Remembering Morley Safer’s ‘French Paradox’ Report

saferImagine being able to walk into a winery tasting room anywhere in California, and never being charged a tasting fee.

I do not know for a fact that Morley Safer could do that, but nor can I imagine the gall it would take for a winery to charge Mr. Safer such a fee.

After all, it was Safer’s report on the CBS News program, “60 Minutes,” back in 1991 that prompted a rush on red-wine sales — primarily in liquor stores and supermarkets, but also in fine wine shops — across the United States.

Safer’s report was titled, “The French Paradox,” and focused on the so-called Mediterranean diet. The question pondered by Safer, then answered by a handful of medical and dietary experts, was: How could the French people, who ate a diet high in fatty food such as cheese, have such a low rate of heart disease?

The answer: Their regular consumption of red wine.

Almost overnight, health-conscious but exercise-averse Americans cleared the wine shelves at stores in their neighborhoods. Almost any red wine would do, but Merlot seemed to be favored because it was thought to be “easy drinking” compared to Cabernet Sauvignon and certainly was less expensive than Pinot Noir.

Safer became something of a celebrity in the wine world, as grateful vintners would often mention his name when discussing the excellent business they were enjoying. This was especially true of Merlot makers.

On Sunday night, CBS aired a second hour of “60 Minutes” devoted entirely to Safer, who had announced his retirement from the show and the network a few days earlier. Safer is now 84, and word is his health isn’t great. Apparently, not even the consumption of ample quantities of red wine can work miracles when one finds themselves well into their octogenarian years.

As a journalist, I watched the program with a different eye and a different ear than most. After all, Safer had been one of my childhood heroes, primarily from his riveting stories on “60 Minutes,” but also based upon his in-the-trenches reporting before that. He had done three “tours” of Vietnam, and also had reported from other hot spots all over the world.

I became a fan for life when I learned that he and I had been honored by the same journalism awards program. He had received a Robert Kennedy Journalism Award for Domestic Television Reporting for a story about a “school for the homeless”; I had received a Robert Kennedy Journalism Award as the top undergraduate high school journalist in California in 1975. Talk about being in good company.

Safer and I have one other thing in common, something that resulted in me getting a C in my high school typing class even though I was the fastest and most accurate typist in that class: Each of us types with just two fingers.

Watching the “60 Minutes” salute, I was hoping that “The French Paradox” report would be mentioned. It was.

Any winery owner who was in business 25 years ago understands the power of television, and should be forever grateful to Morley Safer. Beyond simply extending him complimentary tasting privileges, they should have been sending him a case of wine every year for life.

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