine industry. Even in French supermarkets, last year beer sales surpassed wine for the first time (How France is turning from wine to beer); and Bordeaux wine has never been cheaper (The only solution for Bordeaux — cut volumes and raise prices).

Since this is a global issue, several national governments have had to address the situation. For example, in France surplus wine has been distilled, at government instigation (and expense). However, the grape growers have argued that this is only a short-term response, so that the economic crisis will continue (French government offers aid to struggling grape-growers, but no long-term solution). So, removing vineyards has been the way to go, and has already started (Bordeaux bloodbath! France pays winemakers to dig up vines).

Grubbing up a vineyard

So, not unexpectedly, there are currently trade tensions between many of the wine export and import countries. This has been tangled with other trade issues — for example, when he was president, Donald Trump imposed tariffs on French wine as part of a long-standing transatlantic feud over subsidies to aircraft makers Airbus and Boeing; but this has now supposedly ended.

In this sense, I would expect the wine-producing countries of the world to follow each other, in terms of reducing production. However, this still leaves the issue of the current global wine lake, and what to do with it. Clearly, it must be sold cheaply, either as wine for retail or as a source of spirits.

If it is sold as wine, then it must be transported to the retail location, presumably in bulk (to cut costs), and then packaged locally. The big question, though, is: how is it packaged? It can be either packaged as is (with its origin clearly indicated), or it can be blended with something else. How familiar are you with the latter concept in the USA?

One might think that the incremental cost of transporting bulk wine to the USA would out-weigh discounts achieved by buying domestic fruit, especially during a wine-grape glut. However, this is apparently not always so (The international bulk wine market: mysterious price drops). This can lead to the situation where any given retail wine can contain both American and foreign fruit, blended.

This is all well and good, so far — but how is the resulting blended wine labeled? According to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (Wine labeling: Appellation of origin), the American rule for wine is a percentage:
  • If a vintage-dated wine lists a specific AVA, 85% of the grapes must come from the stated year and AVA
  • For wines labeled with a state or county, the minimum is 75%
  • All wines listing a varietal designation from the USA must be made from a minimum of 75% of the stated grape variety grown in the USA.
In other words, a wine labeled “American” can be one-quarter from anywhere in the world!

California wine retail

Well, apparently the larger US producers know this, and are currently exploiting it increasingly (Global wine glut compounds headaches for struggling California vineyards). That is, it is currently cheaper to blend the foreign and local stuff than to blend just the local stuff. You can read all about it from the Lodi Wine Growers a week ago: Imported foreign bulk wine: the dirty secret no one in California wine is talking about. They pull no punches, and cite the numbers to show just how much of this is apparently going on. *

They don’t stop there, though. The Lodi Growers point out that the local California grocery stores are equally cavalier about the sources of the boxed wines they are retailing. Distinguishing the local stuff from the imported stuff currently takes effort on the part of the purchaser, because the retailer often puts in no effort at all at distinguishing them (see the picture above). This is no way to behave towards one of their most important local industries.

I am an outsider to the industry, in the sense that I am a consumer rather than a producer. In that sense, this is California’s problem more than anyone else’s. And yet, many locals apparently are not putting their money where their mouths are, either at the level of production or the level of retail. So, this is hard to say, but: I weep for them not — they have made their own bed. Sadly, the rest of the locals have to lie in that same bed, too.

* Dan Berger has also looked at this topic, a couple of days ago, after I had written this post, in: The growing wine lake.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Re-using (re-cycling) wine waste is essential in the modern world

Recycling, or re-use, is an important concept in the modern world. For example, where I live, the supermarket car-parks have bins where we can recycle: clear glass, colored glass, plastic containers, cardboard containers, metal containers, and newspapers (see the picture). My household collection has one roadside bin for compostable material, and a separate one for refuse. *

So, it is hardly surprising that the wine industry is involved as well.

Swedish recycling bins

We all should know that compost and mulch are of great benefit when growing plants. Since grape-vines are plants, this applies to them as well — for some details, see Vineyards benefit from compost and mulch (from UC Berkeley) or Compost as mulch for vineyards (from CSIRO, Australia). One of the key components is carbon, and soil contains about twice as much carbon as the atmosphere and plants combined (A new estimate of US soil organic carbon to improve earth system models). There is growing recognition that agriculture should invest in building up this level through sustainable land management practices.

However, the wine industry sometimes goes further, by way of providing monetary incentives. For example, the California Association of Winegrape Growers has announced the California Compost Tax Credit Legislation. This legislation “seeks to incentivize sustainable agricultural practices, undertaken by winegrape growers and other ag producers, by offering a tax credit for the utilization of compost to enhance carbon sequestration efforts.” Other wine-grape regions should follow suit, around the world.

Grape pomace.

Moreover, we can also go one step further than this, into a broader perspective.

Obviously, what are usually called “winery wastes and by-products” are organic matter, and thus eminently suitable for re-use. The main solid by-product generated through winemaking is called Grape Pomace (GP). It comprises skins, seeds, stems, and disrupted cells from the grape pulp, and is reported to represent 20–25% of the total weight of processed grapes. So, there have been suggestions that we need to plan for its sustainable disposal.

This topic has recently been reviewed in: Grape pomace — advances in its bioactivity, health benefits, and food applications. The first step is what is fancifully called ‘valorization’, which simply means working out what each of the pomace components is worth, in terms of future use, such as offering new functional foods, but also contributing to solve waste management problems in the wine industry.

