Beyond the Drinking Glass

Why everyone needs to stop freaking out about sulfites.

October 14, 2020 ● 5 min read

Let’s talk about sulfites.

Specifically, let’s talk about why everyone is talking about them.

The natural wine movement has seen a fast-paced move from the periphery towards mainstream consumer culture for a few years now (I judge the “realness” of this progression by this 2016 natural wine feature in Vogue, among other glossy inclusions). Natural wines are now the Sriracha of booze.

As you can probably gather from the “natural” moniker, the movement is founded in the belief that wine should be made from fermented grapes, wild yeasts, and not much else. This is good for wine because it forces us all to revisit small-production, traditional estates and take a second look at industrial, corporate plonk. That has both economic and cultural implications, most of which are good for the little guy. But as tends to happen when something pretty geeky becomes mainstream, somewhere along the way someone tried to make it all easier to understand, and now one ingredient — sulfites — are scapegoated as the root of all wine evil. Not only is sulfur dioxide now the only wine additive anyone cares about, it’s somehow also the cause of every hangover headache anyone has ever had.

Wrong, wrong. All wrong. I’m sorry to say that if you’ve bought into the hysteria surrounding sulfites in recent years, you might be an unwitting cog in the industrial wine complex. Now let’s talk about why that needs to end.

First of all, sulfites — SO2 — are organic chemical compounds. It’s an unavoidable byproduct of fermentation, occurring naturally at around 8-15 parts per million, and it’s been used as a stabilizing agent since the Roman era, helping to keep wine from spoiling during shipping and storage. So do away with any images of biohazard tanks filled with glowing green stuff. The FDA dictates that wines with a sulfite concentration exceeding 10 parts per million be labeled as such, so just because a label says “Contains sulfites” doesn’t mean they’re dumping grain-bags of chemicals in the tank; most wines will reach the minimum labeling requirement before fermentation is even finished. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of wines out there that are jacked up with sulfites to make them super shelf-stable for mid-August sale in gas stations across Louisiana, but even those wines max out at around 186 parts per million.

That sounds like a lot until someone like me tells you that there are probably more sulfites in your OJ and dried apricots than in the shittiest of the shitty wine you could possibly find in even the wildest hinterlands of the Bodega Cooler Badlands. How much more, you ask? Up to TEN TIMES more parts per million. TEN TIMES. I KNOW. Here’s the thing, though: even those ‘roided-up dried apricots don’t contain enough sulfites to cause an allergic reaction in most humans – even humans with legitimate sulfite allergies. (Note: Sulfite allergies are super-serious, anaphylaxis-inducing reactions. Your day-after headache? Not so much.) But don’t take my word for it.

Take the word of Keri Colabroy, PhD., Associate Professor of Chemistry, Co-Director of Biochemistry, and Undergraduate Research Coordinator at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. That’s right, a real scientist wielding the power of real science. Colabroy provided me with those freaky apricot stats, and she had this to say about the sulfite drama: “The concentrations are way below those that cause an asthmatic response in [people who] are SO2 sensitive, and there is no evidence that SO2 causes ‘red wine headache,’ even though many folks believe that.”  

Why the freakout, then? Why aren’t we spending our money on gimmicky wands and filters to get this shit out of our Tropicana? For this segment of blame-placing, I got in touch with Keith Wallace, President and Founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia. “We’re all afraid of warning labels on our food, but… they’re often incomplete, outdated, and have more to do with politics than you could imagine,” he said. “The only reason there’s a sulfite warning on wine and not on orange juice is because the American wine trade was the only group who didn’t have any lobbyists in Washington, DC when the [1986 FDA sulfite labeling] law was proposed.” 

What’s that? Washington lobbies had a hand in steering legislation that ended up shaping public misperception of an entire industry for decades? The truth hurts, guys. More than your hangover.

Speaking of your hangover, I bet you still want to know what’s causing it. Well, I’m not your doctor, so I’m not here to get into the nitty gritty of possible allergens occurring either naturally or in the over 60 additives (Polyvinylpolypyrrolidone? Silicone? Glucose?) allowed in wine that the FDA doesn’t think you need to know about. That’s right, 60. You won’t find them on the label anywhere, so don’t go looking for them. Why not? Money, chemical lobbyists, global industrial wine interests… I sent the list of additives to Colabroy. Her initial response: “That list is long!” (not what you usually want to hear from a chemist when said list refers to something you drink daily), but reiterated that the chemicals were safe. Wallace echoed her non-freakout vibe, naming the addition of sugar as public enemy number one amidst our nation’s diabetic health crisis.

But winemakers tend to have a different view – I know, because I hang out with winemakers a lot more than chemists, and this is hot-button shit. Aside from the fact that a lot of these additives will change the flavor and expression of a wine, the ethics of transparency also come into play.

“Consumers would start to say WTF if confronted with the ingredients,” said Jared Brandt, of Donkey & Goat Winery in Berkeley, California. Donkey & Goat focuses on making wines with as little additives as possible, and they’ve been vocal members of the natural wine set in California. “We want our wines to be authentic representations of their terroir, not of the additive,” he said. “I know many $150 (plus) wines where the ingredient list would be twice as long as that on a Twinkie.”

I asked Jared what he thought about the fact that, as far as science is concerned, all that Twinkified wine is A-OK. “My empirical response would be that my best friend's mom lost her eye in the womb due to X-rays,” he said.  “She was born in Nazi Germany, and the scientific view then was that X-rays did no harm. They were clearly wrong.”

As far as Brandt and many other winemakers are concerned, every new chemical engineered to make your merlot softer, fruitier, and more merlot-y is another step away from winemaking, and toward manufacturing — but at the moment, the only additive that winemakers across the industry generally agree is acceptable is sulfur dioxide. Though there are still some raging arguments about acceptable parts per million (hashtag #winefights), even producers within the natural movement are generally on board with the stuff.

So let’s stop talking about sulfites. Forever. Let’s rise above our impotent wine hysteria. Let’s pledge to NEVER AGAIN claim that our raging headache post-La Paulée is the result of all that debauched Champagne, or that we feel totally fine after a night sucking down pot after pot of whatever is on tap at La Verre Volé, because everyone knows there’s a magic, anti-sulfite force field over all of Europe.

You are a hungover liar. Stop that.

Lauren Friel | Original illustration via Stephanie DeAngelis