Desert Dreams, Sulfite Nightmares
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
On a recent trip to Southern California, I met up with a group of hiking enthusiasts in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The members of the group are usually casual acquaintances with whom I rendezvous at least twice a year to conquer whatever desert peak, valley or wash might be on the agenda. Sometimes I know them from prior trips; most often not. But on rest stops in the shadow of a Joshua tree, the conversation invariably arrives at the question, "What do you do?"
I initially answer at first that I work for a magazine, but usually I have to admit that I work for a wine magazine. Yes, somebody has to taste all those wines, and yes, it isn't always a pleasant task. The conversation at this point is lighthearted and somewhat amusing, given the reactions to my professional life. That is, until the big question on most people's minds comes to the forefront: "What about sulfites?"
Now first, you have to imagine the conditions we're talking about there. You have to keep a pretty keen eye open for rattlesnakes on whatever trail may exist. We're each carrying about a gallon and a half of water, usually in a full pack--and that's 12 pounds just for the water. The local entomologist is turning over rocks to see how many scorpions there are, and if you're in the middle of winter, well, that's when the tarantulas migrate.
Let's just say my annual sojourns to the desert aren't for your average pantywaists. And yet sulfites loom as if they were the greatest threat to public health since the last atmospheric nuclear test in Yucca Flats, Nev.
At these moments, I feel as if I should be wearing a white lab coat rather than my cotton hiking shirt. I try to explain that sulfites pose little threat to the average person, that if you eat dried fruit you probably ingest more sulfites than you could drinking a whole double magnum of California Cabernet, or that it is well-nigh impossible to make a decent wine on a consistent basis without sulfites. I then explain that even if sulfites weren't added to wine, they would exist anyway as a natural byproduct of winemaking. You might as well argue that the man on the grassy knoll with the umbrella was just trying to shade himself from the sun.
No. For whatever reason, the great sulfite scare is now an official part of the lore of wine drinking. Forget that most of my hiking companions have driven hundreds of miles on the interstate highway system, filled with dozens of hopped-up truck drivers. Or that every time you pump self-serve gas, you are probably getting an unhealthy whiff of carcinogenic butane and God knows whatever other petroleum derivatives.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm just as desirous as the next person of a healthy food supply, which in my book includes wine. I don't want any unnecessary chemicals or additives in the food I eat or in the wine I drink. Yet sometimes I think that if there weren't sulfites in wine, we'd have to think up something to take their place.
According to the latest studies, sulfites in wine pose no risk to a person of average health. There is a small risk to those unfortunate souls who suffer from asthma. Approximately 5 percent of the U.S. population is asthmatic, and clinical studies have shown that 5 percent of that population is allergic to sulfites. So, for 99.75 percent of the population, there is negligible risk. If you are a person at risk, I guess it is appropriate that the general population should be warned of the potential threat to the one-quarter of 1 percent of the population that may be in danger. But make no mistake about it: Sulfites have been used as a tool in the culture wars against alcohol in our society. The "contains sulfites" label that's been on wine bottles since 1988 must rank as one of the greatest victories of the anti-alcohol forces.
While we're sitting under the desert sky, and I am pulling a cactus thorn out of my shin, I try to explain that without sulfites, modern winemaking as we know it could not exist. Sulfites prevent oxidation that would eventually turn wine into vinegar. Sulfites stabilize the wild biological processes that are the wonder and magic of winemaking and turn it into something we all--or most of us--can enjoy.
I try to explain that, yes, there are "organic" wines out there, but their quality wildly fluctuates and more often than not you're going to be disappointed by what you taste. I try to explain that for a wine to be truly organic, it must also be made with organically grown grapes, and that's a much more worthy goal. If you can get grape growers to cultivate their vines with as few pesticides or herbicides as possible and limit their use of chemical fertilizers, you've gone much further to ensure your own health and the health of the planet.
Usually, I just get a somewhat dazed look in response. It's as if I've shattered the precepts of their entire value system, challenging their core belief that wine, and the sulfites it contains, is just another by-product of the vast military-industrial complex whose sole purpose is to control our lives by controlling our food and beverage supply. Bring on Dr. Strangelove. I remember once reading a text in college by the eminent political scientist Richard Hofstadter, who explained how key the paranoid streak was to understanding American political culture. How right he was.
There's nothing finer than the desert sun setting on a cool winter's evening over one of the many magnificent ranges of the Mojave. The stars seem especially bright, and I relax after a hard day's hike with a good mugful of Aussie Shiraz or California Zinfandel that I pour from a converted water bottle. A few of my companions come over for whatever remains and are appreciative of whatever I have to offer.
Those who are worried about sulfites don't know what they're missing.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions