Sniff, Swirl & Soak? Hanoi’s Healthful Red Wine Baths

bath2It seems like the news is full of reports about the health effects of wine consumption and, given the impact that 60 Minutes’s broadcast of “The French Paradox” segment (see below) had back in 1991, I think we need to take them seriously, both from a pure health standpoint and because of their possible economic impacts.

Heart Disease, Tooth Decay

There have been a number of recent studies that seem to contradict the finding that red wine consumption has clear health benefits — bad news for wine drinkers.

But then a Spanish-Swiss team found that red wine discourages tooth decay, which pushes the need back toward the plus side for wine.

And now this. Ali Hoover, The Wine Economist’s chief Hanoi correspondent, has discovered that wine is not just good for you when you drink it, it is even beneficial when you just sit in a tub of it.

Clinical Trials?

Or at least that’s the claim made by this Vietnamese spa, which features a red wine bath treatment along with its other services. Ali has not tried the wine bath yet, but I suppose it is just a matter of time before she takes the plunge. Check out the list of health benefits she found on the spa’s menu. Fight cancer, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol and get long life and beautiful skin in the process. Who could resist and the price is right at about $20 for an hour’s soak.

Ali verified that the wine is the local Vang Dalat, which I suppose adds to the authenticity of the experience.  No tasting notes so far, or sitting notes either. I have tried the Vang Dalat white wine, but I only drank it and didn’t sit in it. No experience with the red wine at all. I’m not sure if all the health claims are supported by scientific evidence. Early days in this important research. We’ll keep you informed! Who knows — could be the next big thing!

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Special thanks to Ali for this discovery. Readers: please comment with details if  you’ve taken a wine bath!

The BRICs: Russian Wine Market Report

This is the third in a series on wine in the BRICs Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Just Say Nyet!

The BRIC nations used to be characterized as “emerging” or “transition” economies and in the case of Russian wine these terms still apply, but in a complicated way. Russia is an important wine country (the vineyards are down south, on the Black and Caspian Seas); it produced about 7.3 million hl of wine in 2007 according to OIV statistics, which puts it just behind Chile and ahead of Portugal in the world wine league table. But the domestic industry today is just a shadow of what it was 30 years ago.

Gorbachev’s 1980s anti-alcohol campaign (which included propaganda posters like this one) targeted wine along with spirits and both production and consumption of wine declined dramatically. The Global Wine Statistical Compendium indicates that per capita wine consumption in Russia more than doubled from 6.2 liters in the early 1960s to about 15 liters in 1970s (consumption of other forms of alcohol also rose — wine makes up less than 10% of Russia’s total alcohol intake) then fell dramatically as Gorby’s program gained traction.

The Gorbachev crackdown and continuing anti-alcohol efforts pushed wine consumption down to just 3.7 liters per capita by the late 1990s. It has risen since then, up to about 7 liters per capita today. Wine is only now reemerging and is still stained by its association with spirits and alcoholism.

Good Russian Wines Exist …

I have not visited Russia nor sampled any of the wines on offer there, but the reports I’ve read  make it sound like I am not missing too much.  There is fine wine in Russia, including some excellent domestic products as you will see below, but the good stuff is mainly imported and very expensive.   And the bad stuff is really really bad.

In fact I think the theme for this post should be that classic spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The good wines are certainly there. Jancis Robinson’s tasting notes from her 2009 visit to Russia include some tempting wines. A Myskhako Organic Red Cabernet 2008 from Kuban, Russia’s warmest wine producing region, received 16+ points out of 20 with the descriptive note, “Sweet and very wild and direct. Different! Very lively. Really wild tasting. Explosive.” Sounds like something I’d like to try.

A Fanagoria Tsimlansky Black 2007 Kuban (16 points) is “Dusty, bone dry, rather interesting flavours with good round tannins and acidity and plenty of fruit weight on the palate. Very dry finish with good confidence.” I’ll have a glass of that, please!

Along with the Bad …

Bad wines, and there are many of them, reflect Russia’s sorry wine history. It seems like every country has experienced the stage where wines are simple, sweet alcohol, sometimes to cover up faults and disguise poor wine making.  These bad wines still figure prominently in Russia.

Wine for the masses sells for less than $1 a liter in many cases and it seems to be sourced in bulk from whoever offers the least cost supply. Imported bulk wines from countries as varied as Spain, Ukraine, France, Argentina, Bulgaria and Brazil are shipped to factories near Moscow and St. Petersburg where they are mixed with sugar (to appeal to local tastes) and water ( to bring the alcohol level down to 10.5 percent), packaged and sent to market.

