By Contributing Columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich
You know all those urban legend stories — like the one about alligators in the NYC sewers and the blind date that ends with you waking up in a bathtub of ice. Well, we have our own version of an urban legend in the wine industry. It goes something like this…
All of the stories are the same and involve a couple returning from a recent trip to Europe. The couple talks about how they drank wine like crazy and never once had a hangover. They reminisce about how they met local winemakers who told them “American wines all have sulfites and ours don’t.” The couple agrees that when they are back home in the U.S. they cannot drink wine the same way and enjoy it as much. They insist that the sulfites used in American wine gives them a headache and they inevitably want to know why we have to use them. They usually try to stick to white wine because of the sulfites in reds. They never buy another bottle of American wine.
What’s going on here?
The reality is that this is an actual story that has been told to me many times. My answer to them is always the same: “perhaps it has something to do with you being relaxed and on vacation!” I tell them the reason they feel so good in Europe is simple; “You know, being away from home, the kids, the pets, the daily grind of work, sleeping a little later, having lots of ‘intimate time’."
At this point most of them give me dirty looks and shake their heads in disbelief. Some of the wives will snort and elbow their husbands in the ribs. I try to explain there’s nothing in the medical literature proving sulfites have anything to do with headaches and that red wines contain lower levels of sulfites compared to whites. By now of course, I’ve lost them.
Whatever people may want to believe, one thing is for certain. The problem is not sulfites. It’s time for this urban legend to be debunked.
The fact is that many European wine producers are habitual, shameless liars.
Though not required to put it on the label in their country of origin,
many imported wines contain higher levels of sulfites than domestic
products. European wineries are allowed to use far more additives than
we are in the U.S. They invented additives for wines. For over four
hundred years, European wine producers studied the effects of sulfur in
wine. They learned to understand that good wine could not be made
without its use. We learned everything we know about it from them and
have continued to improve our knowledge.
Let’s get one thing straight — all wines contain sulfites whether added
or not. Wines without any added sulfur can still contain anywhere from
5-40 milligrams per liter. The same yeasts that convert sugar into
alcohol also produce sulfite as a by-product. The human body actually
produces about 1 gram per day.
Dude, if that’s not like, natural, I
don’t know what is.
Chances are you will ingest more sulfites in your average restaurant
dinner than from a glass of your favorite wine. French fries, scalloped
potatoes, shellfish, soy flour, maple syrup, guacamole, sushi, olives,
pizza, cheese, crackers, and fish — the list goes on — can contain more
sulfites (in milligrams per liter) than most wines. The average bag of
dried fruit and nuts contain about 10 times the amount of sulfites
found in a bottle of wine. Why doesn’t anyone ever complain about Gorp
giving them a headache?
Sulfite in wine was not an issue until the mid 1980s. Remember seeing
those three-dollar an hour franchise restaurant employees spraying
stuff over the salad bar? A couple of asthma attacks and a few
anti-alcohol legislators later and — voila — we had a warning label
for wine. Some European producers saw this as an opportunity to set
themselves apart from their up-and-coming American competitors. Don’t
be fooled — all wine is made pretty much the same way no matter where
Don’t get me wrong; the folks who are allergic to sulfites have to be
very careful. The most dangerous reaction to sulfites involves
anaphylactic shock that constricts the breathing passages and severely
lowers blood pressure. This type of reaction only occurs in about 0.4 %
of the total population or about 150,000 people. In comparison, about
4% of the population (about 11 million people) suffer from severe food
allergies. As an example, peanuts are far more dangerous than sulfites
can ever be. Since 1990, the FDA has reported 19 sulfite-related deaths — none of them from wine. Most of them were from prescription drugs
containing high levels of sulfites (200ppm and higher.) Peanut
allergies alone result in at least 100 deaths per year.
So what’s my point? As I tell my customers, unless you are one of the
few who are truly allergic, you shouldn’t worry about sulfites in wine.
If you want to worry, there is something in wine you should be very
concerned about. Alcohol is a well-documented toxin to the human body
and a known carcinogen at high levels of consumption. It typically
makes up 10-16% by volume of an average bottle of wine. What do you
think has a greater chance of causing you harm — 30 parts per million
of sulfite or 12% alcohol by volume?
According to the National Council
on Alcohol and Drug Dependency, about 105,000 people in the U.S. die
annually from alcohol-related causes, which includes everything from
falls to drunk driving accidents to cirrhosis of the liver. Add to this
the tens of millions affected by alcohol-related illness and addiction.
Sobering stuff — I know, but part of enjoying and appreciating wine must
include respecting it and practicing moderation.
As a society, we tend to react negatively to the awful sounding
names that science has given some very ordinary and natural things —
many of which have been around far longer than human beings. The goal
of science is to examine, identify and find the truth. We need to do a
better job of stepping back and understanding the bigger picture. And
the next time you’re in Europe on vacation, remember to enjoy yourself,
drinks lots of good wine and set those little old, lying winemakers
The above article was written by LENNDEVOURS contributing columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker and general manager at Raphael on Long Island’s North Fork. These opinions and views are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of LENNDEVOURS.