Let’s begin with the conclusion. Wine contains only one potential toxin, alcohol, but it is harmful only in wretched excess. When consumed in moderation, alcohol, in combination with the polyphenolic compounds found in wine, enhances health and well-being and may contribute to extending life span.
The question of allergic reactions to wine is raised frequently. Allergies may be idiosyncratic and wine contains many mysterious trace compounds, so we cannot dismiss rare complaints just because they are unexplained. But we can address what’s known, that is, what’s been scientifically investigated.
Sulfite allergy has received the most attention. This group of compounds was not first inserted into wine when the words “contains sulfites” were mandated on wine labels in the US some years ago. They are natural products of fermentation. Judicious addition of sulfites protects vines from pests and wine from oxidation and spoilage. Modern techniques and careful winemaking minimize the need to add sulfites, as they minimize all manipulation. Even wines certified as organic contain some sulfites. It is impossible to make wine containing no sulfites; it is exceedingly difficult to make good wine without the addition of some. Many foods, even medicines used by allergic and asthmatic individuals, are burdened by more sulfites than most wines, but, oddly, are not required to have a warning label, and seem not to cause trouble. Serious allergic reactions to sulfites are virtually limited to a very small subgroup of corticosteroid-dependent severe asthmatics.
Headache, a frequent complaint amidst the noise and frenzy of modern living, is often blamed on drinking. Many American white-wine drinkers are certain that red wine causes headaches. The Bordelais, devoted to red, believe that white wine causes headaches. The Champenois trust bubbles to prevent headaches. My friend’s sister-in-law complains that Sauternes causes her headaches, but she only drinks the sweet nectar as the sixth wine of a lavish dinner. The science of headache study is muddled; it gives me one. Sulfites, histamines, tyramine, prostaglandin, and polyphenols, all accused suspects, all seem exculpated. I am convinced that almost all headaches related to drinking are the quantitative result of alcohol, if not of the wine bills in restaurants.
Fears of contamination of wine by lead, urethane and pesticides have proved to be tempests in a wineglass. With use of unleaded fuel, lead contamination of vines has ceased to be of concern. Lead capsules are no longer used (to solve a disposal problem). For older bottles, simply wipe the lip of the bottle before pouring. Do not mistreat wine by leaving it for days in a lead-crystal decanter to pick up lead, and never store any potable in a ceramic container that might be lead-glazed. Urethane, another natural product of fermentation, has been reduced to a vanishingly small trace. The need for and means of testing wine for pesticides and fungicides have not been, and seem unlikely to be, established.
Finally, to get back to alcohol, we are not all the same. Women neutralize alcohol only half as efficiently as do men, so they should take that into account when drinking. Inexperienced drinkers may be rendered comatose by a quantity a steady drinker handles with aplomb. Some people’s detoxifying enzyme systems are genetically suboptimally effective, leading to distress after drinking small amounts. This is particularly common among some Asian populations. I saw a film many years ago about a man who got into legal trouble from alcoholic intoxication without drinking. He got out of trouble when it was found that his body manufactured its own alcohol. An amusing fancy, I thought, until a recent study revealed that obesity in mice slows intestinal motility enough to allow bacterial overgrowth to produce excessive alcohol causing liver injury. Is this a warning to the corpulent?
And remember, alcohol is best used in regular portions, especially with meals. Binge drinking is particularly damaging.