Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dissemination of Misinformation

I was talking today with a woman who mentioned that they had once visited a winery that had told them about the special processes they used--or specifically didn't use--that made their wines different and potentially better than other wines.

She said the winery didn't use "sulf-something."  I correctly guessed that the material in question was sulfur dioxide, the source of sulfites in wine, the raison d'etre of the "contains sulfites" warning we must place on every bottle of wine in this country.

Sulfites are extremely misunderstood by the general public, and not very well understood by a lot of winemakers.  But most wine in this world is made with the use of sulfites.  I don't know actual figures, but I would hazard a guess that it's around 99% of all wine made.  Sulfites are ubiquitous in our industry, and for good reason.  They work and they're safe when used correctly.

I'm not a doctor--but I play one in the winery--so check with your own doctor if this has implications for you.  But it's my understanding that sulfites--even though they are blamed for headaches--do not cause them.  Headaches are usually from some types of biogenic amines found in wines.  (Note the similarity to "histamines" for which we take "anti-histamines" when we have allergies.)  People can be allergic to them, and headaches are one of the symptoms.

Sulfites on the other hand tend to cause airway breathing issues.  As I can attest to.  When I get a strong whiff of pure potassium metabisulfite (which is the form of sulfites we use), I get wheezy.  Not fun, and you try to avoid it.  It's not good for you, but it's part of working in a winery sometimes unfortunately.

This is all good information, but where's the misinformation?  Well, the winery the woman was telling me about had told her that they don't use sulfites because of all the bad things they do.  This was news to me, because the Romans figured out long ago about burning sulfur wicks in their amphora to keep their wines fresh.  Not using sulfites is risky (it can be done, but you have to be a pretty good chemist to pull it off.)

I asked her if she liked the wines.  Turns out she didn't.  They were all bad she said, and she'd never go back.  All the wines needed was a small dose of sulfites in their life, and that winery could have made a few more sales and retained a customer.

I went to a similar winery once about 13 years ago.  No sulfites.  Washed all the grapes. Destemmed by hand.  Seemed like an interesting angle on how to set one's winery apart for all the other ones.  Turns out they really were setting themselves making bad wine.

I'm not here to tell folks how to make wine or what to sell.  The free market will hopefully bear out, and those making sub-par products will not be around down the road.  But until then, there are some simple things we all can do.  And the first and foremost one is to get our facts straight.

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