Morley Safer is retiring this week from 60 Minutes after 46 years as a correspondent on the perennially popular CBS news program. The 84-year-old has covered myriad topics, of course. But for food and drink aficionados, he should be remembered for one thing: a pair of segments in the early 1990s that, more than anything else, popularized the notion that drinking a little bit of red wine regularly is good for you.
The first segment, “The French Paradox,” aired on November 17, 1991. (See the clip below.) It explored the seeming contradiction of a French populace that loved heavy foods and grand meals yet seemed to be mostly slender and without high rates of heart disease. How? After all, the French were not exercise fiends like many of their Yankee counterparts, and they smoked like chimneys.
According to Safer, a Francophile who lived part time in France, it was the fruit of the vine. “The wine apparently affects the platelets, the smallest of the blood cells,” Safer’s gravelly voiceover explained to viewers, following interviews with medical researchers. “The wine has a flushing effect — it removes platelets from the artery wall.” That helps prevent the clogs that can trigger heart attacks, he explained.
“So,” Safer said at the segment’s conclusion, a glass of red wine in his elegant hand, “the answer to the riddle, the explanation of the paradox, may lie in this inviting glass.”
The land rush was on. Demand for red wine in the United States spiked. Retailers reported shoppers asking for “the same wine the French drink,” and even sales of ancillary products, such as glassware and corkscrews, jumped.
A follow-up piece in July 1992, in which Safer concluded, “The evidence of the benefits of alcohol in moderation keeps growing,” only emboldened consumers more. And though it had been bandied about for several years, 60 Minutes’ use of “The French Paradox” cemented the phrase in the American psyche. It became a seemingly unassailable excuse for drinking regularly.
Never mind that a lot of the information Safer imparted was nonsense.
That first segment, in November 1991, had opened with the correspondent and a researcher from Boston dining at a bistro in Lyon, in eastern France. It looked to viewers like they were enjoying a leisurely repast full of rich foods and fine wine. Typically French, right? Non. That type of dining had been in decline in France for years by that point. If anything, fast-food joints were the ascendant restaurant model in the Fifth Republic.
Also, fewer French were drinking wine regularly at all. A 1990 survey revealed that half of French adults never drank the supposed national drink, and fewer than one third of those who did were daily drinkers. As Frank Prial, then the wine critic for The New York Times, pointed out, that meant that those French who did drink wine routinely drank an unhealthy lot of it — not those two or three glasses daily to break up the platelets. How else was France one of the world’s biggest wine consumers?
Such critiques proved futile in the face of the avalanche of feel-good publicity following Safer’s pieces, as did grim health statistics from the land of Bordeaux, Cotes du Rhone, the Loire Valley, et cetera. France’s rate of alcoholism and its proportion of deaths from liver disease such as cirrhosis were double those of the United States. And, yes, France did have far fewer instances of heart disease than its much more populous ally across the ocean, but the disease was still the nation’s no. 1 killer.
At the time of Safer’s segments, research was starting to show that moderate alcohol consumption might be good for you — and not just red wine. But the French were far from the best exemplars.
This column originally appeared in Food Republic.