Resveratrol anti-inflammatory action confirmed

Nutra Ingredients

Resveratrol, the powerful antioxidant found in wine, and another polyphenol quercetin can act as novel anti-inflammatory agents, conclude UK researchers, although they question the value of offering resveratrol over the counter.

The team from Imperial College London, England, confirmed resveratrol’s broad anti-inflammatory action, and found potential for applications in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and possibly even arthritis.

However they note that clinical preparation and delivery remain issues.

Resveratrol from red wine has long been associated with the so-called ‘French Paradox’, reflecting the low incidence of heart disease among the French despite their relatively high-fat diet. Found in the skins of red fruits such as grapes and plums, the polyphenol is being marketed as a supplement by some companies although it is known to present bioavailability issues.

Lead researcher Louise Donnelly said the research group had "looked at the over-the-counter" versions of resveratrol and found that "it's not very pure and probably wouldn't be worth taking". The major bioavailability problem comes from the fact that the compound dissolves only in certain solvents, including alcohol, "and is cleared very rapidly in the liver," Donnelly said.

The Imperial team did confirm however that the compound “exhibited anti-inflammatory mediator release from human airway epithelial cells."

They write in the American Journal of Physiology-Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology that their study also excluded a number of potential mechanisms of action, including the oestrogen or glucocorticoid receptor. This means these agents might be beneficial in inflammatory diseases where glucocorticosteroids have proved to be ineffective, such as COPD, steroid-resistant asthma, and arthritis.

Drinking red wine may help to ward off lung cancer

Story from BBC NEWS
Published: 2004/10/27 23:10:09 GMT

A team from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain found each glass a day reduced the risk of lung cancer by 13% compared to non-drinkers.

While studies have already suggested red wine can help reduce the risk of heart disease, it was not thought to offer protection against lung cancer.

But Cancer Research UK cast doubt on the findings, warning excess drinking increases the risk of other cancers.

Professor Tim Key, of the charity's epidemiology unit at Oxford University, said there was "no solid evidence to support the suggestion that red wine might help to prevent cancer".

'Increased risk'

"There is, however, strong evidence that regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, and oesophagus.

"Furthermore, even moderate amounts of alcohol cause a small increase in the risk for breast cancer."

Researchers surveyed 132 people with lung cancer and 187 hospital patients without.

The group, mostly men in their 60s, were asked about their diet, smoking habits, occupation and the type and quantity of alcohol they drank each day, including whether they drank red, white or rose wine.

Both groups drank similar amounts of wine - about three-and-a-half glasses a day - but just over a third of lung cancer patients drank red wine compared to over half of the others.

Neither beer, spirits, or rose wine seemed to affect the development of cancer, the team concluded.

But the report, published in the Thorax journal, suggested there was a slight chance white wine may increase the risk of lung cancer - although the finding was not considered statistically significant because of the small number of white wine drinkers.

The results held true even after taking account of the amount of tobacco smoked, job type and total quantity of alcohol consumed.

Lung cancer kills 33,000 people each year in the UK - the largest number among cancers.

The report said the beneficial affect of red wine may be down to tannins, an antioxidant which works by protecting cells, and resveratrol, which has been shown to stifle tumour development and growth.


Report co-author Dr Alberto Ruano-Ravina, of the department of preventive medicine and public health at the university, said previous studies on wine and lung cancer had not differentiated between white and red.

But he said he would not recommend people drink more red wine.

"It would be extremely risky - and even dangerous - for recommendations to be drawn up endorsing a high consumption of red wine for the prevention of lung cancer in light of the well-known association between alcohol consumption and increased mortality."

Instead, he said the study should be used to fully identify the components of red wine which reduced risk.

Professor Andrew Peacock, of the British Thoracic Society, acknowledged the benefits of red wine but insisted the best way to ward off lung cancer was not to smoke.

"Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer so the best way to reduce your risk of developing the disease is to throw away the cigarettes."


Red Wine Consumption May Lower Prostate Cancer Risk

By Will Boggs, MD
NEW YORK OCT 08, 2004 (Reuters Health)

Moderate consumption of red wine might lower the risk of prostate cancer in men who drink, according to a report in the October 15th online edition of International Journal of Cancer.

"The results of this study show that modest red wine consumption (four 4-oz. glasses/week) lowers the risk of prostate cancer by 50%, which is a fairly strong negative association," Dr. Janet L. Stanford from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, Washington told Reuters Health. "However, this is the first study to fully evaluate the risk of prostate cancer in relation to red versus white wine consumption, so further study is needed to confirm these results."

