Written by Kale Brock & brought to you by The Longevity Film 2019 Official Tour
Whether it’s the lightly coloured, naturally fermented home-made red wine of Ikaria or the dark, dry Grenache red in Sardinia, when it comes to the observation of cultures who live a long time – one may come to the conclusion that alcohol, in particular, wine, may actually contribute to their longevity.
“It’s ten in the morning and the wine tastes like it’s been spiked with vodka.”
I took a final gulp of the light, cherry-coloured red swirling in a small glass in my hand. Indeed, it seemed to taste better with every sip, the harsh bite fading away into a sweet and fermented after taste.
“We’d better start dancing soon I hope.” I added, feeling slightly buzzed already and somewhat self conscious of just how much buzz the camera would be picking up from across the table.
It was in fact, ten in the morning. Ikaria was the last stop on my journey into the world’s ‘blue zones’; longevity cultures, where people live longer, healthier & happier lives than everywhere else in the world. And this was a new feat for me. I could hardly believe that I was drinking wine, eating bread and slow cooked goat on an island in the Aegean Sea which has been assigned the tag line; the island where people forget to die. The people in Ikaria have extreme wellbeing. They have almost no dementia and 1 in 3 make it into their 90’s; they have a total lifespan about, on average, 10 years longer than us in ‘the West’ and they live with a fraction of the disease. How did they achieve such feats?
Are they meditating and doing yoga? They’re surely fasting! I concluded.
“You must eat now!” Our on-the-ground contact in Ikaria, Eleni, interrupted by thoughts.
“Every time you drink, you must eat.” She motioned to a plate of Greek salad (all homegrown) and goat.
“I’m so full already.”
“Daxo. Okay. So you move around a bit then you come back and eat.”
I was attending an Ikarian Panagiri. A religious celebration up in a dry, rocky, mountainous village of the island. This was, apparently, the best panagiri you could hope to attend because it was the true, authentic expression of Ikarian culture. A thousand year old church stood in the middle of a large, tiled courtyard, a small kitchen had been built nearby out of beautiful sandstone and would act as the service area for the hundreds of people due to attend the event later that day. All the while the blistering sun did its best to penetrate the thick branches offering a natural shelter for the area which would eventually turn into a dance floor 8 hours later.
It was all very Mediterranean.
I watched as a small lorry backed into the courtyard carrying dozens upon dozens of bottles of local Ikarian red wine. Eleni informs me it is all home-made, organic & preservative free.
“It is real wine. You never tasted anything like it.”
I certainly hadn’t. Nor had I consumed so much before lunch time, I mused. I was recruited to help lift the heavy crates off the back of the truck and deliver them into the kitchen area. They were stacked, crate upon crate, behind a counter which people would approach, buy a wine followed by goat & salad, and take it out to their table to consume amongst friends and family. The money collected would be distributed amongst the local village as the local people saw fit.
Sure, there’s research out there supporting the health benefits of certain wines, in particular red wine (especially Grenache), such as reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, but in my opinion none of these studies were really solid. I knew that antioxidants, like those found in red wine, reduce inflammation and that ageing and disease are rooted in inflammation. But it was difficult to quantify if wine or alcohol was good or bad. It would be left up to observation, I thought.
“The wine is a big part of your culture, then?” I asked Eleni.
“Yes. But it’s more than that. It’s about what the wine represents; what it does. For instance you never drink alone in Ikaria. Always with friends or family. It is used to bring people together for conversation, dancing and food.”
Thea Parikos, the owner of Thea’s Inn, a beautiful accomodation space back down the mountain chimes in.
“You’ll very rarely see someone get drunk here. It’s frowned upon to get drunk in Ikaria. The wine is used as a social lubricant of sorts. It gets people talking and dancing and having fun.”
I thought back to the notes I had taken about the two previous locations I had visited. It seemed, and this was certainly backed by the research, that community & social ties were one of, if not the most important factor in determining the longevity & quality of one’s life. In Okinawa I had visited a sake’ factory and attended Moari meetings where the men, in particular, enjoyed plenty of it. I had watched a 93 year old down a frothy beer with her mates then go sing 6 karaoke songs after spending all day dancing. I had heard about groups of shepherds in Sardinia carrying large containers of Grenache with them all day whilst working the fields and sharing them over lunch. But I hadn’t thought about the side effects of the alcohol in this way, the indirect benefits of how & who the alcohol was consumed with.
What I was seeing in front of me was this beautiful display of alcohol being used intelligently. Not to get drunk, but to limit one’s inhibitions, not to blunt emotions, but to liberate them into friendly discussion and importantly to enhance the strong undercurrent of presence, relaxation and fun which was so tangible at this celebration.
I wondered how I would convey this revelation to the people watching my film or reading my work back home. How could I disentangle what I thought to be the misconstrued notion that all alcohol is the same? Because if anything, these cultures were consuming the premium version of it, the organic, preservative free versions – surely that was important? They consumed the alcohol most often with food and didn’t drink excessively. Perhaps most importantly, they didn’t consume it alone, they didn’t consume the alcohol to consume alcohol, it was consumed with a higher intention, a higher intention of connecting more deeply with their community.
All these caveats ran through my head as I bounced along the dance floor, swept up in the infectious smiles of the locals around me who sweated and sung with the music. I was truly the “best party I’ve ever been to.”
Perhaps it wasn’t about the wine at all.
But, then again, without the wine I wonder if it would be the same…