I have a love-hate relationship with pouring at wine-tasting events.
On one hand, there is nothing in the world that I love more than having a platform and a captive audience with whom I get to share my passion and enthusiasm for wine. I get a thrill seeing the expression on a person’s face when they try a wine for the first time—and they love it. They didn’t even know something like this existed, and now they can’t get enough of it. I, in turn, get to “geek out,” filling their head with a ton of useless information about the history of the grape, how it’s cultivated, and the wars, political upset and economic devastation this little vine had to endure.
I have goosebumps as I write. I live for this stuff.
On the other hand, I have to constantly attempt to debunk certain wine myths that people cling to for dear life. (“No, those fans you’ve seen in the vineyards are not there to cool down the workers.”) For the last decade or so, the No. 1 piece of misinformation I encounter more than any other involves “wine allergies.” I am inundated with stories about how “certain wines” affect people’s sinuses and bowels, and cause rashes, hives, migraines … you name it. And the primary supposed culprit is sulfites.
Ahh yes, sulfites. It’s never long before someone at a tasting informs me that they can only drink French wine, because there aren’t sulfites in French wine. This is sometimes followed by more misinformation—that there aren’t any sulfites in Italian wine, either, but they just didn’t care for Italian wines as much. On occasion, I’ll feel feisty (and well-rested) enough to challenge this ridiculousness. But the truth is … most folks don’t want to hear it. They have convinced themselves that, somehow, what they are experiencing is an affliction to the most common preservative in the world.
A wine representative I know—well-versed in organic and natural wines—shed some interesting light on why she thinks this negative idea of sulfites is continually perpetuated. She said that because we are a label-conscious society, perhaps when we suffer an unpleasant side effect from a glass of wine, we look at the label to see what could be the cause. Well, the only “ingredient” listed on a bottle of wine is a notification that it contains sulfites—so, naturally, sulfites must be the thing causing the headache/sneezing/loss of consciousness etc. This sounds very plausible to me.
The fact is, there are more sulfites in a glass of orange juice than there are in an entire bottle of wine. Bacon, onions and garlic, pickles, jams and jellies, cookies and potato chips—I could go on and on and on—all have notable amounts of sulfites present. If you are one of the truly unfortunate people to suffer from a sulfite sensitivity—the Food and Drug Administration claims about 1 percent of you are—this shocking revelation did not come to you last Saturday night because you downed a glass of California cab. You’ve probably known it for a long, long time.
So, why do people think these European countries are somehow sulfite-exempt? I have a few theories, but the most obvious is that most French and Italian wines do not have the high alcohol content or the amount of color extraction that California wines have. Why would color be a factor? Well, this leads me to the allergy part of the equation. Most white wine is removed from the skins immediately after pressing the juice out, whereas red wine gets its color from the skins. When these grapes are brought in for crushing, they are covered with wild yeast and various “floaties” in the air that settle on the grapes. Those “floaties” are histamine triggers, and the longer the juice sits in contact with the skins in order to obtain that inky-dark glass of wine you crave, the more time it’s stewed with all those allergy-triggering elements. Nature … it’s a bitch. So the next time you read a label and are concerned with the “sulfites added” line, please keep a few things in mind: Just like the government requires companies to let you know that alcohol consumption is bad for pregnant women and might impair your ability to operate heavy machinery, it also requires winemakers to let you know that sulfites are present in wine, even if in an almost undetectable amount—10 parts per million, to be exact. Here’s the real kicker: Sulfites happen naturally! They are a perfectly normal byproduct of all alcoholic fermentation. The addition of sulfur dioxide to wine happens for the same reason it’s put into anything else—to prevent bacterial growth, browning and oxidation.
Ironically, if you truly want to avoid sulfites, you should drink red, because there are often more sulfites added to white wine in an attempt to prevent browning and oxidation. There are also wines on the market now that are labeled sans soufre, which literally means without sulfites. But … this is declaring that additional sulfites haven’t been added, not that the wine is completely without sulfur dioxide.
Now, I’m not a doctor. I shouldn’t go around diagnosing people and their wine aliments … but I do anyway. So here is my unprofessional opinion: The rash, headache, sore muscles and stuffy nose are probably caused by histamines, alcohol content or tannin. Tannin is the astringent, mouth-drying element in wine, which can also produce allergy-like symptoms—but again, if you have a sensitivity to tannin, you knew it the first time you ate chocolate, or had soy sauce, or drank an overly steeped cup o’ tea.
The irony is that I can relate to wine allergies: Yes, I suffer from a histamine reaction to wine. Stuffy head, sinus pressure—the whole shebang. I simply take a Claritin, and call it a day.
Now, let’s drink to your health … literally.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.