“I can’t drink wine. It gives me a headache.”

Posted by Kathy Merchant, DWS, CSW


Is this you?

If you’re reading this blog, then I assume you at least like wine! Read on for an excellent natural solution to your problem. Non-sufferers? This solution could be a fun discovery for you too.

I learned about natural wines from my dear friend Mary. A fellow wine geek, Mary was devastated to learn she had developed a serious allergy to wine. For the record, I was devastated too. It’s something we really enjoyed together. She was told (insufferably) by absolutely everyone – her doctor, sommeliers, restaurant wait staff, probably even me! – that the problem was a simple sulfite allergy. The only viable solution at that moment was to stop drinking wine entirely because all wines contain sulfites. It says so right there on the label!

When Mary grew weary of this trite response, she started researching sulfites and discovered something amazing. Not all wines are made equal! Here’s what Mary (and I) learned from our research: the main culprit is the sulfur dioxide (SO2) used as a stabilizer and preservative in wine. Called sulfite in wine parlance, the additive leaves behind a sort of residue in the finished wine – free SO2 not absorbed into the wine – that causes problems for many people when its level exceeds 100 parts per million (PPM).

Any wine containing more than 10 PPM must include the label warning “contains sulfites,” so it is hardly helpful information… But according to regulations, the label doesn’t have to inform consumers how much sulfur dioxide was used in winemaking or exists residually in the finished wine. And the label doesn’t tell you anything at all about the use of allergy provoking chemicals in the process.

Full disclosure in the spirit of labeling requirements: sulfites do exist “naturally” in wine as a by-product of yeast metabolism during fermentation. They are present even if the winemaker doesn’t add chemicals.

Imagine yourself asking a sommelier to attest to the PPM of SO2 in your restaurant wine selection. S/he would think you were either brilliant or crazy. Ask Mary. She’s gotten both reactions, which is very frustrating to her and to those of us who are cheering her on to a workable wine geek solution. The one thing you can do independently is familiarize yourself with wines made organically and/or biodynamically using sustainable farming practices. Send us a note if you would like some specific wine recommendations to try!

To help you sort through your options for solving this headache problem:

bio pyramid

“Natural” wines must limit chemical intervention. They have no, or very little, added sulfur dioxide.

Sustainable agriculture defines an integrated system of vineyard practices that are environmentally sound, economically feasible and socially equitable. The grapes are healthy, the winemaker makes money, and you can enjoy wine (generally) without getting a headache.

Organic farming emphasizes conservation and renewable resources, a rational approach to growing crops with the least amount of harm including the use of chemicals.

100% organic wines must have less than 20 PPM sulfite content in order to qualify for that designation. There are other certification levels, such as “made with organic grapes,” that can also be beneficial to people who tend to suffer ill effects from wine.

Biodynamic winemaking is based on the theories of Rudolph Steiner who believed 100 years ago that vineyards are organisms. Articulating vineyard individuality meant to Steiner that farmers would manage each one according to the rhythms of the day, seasons of the year, and the effects of planets on plant biology. Some may call this “woo woo” viticulture, but this cosmic respect for the forces of nature almost guarantees that the use of chemicals is limited and your wine will be headache-free.

As a closing note, there may be other reasons why wine gives you a headache, so please proceed with caution. In addition to chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in the vineyard, other contributors could include tannins (from oak) in red wine, alcohol levels, histamines, and commercial (rather than indigenous) yeasts used in fermentation.

Where to shop for an excellent range of natural, organic and biodynamic wines:
D.E.P’s Fine Wines 424 Alexandria Pike, Fort Thomas, KY 41075. depsfinewine.com
Cork ‘N Bottle 501 Crescent Ave., Covington, KY 41011. corkandbottle.com
Chambers Street Wines in New York City “committed to stocking the best natural, organic and biodynamic wines from small producers around the world.” chambersstwines.com

Vintner Select’s David Dubou has developed some very approachable educational workshop materials on “Sustaining the Vine.” Available with wine selections at D.E.P.’s
• “Oh Natural!” by David Lynch in Bon Appetit May 2013
Biodynamic Wines Demystified by Nicolas Joly
Authentic Wine by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop, MW

Photo credits: NASA; “Biodynamic Wines Explained,” blogs.kqed.org

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