The French scientist argued that red wine was part of a healthy lifestyle, most famously in a 60 Minutes report that sparked a sales boom
Serge Renaud, a French medical researcher known as “the father of the French paradox,” died Oct. 28 in a small town in the Médoc, north of the city of Bordeaux. He was 85. According to French media reports, Renaud, accompanied by his companion and longtime assistant Dominique Lanzmann, left his porch for his regular walk down to the beach when he collapsed. He had suffered a stroke in 2003 and was retired, but was still a vocal advocate of the health benefits of wine.
Renaud became known worldwide in 1991 when he appeared on the CBS news show 60 Minutes, discussing why France had lower rates of cardiovascular disease than America, even though people in both countries consumed fatty diets. Renaud argued that the French people’s regular, moderate consumption of wine with meals, particularly red wine, was a significant reason for their better health. Before that moment, almost all medical research treated alcohol as a risk factor, never as part of a healthy lifestyle. Renaud’s argument not only dramatically increased red wine sales in America, it launched a new wave of research exploring wine and alcohol’s health benefits that continues today.
Half-French, half-Canadian, Renaud grew up in the Bordeaux region, where his grandfather had a vineyard in Entre-Deux-Mers. As he told Wine Spectator in 1994, in his home, children learned healthy eating habits early—lots of bread, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, cheese and, yes, some wine. “When I left France at the age of 20 to study in Canada, I couldn’t imagine there was a population in the world that didn’t drink wine with meals,” he said. His time in Montreal and visits to America surprised him. He couldn’t believe how rare wine was on American tables. Something else caught his attention. “I was struck by the coronary heart disease rates in America, the dietary habits of Americans and the absence of wine. After taking my doctorate in cardiovascular diseases in 1960, I decided to explore the relationship between nutrition and heart disease.”
By the ’70s, Renaud was director of the Lyon-based research unit on nutrition and cardiology at INSERM, France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research. His most famous work examined diets in industrialized countries, specifically France and the United Kingdom. He argued that as countries grew more wealthy, people’s diets grew more fatty. But France had a much lower rate of cardiovascular disease than England, and he argued that red wine had an ameliorating effect on a fatty diet.
After Renaud appeared on 60 Minutes in November of 1991, his research had a big impact on American wine consumption. During the episode, Morley Safer interviewed Renaud. At one point Safer held up a glass of red wine and proclaimed that the answer to France’s low rate of heart disease “may lie in this inviting glass.” In the ’80s, U.S. wine sales were growing, but slowly, and white wine was fashionable. In 1992, sales of red table wine increased by a whopping 39 percent, following a 4.5 percent decrease between 1980 and 1990, according to Impact, a sister publication of Wine Spectator.
Before the report, many researchers had seen evidence that wine or alcohol might have health benefits, especially for heart health. But heavy alcohol consumption was a big risk factor, so any possible benefits of wine were ignored. That changed in the ’90s. Today, moderate alcohol consumption’s role is still not understood. Researchers can’t even agree whether alcohol alone or something specific to red wine is good for cardiovascular health. And some suggest Renaud’s findings were too simplistic, and that other parts of the French diet, such as olive oil, fish and vegetables, also explain better heart health. But new studies continue to find health benefits in wine, even if those benefits are not fully understood.
Renaud didn’t always have an easy time finding French government funding for his work, but he kept at it until his stroke in 2003. Retiring to his beloved Bordeaux, he was a passionate advocate for wine until the end. As he told a journalist with the local newspaper Sud Ouest, “As a boy, I remember my father bringing wine to an ailing parent’s bed. I imagined it was a folk remedy. Now I know he was right.”