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Here's to the Benefits of Red Wine, but Don't Advertise Them

November 26, 2006

NAPA, Calif., Nov. 19 — The wine industry certainly has welcomed the recent disclosures that a compound in red wine improves the health and endurance of laboratory mice. So why isn't the industry crowing about it?

Because it can’t. The industry has long been handcuffed by state and federal laws that discourage promoting the benefits of wine, with some of those restrictions dating back to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

“Yes, we’d all like to make hay of this, and we’ll do what we can, but we are very constrained,” said Michael Mondavi, founder and president of Folio Fine Wine Partners, a producer and importer of wines here.

As an industry that is closely regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Mr. Mondavi said, “it is blatantly against the law for any alcoholic beverage producers to make any health claim regardless of the facts or the accuracy.”

“Until that regulation is changed or modified in some way so that we can talk about the positive health aspects that are proven,” said Mr. Mondavi, the older son of famed winemaker Robert Mondavi, “we have to sit on our hands and wait for others to pick up the story.”

An ordinary laboratory mouse will typically run one kilometer on a treadmill before collapsing from exhaustion, but mice given resveratrol, a minor component of red wine and other foods, can run twice as far, according to the widely circulated research announced last week by Johan Auwerx and colleagues at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology in Illkirch, France.

Mice heavily dosed with resveratrol also have energy-charged muscles and a reduced heart rate, just as trained athletes do, and manage to live longer even if they consume a poor diet.

The news was the best free publicity the wine industry has received since late 1991, when Morley Safer hefted a glass of red wine and told viewers of “60 Minutes” on CBS that the French have lower levels of heart disease than Americans despite a diet typically higher in fat.

The so-called “French paradox” spurred a surge in red wine sales that has never let up, partly overcoming Americans preference for whites, which are considered more approachable for new wine drinkers.

In the United States, red wine’s share of the market grew to nearly 42 percent in 2005 from a mere 17 percent in 1991, according to data complied by ACNielsen.

And wine in general got a fresh lift with the 2004 publication of “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” by Mireille Guiliano, chief executive of Clicquot Inc., maker of Veuve Clicquot Champagne, who suggested that wine consumption, red or white, could contribute to a svelte shape as well.

Of course, in contrast to Ms. Guiliano and Mr. Safer, who were talking about people drinking a glass or two a day, the latest research relies on data concerning mice given a drug at dosages equivalent to drinking hundreds of glasses of wine. But industry analysts say that distinction will probably not register with most consumers, who will primarily hear a reinforcement of the now familiar message that red wine is good for one’s health.

“The aging population reads this and thinks, ‘Maybe I should be drinking more red wine rather than something else,’” said Jon Fredrikson, a wine industry analyst for Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a consulting firm in San Francisco. “I’m looking for a real spurt here in the last quarter of the year.”

Mr. Fredrikson said wine consumption has also benefited from the 2004 movie “Sideways,” and from a Supreme Court ruling last year allowing wineries to sell directly to consumers across state boundaries. In the movie, the main character’s love for pinot noir helped prompt a 70 percent sales gain for that varietal in 2005, while his disdain for merlot probably contributed to a softening of demand for that red wine.

In 1991, some aggressive winemakers sought to trumpet the health benefits of wine, but they were quickly shut down by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which then regulated the industry at the federal level. Even the industry’s trade organization, the Wine Institute, counseled against promoting wine as a health drink.

Mr. Mondavi, who was then involved in running his family business, the Robert Mondavi Corporation, was one of those who chafed at the strictures.

“We actually resigned from the Wine Institute because we wanted to come out and say wine is healthy and good for you,” Mr. Mondavi said.

“We put on a back label, that wine is healthy and recommended in the Bible,” he added. “The B.A.T.F. sent us a cease and desist letter and made us change the label even though we went back to Washington and showed them the scientific evidence and read them the Bible passages.”

The Wine Institute still advises its members not to promote wine as healthy, and these days there are fewer rebels. That is partly because of fear of litigation, and partly because of the vast consolidation that has transferred ownership of many wineries from family founders to corporate conglomerates.

At 93, Robert Mondavi may be a living testament to wine’s effect on longevity, but the winery that bears his name is now owned by Constellation Brands, a publicly traded company in Fairport, N.Y.

And Constellation is less inclined to tilt at windmills than Mr. Mondavi or his extended winemaking family. “The quantity of this substance you would have to ingest is so great, you could never drink that much red wine,” said Michael Martin, Constellation’s vice president for corporate communications.

Thomas Matthews, executive editor of the magazine Wine Spectator, said he was not aware of any wine marketing explicitly linked to the recent studies, although Bodega Catena Zapata, an Argentine wine producer, has published reports showing that its wines have a greater concentration of resveratrol than a selection of red wines from France, Spain, Italy, Chile and Australia.

“The French paradox actually found positive effects in humans drinking moderate amounts of wine, but these resveratrol studies are about an isolated compound given to laboratory animals in high concentrations,” Mr. Matthews said. “I think this is a thinner reed for any vintner to lean on.”

Any impact of the most recent publications about resveratrol has yet to show in sales data, said Danny Brager, a wine industry analyst with ACNielsen. “It’s too early,” he said. “We have an update coming on our data at the end of November, and I’m just as curious as you are.”