The Grape Escape: Those scary sulfites

May 5, 2010 at 5:00 am

So you drank an extra glass of red wine last night, you woke up with a pounding headache, and now you’re blaming the sulfites?

Sorry, Charlie. There’s a lot of hysteria about sulfites in wine, but for most people, the problem isn’t the sulfites, it’s the warning label.

The “contains sulfites” label, required on wines sold in the United States, prompts the wary to speculate that any additive so troublesome that it needs a warning must be terrible stuff. In fact, sulfites are a natural, organic preservative that humans have been using in wine and other foods for several thousand years.

Sulfite allergies threaten only a relative handful of sulfite-sensitive asthmatics, who face potentially fatal respiratory effects. But sulfite-sensitive adults already know what to avoid — a list that includes wine, fruit juice, sausages, salad bars and many other sulfite-rich goodies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers sulfites “generally recognized as safe.” But U.S. regulators have also required since 1987 that all foodstuffs containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites bear a warning label.

If you get a headache or stuffy nose after drinking wine, you may be allergic to the histamines in some red wines. Drink too much, you may suffer a hangover’s wrath. But let’s not blame the sulfites.

My advice is simple: Unless you have been diagnosed by a physician as a sulfite-sensitive asthmatic, quit worrying about it.

Still want to try a wine with almost no sulfites? “Our Daily Red” California Table Wine, a pretty good, rustic table blend of Fresno Syrah and Carignan grapes with Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon, earns the label “Organic No Sulfites Detected.” Such a deal for about $9.