Dr. Stanford and colleagues used data from a large population-based case-control study in King County, Washington, to investigate the relationship between alcohol intake and prostate cancer.

Men with prostate cancer were more likely to be black, to have had serum PSA screening for prostate cancer, and to have a first-degree family relative with prostate cancer, the authors report. Prostate cancer patients were also more likely to have higher daily calorie intake and more lifetime female sexual partners and to be current smokers.

Overall alcohol consumption showed no clear relationship with prostate cancer risk, the results indicate, but beer or liquor consumption appeared to increase the relative risk.

Each drink of wine per week was associated with a 2% decrease in prostate cancer risk, the researchers note, but this finding was of borderline statistical significance.

In contrast, there was a significant 6% reduction in prostate cancer risk for each glass of red wine drunk per week, the investigators report. Controlling for other alcohol consumption strengthened the association of red wine consumption with reduced prostate cancer risk. Consumption of white wine showed a weaker association with decreased prostate cancer risk.

The negative association between red wine consumption and prostate cancer risk was stronger in men with more aggressive disease, the report indicates, but there were no such associations for white wine consumption.

"The message is not to have men who don't consume alcohol begin drinking wine based on this one study," Dr. Stanford said. "However, men who already consume alcohol might consider making some of that a modest amount of red wine."

"If further study confirms our results, it looks like red wine may be beneficial for the heart and the prostate," Dr. Stanford said. "Only further research can address this possibility."

"We also are planning future studies designed to specifically test the hypothesis that red wine is associated with a reduced incidence of prostate cancer," she added.

* International Journal of Cancer 2004


A Glass of Red Wine a Day May Keep Prostate Cancer Away

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
SEATTLE — Sep. 22, 2004

Drinking a glass of red wine a day may cut a man's risk of prostate cancer in half, and the protective effect appears to be strongest against the most aggressive forms of the disease, according to a new study led by investigators at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The findings, by Janet L. Stanford, Ph.D., and colleagues in Fred Hutchinson's Public Health Sciences Division, appear online in The International Journal of Cancer.

"We found that men who consumed four or more glasses of red wine per week reduced their risk of prostate cancer by 50 percent," Stanford said. "Among men who consumed four or more 4-ounce glasses of red wine per week, we saw about a 60 percent lower incidence of the more aggressive types of prostate cancer," said Stanford, senior author of the study. "The more clinically aggressive prostate cancer is where the strongest reduction in risk was observed."

Stanford and colleagues found no significant effects — positive nor negative — associated with the consumption of beer or hard liquor and no consistent risk reduction with white wine, which suggests that there must be a beneficial compound in red wine that other types of alcohol lack. That compound, Stanford and colleagues believe, may be an antioxidant called resveratrol, which is abundant in the skins of red grapes but much less so in the skins of white grapes. The compound is also found in peanuts and raspberries and is available as a dietary supplement, which has been suggested to protect against cardiovascular disease.

Laboratory studies indicate that resveratrol influences a variety of biological pathways that are important in cancer development. For example:

* As an antioxidant, it helps sweep dangerous, cancer-causing free radicals from the body.
* As a potent anti-inflammatory agent, it blocks certain enzymes that promote tumor development.
* The compound also reduces cell proliferation, curtailing the number of cell divisions that could lead to cancer or the continued growth of cancer cells.
* It also enhances apoptosis, or programmed cell death, which helps rid the body of cancerous cells.
* It may act as an estrogen, reducing levels of circulating male hormones such as testosterone that fuel the growth of prostate cancer.

While the researchers found that the risk of prostate cancer decreased 6 percent for every glass of red wine consumed per week, Stanford is quick to point out that research shows the law of diminishing returns comes into play when consumption increases beyond moderation.

"From a public-health standpoint, it's difficult to recommend any alcohol consumption given the risks associated with heavy consumption, from increased overall cancer risk to accidental injury and social problems. But for men who already are consuming alcohol, I think the results of this study suggest that modest consumption of red wine — four to eight 4-ounce drinks per week — is the level at which you might receive benefit. Clearly other studies show that more than that may have adverse effects on health."

For the study, the researchers interviewed 753 newly diagnosed Seattle-area prostate-cancer patients as well as 703 healthy controls who served as a comparison group. Detailed information about tumor aggressiveness (such as tumor grade and disease stage) was obtained through the National Cancer Institute's Seattle-Puget Sound Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results cancer registry.

