“Warning: This Wine Contains Sulfites”

Information is at our fingertips now more than ever, yet it seems as though people can still fall into the trap of not covering the basics. Merlot, for instance, is one of the most time-honored grapes in the world. Yet, it is amazing to me that the “Merlot hangover” from the 2004 film “Sideways” has had such a profound and lasting effect. One brief, disparaging comment about this noble Bordeaux varietal — in a film that was marginally entertaining at best — caused the sales of Merlot to plummet.

I’m not sure what the actual damage to the Merlot market was, since it would be nearly impossible to gauge something like that in real dollars. Certainly, the pinch was felt here in California far more than it was felt in the rest of the world, and I can understand how California Merlot may have become a victim of its own success. To be honest, I’m not actually interested in the cold hard facts about the financial impact of “Sideways” on the Merlot market — that such a film sparked a profound trend at all is what really intrigues me.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too shocked, since product placement is such big business in Hollywood. It’s practically a subliminal form of advertisement, having a Coke can strategically placed in the background, or even seeing E.T. consume Reese’s Pieces as a film’s main plot point. The results of product placement are proven. Still, the case of Merlot and “Sideways” was something that I doubt was calculated, and it really became more of a case of product displacement.

• • •

My theory has always been that when people are uninformed, they will take their cue from just about anywhere. Folks in America are still learning about wine — the industry has only begun to rebound from Prohibition during the last 40 years — and so they will cling to any nugget of information that they happen to glean, whether its from a movie, a party conversation, or a website. I can’t be overly critical of people succumbing to these powers of suggestion though, whether it’s overt and obvious or more subtle and subliminal. Advertising works, which is why companies spend millions of dollars for choice air time on Super Bowl Sunday.

The greatest ad campaigns, when they strike a chord with their intended audience, can become extremely viral. I always think of the Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign, which launched a national catch-phrase in the early 1980s. With that infamous line in “Sideways,” it was easily the most memorable line in the entire movie, and it was the one lasting impression that audiences took from the theater (that, and perhaps the dump bucket scene). If Americans are at a point where their tastes in wine can be influenced this easily, one can only hope that it won’t always be that way.

But even outside the realm of tastes and trends, many American wine drinkers are still getting a lot of their actual facts wrong. I’m thinking mostly about the sulfite issue here, and the common misconception that American wines contain sulfites while European wines do not. Contrary to popular belief, the European bottle that appears on American shelves with the “Contains Sulfites” label is the exact same bottle of wine that people drink in Europe. The wine was not dosed with extra sulfites because it was headed to American shores. In reality, all wines have sulfites, and a good portion of those sulfites are a simple by-product of fermentation.

Truth be told, Europeans have been adding additional sulfites to their wine for centuries. In ancient times, Greeks and Romans “sterilized” their barrels by burning sulfur candles in them. Sulfites preserve wine and make it more age-worthy, so they are actually a fine-wine necessity. The real problem with sulfites seems to be with how they’re perceived in this country. Seeing the “Contains Sulfites” label on a wine bottle makes it seem like a warning from the Surgeon General. And since most people couldn’t tell you exactly what a sulfite is (it’s the anti-oxidant, sulfur dioxide), these labels can seem rather ominous.

• • •

In the United States, sulfite labels began appearing on wine bottles in 1988, and they are present because about 5% of people with asthma — which is about 0.25% of the total population — may experience increased symptoms from sulfites. The puzzling thing about sulfite labelling, however, is that the labels remain hopelessly vague. Imagine if our food products had labels that simply stated “Contains Fat.” Would that really tell us anything? Interestingly enough, there are many common foods that have much higher sulfite content than wine, but our food-labeling laws are much more lenient than our alcohol-labeling laws (for instance, one single ounce of dried apricots contains twice as many sulfites as a typical bottle of red wine).

The amount of sulfites in a wine can vary, but the average bottle of red wine will probably have a sulfite content of about 40 or 50 parts per million (anything over 10 ppm demands a “Contains Sulfites” label in the US). White wines typically have a sulfite content of 70 or 80 ppm, nearly twice as much as the typical red. Many folks will simply attribute their headaches from red wine to sulfites, but there is something else at work, especially if these same people can drink white wine with impunity.

According to what we do know, red wine headaches could be caused by a variety of different factors, and research is still trying to pin-point the true culprit. Scientists have considered many potental sources, including histamines, tannins, flavenoids, and cogeners, but no one has discovered exactly why some people have an adverse reaction to red wines. We can be sure, however, that it’s not due to sulfites. That sounds like something you might hear in the movies.

11 comments to “Warning: This Wine Contains Sulfites”

  • Prowinewoman

    I wish more people would read this and learn that their chances of being affected by sulfites in wine is really slim-to-none. I tell them it’s like an eye dropper in a swimming pool!

    When I’ve heard many people state that they don’t get these infamous “headaches” when they visit Europe, I point out that one factor may be the extreme difference in alcohol levels of new-world vs. old-world wines. If one were to consume 3 glasses of Bordeaux with 12% alcohol, and compare that to drinking 3 glasses of Napa Cab with 15%+ alcohol, there will obviously be a different bodily reaction with the higher alcohol, i.e. headaches. You posted some other good possible reasons, too. Sulfites are not the bad guy!

