Be scared. Be very, very scared!


Saved By Sulfites

Here’s the ominous voiceover for a trailer of a film that was never made:

“In a world were no wine drinker is safe, a mysterious chemical has found its way into your glass. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. But SULFITES lurk under every cork. Under every screwtop. In every boxed wine…waiting to STRIKE!”

People can be a little dramatic about sulfites and wine. Government agencies have seen fit to warn unsuspecting drinkers with mandatory labels on every bottle. Wine seminar attendees tell me that they only drink European wines because domestic producers add too many sulfites, which give them headaches. Readers of these columns ask me to recommend sulfite-free wines because they have self-diagnosed allergic reactions to sulfites.

Sorry, Virginia, there has never been wine made that did not contain sulfites. They are a naturally occurring byproduct of the fermentation process. So, if your wine had alcohol in it; it had sulfites.

Beyond the fixed sulfites from the fermentation process, winemakers have been introducing sulfur dioxide to their vineyards and to fermenting grape juice for at least 2,100 years. Roman winemakers, in what is now Europe, found that this practice prevents nasty bacteria and molds from spoiling their wines. Sulfur dioxide—which eventually dissipates leaving trace amounts of sulfites—also inhibits oxidation. Oxidation makes your wine look, smell and taste funny. Most European winemakers still do this for the same reasons just like their American counterparts.

“But, Gil, what about those government warnings?” you might be saying to yourself. Well, you bring up a good point because our government would never dream up ridiculous and unnecessary regulations, right?

The story goes like this: Approximately 0.5 percent of humans have sulfite allergies. About half of those people, especially asthmatics, have severe allergies related to sulfites. That’s about one in 4,000 people.

In the 1970s, a gentleman in California with severe sulfite allergies died after eating at a salad bar that had been sprayed with a “keep fresh” solution containing about 2,000 parts per million of sulfites. This incident prompted the Food and Drug Agency to consider sulfite regulations, including labeling. Wine has fewer than 150 ppm, and most have much less. Regardless, anti-alcohol forces saw their opportunity and pounced. In 1986, they were able to get the ominous-yet-wholly-unexplained “Contains Sulfites” warning on every bottle of wine made in or imported into the United States.

Did the golden-hearted members of the neo-temperance movement give a hoot about folks who eat raisins, pickles, soy sauce or canned vegetables (products that can have 200 times more sulfites than wine)? In a word, no.

If that was not bad enough (and here’s the part that really fries my cheese), the FDA will allow winemakers to leave off the warning label, if their wines have less than 10 ppm, which is virtually impossible. If they don’t use sulfur dioxide or metabisulfite in the winemaking process, they are allowed to misleadingly say “no sulfites added.” Then there is the matter of certified organic winemaking and grape growing, which prohibit the use of sulfite-producing products. So organic wines are safe, right? Well, you could use organically grown grapes, but then add sulfur dioxide in the winery, and still say “made with organic grapes.”

Confused? You should be and who would blame you?

It’s this confusion that is the bee in my bonnet when it comes to wine. Wine does not need to be perceived as more complicated than it really is. Sure, wine is a multi-faceted subject with thousands of regions and varieties to choose from. But truly at its core, wine is a simple food that mankind has produced and enjoyed for millennia. Somewhere in the past century, however, it became the drink of snobs and elitists, who slathered it with snooty adjectives and complex-sounding terms. Now we also have to deal with confusing and misleading chemical and regulatory terminology?

Truthfully, as a wine lover and a cheapskate, I’m not sure I want my wine to be sulfite-free anyway. Back in the late 1990s, when I was pouring fancy wines into glasses sitting on starched, white tablecloths for a living, we had an organic, “no sulfite added” chardonnay on the menu. It was an amazing wine to behold. That is when it wasn’t brown and vaguely reminiscent of sewage, which was about one out of every four bottles.

We had four cases to sell, which we did. Well, we really sold three cases because naturally we could not charge for the bad bottles. Our accounting department chalked up that fourth case to “the angelic purity of nearly sulfite-free wine.” Was that wholesomeness worth $480 (the price we paid for a single case)? All I’ll say here is that I’m glad it wasn’t my money.

An exceptional problem? It sure was. But without extremely careful winemaking, wines stubbornly made without the protection of sulfur dioxide are much more unstable and susceptible to spoilage. That’s why producers of raisins, pickles, soy sauce, canned vegetables and wine use it (or why owners of salad bars used to use it).

Have you ever had a young white wine tinged with brown or a red wine from a recent vintage that had a dull, brickish color and tasted old? Congratulations! You’ve had a wine made with little or no added sulfites. The spoilage likely did not go so far as to have the sewage problems mentioned above, but nevertheless the wine was not what it should have been. Most likely the wine was not properly filtered, kept at an appropriate temperature, protected from oxygen contact or a litany of other dangers that happen much less frequently with sulfur dioxide’s protective shield.

Now, I know I’ve offended a few organic or biodynamic purists. Sorry. But for us non-purists (and the vast majority of people not allergic to sulfites) who just want a nice glass of wine once in a while, we need to be aware of the benefits of sulfites—not scared or confused by the “Contains Sulfites” warning. Perhaps practical winemakers should also start putting “Protected by Sulfites” on their bottles. I’m sure that would give our heroic government regulators reason to pause.



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