"Even though this study is based on relatively small numbers, the results are very intriguing and suggest that the potential beneficial effect of red wine and resveratrol — if indeed resveratrol is the active chemopreventive agent involved — would be very important, because it's the more aggressive forms of prostate cancer than are most important to prevent," she said.

A particular strength of the study, Stanford said, is that the participants were relatively young, ranging in age from 40 to 64, and the majority were under 60.

"By focusing on men under age 65, whose incidence of prostate cancer is much lower than that of older men, we can tease out the effect of a particular environmental exposure on cancer risk, such as wine consumption, more easily than if we were looking at men across the entire age range," she said. This is particularly true when studying complex diseases such as prostate cancer in which numerous genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a role over an individual's lifetime.

Another strength of the study is that in addition to being surveyed about lifetime alcohol consumption, participants were asked about a variety of other risk factors for prostate cancer, such as diet, family history of cancer, screening for prostate cancer and tobacco use, all of which were taken into account and adjusted for when analyzing the data.

While the majority of studies to date have assessed the effects of overall alcohol use on prostate-cancer risk, fewer studies have attempted to compare the effects of wine versus beer versus hard liquor, and only one previous study has compared the impact of red versus white wine on prostate-cancer risk, said Stanford, also a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

The previous study, the Netherlands Cohort Study, evaluated prostate-cancer risk in relation to white and red wine consumption. Increased risks were found in men who consumed "white and fortified wines," but not red wine, as compared to nondrinkers, although there was not a consistent trend in risks with levels of intake. Interestingly, among men who consumed 15 or more grams of red wine per day (about one and a half glasses per day), there was an overall 18 percent reduction in risk and a 16 percent lower risk of advanced-stage prostate cancers. The Netherlands Cohort Study was initiated in 1986 and collected information by self-administered mailed questionnaires that asked about alcohol consumption during the prior year only. Thus, the Netherlands Cohort Study results only reflect associations with recent wine consumption, as investigators were unable to examine lifetime intake as was done in the current Fred Hutchinson study.

"One of the reasons we wanted to do this study is because overall, most of the scientific literature — around 17 studies to date — haven't shown a consistent relationship between alcohol consumption and prostate cancer," Stanford said. "Some have shown an increase, some a decrease, and most no association whatsoever. Part of the problem, we believe, is that few of the studies have attempted to sort out the effects of different types of alcohol intake over a man's lifetime."

Stanford and colleagues plan to seek funding to conduct a larger study to see if their results hold up. In collaboration with Norm Greenberg, Ph.D., of Fred Hutchinson's Clinical Research Division, they also plan to test the effects of resveratrol on mouse models of prostate cancer to see if giving mice this chemical compound will reduce the onset of prostate cancer and/or decrease the aggressiveness of the disease.

The first author of the study, W. Marieke Schoonen, M.S., formerly a graduate student in Stanford's group, is now a doctoral student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded the research.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, home of two Nobel Prize laureates, is an independent, nonprofit research institution dedicated to the development and advancement of biomedical technology to eliminate cancer and other potentially fatal diseases. Fred Hutchinson receives more funding from the National Institutes of Health than any other independent U.S. research center. Recognized internationally for its pioneering work in bone-marrow transplantation, the center's four scientific divisions collaborate to form a unique environment for conducting basic and applied science. Fred Hutchinson, in collaboration with its clinical and research partners, the University of Washington Academic Medical Center and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in the Pacific Northwest and is one of 38 nationwide. For more information, visit the center's Web site at www.fhcrc.org.


Scientists Shed Light On Mechanism Behind Beneficial Effects Of Red Wine

This story has been adapted from a news release issued by National Science Foundation.

Scientists are a step closer to understanding the health benefits of drinking red wine. Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and affiliated with the Salk Institute in San Diego, Calif., have succeeded in converting chalcone synthase, a biosynthetic protein enzyme found in all higher plants, into an efficient resveratrol synthase. Resveratrol, a beneficial component of red wine, is thought to contribute to the improved cardiovascular effects associated with moderate consumption of red wine.

The research results appear in the September issue of the journal Chemistry & Biology.

Laboratory studies with resveratrol have demonstrated an impressive list of health benefits, including roles as anti-oxidants, cancer preventing agents, blood thinners and blood pressure -lowering compounds. Resveratrol recently was shown to increase lif
e span in fruit flies and yeast, suggesting an additional role in our diets as a promising anti-aging natural chemical.

