North Coast wineries grapple with proposed US health guidelines to curb alcohol use for men
In the midst of an already challenging year between the coronavirus and flattening sales, the U.S. wine sector was hit with a surprising blow last month that threatens to erect another obstacle to its growth into the future.
An expert panel revamping the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans called for a major change in alcohol consumption in the United States. Its July 15 report said men should limit themselves to one drink of alcohol per day, cutting in half the two-per-day standard for men that has been in place since 1990. Its recommendation for women, also one drink a day, remained unchanged.
The committee’s report referred to alcohol beverages as an overall “unhealthy substance” and warned the United States was “far from” consumption levels that would make a dent in the health-related problems caused by wine, beer or spirits.
“Alcohol can be consumed at low levels with relatively low risk, and is consumed by U.S. adults for a variety of reasons. However in terms of health, among those who consume alcohol, drinking less is better for health than drinking more,” the panel wrote in recommending the change.
Caught on the defensive, trade groups representing the wine, beer and spirits sectors are launching a counteroffensive questioning the science behind the recent change. The Wine Institute, the wine industry’s main lobbying group, based in San Francisco, said in a statement that “to change the long-established guidance on moderate consumption is not supported by science.”
If the change is finalized in the new recommendations, it will likely translate to lower sales for wineries, said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. The message on the new level for men — whether from health professionals or amplified in media reports — would likely result in a reduction of consumption.
“It’s one more piece of ammunition to those who are anti-alcohol,” McMillan said.
The change would likely be another challenge for Sonoma County wineries, which are adapting to increased consolidation and a massive drop in the consumption of wine in restaurants and bars closed under COVID-19. Many, including Martinelli Winery & Vineyards northwest of Santa Rosa, are also grappling with the effects of recent natural disasters.
“We have had fires and our vineyards on Martinelli Road were flooded (in 2019). We are family winery and we have seen it all the last couple of years,” said Tessa Gorsuch, a fifth-generation member of the Martinelli wine family who serves as marketing director.
The battle over how much alcohol is enough for Americans to consume on a daily basis goes back decades. The debate has publicly played out during wrangling on the guidelines, which are published every five years as part of an effort by the federal departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The definition of one serving is a 12-ounce beer at 5% alcohol by volume (ABV), 5 ounces of wine at 12% ABV, or 1.5 ounces of a spirit at 40% of ABV.
Decades ago, the wine industry found an opening to promote the health benefits of its product in the aftermath of news reports on the French Paradox, research in the late 1980s that showed a Mediterranean diet accompanied by moderate drinking of red wine helped to curb heart disease. That was aided by research conducted by Dr. Arthur Klatsky, who was then a senior consultant in cardiology for Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, which found moderate drinkers had less risk of heart disease.
The wine sector prevailed in 1995 when the wording from 1990 recommendations that alcohol had "no net health benefit" was dropped from the guidelines. There was also inclusion in 1995 that moderate consumption could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. In 2000, opponents of the industry, which included then-Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina, sought to roll back such claims on the supposed health benefits of moderate drinking after the sector’s victory five years earlier.
The language in the 2000 version was more nuanced. "Drinking in moderation may lower the risk for coronary heart disease, mainly among men over age 45 and women over age 55,“ it stated. But it added that moderate consumption provides “little, if any” benefit for younger people and that drinks should be taken with meals to slow absorption.
The recommendations had not changed that drastically for 20 years — until a few weeks ago.
Some like McMillan said they believe wine industry leaders rested too much on their laurels from years ago and didn’t remain vigilant against those who kept questioning the health benefits of alcohol.