Vino! Sophisticated, Urbane and Usually Gluten-Free


Drink a toast to safer sipping.ýSulfitesýTanninsýHistaminesýFining Agentsý Alcohol and MoreýEat Your Wine

[Updated: May 18, 2015]


ýPhoto © Oleg Zhukov/

Wine. Vino. Vin. It’s the most popular alcoholic drink in the world and the third or fourth most popular of any beverage on the planet. Enjoyed for at least 9,000 years, there are ancient references to wine from the wedding at Cana in the Bible to drinking on Purim in the Talmud. Even Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization, sung its praises: “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.”

Sophisticated, urbane and usually gluten-free, wine has been loved throughout the centuries by the likes of Galileo Galilei who poetically proclaimed, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Even America’s native son Benjamin Franklin opined, “The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation.” It seems every generation in recorded history has enjoyed wine with nary a complaint.

Yet in its creation and components, wine is “a complex beverage,” says Katrina Frey, co-founder of Frey Vineyards, a certified organic winery in Redwood Valley, California.

Once an entirely natural beverage, historic winemaking practices changed after the Renaissance. Among the changes, the practice of adding preservatives like sulfites became commonplace. Then the 1980s ushered in the organic movement— a “new” way of farming that actually harkened back to historic, more natural winemaking methods. Most recently, an agricultural practice, called biodynamic farming, pushes the concept of organic farming to a higher level. It treats the farm as a living organism with the goal of ecological, social and economic sustainability. This extends to the “green” treatment of animals and animal feeds, flowers and trees, water and composting. It means that biodynamic grapes and wines, like organic, are produced without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

So what do sulfites, organic farming, biodynamic practices and other complexities of winemaking mean to you, the modern wine consumer? If you wake up with a headache the morning after indulging in a bottle of red, if you break out in a rash with your first sip of a new wine, if you feel sniffly anytime you enjoy a glass—these symptoms may mean you have a sensitivity.

But a sensitivity to what, exactly? Often, the culprits in wine aren’t clear but the list of usual suspects includes sulfites, tannins, histamines and fining agents. Even alcohol itself can be behind your sensitivity.

What to do about it? Teetotaling aside, a small number of vintners are addressing the concerns of sensitive imbibers with organic, low-sulfite, pesticide-free, biodynamically produced wines.



ýPhoto © Oleg Zhukov/

According to the FDA, about 1 percent of Americans, most of them asthmatic, are sensitive to sulfites. (An estimated 5 percent of asthmatics have sulfite sensitivity.) The condition can develop at any time in a person’s life. Although rare, symptoms can range from mild to life threatening and include asthma, hives, skin swelling, flushing and suppressed lung function.

Sulfites are often connected to wine but they’re present in many other foods, naturally and as additives. Potatoes, maraschino cherries, fresh mushrooms, shrimp, broccoli, dried fruit, jam, gelatin, eggs and even some pharmaceuticals are among the many items that can harbor sulfites, in amounts ranging from 6 to 6,000 parts per million (ppm).

Sulfites are food additives that reduce spoilage, prevent browning and inhibit bacterial overgrowth. In wines, sulfites are routinely added to prevent oxidation and to arrest fermentation at different stages. Wines with added sulfites at some level tend to age better, so sulfites are often put in wines that are crafted to be shelved for many years before drinking. These wines, which tend to be priced higher, carry a certain caché because they’re designed to be aged.

“We believe that some sulfites must be added during the winemaking process to make consistently stable wine,” says Jessica LaBounty, marketing director for California’s Benziger and Imagery Estate Wineries, which produce both organically grown and biodynamically grown grapes. “Added sulfites inhibit spoilage, stop oxidation and safeguard wine’s natural flavor.”

While most modern winemakers add sulfites for these reasons, the trend is to actually reduce the amount of sulfites used in order to produce the cleanest-tasting wines. Alternatives to retard oxidization of wine sans sulfites include using zero oxygen bottling, employing the natural anti-oxidant properties found in oak barrels and lowering storage temperatures.

Photo © Jules E. Dowler Shepardýýýýý

The tricky thing about sulfites is that, because they occur naturally in so many foods like grapes, they are a natural byproduct of the wine fermentation process. Native yeast “bloom” present on the skins of grapes creates sulfites during fermentation of any wine, organic or not, in amounts that vary from 6 to 40 ppm.

This means that even organic, certified-biodynamic vintners have some naturally occurring sulfites in their wines. The level and kind of sulfites permitted in organic wines is highly regulated, however. Since 1987, all imported and domestic wines, beers and spirits in the United States with sulfite levels greater than 10 ppm must be labeled as “Containing Sulfites.” Hundreds of other foodstuffs containing sulfites don’t have this labeling requirement.

