Monthly Archives: July 2012

Wine and Headaches


Photo courtesy of Debbie C on Flickr

Question from Emily: Why does wine cause headaches? Is it the sulfites?

Reply: Hi, Emily. Thanks for writing! I’m no physician and very little is understood about this, but one thing that’s become clear is that it’s not the sulfites. 

Sulfites: Lots of people swear up and down that sulfites are the cause, but science says otherwise. If you’re convinced that sulfites are to blame, try eating some brightly colored, dried fruit (the bright color indicates a high level of sulfites). If you can eat them without any effect, then sulfites aren’t the issue. That’s not to say that sulfites are harmless. Asthmatics need to be very careful about wine, fruit juice, processed foods and more.

Red Wine Headache Syndrome: If you only react to red wine, you’re a member of this not-so-small group of wine lovers. For some people, it takes only a small amount of red wine to set off a nasty headache that may last a very long time. It’s common enough that a great number of studies have been done. Medical researchers have tested their subjects on cheap and expensive wine, domestic and imported wine and it doesn’t make any difference.

There’s some helpful advice from these researchers, though. If you’re prone to red-wine headaches, try taking some aspirin or ibuprofen before drinking the wine (Tylenol doesn’t work.) They discovered that these drugs seem to block the reaction for many of their subjects.

Tannin: It’s possible that people who are prone to migraines might also react to tannin but it’s fuzzy science at this point.

Prostaglandins and amines: Some doctors theorize that the headaches have to do with prostaglandins, which some people can’t metabolize. Others blame point to other amines, like histamines, but there are many foods that are higher in histamines than wine.

Alcohol! It seems the last thing any of us choose to blame is the most likely culprit – the alcohol! If you get a headache or hangover after sharing a bottle of wine with friends, check the alcohol. The levels can vary significantly. The wildly popular Moscato wine is often below 10%. Napa Cab is often upwards of 14%. Are you a fan of red Zinfandel? It’s notoriously high in alcohol. 

Alcohol opens blood vessels and increases the blood flow to the skin. If the vessels in your nose and sinus areas swell, you may feel some pressure and get a headache. Shoot for lower alcohol wine, drink less or try a pain reliever if you think this might be what’s happening to you.  

TIP! If you’ve noticed that European wine doesn’t seem to get to you the way California wine does, compare the alcohols – European tend to be lower in alcohol than California wines dues to differences in climate. 

ANOTHER TIP! Great headache preventative: Drink a glass of water for each glass of wine; alcohol causes dehydration.

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Le Nez du Vin for your next Wine Tasting Party

Have you ever heard of Le Nez du Vin? This 2-minute video tells you how you can use it to jazz up your next wine-tasting party!
What’s your favorite way to liven up your tasting parties? 

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Today’s Wine Word: Veraison


Aren’t the purty? There’s something so sweet and lovely about the clusters as they begin to blush and change color. By the time they’re finished they’ll be almost black in color. 

And, the color change is such a significant event that there’s a name for it – French, of course 😉 – veraison. 

Veraison signals that the shoots have stopped growing and that the vine’s energy has shifted into fruit ripening. It’s a kind of code language to the vineyard manager and the cellar master to get it together for crush because the grapes will be pounding on the door before long. 

Veraison is usually complete within about ten days, if the weather’s good. Shortly after, the vineyard manager will get a baseline sugar reading. Folks who are called field samplers are hired to walk the vine rows, collecting grape samples. Because most vineyards are harvested only once, they get specific instructions from the vineyard manager because the sample needs to represent the section of vineyard as a whole. The winemaker wants an average reading of sugar, acid and pH. Continue reading

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Cool vs Warm-Climate Wine


We’re having such a lovely summer this year in Napa Valley. Our days have been made up of comfortably warm daytime temperatures followed by chilly, foggy nights with the occasional brief blast of heat, so far, which happens to be the  formula for an excellent Napa Valley vintage!

Marty wrote in to ask about frequent references I make to warm vs. cool-climate wine and this is a great time of year to talk about it, although the real story can’t be written until harvest is over, hopefully by Halloween. 

If you like to garden, you know how seasonal temperatures affect the ripening pattern of your fruit and vegetables. Imagine trying to ripen tomatoes on your patio if you live San Francisco, where it’s foggy daily, in the summertime, and temperatures rarely rise above 65F.  Those are going to be some tart, green tomatoes, right?  The same thing applies to grapes.  They start out with high levels of acid, low levels of sugar, and vegetative flavors.  As the weeks go by they gain fruitiness and sweetness, and the acid decreases, provided they get enough heat and sun. So, depending upon where they’re grown they’ll ripen slowly or quickly and end up tasting more or less ripe since the level of sugar and acidity is affected.  Continue reading

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Do Those Wine Aerators Really Work?

