Wine, the Elixir of Nordic Skiers

04/09/2013 10:52 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Winter is on the wane and spring is creeping into the landscape in most regions of the United States. Meanwhile, our thermometer dipped to seven this week in the still snowy woods of Hayward, Wisconsin. Soon daffodils and ramps will emerge from the warming earth, but memories of bracing winter days and of warming winter wines linger.

We recall late February in late winter: skiing up and over relentless, fast hills, through snow-capped evergreen woods for over 30 miles, over a frozen lake, to the finish of the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race. Skiers develop serious cravings during an outing like this. Some need meat; a salty, Wisconsin-made Bratwurst slathered in sauerkraut at the finish, for example. There are those who long for a bag of crunchy chips, or a bitter, dense chocolate bar. For me, the post-race satisfier amounts to something simple: a lengthy, hot bath with a savory, restoring glass of red on the side. Both the ski and the after-ski wine bring great pleasure, but does one have more influence than the other on our health?

Wine lovers who count cross country skiing among life's great joys agree on the pleasure of a glass after cruising wintery trails. But only a few will tout wine as a health enhancing beverage. For many skiers and outdoor enthusiasts, wine -- along with generous amounts of coffee and green tea, a sensible diet and ample rest -- is key to a healthy, robust lifestyle.

Wine in our diet remains a controversial topic. Plenty of studies in the recent past have suggested beneficial health effects linked to moderate alcohol intake. At the same time, some experts dismiss any alcohol use as unnecessary and dangerous, extra calories best avoided by all, athletes included.

Where I live, skiers enjoy the benefits of moderate wine consumption, after the ski. The days of carrying along a deerskin flask filled with wine or blackberry brandy are mostly fading memories. Slung around the neck, tucked under a beefy wool sweater, a flask was along to toast the day. It was a regular ritual for many nordic enthusiasts, as much as was listening to Johnny Clarke or Bobby Womack on the way to the trails. Those were days when skiers called it skiing, not training, and hydration was a term reserved for the laboratory. Exercise gurus now insist on absolute sobriety for skiers deep in the big woods, on challenging trails miles from help, with water or exercise fluids the prescribed means of hydrating. Most contemporary nordic skiers agree and avoid using wine before or during workouts. It's a safe bet that hoisting a flask on Wisconsin ski trails nowadays would be met with alarmed looks. The Sheriff's department might be called to the woods. Skiers simply don't do this anymore, at least out in the open. Best to keep wine in a water bottle or Camelback, to avoid the stares and horrified looks of other skiers.

Men and women who consume no more than one or two five ounce glasses of wine daily appear to benefit from elements such as polyphenols, tannin, and alcohol in ways which are still being studied. But to highlight one element of a lifestyle -- such as wine consumption -- as a primary ingredient to good health may overlook the interrelatedness of how we live and what we consume. It's not wise to rely strictly on wine or Resveratrol capsules as the pathway to health. Here's where skiing or other activity comes in; complimentary components of the overall picture.

The deeply embedded culture of nordic skiing and mountain biking in northwest Wisconsin is immediately apparent to visitors to the rural region. Ski and bike trails abound and roll through the diverse woods of Sawyer county near Hayward, built on logging in the 1890's, now sustained by a tourist economy. Each year the world-famous American Birkebeiner cross country ski race finishes on Main Street, Hayward on the last Saturday of February. Skiers visit -- about 160 miles northeast of Minneapolis-Saint Paul -- from around the globe to ski on the trails and to compete throughout the winter in races ranging from 12 to 54 kilometers. The challenging Chequamegon Fat Tire 40 mile mountain bike race utilizes some of the same topography in mid-September.

Discussions with residents and visitors suggest wine -- red, preferred -- as a favored table beverage for pleasure and post-ski recovery. Wine consuming skiers tend to be exceptionally durable, life-long activity devotees who eat sensibly, drink a lot of coffee, avoid tobacco and remain active into old age. Some in this group obtain much of their food and meat locally, long before it became hip; many tend their own gardens; most have strong social networks. Is it irrelevant to physical and spiritual health that this group also enjoys wine? It's possible, but more likely is that moderate wine consumption is one small piece of the lifestyle puzzle which enhances -- rather than diminishes -- overall health. It may be a small, unscientific sampling of one tiny region, but this scenario likely mirrors other active, wine-consuming communities around the world.

Tom Vanden Brook skied his first Birkebeiner in 1981 and has now completed 29 full length marathons. Vanden Brook is well-known for his unique approach to the race: he routinely travels to Hayward the day before the event, skis his first outing of the year for a few kilometers to test equipment, and the next day hammers out a full 54k race. Vanden Brook, a journalist based on the east coast, is exceptionally fit and prefers skiing the race in the classic, striding style of the original Norwegian Birkebeiners. He said recently, "I think wine consumption does help. But not from a physical performance standpoint. The positive health benefits (of wine) are well documented." Vanden Brook, like many active people, refrains from drinking wine on a daily basis but acknowledges there may be more to consuming a glass than just the taste or the accompaniment with a meal.

Clearly, good fitness and health -- however one defines the terms -- can exist without wine, beer, or spirits. And a meal might be as nourishing with a glass of water as it is with wine. Even if the glass or two of wine we enjoy turns out to be a wash to our physical health, then the immeasurable sensual and social pleasure it brings may still be worth the extra calories. After the ski, in front of the cozy lit fire, in mid winter, and soon, in the blossom-filled days of spring.