“Many dried fruits, like apricots and such, contain more sulfites than entire bottles of most wines. If people don’t get a reaction from eating dried fruits or other sulfite/nitrate-enhanced items, the sulfites in wine are not the culprit…and most often they aren’t,” says James Matuszewski, somellier and chief guide at Napa Valley’s Flex Wine Tours.

Red wines contain fewer natural sulfites than do whites. Added sulfite levels in conventional wines are, on average, about 40 ppm of total sulfites for red wines and around 70 ppm for whites and sparkling wines. In organic wines (no sulfites added), reds may contain no residual sulfites by bottling time but whites may still have between 5 to 6 ppm sulfites because of the differences in fermentation required by their higher sugar content.


If you’re not sensitive to sulfites, other factors could be causing your wine reaction. Tannins and histamines are often blamed, especially when it comes to headaches.

Tannins are antioxidant flavonoids found naturally in fruits and vegetables. They are present in the seeds and skin of grapes and thus pass through to the wine. Tannins cause that familiar mouth-puckering that leads wine connoisseurs to identify a particular vintage as “tannic.” While this can be a mark of a fine wine, it may also trigger a wine headache for some, particularly those prone to migraines.

It’s helpful to recognize that high amounts of tannins are present in other foods, such as blueberries and persimmons, as well as legumes like red beans and black-eyed peas. Pure unsweetened chocolates—those made largely from chocolate liquor—also contain a high concentration. Dark roasted coffee beans, like French roast, have higher tannin levels than unroasted coffee. If you suspect tannin sensitivity, experiment with these foods to see if they prompt a response.

Like other plant-based sources of tannins, wines differ in their tannin amounts based on variety. White wines have almost no tannins, as they are in contact with the grape skins and seeds for only a short time during the winemaking process. Rosé and lighter-bodied red wines remain exposed to the tannin-containing grape skins and seeds slightly longer, so they are slightly higher in tannins. It follows that red wine varietals contain more tannins but some winemaking styles produce higher levels than others.

Red Bordeaux wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, young ports, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah tend to have more tannins, while red Burgundies, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Spanish Rioja and Barbera have fewer. For lowest tannin levels in a red wine, opt for Beaujolais or Tempranillo. If you suspect a tannin sensitivity, there are low-tannin wines you might tolerate quite well, even in the red varietals.


Natural histamines, found in the skins of grapes, are often blamed for wine headaches. As with tannins, the less contact the wines have with the grape skins, the fewer histamines in the wine. Thus, white, rosé and many fruit wines affect those with histamine sensitivities less than reds.

Histamines are part of a family of known migraine triggers, called amines, also found in chocolate, aged cheeses, cured meat (like pepperoni and salami) and sauerkraut. They can also act like pollen to stimulate an allergic response similar to seasonal allergies, prompting a runny nose and flushing. In fact, the histamines in red wine may actually worsen some people’s seasonal allergy symptoms. Over-the-counter anti-histamines or even a cup of black tea may provide relief.


The process of “fining” clarifies and stabilizes the wine. It can also benefit the color, aroma and flavor.

Modern winemakers often use fining agents like bentonite clay, gelatin, egg whites, milk-derived casein and even isinglass (a substance made from the swim bladders of sturgeon fish). These agents have positive and negative charges that attract the particles in unclear wine to filter them out and remove them.

Some vegan consumers may choose to avoid wines that are fined with animal byproducts like gelatin, egg whites or casein. Imbibers allergic to eggs or fish can choose vegan wines, as well, in order to avoid any possible contamination. Wine producers claim that allergen levels are too low to cause reactions. (Three to four egg whites are used per 25 gallon barrel and then filtered out before bottling). This claim is backed up by various studies, including a 2006 Nutrition study that concluded that wines fined with egg whites, casein or isinglass neither activated the immune system nor caused anaphylaxis in sensitive participants.

While many winemakers like Benziger in California use egg whites to fine some of their wines, they leave others unfiltered.

“Some of our wines, like cabs and pinot, are produced without filtration because we feel they’re stable without filtration. In some cases, it benefits the wine to leave it unfiltered, as it keeps some level of complexity and makes the wine more interesting,” says Benziger’s LaBounty. “It’s a stylistic call.”

The difficulty for concerned vegan or food-allergic consumers is identifying which wines have been fined with an offensive agent so these can be avoided. Katrina Frey of Frey Vineyards, which uses bentonite clay to fine its whites and no filtration for its reds, suggests calling the vintner directly or checking its website.

Many wine stores are now doing this work for you, labeling vegan wines with an identifier like a ladybug. Other online resources, like, offer easy search functions to find wines that are vegan-friendly or not, as well as printable lists that you can carry to your local wine store. has data on 668 companies that make at least one vegan-friendly wine.


ýPhoto © Oleg Zhukov/


Alcohol itself can be the source of a reaction from drinking wine. Alcohol dilates blood vessels and often causes the “flush” many people note when enjoying a glass. Others may be affected more, as the blood vessels of the nose and sinuses can swell and cause stuffiness or headache. Large amounts of alcohol can also cause dehydration headaches from alcohol’s natural diuretic effect.

