Category: Wine and Mortality

Wine and Mortality, pt 3

"As soon as I realized I was mortal, I started to worry. I set a goal to see if we could make drugs that would target the diseases of aging in my lifetime."
“As soon as I realized I was mortal, I started to worry.” Dr David Sinclair, quoted by NYTimes, July 8 2007.

This is the third post in the Wine and Mortality series. Previous articles examined our penchant for aged wine and wine collecting in light of our mortality.

Can you remember the resveratrol craze of the early 2000s, when wine was touted as the Fountain of Youth?

Forever obsessed with the French paradox (“Why aren’t those goddamn French fat like us when they’re constantly eating butter and fat, and drinking to boot?!”), American researchers identified a compound in the antioxidant-laden skins of red grapes which was suddenly touted as an explanation.

And before you knew it — even before a sufficient toxicological study! — the founder of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals was boldly ingesting resveratrol capsules and encouraging family and coworkers to do so, spurred on by results that shocked the world: purportedly, mice injected with ginormous amounts of resveratrol were able to exercise twice as long as normal, with even healthier hearts directly afterwards 1

697px-Resveratrol.svgResveratrol was as “close to a miraculous molecule as you get” 2  Here’s how the story went: grape skins contain polyphenols, antioxidants which are in essence antibiotics. These antibiotics are there for a distinct purpose: to protect the grape from fungal attack. Fungus attacks the grape, the grape detects it, and a chemical reaction is triggered which ‘activates’ the defensive chemical within the grape skin. Obviously resveratrol levels are quite low in the thin-skinned Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes which undergo noble rot 3“During noble rot development in Sauvignon or Sémillon grapes from the Sauternes area, levels of trans-astringin, trans-resveratrol, trans-piceid, and pallidol are quite low.” Since fungal infections are more common in cooler climates, grapes grown in cooler climates have a higher concentration of resveratrol 4Kopp P. Resveratrol, a phytoestrogen found in red wine. A possible explanation for the conundrum of the ‘French paradox’? European Journal of Endocrinology 138:619-620, 1998. .

As is the case with so many other pharmaceutically effective drugs, as luck would have it, there is a wholly unintended positive effect on the human body 5It is thought that millions of undiscovered therapeutic chemical compounds which are far too costly to chemically synthesize exist in the Amazonian rainforest, and are being wiped out every day with deforestation. We’re pissing away our medicine chest.. Obviously the grapes didn’t via some empathic moment of evolution one day dream of helping their human caretakers trump their biological clocks. The hypothesis advanced by Sirtris Pharmaceutical was that the chemical compound resveratrol activated (Click to Read more)

Wine and Mortality, pt 2

Geddy Lee and His Wine
When will Geddy Lee have enough wine?

My last article examined our penchant for aged wine in light of our mortal condition. Next up: wine collecting.

A spurt of adrenalin accompanies any major wine purchase.

Perhaps the same holds true for any number of things that aren’t as quotidian as bleach, garbage bags, or canned beans.  But even when compared to other luxury consumer goods, somehow, it’s an entirely different emotional landscape with wine.

How does wine somehow outstrip other purchases?

It’s not unlike buying a book which one looks forward to reading. “I will get to know this wine”, one seems to assert — conscious or not — “because I’m going to ingest it and ponder it”. This leads to one of wine’s noblest pleasures: vicarious travel and education, through wine.  What does one eat in this region that might accompany this wine? What do things taste and feel like in this corner of the world, through the lens of this bottle?

Sure, wine is a drug. But wine is not simply a bottle of characterless vodka, which cannot speak of place and which offers a stiff, pharmacological dose of ethanol. Wine with a sense of place is so much more than just a bottle o’ booze; there’s a genie in there somewhere which speaks of a different culture. And there’s a historic record of weather and time itself, etched in the liquid — what was the vintage like? What decisions did the winemaker make?

With each bottle purchased, one purchases a tiny lot of joyous futures; one imagines opening the bottle, sampling it, trying it with food, and then watching it change.

Most importantly, there’s a commitment to living life as a collection of experiences implicit in a costly wine purchase (Click to Read more)

Wine and Mortality, pt 1

Here’s an article I found interesting: The Seven Greatest Wines of All Time, a cursory 1Many wines traditionally judged perfect escaped consideration. Where was the ’47 Cheval Blanc…to cite but one. metadata analysis examining wines which deserved a perfect score across critics.

For the most part, only wines which had withstood the test of time — at least 20 years of age, or say the 1811 Yquem — were fit for the crown. As I’ve noted in previous articles, dry white wine is curiously absent. And, the very thought of young wines being deemed perfect is somehow problematic for wine critics at large.

To be fair: it is perhaps one of the greatest vinous experiences to be had, imbibing a wine that resists the bony clutches of Father Time (read: oxidation) and tastes young seemingly long after its days are gone.

FatherTimeBut why is it marvelous?

I’m convinced that the reason we’re starstruck 2Comet vintage jokes aside with aged wine reflects something far deeper in us. Something we care not to think about; something that I’m certain will initially strike you as far-fetched.

I’m convinced it’s our preoccupation with our own mortality, which few of us ever really fully come to grips with. Who really can, anyhow? Further, I’m convinced it’s even bigger than wine — that it courses like an underground river through our appreciation of nearly every form of art.

Sound crazy? Let’s once again begin with visual art before confronting wine. Indulge me in a whimsical thought experiment:

It is 2104, the year of the “Great Liberation”. Long after being driven by global warming to live in a vast network of underground cities, a cellular biologist identifies the processes which cause our cells’ mitochondria to age 3Our mitochondria are the “power plants” of our cells, and serendipitously, many around 2 billion years ago, through a process thought to be phagocytosis, a cell swallowed another bacterial organism which paradoxically resulted in a symbiotic union that more or less enabled advanced life forms as we know them — thanks to an enabling of even higher energy cells capable of greater functions. Fucking fascinating.  She gleefully confirms that with a few simple hacks, our bodies can live almost indefinitely, cells constantly replacing themselves not unlike some giant, undying ficus in a tropical jungle 4The Bodhi Tree (a Ficus) at Anuradhapura Sri Lanka is believed to be the oldest tree planted by humans with a recorded year of 289 BCE. cf. However, bristlecone pine takes that to town, predating Christ at nearly 5000 years of age:

And suddenly, humanity is liberated from the shackles of its mortal coil.

Now, the crux of the experiment: can you imagine how art would transform?

Every single work of art from before the Great Liberation would be scrutinized through the paradigm 5Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm”: lens of mortality. Not unlike the way Catholicism, the feudal system or, say, the dawn of perspective in the early Renaissance marks all that it touched.

Future students of history would pain themselves to understand how we managed to eke meaning out of our piddly lives under this sword of Damocles that was mortality.

“No, no; it’s fine … it always does this. Yes, I will have some more rosé, thank you.”

A bit like we cannot imagine living prior to the advent of modern medicine, or during slavery, or perhaps during the aerial bombing (Click to Read more)