Grapevine: The Dilemma of the Sulfite-Allergic Wine Consumer

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

“Contains sulfites.”

This government-mandated label appears on every bottle of wine sold in the United States.

“I’m allergic to sulfites.”

“Every time I drink white wine I get a headache.”

These plaintive cries are on the lips of many wine drinkers in the United States.

And so the debate over the effects of sulfites continues amongst wine drinkers and producers. Allow me to clarify the debate over sulfites and offer a recently announced possible solution.

Sulfites occur naturally in wines as a byproduct of fermentation. By definition, all wines contain sulfites. So why the label? And why do consumers read the label as a warning, not simply as an ingredient in wine?

For centuries, winemakers have been adding supplemental, natural sulfites to their wines in order to preserve the freshness from bottling to consumption. In general, this is a good thing.

In the 1970s, salad bars began to proliferate in the United States. Lettuce and other perishable vegetables at the bars were sprayed with high doses of sulfites to prevent wilting. In its infinite wisdom, and penchant for overkill, the federal government reacted to several hundred consumer complaints of adverse reactions to salad bar fare. In 1988, it mandated sulfite labeling on certain products, including wine; the logic being that such notification would aid those allergic to avoid such products.

The underlying facts are that less than 1% of Americans are allergic to sulfites. That is unfortunate for those afflicted, yet among foods containing sulfite additives, wine is on the low end of the scale. Bacon contains approximately 600 ppm (parts per million; equivalent to one milligram per liter), raisins and dried apricots over 1,000 ppm.

All of these concerns notwithstanding, the science behind sulfite additives is clear. Levels up to 40 ppm occur naturally. Any levels above 10 ppm require government labeling – a very narrow band for compliance. The average levels are 150 ppm – or less. No label is required if sulfite levels are less than 1 ppm; very few wines do not display the sulfite label.

The European Union has no labeling requirements regarding sulfites. Hence the lack of labels on wines sold domestically in Europe. Secondly, since many of these wines are consumed shortly after production and bottling, naturally occurring sulfites may not be supplemented  as readily for preservation as they are in in the United States. Many American travelers returning from Europe marvel at the “freshness” of the Italian, French and Spanish wines they consumed.

So how to deal with sulfite additives? Suffer through them? Never drink white wine again (or red for those highly sensitive)?

A logical solution would be to remove them from a bottle of wine once it is sold. However, no one has thought to pursue this feat – until recently.

I recently came upon a fund-raising campaign at the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. A Chicago entrepreneur, James Kornacki, is seeking funding for a sulfite filter. His pledge page describes the product: “Üllo is a revolutionary new wine purification product that removes sulfites, restoring wine to its natural, preservative-free state.”

Just place the filter over a glass or decanter and pour the wine through.

The Üllo system uses “a porous, food-grade polymer filter to selectively remove sulfites, while allowing the other compounds in the wine to flow through unaffected. Through Selective Sulfite Capture™, Üllo maintains the original flavor and character of the wine while reducing sulfites to a more naturally occurring level of less than 10 ppm.”

His goal is $100,000. To date he has nearly 1,200 backers who have pledged over $128,000. For a minimum pledge of $60, a backer can receive one purifier, base and five filters (each with a six-month useful life). Deliveries are projected to begin next February.

A sulfite-allergic consumer’s dream come true? Or just another alluring product doomed for failure? Are you ready to jump on the pre-release bandwagon? There’s still time to pledge. If successful, it has the potential of ending the plight of millions of consumers – whether that plight is physical or psychological.

 Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine


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