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Sulfites In Wine

Gil Kulers

Gil Kulers

2008 Our Daily Red, California

• $9

• One Thumb Up

• Aromas of black cherry and bell peppers with a slight medicinal quality. Pleasant but somewhat aggressive flavors of cola, black cherry, cedar, dark chocolate and black pepper.

A couple of years ago, I was cooking some home fries for dinner when I got a telephone call from a lady in Florida. How she tracked down my unlisted home phone number should not be a mystery these days, but going through the trouble to talk to me about something I wrote may give insight to her state of mind. She was pissed.

I had written a column about all the stuff the government requires on wine labels and I took up the topic of “contains sulfites”—words that appear on nearly every bottle of wine sold in the U.S. I explained that these required words came, in part, not from petitions by people concerned about folks who have sulfite reactions, but because of lobbying efforts by an opportunistic group of neo-prohibitionists.

As I took the crisped potatoes out of the hot oil and started the next batch, I explained to this woman that I have only sympathy for the tiny percentage of people who have reactions to sulfites. I said I was sorry that I offended her, but I was just trying to point out that lots of other products (think dried apricots) have significantly higher amounts of sulfites, but are not required to carry ominous labeling.

She remained unconvinced of my sincerity, became a tad more vociferous and I had to hang up on her.

There are a ton of compounds in wine, many of which are byproducts of the amazingly complex fermentation process. One of them is sulfites. Even “sulfite-free” wine has sulfites, just not above the threshold set by government regulators. Sulfites also crop up in wines from another, more insidious source—evil American winemakers!

I have been told, excuse me, strongly redressed more than once that saintly European winemakers do not add any sulfites to their wines. This is reason why we should only buy European wines to avoid side effects like headaches and anaphylaxis. Since this column is more of a one-way discussion (that is until people start calling me up or lighting up the blogoshpere), I can, without interruption, say that winemakers have been using sulfur dioxide in grape growing and winemaking for centuries. In fact, the Europeans are the ones who taught us how to use sulfur dioxide to reduce oxidation and bacterial/mold growth in wines.

If a winemaker uses sulfur dioxide in excess, you know it. The wine will smell like rotten eggs. That wine will also have elevated sulfite levels, which are a byproduct of sulfur dioxide being added in one form or another. Most winemakers’ goals are not to have wines that smell like rotten eggs, so they merely use enough sulfur dioxide to keep the bugs out. Even at low levels, the addition of sulfur dioxide will put wineries over the threshold of “sulfite-free” status, hence the label requirement.

There are very, very few wineries out there that can avoid the “sulfite-free” label and not many winemakers who want to. If they removed this basic tool, sulfur dioxide, from their tool chest, one or two things would happen: 1.) The intensive filtering process to remove every last speck of bacteria and mold would also strip the wines of a lot of their flavors and aromas. 2.) Spoiled wine…or some serious risk for it. Thousands of cases of spoiled wine severely reduces a winemaker’s year-end bonus.

There are number of wineries that prey on the public’s fear of sulfites (and I should fairly mention that these wineries also serve the approximate one percent of the population who must concern themselves with sulfite reactions). I ran into one just the other day. It is called Our Daily Red, which boasts its lack of detectable sulfites. It also emphasizes that it is pretty darned organic. The word “organic” appears no less than seven times on the labeling.

For some reason, organic grape growing and winemaking has been confused with the issue of sulfites. Organic wine, depending upon which certifying organization you talk to, suggests the absence pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers or synthetic chemicals in the grape growing/winemaking process. Since sulfur dioxide naturally occurs during the fermentation process and sulfur is a non-synthetic chemical found in nature, the vast majority of organic wineries add sulfur dioxide to their wines. Certifying organizations do have limits to the amounts of residual sulfites in wine, but these levels are typically higher than any reasonable winemaker would want to have in his or her wine. (And also way over the government’s threshold for “sulfite-free” status.)

I’ve never forgotten that women on the phone and would hope that my bringing this Daily Red wine to the attention of my readers (both of them), would somehow serve as a peace offering.

(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)

8 comments Add your comment

Betty Kaufman

July 14th, 2010
11:21 am

Great article! Thanks!