I did an informal experiment a few years ago, using only used one kind of aerator, the Vinturi. Here are the results: 

Since then lots of different styles have come out. What do you think? Have you had any luck with any of these aerators? 

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The Wine Smells Like Cloves


photo courtesy of Taekwonweirdo on Flickr

 Question from Chris: I can’t usually pick out flavors like strawberry or chocolate in wine but the other day I had a glass of Pinot Noir that smelled just like cloves. It was so strong I couldn’t notice anything else about the wine. Is that common? Maybe I could pick it out because I like to bake? 

Reply: Hi, Chris. Thanks for writing! Clove is, indeed, a very common descriptor for oak-aged wine. Evidently, there’s a compound known as eugenol found in oak and it’s the main aroma compound found in cloves. Don’t you just love that? Stuff like this a one of the many reasons why wine is endlessly interesting! 

Very occasionally I get a question about whether things like strawberry or licorice are actually added to the wine. If they were, the bottle would have to say “strawberry flavored wine.” It couldn’t simply say “wine” – it would have to be qualified in that way. So, all those descriptors you see in the wine ratings are derived from the grapes, the barrels, fermentation, environment (like exposure to air) and/or time. Except, of course, for the obscure descriptors used by wine writers who simply want to impress – oh, brother…  Continue reading

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Is it Necessary to Swirl the Wine?


Question from Jess: In your last post you referred to swirling the wine. Is that really necessary? What difference does it make? I feel really silly and pretentious doing it.

Reply: Hi, Jess. Thanks for writing! I don’t know that it’s necessary, but it can certainly add to your pleasure.

You be the judge. Try this experiment: Pour yourself a glass of any sort of wine, preferably not too cold (cold wine doesn’t have much of a fragrance, as we discussed in that last post). Don’t fill it too full. A half-glass is fine. If the wine has been in the fridge, just take it out and wait 30-45 minutes to do the experiment.

Smell the wine. BTW, when you smell the wine, you should actually put your nose in the glass – no long-distance sniffing! Smells good? Now, set the glass down on the table and grip the stem, close to the base. Swirl briskly to get the liquid really moving in the glass. After swirling vigorously for several seconds, smell the wine again. Notice the difference? Continue reading

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Cold White Wine for a Hot Day


Photo courtesy of tomylees, Flickr Creative Commons

I was half watching the Today Show this morning, while getting ready for an appointment, and Chef Jose Andres (love that guy – so funny!) was on showing how to make different kinds of fruit popsicles. These pops sounded really great, by the way – some included alcohol and some didn’t – but very refreshing in any case. As he tossed the ingredients into the bowl he emphasized that it’s important to add some salt because cold suppresses the flavor. YES! THANK YOU!

I know you think we wine educators are really bossy telling you the “correct” serving temperature, what kind of glass to use, telling you to swirl the wine… Well, Chef Andres vindicated us – at least on the subject of serving temperatures.  

It’s going to be about 100 degrees F. here today so it’s very tempting to down a glass of ice-cold white wine. Fair enough. But, what I’d suggest, if you want it that cold, is that the wine shouldn’t be one of your best. In fact, it should be in the “value” category. Continue reading

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The Barrels are Coming! The Barrels are Coming!


When I went to do a tasting with a client the other day, I noticed that the barrel cellar was about half empty. I jokingly asked the winemaker if they’d decided to go with oak chips – wink, wink. “Well, no – it’s July.” Yup – July. Out with the old and in with the new. Got to get the new barrels unwrapped, inspected and in place before harvest starts, probably late August this year. 

That is, for those wineries who can afford new barrels and are looking for oak flavor in the wine. New French oak barrels are about $1,000.00 a pop; it’s less than half that for new American barrels. 

When it comes to flavor extraction you can think of barrels as being like tea bags. They give up their flavor with use. Which can actually be a good thing! There are only a few styes of wine that won’t be completely overwhelmed by the powerful flavor imparted by all new barrels. Think big (and expensive) reds. Continue reading

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A Really Cool Wine to Beat the Heat: Ice Wine!

While most of the country swelters, I thought it would be refreshing to talk about something really cool – ice wine! enjoy this two-minute video. 


What’s your favorite dessert-wine pairing? 

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