Mixing the grape and the pain

Perhaps it has something to do with the pay, or maybe it’s the dull company, but a strong whiff of puritanism verging on the misanthropic emanates from our seats of higher learning.

For an academic, nothing good can come from anything lest there is a darker reverse to ponder, relish and pronounce upon. So it must have been with a deep melancholy that the researchers discovered that wine is good for you. Okay, it was only red wine that was found to help the heart to pump on, arteries unwhiskered, and only then, of course, when taken in moderate quantities, but even that small comfort ran contrary to the received opinion that anything enjoyable is, at worst, harmful and, at best, fatal.

So it was no doubt with much relief that plant biochemists at the University of Glasgow discovered that, of all the red wines they tested, the best for fending off heart disease were, happily, those also most likely to strip your oesophagus of its lining. Top of the list was a Latin American cabernet sauvignon – so perhaps beneath the bundles of rags that sleep rough on park benches are human beings with cardio-vascular systems second to none.

For those who insist on a European wine, the best bet, say the researchers, is a red Graves called, appropriately, Chateau de l’Hôpital. It’s great for the aorta but liable to cause paralysis in the lower limbs.

All of this, however, misses the point. Since that first sublime moment in the ascent of man when an heroic, prognathous ancestor lifted a foaming half-gourd of fermenting vegetable matter to his protruding lower lip and, minutes later, discovered he could see everything twice and walk upside down, no one has drunk alcohol as a responsible act of self-preservation.

It’s all very well for scientists, aeons after that first momentous discovery, to pronounce that certain wines of an undistinguished character are to the ticker what Jeyes Fluid is to a waste pipe, but ordinary experience tells us that alcohol has other more interesting properties. Among those are its power to make us more honest with each other; to be braver and bolder; to be irresistible to the opposite sex and, when rebuffed, not to give a damn; to be endowed with superhuman strength and agility, furniture notwithstanding; and to be able to sing like Frank Sinatra even though we don’t know the words to any of the songs. Name me an anti-coagulant that can do all that.

Since Glasgow’s researchers have missed half the story, let us attempt to fill in a few of the gaps with a guide of our own to the unique effects of alcohol, illustrated with examples recently in the news.

First, the exception that proves the rule. While Glasgow’s biochemists were examining wine for its healing properties, at neighbouring Paisley University the dean of the faculty of engineering was enjoying a “drunken works dinner”. He was later sacked for allegedly sexually harassing two secretaries. According to evidence at an industrial tribunal that was hearing his claim of unfair dismissal, the women created a “sexually charged atmosphere”.

One had stroked a man’s thigh; told a post-graduate student: “You’re nice, give us a snog”; kissed a visiting Portuguese academic on the mouth; and dragged another man into the ladies to embrace him. All classic symptoms of a Latvian Chablis 1997. By the end of the evening, she was “barking like a dog” at the professor, who was alleged to have pinned her against the wall and made improper suggestions. This carries strong hints of a robust Bulgarian red with an undertone of crushed cherries and rhubarb. The noises emanating from the young lady’s throat are a dead give-away: retsina always causes barking.

The effects of authentically foot-trodden, full-bodied Libyan Côtes-du-Rhône were evident at a wedding reception in Bristol where more than 20 police officers, wearing protective clothing and armed with CS spray, broke up a brawl involving 70 guests. By the time they arrived, fighting had spread out from the gents – where the groom was standing on a lavatory fending off blows – to the function room and the dance floor. Said one officer: “There were young children fighting, older couples fighting and bottles and broken glasses being swung around.” All of which strongly suggests the rich cadences of an impudent Vietnamese Bergerac admixed with several pints of a hoppy Burton brew.

Then, of course, there were the travelling folk who caused an aircraft to be diverted to America after allegedly being involved in a mid-air brawl, otherwise known as a sing-song. “Since when was it illegal to sing?” asked one of the ejected 12. This was reminiscent of the man in the pub whose collar was felt after 50 bargain-priced watches were discovered pinned to the lining of his jacket. “Since when,” he asked, “was it a crime for a businessman to wish to be punctual?” This profound sense of justice affronted is typical of the non-vintage Turkish muscatels, instantly recognisable by an aroma so distinctive, iconic even, that some oenologists wittily describe it as “fumes”.

Incidentally, the scientists at Glasgow discovered that flavonol antioxidants, the substances that make cheap wine good for the heart, are also present in lollo rosso lettuce, which, as luck would have it, is the prime ingredient of that old wedding reception favourite Congolese Chablis.


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