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Why Most Wines Make Me Sick (Yes, Even Organic Wines)

I love wine, especially red, but crisp white and rosé are lovely too. And sparkling wine is delicious. Sadly, so many wines make me very sick. Being such a huge wine lover, I was determined to find out why. Is it a Celiac issue? An issue with grains, GMOs, additives, preservatives…??? It's likely all of the above and it is really hard for me to know, specifically, because the labels don’t provide enough information. In my search for answers, I read an article one time, stating that an old traditional practice for wine makers is to fill in wood barrel cracks with flour. That would certainly make me sick. In the United States, Roundup (containing glyphosate) is the most commonly used herbicide in vineyards. In a limited study of only 10 California wines, glyphosate levels were found in all the wines tested, even the few organic ones included in the study. It’s strange to find glyphosate in organic wines as organic prohibits the use of glyphosate. The thinking is that it is from the irrigation water; pesticide drift is possible, but it is my understanding that aerial spraying is not common for vineyards as it is for commodities (corn, soy, cotton, and wheat). I do know that California organic wines make me sick. I get awful gut reactions to them, so I stay away from them. I’m super clean with my diet for my health, and want (and need) to be with the wine I drink also.

Additives: ingredient lists are not required on wine labels, so consumers cannot know what has been added. Added sulfites as preservatives, additives for flavor, coloring, and sugar are very common in winemaking. Poor quality, mechanically harvested and damaged grapes, lack of proper hygiene and care are major reasons why large winemakers add further chemicals, sugars, colorants, and preservatives to mask the flaws, sterilize content, and make the wines palatable. Wine makers can add 76 additives in the US, Australia, Japan, and in the EU up to 50 – disclosing these additives on the label or elsewhere is not required. Additives can include: defoaming agents, artificial coloring (e.g., the colorant mega purple is common in big commercial brands), extra sugar, high fructose corn syrup, ammonia, and genetically modified bacteria and yeasts. Fifty-two percent of all wines in the US are made by just three giant wine companies – that is big industrial wine! They can be full of residual pesticides and injected with high levels of sulfites so that they taste similar to traditionally produced wine and to extend the shelf life. For me, and so many others, these additives, residual pesticides, and preservatives trigger allergic like reactions, and in turn, horrible gut issues, headaches, and other ill effects. And, I don’t want to be consuming them!

Filtering Wine: young wines tend to be hazy and contain tiny molecules such as proteins, tartrates, tannins, and phenolics. These are natural, not harmful, and will settle out naturally, without intervention, if the wine is given the time for aging. Aging wine generally makes for better tasting wine, but many winemakers are in a hurry to get their wines to market. Because wine-drinkers prefer clear wine, the young wine is filtered and clarified through a process called fining. Producers use a variety of agents, called fining agents, to remove the haze. The fining agent acts like a magnet – attracting the molecules around it. These molecules coagulate around the fining agent, creating fewer but larger particles, which can then be more easily removed during filtration. Commonly-used fining agents include casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein), isinglass (fish bladder protein) and bentonite (clay). Most wines, if aged long enough, will self-stabilize and self-fine. For someone allergic to eggs, fish, or casein, these agents can be problematic and can cause a reaction. Fining and filtering also removes the good stuff like resveratrol (an antioxidant polyphenol in wine), which has been found to have health benefits.

Sulfites (sulfur dioxide, SO2) are a preservative that have been known to give headaches, skin flushing (common on the face, neck, and chest), rapid heart beating, heart arrhythmia, dizziness, stomach upset, and can even be life threatening with people that have asthma. A small amount of sulfites are naturally occurring in all wine as a by-product of alcoholic fermentation, typically at levels of about 20 mg/liter, and generally do not cause negative health reactions. (One part per million (ppm) is equivalent to one milligram per liter (mg/L).) Sulfites often become problematic when they are added at higher levels than naturally occur in the fermenting process. The majority of sulfites added by winemakers are by-products of the petrochemical industry. Conventional wine standards in the EU are allowed sulfite levels up to 150 ppm for red wine, 200 ppm for white, and 400 ppm for sweet wine. Organic winemakers limit sulfites to 100 ppm in the EU (while only up to 10 ppm are allowed in the US). Sulfites are used by winemakers as a preservative; they mask the flaws, unhealthy grapes, protect the juice from oxidation and act as an anti-microbial. The main purpose is to stabilize the wine; however, when injecting large doses it kills all microorganisms in the wine, making it sterile.