"This research demonstrates the power of protein engineering in producing value-added traits, and in solving synthetic puzzles using modern techniques," said William Nes, program director in NSF's division of molecular and cellular biosciences, which funded the research. "The study provides new insights into the relationships among plant proteins."

The health benefits of resveratrol consumption are a lucky accident, scientists say, as grapes actually produce resveratrol in order to defend against fungal invasion. Researchers at the Salk Institute have now deciphered the three-dimensional structure of the plant enzyme that creates this remarkable but rare molecule. In the process, they've resolved a long-standing scientific puzzle: the crucial differences between common plant enzymes known as chalcone synthases and their resveratrol-producing relatives, the much rarer stilbene synthases.

Scientists realized decades ago that chalcones and stilbenes, two important classes of plant natural products with different properties, were produced by closely related enzymatic proteins. All higher plants possess chalcone synthase. Chalcone-derived natural chemicals fulfill a number of important biological functions in plants including roles in plant fertility, disease resistance and flower color. Conversely, production of resveratrol and other rare anti-fungal stilbenes occurs in just a few plant species, including grapevines, peanuts, blueberries and some pine trees.

Using the tools of structural biology, Michael Austin, a graduate student at the Salk Institute and the University of California, San Diego, solved the three dimensional structure of resveratrol synthase and compared its shape to its relative chalcone synthase. Austin is part of a research team led by biochemist Joseph Noel of the Salk Institute. The team has uncovered the crucial differences between these related plant enzymes. "In addition to illuminating the molecular mechanisms of plant evolution, this study has agricultural and nutraceutical significance," said Noel.

Noel and colleagues used their new knowledge to convert a chalcone synthase from alfalfa into an efficient resveratrol-producing factory, simply by changing a few amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). "This biotechnological advance will allow us to 'engineer' natural resveratrol production into crop plants via a small modification of that plant's own chalcone synthase gene, as occurs naturally in grapes and a few other plants," said Noel.


Two glasses of wine a week still safe for pregnant women

Sarah Boseley, health editor
Tuesday September 14, 2004
The Guardian

Pregnant women and those hoping to conceive can safely drink up to two glasses of wine a week without harming the foetus, the Department of Health said yesterday, rejecting claims that the only safe limit is no alcohol at all.

The department was unmoved by assertions at a conference in Wigan on foetal alcohol spectrum (FAS) disorder yesterday that women who drink in pregnancy could be causing irreparable harm to their child.

Dr Raja Mukherjee, an expert on the disorder who works at St George's hospital medical school in Tooting, London, called for pregnant women to cut out alcohol completely, and said the UK's binge drinking habits were of particular concern.

"Everyone who drinks during pregnancy is potentially at risk," he said. "Studies to date have shown that the most common group to have children with foetal alcohol syndrome are people who drink chronically during pregnancy.

"There is an increasing literature of evidence, however, to suggest that binge drinking as well as low doses of alcohol can cause damage."

Studies in the US, South Africa and Scandinavia suggest that one in 300 infants is affected by some form of FAS disorder. There are no comparable figures in the UK. Researchers believe that affected children can suffer problems with memory, attention span, hyperactivity, physical abnormalities and a diminished IQ.

Dr Mukherjee wants to carry out research on the problem in the UK. He believes the condition is often not diagnosed. "FAS is a pervasive disorder. This means that it will never be cured and will never go away," he said. "It affects the basic structure of the brain and the way that it processes information."

But the Department of Health said the research cited at the conference had been reviewed in March as part of the government's alcohol harm reduction strategy, and that the two units a week limit was considered to be safe. "It [the research] was seen as valuable, but there were questions about its robustness," a spokeswoman said.


Information, Please: Wine Goes Digital

The New York Times
Published: September 8, 2000

WITH hundreds of names to keep track of and new varietals and vintages arriving all the time, it is understandable that wine shoppers wind up grabbing a couple of bottles of pinot grigio and running for the exit.

Braver customers can always ask for help from a knowledgeable salesclerk, if they are lucky enough to find one.

As with so many other businesses, wine stores are turning to computers to help. An increasing number are installing interactive touch screens to dispense information about wines, wine and food pairings, grape varieties, distilled spirits and more. These digital pioneers include behemoths like Wegmans, the supermarket chain based in Rochester; two Houston liquor-store chains, Spec's and Copperfield; and small shops in Manhattan and San Francisco.

