John JuergensStinky Wine and Headaches

There are a couple of issues about wine that cause widespread confusion, even among many experienced wine drinkers. One is the funky off-odor that is sometimes referred to as a "corked" smell, and the other is the cause of red wine headaches.

Occasionally, you will open a bottle of wine and encounter a strong musty or mildewy smell and taste. This taint in wine, commonly called "corked," has been a problem for as long as corks have been used to seal wine bottles. It is imparted by contaminated corks.

Cork is the bark of the cork tree, and the tree produces its own pesticides to protect it from predatory microorganisms. As a countermeasure, the microbes have learned how to deactivate these natural pesticides, which results in a by-product that eventually produces the characteristic musty, mildewy smells and flavors of a corked wine.

It has been estimated that as much as 8 percent of wine is affected by the cork taint. That can be a lot of wine. Unfortunately, up till now all efforts of the wine industry have not produced a consistently effective way of eliminating the problem. And it is important to point out that not every cork in a batch will be contaminated and, so, not every bottle in the same case or batch will be corked. It is a completely random event.

The wine industry has been working on this problem for years and is attacking it from a variety of approaches. However, the only method that seems to be 100% effective is the use of artificial corks.

A variety of alternative materials have been developed to replace the noble cork while retaining the aesthetic appeal of the natural product. Some wineries try to disguise these substitutes and others flaunt it. You probably have run into some strange looking plastic plugs lately that range in color from cork-color to bright blue, green, or black.

Some of the wine purists I know detest the new synthetic corks even though they do a much better job of sealing the wine. Sure, there's something romantic and charming about real corks; but, on balance, I would rather have confidence in the wine than worry about hanging on to a problematic tradition. Besides, how much time do you really spend with the cork? You pull it out, check it for signs of leakage, and toss it aside; 15 - 20 seconds, tops.

This is a technology that is way past due, so cork lovers, get over it.

Now, what about those pesky red wine headaches? I also know people who get headaches only from white wine, and people who get headaches from any wine. Either way we have people who severely limit their wine intake because of the resulting discomfort.

One of the most blatant pieces of misinformation I have heard on the subject is that those nasty sulfites are the cause of all this agony. I'm not sure how notions like this get started, but understand this: Sulfites in wines do not cause headaches.

As with cyclamates and saccharine, the issue of sulfites is largely political. The problem of allergic reactions to sulfites relates only to those people with severe asthma. You get at least a hundred-fold greater amount of sulfites, which are used as a preservative, from salad bars and fresh produce than you get in wine. The amount of sulfite in wine is minuscule.

Headaches from wine can be caused by one or more factors, including the alcohol, the tannins, or the histamines, all of which are natural components.

Alcohol has a powerful dilation effect on the blood vessels of the skin and your extremities, that is, it causes the vessels to open, allowing increased blood flow. This is the principle behind drinking alcohol at outdoor sporting events in the winter. The alcohol stimulates blood flow to the skin and extremities making you feel warm. However, it also makes you lose body heat more quickly.

Therefore, the alcohol in wine can cause the blood vessels in your nose and sinus area to swell causing a feeling of pressure. Depending on how sensitive you are to this effect, you might experience a headache.

Next, the tannins, those things in red wine that cause the mouth puckering effect, and the natural histamines in wine, can stimulate an allergy type of response throughout the body, but it usually is most noticeable in the nose and sinus regions. The body perceives these compounds as foreign invaders, and histamine, like alcohol, can cause the blood vessels to swell. The body's efforts to combat these effects mimics its response to things like pollens and dust, which frequently cause headaches. And therein resides the good news.

The same therapies that relieve the headaches and other symptoms associated with allergies and sinus problems are quite effective in preventing headaches associated with wine.

And the key concept here is prevention. It is so much easier and effective to prevent the allergic response than it is to stop it once it has started. Here's what you do. An hour before taking that first glass of wine take two Motrin or Advil tablets and, then, before you go to bed take a long acting antihistamine-decongestant product such as Dimetapp and a large glass of water. Claritin-D is an excellent product, but you will need a prescription for that. Be sure to check with your doctor to make sure that you can take these things if you have any pre-existing illness or conditions that might preclude these medications.

Assuming you don't drink a whole bottle of wine by yourself, I can just about guarantee that this will prevent the headaches.

Oct. 27, 2000

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