“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.
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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.
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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.