But as the use of the digital systems spreads, questions arise: Will the in-store digital information guide customers through the clutter or simply add to it? Is the information trustworthy? First indications are that the systems show promise and that customers use them, but that there is lots of work to do.

At three Wegmans stores in New Jersey, customers use an A.T.M.-like touch screen to find wines by country, grape variety, price and other criteria. Each unit has a bar code reader and a built-in printer. Buyers curious about wines can scan in the code, read the text on the screen and print it.

For example, scan in Beringer Founder's Estate Pinot Noir, for example, and hit "Print." Out comes 21 inches of ticker tape, complete with a taste profile ("flavors of cherry and orange spice predominate on the finish"), excerpts of reviews ("four stars," says The Houston Chronicle) and wine-food pairing ideas (grilled salmon or rack of lamb).

Though Mike Riley, the wine buyer for Wegmans, says that this basic information is "not for the wine geek," there was plenty to keep the geek happy. According to the printout, Beringer's pinot noir grapes were given a "cold-soak for four days" and 10 percent were put through carbonic maceration before being "aged seven months in French and American oak."

When Amy Kitzler, a 26-year-old secretary, saw a Wegmans screen in action in Bridgewater, N.J., she was especially intrigued by the wine-food pairing suggestions.

"This is a good idea," she said. "I would definitely use it to see what to serve."

More guarded in her opinion was Sue Williams, a legal editor from Manhattan, who was visiting in Bridgewater. She found the touch screen system "a little sterile."

"I'd use it, but I'd rather have a salesperson," she said. "At my store in the West Village, they're very knowledgeable and know what I like. When I come here, I'm never sure — the store is good, but how much do the cashiers know?"

And how reliable is the system's information? ChoiceMaster, the South Salem, N.Y., company that installed Wegmans systems, relies largely on information from importers and wineries. ChoiceMaster's developer, Jim Greaves, and his team clip and edit the information, then paste it into their database of 26,000 wines. Retailers send ChoiceMaster their inventory product codes, and the company sends back the matching wine descriptions.

What is to prevent a supplier from making inflated claims for a wine?

"The retailer is the line of defense," Mr. Greaves said.

Mr. Riley said: "One national producer added points to a score from one of the major wine reviewers. We caught it and told him to cut it out."

One alternative is the approach by Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants in San Francisco and 55 Degrees Wine & Design in Las Vegas. Both are creating their own databases of reviews and comments.

"If I own the store and I'm not editing the content, I'm not taking advantage of a branding opportunity," said Andrew Bradbury, the beverage director at 55 Degrees. So far, Mr. Bradbury and his staff have put in 100 wine descriptions from a total list of 1,400 wines.

Discovery Wines, scheduled to open this fall in the East Village in Manhattan, has a more laid-back approach. Shoppers there will be able to use one of 11 wall-mounted flat screens to browse through the collection or to scan a bottle's bar code and read the text that pops up. The text comes from the wineries and importers, who have direct access to Discovery Wine's database and put in their descriptions.

Ellisa Cooper, an owner, has no plans to stick her editing pencil between the suppliers and the customers.

"This is a point-of-sale marketing tool for wine suppliers," she said, adding that she was not worried that the suppliers would mislead customers. "My partners and I tasted 5,000 wines before settling on the 650 that we sell. I stand behind them."

No matter who writes the contents on these systems, Andrea Immer, the wine educator and retail consultant, said descriptions should be short and sweet. "People don't want to know the soil composition or the fact that the wine was aged two years in oak," she said. "Give them a cocktail party nugget about the wine. That's what they want — and to know that it's from a trusted source."


Wine's potent appeal may be at its limit

Vintners are rethinking their skyrocketing alcohol levels
By Jon Bonné
Updated: 10:57 a.m. ET Aug. 12, 2004

In all the high talk about wine, it's easy to forget this stuff can still get you drunk.

Alcohol content in wines around the world, but perhaps most notably from California, has been creeping up in the past 25 years. If 12 percent was once average for red wine, it now sounds almost uncannily low; 14 percent is almost a baseline for reds, and whites are routinely climbing into the 13s and well above.

Assuming you're drinking for taste — which is to say, you're old enough not simply to choose beverages for their high-octane qualities — more alcohol can be a mixed bag. Jumping from 12 to 16 percent is like an extra half-beer with each glass of wine.

Higher alcohol often accompanies the full, ripe, deep qualities that grace some of the most highly prized New World wines. It usually results from ultra-ripe fruit, often picked late into the harvest season, that also yields a taste explosion.