Pesticides in conventional (not organic) grapes may also be an issue for some. Grapes aren’t usually washed before pulping, so traces of pesticides might end up in the wine bottle.

It bears noting that the heads of oak wine barrels are often sealed with a wheat-based paste. The concern of this exposure to gluten has caused some gluten-free folks to eschew wines altogether. But winemaker Bob Spencer of Meritage Meadows winery in Washington State explains that the process actually doesn’t cause much risk.

The paste is applied to the edges of the top and bottom of each oak barrel in order to lubricate the sealing of the barrel head. Once the head is in place, the inside of each barrel is washed in 180°F water for 30 minutes to remove any residual paste. The barrels are then shipped to the winemakers who wash the barrels again in similar fashion in order to keep the stays swollen and tight. If any paste were somehow to remain, it would be in such a minute proportion to the 60-240 gallons of wine that are later aged in that barrel, that the parts per million of gluten would be well within the range of “gluten-free.”

Spencer calls this “dilution factor” an important key to understanding the minimal, if any, exposure from these barrels. However, he notes that there are many varietals that provide even less risk. Wines aged in “neutral barrels” (those which have been used at least three times previously), as opposed to “new” barrels, are even less likely to have any residual paste exposure. Rhône varietals like Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah are often aged in neutral barrels, while Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot wines are typically aged in new barrels. Many whites and wines specifically described as being aged in stainless steel barrels never come into any contact with gluten.

Yeast ferments the sugars in wine, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. If you have a sensitivity to yeast or suffer from candidasis, colitis or Crohn’s disease, experts recommend staying away from wine.

To help determine what might be triggering symptoms when you drink wine, find out in advance the ingredients in your wine and ask your allergist to test you for those ingredients.


Wine isn’t just for drinking any more. Inventive folks are using the byproducts of winemaking to create gluten-free flours that add valuable nutrients and intense, found-only-in-nature coloring to your baking. Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet–each flour imparts a slightly different flavor to your recipes. Substitute up to 20 percent of your total flour blend with wine flour.


ýPhoto © Oleg Zhukov/

Gluten-Free Chocolate Cabernet Cake


Top this rich, delicious cake with Easy White Frosting. This recipe also makes about 30 cupcakes. It can be prepared using egg replacement with good results; see instructions at right.

2½ cups gluten-free all-purpose flour blend of choice
¼ cup Cabernet flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ cup powdered milk of choice
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
1½teaspoons xanthan gum*
¼teaspoon salt
½cup butter or dairy-free butter alternative
2 cups granulated cane sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1¼ cups chocolate milk or dairy-free chocolate milk of choice

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray two 8-inch round cake pans with non-stick cooking spray and dust surface lightly with gluten-free starch. To make cupcakes, grease cupcake tins or line them with muffin papers.

2. Whisk together flours, baking powder, powdered milk, cocoa, xanthan gum and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar. Beat well with the mixer’s paddle attachment until mixture is very light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla with the last egg addition. Slowly add milk, alternating with flour mixture and beating in between additions. Beat until batter is smooth.

5. Pour batter into prepared cake pans. Place in preheated oven and bake about 30 minutes. For cupcakes, bake about 20 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick in the middle of each cake; it should come out clean with very few crumbs attached. Cakes pull away slightly from the sides of the pans when done.

6. When done, turn off oven and leave door open to let cakes cool slowly for 5 minutes or so. Then remove cakes to a cooling rack. After 15 minutes, gently invert cakes to remove from pans. Place on rack until fully cooled.

For Egg-Free Chocolate Cabernet Cake, omit 4 eggs. Add 4 tablespoons arrowroot powder to dry ingredients. Add 4 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce to butter and sugar mixture. Proceed with recipe as instructed.

*Omit xanthan gum if it’s already in your flour blend.

Easy White Frosting

Here’s the perfect topper to just about any cake and it’s so simple. If frosting is too thin, beat in more confectioners’ sugar. If too thick, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until proper spreading consistency.

½ cup butter or dairy-free butter alternative, softened
2½ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ cup milk of choice, divided

1. Cream butter and sugar together with an electric mixer.

2. Add vanilla and 2 tablespoons milk, beating well to combine. Add remaining milk, as needed, to achieve spreading consistency.

3. Beat for several minutes until light and fluffy.

Each serving of cake with frosting contains 387 calories, 14g total fat, 8g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 87g cholesterol, 141mg sodium, 61g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 4g protein.
Each serving of cake without frosting contains 272 calories, 9g total fat, 5g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 72g cholesterol, 138mg sodium, 46g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 4g protein. LW
Jules Shepard, (, is author of several special-diet books, including Free For All Cooking (Da Capo Press), and is creator of Jules Gluten Free All Purpose Flour.