July 14th, 2010
6:24 pm

Did I miss something? Is Our Daily Red “sulfite-free”? Organic? The product of insane winemakers?

Jan Wells

July 19th, 2010
10:59 am

Bravo! I have been marketing wines for 30 years, and every time I see “contain sulfites” I get bilious. I don’t believe there has ever been an authenticated case of an adverse reaction to sulfites in a commercially made US wine. At the time the warning was promoted by a supposedly “scientific” organization, there had been adverse reactions to excessive sulfites in poorly crafted homemade wines, and there had been reactions to sulfites too liberally placed on open self-serve salad bars in restaurants. As you say, there are always sulfites present in wine, whether or not the winemaker has added some for stability. Your clear explanation cannot be repeated too often. Sincerely, Jan Wells

Tony Norskog, winemaker of ODR

July 19th, 2010
1:04 pm

I’m going with Bob, “product of insane winemakers”. Per his other two short questions, ‘Organic?’, must be if it says that 7 times, has the USDA organic sticker which CCOF heavily regulates.

I tell people I’m a winemaker, but I spend about half my time doing compliance work with our organic certifier and then the same work again with TTB proving our claims are in line with the Federal National Organic Program.

Sulfite Free? Sorry, we can’t say that any more. The TTB allowed that for wines with Zero Parts per million Sulfur (analized by a fed. certified lab) up till 2007, then they decided there might be some parts per billion that slipped under the radar and were going to (possibly) cause some homeopathic reaction……. who knows. Now we can only say ‘none detected’ as it states on the lab results.

The last note I should comment on is the ‘prey on public fear’ gig (not bobs). The fact that we sell over 100,000 cases per year of ODR is an indicator of repeat sales and fear only takes one so far. After that its personal reaction, both to flavor (acceptable with one thumb up I assume) and reaction to body chemistry. If one can drink a couple of glasses and feel the next day like orange juice was the beverage the night before, well that’s glorious for many consumers. We sell a lot in Florida and the blue haired set down there are finding this wine burns clean for them. While I can write for days about the chemistry of this, to be honest I don’t fully understand it, but making a living and supplying a product that gets many positive emails is reward enough.


July 19th, 2010
2:10 pm

Thanks for that explanation. I was drinking a mead last night that has a sulfur character. It did have the “contains sulfates” on the label. It’s good to know to just avoid that winery rather than avoid that clause on the label.

Gil Kulers

July 20th, 2010
6:30 pm

Wow, I picked a great week to head out on vacation and not monitor the blog. Sorry for the slow reply.
Bob, Daily Red is not technically sulfite-free, but it’s as close as it can be. New regulations make it impossible to declare it sulfite free, so it now reads: “no detectable sulfites”.
It is organic, too, however I’m not sure which agency says it is so.
It has been my experience that most winemakers are crazy, but in a good way ;-) .

Jan, I do believe that it is possible to have a reaction to sulfites, but wine’s impacts such a small number of people, I feel the obligation should be on the sufferers of the reaction to be careful and aware.

I have found this out since publishing the column. The seven products with the highest concentration of sulfites (including wine) now have to have “contains sulfites” on the label. So dried fruit will get a label. I guess it is better to be fair than to just single out wine.

Gil Kulers

July 20th, 2010
11:21 pm

My reply about the new regulations on sulfites was not quite right. One should never go by memory on stuff that is going to be published. An beverage industry executive wrote the following to me in a letter:

“all foods to declare the big 8 allergens on their label clearly. This includes sulfites so the Apricot guys are having to declare if what is packaged is greater than 10ppm.”

Hardy Wallace

July 21st, 2010
4:50 pm

Gil- The below comment is not correct
“If they removed this basic tool, sulfur dioxide, from their tool chest, one or two things would happen: 1.) The intensive filtering process to remove every last speck of bacteria and mold would also strip the wines of a lot of their flavors and aromas. 2.) Spoiled wine…or some serious risk for it. Thousands of cases of spoiled wine severely reduces a winemaker’s year-end bonus.”

Those things may happen if someone screws up, but to put the fear of god into someone over wine w/out added SO2 is incorrect.

Lapierre produces some killer Morgon that is available sans soufre, Allemand has ageworthy Cornas, and there are even folks here in CA making serious juice w/out added SO2.