The substantial medical risks of heavy alcohol drinking as well as the probable existence of a less harmful or safe drinking limit have been evident for centuries. Modern epidemiology studies suggest lowered risk of morbidity and mortality among lighter drinkers. Thus, defining "heavy" drinking as > or =3 standard drinks per day, the alcohol-mortality relationship is a J-curve with risk highest for heavy drinkers, lowest for light drinkers and intermediate for abstainers. A number of non-cardiovascular and cardiovascular problems contribute to the increased mortality risk of heavier drinkers. The lower risk of light drinkers is due mostly to lower risk of the most common cardiovascular condition, coronary heart disease (CHD). These disparate relationships of alcoholic drinking to various cardiovascular and non-cardiovascular conditions constitute a modern concept of alcohol and health. Increased cardiovascular risks of heavy drinking include: (1) alcoholic cardiomyopathy, (2) systemic hypertension (high blood pressure), (3) heart rhythm disturbances, and (4) hemorrhagic stroke. Lighter drinking is not clearly related to increased risk of any cardiovascular condition and, in observational studies, is related to lower risk of CHD, ischemic stroke, and diabetes mellitus. A protective hypothesis for CHD is supported by evidence for plausible biological mechanisms attributable to ethyl alcohol. International comparisons and some prospective study data suggest that wine is more protective against CHD than liquor or beer. Possible non-alcohol beneficial components in wine (especially red) support possible extra protection by wine, but a healthier pattern of drinking or more favorable risk traits in wine drinkers may be involved.