Organic Wines: Panacea or Placebo?

Entirely too early this morning, as I was scrolling through Twitter trying to find the motivation to get moving on the day, I came across this gem of a thread:

Benjamin, dude. If you’ve had an irksome cough for “a number of years” perhaps a doctor is a better idea than organic wine??

Just a thought.

I continue to be surprised how many people come into the wine shop and ask me to recommend an organic wine because they believe (like really, really believe) they are either allergic to, or somehow can’t tolerate sulfites in wine.

The truth is sulfites are probably not the cause of your wine headache. People with a true sulfite allergy will have breathing problems when they ingest sulfites, not a headache.

Quelle horreur

Sulfites are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation. In that form, the concentration is as close to zero as you can get — usually around 10ppm, but they aren’t technically sulfite-free. They just aren’t required to be labeled with the super-scary words, Contains Sulfites.

Sulfites are mostly harmless, unless you have severe asthma, or lack a particular enzyme necessary to break down sulfites in your body, but that’s pretty rare. The FDA estimates that less than 1% of the US population is sulfite-sensitive.

Sulfites can also be added to a wine to protect it from going bad, which is something I’m generally in favor of in a wine. Also, just an FYI, there are more sulfites in white wine than red wine.

Sulfites are found in all kinds of foods — dried fruit, canned tuna, bacon, pickles, molasses, and jams. If you can eat any of those foods without getting a headache or breaking out into hives, sulfites in wine aren’t your problem.

And organic wine probably isn’t the panacea.

In the United States, organic means two different things with regard to wine:

  1. Organic wine — a wine made from organically grown grapes with no added sulfites. Organic wines are certified (with a fancy organic seal ➡︎) by the USDA, and they are subject to strict regulations. The grapes must be organically grown, and all of the ingredients that go into the wines (stuff like yeast) must be certified organic. Sulfites cannot be added to these wines, but those that occur naturally are permitted. 
  2. Made with organically grown grapes — a wine made from organically grown grapes (no fertilizers, or any of the “cides” — herbicides, fungicides, pesticides), but up to 100mg/L of added sulfites are allowed. These wines can state on their labels that they are “made with organic grapes”, but they can’t use the USDA certified organic seal.

To make this even more exciting (er, confusing), the US and the EU have different definitions for “organic wine”:

  • US Organic = a wine made from organically grown grapes with no added sulfites.
  • EU Organic = a wine made from organically grown grapes that may contain up to 100mg/L for red wines, and 150mg/L for whites.

I can’t explain why Benjamin’s “irksome cough” disappeared while he was in Tuscany, but all the organic wines he was drinking (and btw, how did he know they were all organic?!?) probably weren’t the reason.

There’s a fine line between education and appeasement. Some customers (from now on, I’ll be calling them the Benjamins) are utterly convinced that sulfites are the problem, and organic wines are the solution. And no amount of education is going to convince them otherwise.

The placebo effect is real.

And so, I hand the Benjamins a bottle of Frey Organic ( with no sulfites added) or Our Daily Red (with no “detectible sulfites”) and they leave happy and headache-free.

Salud!

One comment

  1. Though histamines can be to blame, I find headaches are usually caused by two things: too much wine (and not enough water) or crappy, mass produced wine. When people complain to me that wine gives them headaches, I ask them if they’ve ever spent more than $10 on a bottle. Inevitably the embarrassed answer is “no.”

    Like

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