It is noted that GP comprises nutritional and bioactive compounds (eg. polyphenols, organic and fatty acids, vitamins, etc). Particularly, GP polyphenols have been recognized as exhibiting technological and health-promoting effects in different food and biological systems. This could be used as a food additive / ingredient in the development of novel food products (eg. enhancement of physicochemical, sensory and nutritional quality), along with technological and functional advantages. So, the review paper summarizes the current knowledge about the bioactivity and health–promoting effects of polyphenolic–rich extracts. There seems to be enormous potential; and the grape industry should be actively involved.

Biodynamic vineyard.

There is also the matter of organic viticulture (also called biodynamic farming, which name is celebrating its 100th anniversary this June) — this seeks to leave the vineyard as natural as possible. For further information, this is discussed in a multi–part web resource by Britt Karlsson, at: Organic, biodynamic and sustainable wine, an overview.

This approach can be taken even further, by adopting what might be called ‘regenerative’ practices. This basically involves leaving the ground undisturbed (ie. no ploughing of the soil), and also keeping the ground permanently covered with vegetation. This aims to increase the microbiological life and carbon content in the vineyard soils. One interesting example of this approach, aiming to re-instate the native vegetation where possible, is discussed in: Why Doña Paula is embracing nature in Argentina.

As a final point, at the moment it seems that re-cycling / re-using is one area in which Artificial Intelligence is not yet involved for the wine industry (What’s ahead for wine and artificial intelligence?). Currently, AI seems to be focused on productivity gains, rather than environmental sustainability. After all, in France, Bordeaux wine is now cheaper than bottled water (Winemakers’ anger over €1.66 Bordeaux wine)! You could also check out: A new definition for natural wine: it’s the people who are “natural”, not the wine (no AI here).

[Don’t miss last week’s short post on Easter and wine]

* I gather that in California, all of this recycling is done via three kerbside bins.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Easter and wine

Today is a public holiday throughout much of the Western world (Easter Monday). It therefore seems to be appropriate to briefly consider the topic of Easter and wine, a topic that I have not really touched on before in this blog. I will not say much, since religion is often a sensitive subject, sometimes with very strong opinions from all directions.

Easter is fairly early this year — it is a movable celebration that falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox — this is called the Paschall Full Moon (How is Easter determined?). (If the Full Moon is on a Sunday then Easter is celebrated on the following Sunday.)

Easter is, among other things, a Christian festival and holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are told that Jesus of Nazareth was, himself, raised in a Jewish culture, and thus his association with wine was presumably that of a regular adult member of his place and time.

Wine therefore makes regular appearances in the Bible, at many events associated with Jesus. Indeed, his first reported miracle was turning water into wine, at the wedding at Cana in Galilee (Gospel of John 2:1-11).

I learned much of this because my father was a Methodist minister (in what was then the Methodist Church of Australasia) at the time of my birth (it is now part of the Uniting Church in Australia). * He continued in this role for some time afterwards (as also did his younger brother); but he eventually discovered, during my teenage years, that he was a much better computer programmer than a minister.

Da Vinci Last Supper

Easter Sunday is one of the most festive events among Christians; and, as suggested above, wine is commonly a part of those festivities. However, there are many references in the Scripture warning against drinking too much wine (eg. Proverbs 20:1, Isaiah 5:11), so we can conclude that excess intoxication is certainly a sin and should thus be avoided. Consequently, many people conclude that it is better to be safe than sorry, and stay away from alcohol altogether.

However, the latter is one of the two possible opposite interpretations. We can also go the other way, and ask relevant Easter questions like: Did Jesus drink wine at the Last Supper? ** As a Passover meal, it is likely that they would have drunk fresh grape juice if they had it (Last Supper: What wine was served at Jesus and the Apostles' final meal?). Along with the unleavened bread (ie. without yeast), they could have also have had unleavened drink (ie. without yeast). The question then would be where would they find fresh juice, with no refrigeration and the harvest being over for 6—7 months? Wine could be made with as little as 0—3% alcohol content, so perhaps this is the wine that was used. ***

I will finish with a comment more typical of this blog, which is about data not religion. Naturally, scientists are also interested in the topic of wine and the ancient world. As an example, you can read about one especially intriguing approach with the cheeky title: Could we soon drink the same wine as Jesus? DNA from ancient seeds is being used to resurrect 2,000-year-old drinks. ****

In the meantime, I hope that you have been enjoying your 2024 Easter, with or without suitable wine. *****

* The current President’s 2024 Easter message can be heard in this video.

** According to all four Gospels, the Last Supper was Jesus’ last meal with his disciples during the Passover week, before he was crucified on what is now called Good Friday (or Långfredagen in Swedish).

*** By way of contrast, see also: Low- and no-alcohol wines really do need to be the way of the future.

**** The oldest known evidence of wine-making dates back 6,000 years, in what are now Georgia and Armenia.

***** On Easter Saturday (Påskafton in Swedish), my wife, her sister, and I tasted: three small beers (Slottskällan Easter Dark Lager, Wisby Påsk, Nääs Påsköl), a red dinner wine (Vasse Felix Cabernet sauvignon 2012), and a small sweet white wine (Gardo & Morris Noble Riesling 2017). They were all excellent.