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Murray: Weigh risks, benefits before sipping red wine
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Wine of the month

Casa Silva Carmenere Reserva 2008

The wine: Dry, full-bodied red table wine

The grapes: 100 percent carmenere

The source: Colchagua Valley, Chile

The verdict: Carmenere is known as the “oops” grape. For decades Chilean winemakers produced rich, lush merlot. But in the early 1990s somebody did some DNA testing on some of those “merlot” grapes and discovered, “oops,” these are carmenere grapes. Carmenere was an inconsequential blending grape in Bordeaux. But in Chile these grapes reach their full potential, and Chileans have made carmenere their signature red wine. This example is aged in a mix of new and used French oak. There’s a hint of wood and vanilla in the nose. Tannins are soft, and the fruit is luscious. If you like good merlot, you’ll love this beauty from the Southern Hemisphere. I would suggest another year of aging to give it a chance to fully mature.

The price: About $15

There are many good reasons to drink wine. But there are some reasons to be cautious.

I gave this issue some thought recently when I read a warning about dangerous fungal toxins discovered in wine. Don’t start pouring your Bordeaux down the sink; it’s nowhere near as bad as it sounds. More in a bit.

Numerous scientific studies over the past few decades have pointed to health benefits from consuming moderate and responsible amounts of wine — primarily red wine.

The legendary “French Paradox” episode, aired on the TV newsmagazine program “60 Minutes” in the early 1990s, told us about two parallel studies, one in Paris and one in Boston, that independently came to the same basic conclusions.

The title came from this paradox: At that time the French diet consisted of huge amounts of fats, cheeses, whole milk, sausages and red meats, relative to what Americans ate. The French were not consumed by the exercise fetish that Americans embraced, and French adults smoked at a 5-to-1 rate over Americans.

Yet the rate of coronary artery disease and heart attacks in French adults was about 25 percent the American rate. Why? These carefully controlled scientific studies concluded the French consumption of red wine on a daily basis helped reduce plaque, a substance that clogs arteries and leads to heart attacks.

Substances such as resevratol and quercetin and other antioxidants helped prevent heart attacks and lowered mortality rates, said the scientists.

Those conclusions were substantiated about six years later by Danish government research called “The Copenhagen Study.” That built upon the early studies and in more detail showed how moderate daily consumption of wine can provide healthful benefits, as opposed to drinking beer, which showed little effect, or distilled spirits, which showed harmful effects as more was consumed.

But we must be aware, as one French Paradox researcher pointed out, of the impact of alcohol. “Alcohol,” he said, “is a drug. And like any drug it must be consumed in the correct dosage.” Consume too much of any beverage — wine, beer, Scotch, etc. — and the alcohol can cause damage ... often serious damage.

But it is a nasty little substance called fumonisin B2 that caught my eye in a recent technical journal. This stuff is in the family of mycotoxins produced by fungus species that recently were found in small amounts in wine.

Several scientific groups, including one from Denmark, tested 77 different types of wine from around the world, red and white, from vintages from 1991 to 2008. Fumonisin B2 was found in 18 wines, with the highest level in an unnamed California zinfandel from 1998.

Researchers stressed that the levels found are minute and well below the thresholds set by U.S. and international regulators. So I asked my friends at The Wine Institute, the trade organization for the California wine industry, about their position on these findings.

They responded: “The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry has recently published an article ... which asserts that wine, in addition to coffee and corn-based feeds and foods, can occasionally contain low levels of fumonisin, produced by a fungus that is responsible for the post-harvest decay of fresh fruit.

“The California wine industry has the highest possible standards for product safety, so the Wine Institute Technical Committee is investigating this new report further.  The article reports that 77 wine samples from 13 countries were tested and 18 (23 percent) were found to contain fumonisin B2, which included one sample of California wine dating from 1998.  While it is unknown if this result is an anomaly, the level of fumonisin in the California sample was still well below a safety limit established by the (World Health Organization’s) Joint Expert Committee on Food additives (JECFA).  JECFA sets a provisional maximum tolerable daily intake at .002 mg fumonisin per kilogram of body weight, or about 160 micrograms per day for a (176-pound) person. The level of fumonisin in the California wine in the study was 25 parts per billion, or 25 micrograms in a liter of wine.

“This issue is one that Wine Institute’s Technical Committee will continue to monitor.”

Stay tuned. If I learn more, I’ll pass it along. In the meantime, enjoy your daily glass or two of merlot or chardonnay without worrying about weird bugs.
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month.

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