London-based scientist Roger Corder, 51, has 25 years of medical research under his belt. But for more than 15 years, he has focused on deciphering the healthy properties behind the moderate consumption of red wine. Corder grew up in Somerset, England, where his parents maintained a dairy farm. Especially adept at chemistry, his studies led him into the field of pharmaceutical science, which he later abandoned for medical research on diet and well-being. Corder spent five years in the department of medicine at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, before returning to London in 1991 to accept a position at the William Harvey Research Institute studying the health effects of red wine.
Wine Spectator recently caught up with Corder in London to talk about his life, his love of both wine and research and his new book, The Red Wine Diet, which is scheduled to hit bookstore shelves in the United States on Sept. 6, 2007.
Wine Spectator: What got you into the field of medical research?
Roger Corder: I would like to say, "It is what I always wanted to do," but in fact it happened almost by chance. My parents were dairy farmers in Somerset and I loved farming in the summer, but hated the cold, wet winters that were typical in my childhood. At school I was good at chemistry and not much else. This led me naturally into pharmacy research, where I thoroughly enjoyed, perhaps excelled, in the lab work. However, when I started working as a pharmacist I found the routine work of the late '70s mundane and went looking for other opportunities.
WS: Why did you become a wine drinker?
RC: I was brought up with British pub culture, where the local pub was the focus of my community, except when at work or going to church. Real ales and traditional ciders were my drinks of choice then. Although I drank wine from time to time, I knew little about it. My wine education started at 30 years of age, when I went to live in Geneva. It was an ideal location. Northern Italy, as well as France, from Burgundy to Provence, were located only a few hours' drive away. The wide choice and relatively low price, particularly on a Swiss salary, created a wine paradise for this experimentalist and his wife, Sue. After five years of educating our palates, our preferences could be broadly summarized in 1990 as Bordeaux dinner party favorites, Château Pontet-Canet, Château Les Ormes de Pez, Château Chasse-Spleen, Château Camensac. We also enjoy wines from Pommard, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cahors and Bandol, as well as Barolos from Italy. Our white preferences are Pouilly-Fuissé and Gewürztraminer.
WS: What motivates you to discover things that can potentially save the lives of others, or at least make them healthier?
RC: The underlying drivers for medical research are generally either understanding the disease process or defining routes to better treatments. But there are two things that keep me motivated as a scientist: the all engrossing intellectual challenge and the belief that you could make a difference. Teasing out new insights can almost become routine, and this alone provides a great deal of job satisfaction. Eureka moments are rare, and you need to be able to look back over many years of research to define the most significant.
WS: How did you become interested in researching wine?
RC: During the '90s, there were an increasing number of reports linking wine consumption to reduced heart disease, but there was not a clear explanation for this benefit. In London, our wine choice was more restricted through cost and availability, and dominated by the southern hemisphere. Wine styles were also changing to fruitier, smoother and higher in alcohol. As a wine drinker wishing to continue enjoying the pleasure, yet not miss out on the protective properties of my daily quota, I became increasingly concerned that what I was drinking might not be optimal. Three key questions needed to be resolved. How does red wine reduce heart disease? What is the protective component? Do all red wines confer the same benefit? These issues were clearly worthy of serious scientific investigation and were the stimulus to start this research.
WS: From a wine drinker's perspective, what are your key findings to date regarding red wine?
RC: For those "new" wine drinkers, who over the past 15 years have made red wine their tipple of choice—not just because they enjoyed it but because they felt assured it was providing some health benefit—it is important to know that some modern style wines might not be ideal. Large population studies in France and Denmark from the 1970s to 1990s provided the best evidence that daily consumption of two to three glasses of red wine is beneficial. However, the types of wine being drunk … were more tannic [compared to the more typical table wines of today]. Our research shows that the most important component of red wine for reducing heart disease is a group of flavonoid polyphenols called procyanidins, which are much higher in young wines made with longer extraction times, [as seen in many French and Italian wines]. So, wine drinkers who hope to be rewarded with the maximum protection from heart disease should start seeking out wines with firmer tannins.... Another point of note is that resveratrol has nothing to do with the health benefits as it has an insufficient presence in wine to be relevant.
WS: The Red Wine Diet reads less like a diet book and more as a set of recommendations for a healthy lifestyle. How would you describe your book's approach?
RC: Apart from vaccinations, most medical interventions are reactive to disease rather than proactive in prevention. Many people, including those that are medically qualified, expect medications or other interventions to reverse the disease process. But, for heart disease and diabetes, options are still very limited, so prevention is a much better approach. After 25 years doing research on blood pressure and heart disease, I realized the pharmaceutical approach should not be first choice to better health but rather the backup plan for when things go wrong. The Red Wine Diet describes a holistic approach to better long-term health: a complete nutrition and lifestyle plan. The science behind wine and health is reviewed in order to recommend the best wines to drink, and alternative food and beverage choices for non-wine drinkers. The diet advice is based on numerous studies that provide an evidence base for healthy nutrition to avoid heart disease and cancer, and also cut risk of dementia, blindness and osteoporosis in old age. It dismisses the role of low-fat diets because there is not the evidence to show this works either in terms of cutting heart disease or in helping people lose weight.