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10.29.2008

Dangerous Wine or Dangerous Reporting?

I look up to journalists. I really do. They actually get paid for doing what I play at here every day, and most of them are way better at it than I am. But every once in a while someone publishes a story that makes me wonder how we all manage to avoid riding journalists out of town on a rail.

Witness the headlines that are rapidly rocketing their way across the internet: Heavy Metals Found in Wine, Metals in wine may be health danger, and Euro wines carrying potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals.

If this is really true, then most of the people I know are going to start dropping dead any day now. If it is not true, then this is some of the most irresponsible, flagrantly fear-mongering journalism I have seen in a long time.

I have every reason to believe it is the latter.

First, an overview of the story: scientists at Kingston University in London have done some analysis (here's their paper for those inclined to read it) that seems to suggest that wines are much higher in various heavy metals than suspected, and that those levels, according to these researchers, exceed safety thresholds to the point of being a health concern.

But there is more to the story than this. This story originated at the pinnacle of respectable journalism that is WebMD (their top topics this week include penis enlargement). Stamped with the approval of a reviewing doctor, this story is meant to reek of credibility. It certainly reeks, but of something else entirely.

Readers don't find out until the second page of the story that the data these scientists are analyzing isn't their own and it wasn't collected with the purpose of making evaluations about the health implications of trace elements in wine.

The amounts of metals found in these wines are described as being in some cases 300 times those found in fish, but the reporter neglects to mention the fact that the metals in the wine (vanadium, copper, manganese, zinc, nickel, chromium, and lead) are different than those in fish (mainly mercury), and therefore probably have wildly different levels of danger (last time I checked it takes a lot more copper to screw you up than it does mercury).

Throughout the piece the reporter uses the word "contaminate" to describe the presence of the metals in the wine, yet most of those metals are found in nearly everything we eat that comes from a plant and several are found in pretty much every multi-vitamin on the face of the planet.

One of the other highly suspect components of this research, which is not addressed at all by the reporter has to do with the fact that somehow only wines from Italy, Brazil and Argentina have safe levels of metal, meaning they have between 30 and 300 times less of these metals in them than the other wines.

Now I'm not a winemaker or a wine scientist, but other than some basic filtration (which I'm not even sure is capable of removing metals such as these), I'm not aware of any winemaking step or process that specifically removes heavy metals from wine. And as far as I know, grape vines grow in the many of the same types of soil and climate all over the world, and winemaking equipment and processes, while varying from winery to winery, are basically the same around the world in the broadest sence. So how is it exactly that some country's wines are so "contaminated" while others aren't? The fact that this contamination is consistent by country, too, seems utterly preposterous -- as if there's some consistent problem in the entire frigging country?

Take a quick read of the actual research paper, and it's easy to see that the researchers did no testing of wine on their own. Rather, they're using data from a myriad of other studies whose testing methodologies, even they acknowledge, vary widely.

I'll stop my outrage there. Most likely, this is a flawed research study that is being wrongly interpreted by a stupid journalist, and now wine drinkers all over the world are going to be worried that along with their resveratrol, they're getting a Parkinson's inducing dose of heavy metals.

If I had to choose between entrusting my life and health to a glass of good red wine or a hack journalist, I know which one I would choose.

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