Wines with more color (i.e., red wines) tend to need less sulfites than clear wines (i.e., white wines). A typical dry white wine may have around 100 mg/L whereas a typical dry red wine will have around 50-75 mg/L. Large-production wine tends to have significantly more sulfites than artisanal wine. Wines with higher sugar content tend to need more sulfites to prevent secondary fermentation of the remaining sugar.

Sulfites do not have to be added in winemaking. Winemakers need to ensure that they use the best possible fruit, so no rotten grapes, nor grapes infested with diseases or fungi. To ensure this, grapes need to be hand harvested. The fruit then needs to be carefully vinified in a hygienic environment and then bottled. With all of these factors in place, there is not a need for sulfites to be added. But, that is not feasible for large industrial winemakers.

Organic wines are produced with organically grown grapes without synthetic chemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides). As Chris Kresser explains in The Paleo Wine Guide, in winemaking, organic doesn’t necessarily mean “natural.” After grapes are harvested, any type of winemaking process or additive is possible. Additives like clarifiers and factory-grown yeasts can still be used and be USDA Organic. Adding commercial yeasts has been linked to higher histamine content in wine. The higher the histamine level the more health reactions can occur.

Organic wines can contain added sulfites (however, not in the US). The legal definition of organically grown wine varies from country to country. In the US, to be an organic wine, the wine is made from organically grown grapes without added sulfites; in Europe and Canada, to be Bio (i.e., organic), the wine is made from organically grown grapes, and allows for small amounts of added sulfites as long as the total quantity doesn’t exceed 100 ppm for reds and 150 ppm for whites. New organic regulations also forbid any partial mechanical removal of sulfites from the wine.

Here is a list of additives that are allowed in organic wine production and why (thanks to the UK Organic Wine Club):

  • Enrichment (concentrated must, sucrose)

  • Fermentation control (yeast cells)

  • Yeast addition (active dry yeast)

  • Preservation (restricted use of sulfites)

  • Filtration (fining) and clarification (edible gelatin, plant proteins from wheat or peas, isinglass made of fish bones, egg white albumin, tannins)

  • Color stabilization (acacia gum)

The EU does not allow for sugar to be added to organic wines (but a winemaker can stop the fermentation and that allows sugar to remain), while the US does allow for sugar to be added to organic wines (except in California). So, even organic wines can still contain additional sugars, animal derived materials (and common allergens) and sulfites. Hugely problematic for Celiacs are the wheat proteins used in filtration! For me (eating AIP keeps me healthy) the egg whites, active dry yeast, additional yeast cells, added sulfites, and possibly the sucrose, tannins, and acacia gum can also cause reactions.

There is also Made with Organically Grown Grapes which means wines are made with grapes from certified organic vineyards and must contain less than 100 ppm sulfites. But Made with Organically Grown Grapes does not mean anything for the winemaking process. As stated above, these wines can use factory grown yeasts, GMO yeasts, synthetic additives, colorings, and flavorings in the winemaking process.

Biodynamic refers to a type of grape-growing that is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and treats the vineyard as its own ecosystem, embracing nature as an interconnected whole, integrating soil, animals, and crops in the eco-agricultural growing system. In the biodynamic winemaking process, all grapes are 100% organic and biodynamically grown, GMO yeasts are not permitted, pasteurization is not allowed. Sulfites are allowed to be added, but the total maximum measured sulfites at bottling cannot exceed 100 ppm. Additives and processing aids such as eggs, milk, and sweeteners, must be certified organic, and are allowed. All biodynamic wines are organic, but not all organic wines are biodynamic.

Natural wines are made from sustainably farmed, organic (or biodynamic) grapes, with nothing removed or added during winemaking, bar at most a dash of sulfites (no more than 75 ppm), says natural wine expert Isabelle Legeron. Natural winemaking does not include potentially-harmful additives for coloring or flavoring, and has only minimally added sulfites, if any. No added sulfites yields a wine that is alive with beneficial bacteria – think probiotics. The purist idea of natural wine is: wine that is made from grapes that are grown naturally following organic or biodynamic practices, using wild yeasts, with absolutely no sulfites or additives added and no intervention in the fermentation process by the winemaker. I love this idea! The best part for me is, I can drink natural wines without getting sick – no bad health reactions. Yay!

Unlike with foods where the term natural is meaningless, the natural wine movement has impressive, clean, non-toxic standards. As of now, there is no certifying body for natural wines and these are generally agreed upon terms but not legally binding for natural wines. This is a concept, as beyond organic and the Real Organic Project is a concept for now. There is a grower association that supports small producers of natural wines called VinNatur. Founded in 2006 in Italy, VinNatur serves about 200 producers from nine countries: Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia and has strict natural wine growing and making standards. They have an annual event called VinNatur Tasting in April. It is dubbed as “a fantastic experience that encourages visitors to discover and learn more about natural wines.” Yes, please – I want to go!

Given the challenge of finding natural wines, buyers and consumers need greater transparency to learn more about the grape growers’ and winemakers’ processes. A great solution is to have a trusted wine shop to buy from that has strict sourcing criteria and transparency.

Organic Wine is not Enough, Natural Wine Is

Finally, I am able to drink wine again and not get sick when I stick to natural wines that have these standards:

  • Better than organic with no pesticides/herbicides used in growing the grapes or during winemaking (with rare exceptions using non-synthetic inputs such as copper sulfate to protect against mildew).

  • Fermentation with native wild yeast found on grapes – so, no added yeast, including no added genetically modified yeast.

  • No sulfites added, or where needed to save the wine, very minimally added – so naturally low sulfites, typically 10-30 mg/l, but always less than 75 ppm.

  • No sugars are added, and the naturally occurring sugars are fermented to completion, so the resulting wine is low in sugar.

  • No chemical additives or coloring.

  • Minimal or no filtering. Wine with minimal filtering may have some sediment, but this avoids using some undesirable clarifying and fining agents.

  • Mycotoxin- and mold-free, less than 2 ppb. The United States doesn’t have clear regulations for mycotoxin content, but international standards are below 2 ppb.

  • No sawdust or wood chips! Really, why does this need to be stated? – but it does. Any oak notes will come from the barrel and not other additives.

  • Dry-farmed, never irrigated. Irrigation allows grapes to be grown closer together to increase production, but the result is diluted flavor, increased sugar content, and artificially high alcohol content. Irrigation is typical in the US. In California, using fracking water (waste water from oil and gas drilling) for irrigation water is a big concern.

Because of the lack of transparency in labeling, it is challenging to source wines that measure up to these high standards. The natural wine app Raisin is a fantastic tool for finding natural wines. Raisin includes a map of the places that sell, serve, and make natural wines around the world. There are companies that we can turn to for purchasing clean, non-toxic, natural wines. Dry Farm Wines and Scout & Cellar in the US and the Organic Wine Club in the UK sells wines that adhere to most of the traditional, natural winemaking criteria above. To connect with others seeking natural wines, go to the Natural Wine Forum on Facebook that has some great recommendations. Finding non-toxic wine is important to me for health reasons, and for my social enjoyment! I really love wine, and don’t want to get sick from it. It is also critical to support the small scale family-farmers, vineyards, and vintners that do it right for our health, and for the environment.

Natural Bubbly… a fun bit of information I learned during my research… and with this I now can drink sparkling wine again too! I really love bubbly, but I often react to it. I now realize why in learning that in the process of making bubbly there are two to three ferments adding yeast and sugar each time. I learned that “pétillant naturel” is French for “naturally sparkling” and is crafted following “la méthode ancestrale,” one of the oldest and simplest ways to make bubbly because it requires little human intervention. Only the one ferment, no additional yeasts used, and no sugar added. It is delicious and I didn’t get sick!

Wine trip anyone? Yes!! According to Raisin, there are many many hundreds of natural winemakers and places that sell it in France and Italy. Tuscany has a growing cluster of biodynamic vineyards and farms. Outside of the Tuscan town of Lucca is a cooperative community of biodynamic vineyards and farms with several welcoming guests for farm stays. Local farmers there have adopted a chemical-free, biodynamic system. In 2016, they formally established the Lucca Biodinamica. Following the tenets of biodynamic winemaking, the wines are fermented with naturally occurring wild yeasts, and bottled with much less sulfites and none of the 70+ additives of industrial production. Let’s go! Other recommendations for natural wine touring? Please contact me with more ideas as I think this should be an annual vacation.

More resources:

Devona Bell is a holistic health coach and regenerative agriculture specialist with over two decades of professional experience in building sustainable and regenerative local and regional food and farming systems globally and throughout the U.S., with a focus on the nexus of food/health/nutrition, and sustainable natural resource management.

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