  • Greg

    Hey you need to be very careful when advising people on alergies. I have recently come down with symptoms that are very frightening. I am 54 years old and have never spent a day in a hospital. Doctor visits only for injuries and one or two times in my life for flu virus. i began having asthmatic like symptoms along with other problems and it took me 5 months to narrow it down to sulphites. I can drink 6 ounces of good vodka with out felling it the next morning but one glass of wine or beer and I will wake up with tight chest and throat, dificulty breathing, itchy burning eyes and nausea. It is very difficult to test for sulfite allergy and most of us are not counted in the surveys. You are right food contains all kinds of sulfites but wine and beer have enough to cause severe reactions. i can drink “our daily red” wine that states no sulfites detected on the label with little reaction. Sulfites are a “bad guy” and added sulfites are much more problematic than the ones that occur naturally in wine and beer fermentation. Sulfites are a terrible food additive and need to be banned.

  • Greg

    By your logic, Peanuts, which TWICE as many people are alergic to (and severely so, not just sensitive) should be banned.

    Sulfites help prevent biogenic amines (histamine, and tyramine – which can kill people through andrenic shock) in wine production. SO2 is one of the safest preservatives on earth, no one has come up with a better one yet.

    I am sorry you happen to be the one in a million (literally) that are alergic to sulfites. Be kind to the rest of us who would like to have a safe healthful beverage.

  • Thirsty Reader

    Thanks for the additional info. If you got the impression that I was against sulfites, that wasn’t my message at all. EDIT: Okay, I think you were responding to another comment and not my article. It all makes sense now. Cheers!

  • Mollie

    I am yet another allergy sufferer who’s mouth and throat erupts in blisters when I drink wine high in sulfites. Cheap whites are the worst. Wine and juices and other foods containing lesser amounts (treated seafood like shrimp and scallops, bottled water like Perrier, fruits like dried apricots, coconut, etc) can give me asthma, hives or GI issuses. I seem to tolerate organic wines okay and have found an American sparkling wine that I tolerate (less than 20 ppm S02). When I go wine shopping I’m usually treated poorly by staff because they assume I’m one of “those” who drinks a bottle of red wine alone one night, no water, and blames the next day’s headache on sulphites. It’s pretty frustrating being treated that way –I guess I just need to keep in mind that they’re as ignorant about sulfites as the people who blame their hangovers on them.

  • What American sparkling has those low sulfites? Is it a large brand or more boutique?

  • Claire Anderson

    I am French living in California, wine lover and foodie. I can find very good quality wines here but there is a recurrent problem with them, especially the reds: I get awfully thirsty and have to drink water all night long after a good dinner with nice wines, it never happens when I drink wine in France. I thought the sulfites could cause that but reading your article it doesn’t make sense anymore. I would really like to know what is the difference between an US wine and a French one that can cause such bad dehydration.
    Talking with my friends, I am not the only one experiencing the problem.

  • Interesting. What kinds of California wines are you typically drinking?

  • Mollie

    Sorry for the delay in responding! I have been able to tolerate the low sulfite levels in Domaine Carneros Brut (the told me all their sparklings were low–10-20 PPM SO2 at release. I check with them, via email, periodically to be sure nothing has changed. I’ve also recently found a Bordeaux that has no added sulfites that I can tolerate: Chateau Penin Natur, Bordeaux, France. Coates (Orleans in Northern California) offers some as well. I’ve enjoyed their Cab, Sangiovese and Zin. The sommelier at the Mono Inn in Lee Vining suggested a Pinot from Cesar Toxqui he thought might work for me and it did–and was lovely.

    A friend who spent many years in Santa Rosa introduced me to Deerfield Ranch wines. The co-owner is sulfite sensitive and they are very mindful of the SO2 levels in their wines. I’ve enjoyed their “Red Rex” and “Super T Rex”. If anyone is interested, I’ll post as I find them. Likewise, if others find no sulfite added wines to share, I’d be interested in hearing about them. “Daily Red” (rather widely found) was okay but not particularly to my liking. Frey does several no sulfites added. Their opening price point “red” or “white” are not my cup of tea.

    I have noticed that the non-sulfited wines go off very quickly. If I don’t finish the bottle the first evening, the second evening is risky. The reds seem to hold up better (as does the Domaine Carneros) but the whites (especially the Frey’s) are not very nice the second night. I’ve, so far, resisted the temptation to just drink the whole thing to save it from going off, but I don’t care to pay the price in the morning. Cheers!

  • Claire Anderson

    Any kind, many wineries around and I like to try everything. The Bedford Thompson Cabernet Franc 2001 was my favorite, very “French”, but they ran out of stock unfortunately.
    I am just back from France where I had fabulous dinners and wines, the last one was very simple: Local farm made foie gras with a Chateau Yquem 2003. I had no problem at all at night, didn’t need 1 gallon of water to get over that one! 😉


    I would like to know warning and danger in red wines and white wines sulfites ?


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