The Grape Vine


Sulfur is no stranger to the vineyard, especially in California where most US grapes are grown. California grapes have been plagued by powdery mildew disease ever since the Spanish Padres planted the first vines in mission courtyards. And since 1890, the cure has been sulfur, tons and tons of it. This makes sulfur the number one pesticide in California. All this sulfur enhances the tendency of grapes to be naturally sulfited at around 2.5 ppm. Unfortunately, most table grapes are treated with sulfur dioxide to extend their shelf life, doubling the sulfur preservatives before they make it to the market. Grape juices and concentrates are widely used as sweeteners in preserves and other products. The juices are divided into two categories, purple Concord and clear White. In most cases, purple juices have a modest effective sulfur oxide content not to different from field grapes. But watch out, white grape juice is normally preserved with added sodium bisulfite at levels exceeding wine. Wine vinegar (and balsamic vinegar) are also treated with added sulfites and wind up with sulfur levels not too different from wine. And, then there are the dried grapes. Most raisins are sun-dried grapes without any added sulfites, thank goodness. But since it takes over four pounds of grapes to make a pound of raisins, the natural sulfur in grapes is concentrated to give raisins a sulfite level about the same as corn syrup. And, to make things even more confusing, about 5% of raisins are not just sun-dried, but sulfured like dried apricots. These golden raisins are soft, light colored and highly preserved. I shun all grape products, but I’m especially careful to avoid light colored, golden raisins.

Wine BottleLet me wipe a tear from my eye as we discuss wine. I love wine, especially light, fruity wines. But I just can’t drink them without penalty. Wine starts out with grapes; so wine is going to have sulfites no matter what. And, most wine makers add sulfites along the way to control fermentation. In general, most white wines are more heavily preserved than red wines and inexpensive wine blends are the worst with many thousands of micrograms of sulfite in a glass. Organic wine regulations are little help in this regard. Organic rules allow sulfur on the grapes to control mildew. Most wine marked as organic really means "made with organic grapes" if you read the fine print. This has nothing to do with sulfites and sulfites may be used in the production of such wine. If you can find a true 100% organic wine you are better off, since it will be limited to a very slim sulfur dioxide content of 1 ppm. Unfortunately, such wines are as rare as hen's teeth. A few vineyards produce slightly more common wines with the label "no added sulfites". However, because wine is made from grapes, the bottle labels still carry the traditional warning "may contain sulfites". I’ve tried such wines from The Organic Wine Works in Felton, CA and they are quite good. Unfortunately, I can only drink a few sips because even these wines have low levels of sulfite. The HoneyRun Winery in Chico, CA makes honey and fruit wines without using either grapes or sulfites. These wines tend to be quite sweet but they are low in sulfites, about 1 ppm, and I can drink half a glass. Whether or not you can drink wine will depend on your tolerance. If you experience sulfite problems only rarely, perhaps "no added sulfites" wine will be your answer. For me, the answer is a glass of water.

In my youth, I enjoyed a cheap, fruity wine called Tyrolia. Of course, I used to get a lot of headaches, but I thought they were just hangovers. In an effort to recapture some of those lost joys, I experimented to see if I could neutralize the sulfites and drink the wine. First, I allowed the wine to breathe in an open glass and let air change the sulfites to sulfate. This process takes many weeks. Unfortunately, after a few days, mold appears on the surface of the wine and renders it undrinkable. So, I passed an electric current through the wine to free oxygen via electrolysis and destroy the free sulfites more quickly. However, a nasty precipitate forms in the bottom of the glass, one electrode becomes covered with a black film, and I decided not to pursue this approach. Then, I tried using an ozone generator and a microwave. As you have probably guessed, I didn’t have much luck but I haven’t given up. You’re probably also thinking I have too much time on my hands and need to find a real hobby.

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