Traditionally much of the wine came from Moldova and Georgia, but these countries are on the Russian government’s political black list and Moldovan wines are currently banned, causing great hardship for a country that is very dependent upon wine for export earnings. Low quality is the official excuse — a Russian health official says of Moldovan wine “it should be used to paint fences” – but it is hard to see how Moldovan wines can be worse than the sugar water wines I just described. I think it’s politics.

But Then it Gets Ugly

The ugly wines are frauds — not even made from grapes in some cases. This video report suggests that perhaps 30% of the bottled wine on offer in Russia is counterfeit. This is bad for consumers, of course, but particularly bad for legitimate producers whose reputations suffer from unhappy experiences with fake wine.

Thinking of trying to sell your wines in Russia? Despite all that I’ve said, many people see great potential in the Russian market. Some are just interested in the “bad wine” bulk market, but others have grander plans. Russia is a BRIC, after all, one of the fastest growing major economies in the world. Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 soccer World Cup; this international exposure may accelerate changing domestic tastes. It is a major market for Champagne, with more than a million bottles purchased annually.

The Future of  Wine in Russia

As Russia’s middle class expands, a larger market for quality wines can be expected to emerge. So it is not surprising that winemakers are testing the waters and negotiating joint ventures of various sorts.

There are reasons to be cautious, however. Alcoholism is still a major concern in Russia and the expanding wine sector will have to swim  against a prohibitionist tide. Tastes and social attitudes will change as better quality becomes available, but the transformation will not happen overnight.

And then there’s the “oil patch” problem. Petroleum is a major driver of the Russian economy and this introduces an element of economic instability. Exporters will need to be able to ride out falling oil price effects in order to benefit from high price periods.

Finally, there is the Russian legal and administrative systems, which make it difficult to bring wines into the country and to assure payment. The fact that some in the Russian government would prefer that the wines stay away – because of the alcoholism problem – probably contributes to this problem.

It is easy to be very pessimistic about wine in Russia given its current state and recent history, but I believe that cautious optimism is warranted for the long run.  There are many cases of countries that have opened up their wine markets with positive results and perhaps Russia will follow this path. In the meantime, it looks like a difficult project.

What [Wine] Women Want

I’m always interested in the questions my students ask about wine and so I look forward to their final papers, where they have pretty much free rein to pick the questions and search for answers. My Fall 2008 class seemed to be particularly concerned about what I think of as ethical questions – wine and the environment, for example, and fair trade wine. I wrote about their papers here.

My Fall 2009 group was very different in terms of their interests and “wine personalities” — and they were disproportionately female — and their choice of paper topics reflected these facts.

All in the Family

Three questions attracted more than one student’s interest and so are worth noting here. Marc and Isabelle both wrote on the future of family wineries. They are both business majors and interested in the fact that an unusual number of wineries, including very large ones like Gallo, Boisset and Yellow Tail, are family firms not private partnerships (The Wine Group) or public corporations (Constellation Brands).

Their papers examined the problems and limitations of family-owned businesses and what industry-specific advantages might account for the success of family wineries.

Wine, Women and their Health

Two students, Kelly and Libbie, decided to use their backgrounds in science to probe questions about wine and health in more detail than is typically seen. Kelly wrote on the chemistry of the “red wine paradox” while Libbie examined the question of whether pregnant women should drink wine. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that moderate wine consumption (2-3 glasses per day, especially red wine and especially with meals) provides positive health benefits except for pregnant women, who are specifically told to avoid any alcohol on government-mandated warning labels.

The research papers showed that the health issue is more complex than is generally appreciated and provided a surprising answer to the question, should expectant mothers drink wine? Although there are obvious problems with excessive alcohol consumption, research studies indicate that very modest wine consumption (in the range of one glass a couple of times a week, as I recall) can provide health benefits to both mother and baby.

It is obviously a delicate balance, however, and the fact of rising alcohol levels in wine (which I wrote about here) makes getting the balance right increasingly problematic.

What Do [Young] Women Really Want?

Two of my favorite papers were written by young women who wanted to know more about how wine companies tailor their marketing to their particular demographic. Elyse examined marketing to the so-called Millennial generation and Anna focused on wine brands designed to appeal to young women like herself. Women purchase more wine than men and young women are the key wine buyers of the future, so it makes sense that wine companies would try to target and develop this market.

Anna identified the wine brand pictured above as an example of marketing to young women. She noted that brand name, the choice of colors and several other factors made Bitch wine particularly attractive to young women wine buyers, especially those who are new to wine. Take a close look at the label and I think you’ll see what Anna is talking about. Pink label, sewing (female stereotype) imagery, Bitch rhymes with stitch, even the little hearts and crosses that suggest needlepoint.

Bitch Bitch Bitch

She called particular attention to the back label. Some wines use the back label to provide production details or tasting notes. Bitch wine, however, just says “Bitch bitch bitch bitch …” and so on.

Would Anna buy Bitch wine? Probably not. She found the packaging appealing, but the lack of more detailed information about the wine itself was a real negative. She might have tried it a few months ago, she said, but after taking our class she knew too much about wine (and asked too many questions) to respond positively to this marketing scheme even though the imagery attracted her.

Bitch seems to be wine for women who are beginners in wine, she said,  and Anna isn’t a beginner any more.

The Elephant in the Room: Alcohol


I’m writing this post on New Year’s Eve, the night when many folks go out to celebrate, have a little too much to drink and end up “seeing pink elephants,” as the saying goes. It’s a good moment to think about alcohol in wine.

Pink Elephants

Alcohol is the [red, white or pink] elephant in the room for many wine enthusiasts. We know that wine contains alcohol and that alcohol levels having been rising in recent years (more about this later). We know that alcohol has lots of negative social and health effects. We know that anti-alcohol sentiments are rising around the world, even in France, where  wine is deeply embedded in the national culture. But, like the metaphorical pachyderm, we pretend we don’t see these facts and try to ignore them.

But maybe it’s time to sober up. Wine enthusiasts have for a long time been comforted by the French Paradox finding that moderate consumption (defined by health experts as 2-3 glasses a day) of red wine is beneficial to your health. We need to remember that the finding that wine can be good for you is actually the result of a delicate balancing act. The alcohol in wine has few positive and many negative health consequences. The resveratrol in wine and its antioxidant compounds generally have positive effects, especially when wine is consumed with food.

So it’s really a balancing act of pluses and minuses in terms of your health. And balance is the key, too, regarding wine’s social effects. Excess consumption of wine as for any alcoholic beverage is a real concern. Wine’s reputation as the drink of moderation has given us comfort in this regard. Wine drinkers aren’t as likely to go overboard as those who consume beer or spirits, we tell ourselves. Thus do we convince ourselves that wine doesn’t have an alcohol problem.

Zinfandel Rising

But maybe that is changing, both in terms of social attitudes towards wine (see France) and in terms of the wine itself.

Alcohol levels in wine, especially red wine, have been creeping up for many years. Twenty years ago the Zinfandels I bought averaged about 12 – 12.5 percent alcohol. Try to find one with less than 14 percent alcohol today. There are some out there, but most are 14.5  and even 15+ percent, which is about a 20 percent increase.

If you take the health issue seriously, this reduces your “moderate” consumption rate from 2-3 glasses to maybe 1-2 per day.

It also obviously affects the taste and texture of the wine and not always in a good way. The problem used to be that grapes were harvested too soon, so some European AOC rules provided more prestigious designations for wines with higher alcohol levels. Wines have to have at least 12 percent alcohol to gain the Chianti designation, for example, and 12.5 percent for Riserva. It isn’t the alcohol itself that is being encouraged here, but the higher quality riper grapes that produce it.

The 18.3 Percent Solution

This doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem today. By the time the grapes in many regions have fully developed flavors it seems that they have over-developed sugar levels that produce a lot of alcohol.

This fact struck me while I was reading Dr. Jay Miller’s review of 2008 Australian wines in the new issue of Wine Advocate. Australia had an awful year in 2008, with wildfires (that left some wines with smoke taint) and a heat wave — day after day of 100 degree plus weather that baked the vineyards and pushed sugar levels over the top.

The amount of alcohol that resulted is stunning (both figuratively and maybe literally, too). Dr. Miller reports that some reds from well regarded Marquis Phillips came in as high as 17.6% (for a Grenache) and even 18.3% (a Shiraz). Eighteen percent is fortified wine territory (and would be regulated as such in many U.S. states), but these are dry table wines. This pushes the limit for wine in all respects, don’t you think?

Adding Jesus Units

Interestingly, rising alcohol levels have appeared despite winemaker efforts to keep them low. The dirty little secret of California wine is that a great deal of it goes through some form of de-alcoholization, where at least part of each vintage has alcohol removed to bring down the overall level.

Another approach is to “just add water” to the fermenting must to literally water down the potential alcohol. A friend calls this technique “adding Jesus units” because water is turned into wine instantly; he says that it is a common practice, if not one that anybody admits using.

I think we might be at the tipping point in terms of alcohol in wine. Winemakers are surely aware of this fact and consumers need to sober up about it, too.

Wine critics have so far resisted reporting alcohol levels in their ratings and tasting notes except in exceptional cases. Maybe it’s time to change this practice so that we can begin to appreciate just how big our alcohol elephant has become.

Note: The “Elephants on Parade” sequence is from the 1941 Disney animated film Dumbo. It’s my New Year’s gift to all Wine Economist readers.


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