Yet some winemakers and wine sellers are growing reticent of these powerhouses, often finding them so overwhelming, so "hot" in alcohol, they can only be enjoyed on their own. It is especially worrisome to those want wine as part of a meal.

"Wine is a complement to food. Those wines do not compliment food. As someone once said, maybe wild boar, preferably still alive," says renowned winemaker Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards. "It's a wine that dominates the meal. It's a food in itself. You don't need the food; it's superfluous."

Draper does not shy away from a healthy alcohol content. While Cabernet sauvignon can express itself just fine at 12 or 13 percent, he believes, zinfandel requires at least 14 percent to show its true colors.

Yet last year, for the first time in 38 years, he found himself splitting grape lots for his Geyserville zinfandel — using less ripe grapes with lower alcohol to make his usual style of wine, and bottling another version with the late-harvested powerhouse fruit.

Winemakers have several ways to monitor grapes in the vineyard. They can measure brix, which dictates how much of a grape's sugar can be converted into alcohol. They can simply use their tongues, tasting to see if a grape is ready. Winemakers who produce these big wines often insist they simply pick to taste, seeking the fruit that best reflects the vineyard.

"I've always been baffled by the militant attitude that some people have ... that we're ruining the wine," says Ehren Jordan, winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, which has achieved near-cult status with zinfandels in the 17-percent range.

Managing the grape

Why are wines getting more potent? First, grape-growing has become a true science. Excellent vineyard management has yielded grapes that are a model of health, bursting with flavor, with little disease to wither them.

And despite those hoary allusions between California and France, most of France struggles to ripen grapes in a temperate climate while hotter U.S. sites allow grapes to ripen far better. ("California's more like Tunisia," Jordan says.)

More influential has been the will of the market. Usually big and bold, high alcohol wines can be enjoyed within a year or so of release; that happens to be the very sort of wine many consumers, including collectors, are buying. The age of the 12-percent Bordeaux from barely ripe fruit, needing years in the bottle to evolve, is largely past.

The trend has been hugely accelerated by critics, most notably wine guru Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine, two pioneers of the 100-point rating system. Bold, high-alcohol wines easily stand out in tasting -- even among varietal peers -- so it's no surprise many score spectacularly well. Wine buyers often buy by numbers, so big fruit and high alcohol can be key to commercial success.

"It is completely a market-driven industry. It has nothing to do with what's in the bottle," says veteran Napa winemaker and consultant George Vierra.

Vierra was so frustrated by the trend he recently penned an essay arguing that wine should in fact be classified in two categories: "social wines," the high-alcohol bruisers that are often consumed by themselves, and "table wines," intended for food.

In fact, the government already considers anything below 14 percent "table wine," and wine above 14 percent need only approximate its alcohol content within 1.5 percent. A label saying 15 percent can front a wine with 16.5 percent alcohol.

'They think they're great wines'
Vierra has charted the rise of alcohol levels in Napa grapes as they climbed from a low of 12.5 percent in 1971 to a 2001 high of 14.8 percent. But there was also a 14-percent peak in 1978, after which levels dropped sharply.

That previous high-alcohol era ended when drinkers shied away from more potent bottlings. Consumers and critics could again grow weary of a big, potent style.

Some winemakers and retailers suspect it might taper off as high-end buyers discover these wines often won't improve with age.

"My big gripe is with people who are chasing that elusive goal of the 100-point wine," says Mat Garretson, whose Garretson Wine Company turned out a 17.2-percent syrah. "It's pleasant, it's luscious, it's hedonistic. Will it age well? Probably not."

"On the other hand," Draper notes, "If Parker tells them they're 97 or 98 or 100 points, they think they're great wines."

The debate will continue. Vintners point to early high-alcohol vintages, like old David Bruce zinfandels, that still shine after 35 years. There is talk of which varietals are truly appropriate for California's hot climate, and murmurs of Star Trek-sounding techniques to artificially tweak alcohol levels: chaptalization (adding sugar); reverse osmosis machines and spinning cones that filter out alcohol while retaining flavor.

In the end, consumers may guide the way, depending on just how tipsy we want our wine to make us. Retailers are already noticing an impact.

"It becomes a little more physically tiresome to drink that kind of wine," says Michael Teer of Seattle's Pike & Western Wine Shop. "We're still selling the big monsters, but people are asking for something a little more managable, too."