Monday, August 31, 2015

Avoiding Wine Headaches

If anything is certain about wine headaches it is that many triggers exist. For any given individual, one cause or a combination of causes may spark head pain. For migraine sufferers, the alcohol itself is often the headache culprit. In people who are born with certain genetic profiles, the wine headache – often accompanied by flushing and other symptoms – could be related to the absence of or a variation in the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) that helps the body metabolize alcohol. As a result, people with migraines or defects in ADH tend to self-limit or abandon their alcohol or wine intake, to avoid the near-certain headache that ensues.

But what about everyone else? As explored in the previous post, biogenic amines (BA) are some of the main headache offenders under scrutiny, the best known being histamine and tyramine.

The European Union is taking steps to heighten awareness of biogenic amine sensitivity, including restrictions on the BA content of wines. In the United States, outside of the BA content in foods for which tolerance limits do exist, no such consumer protections are yet in place regarding wine or other alcoholic beverages.

Rather, U.S. wine labels inform American consumers when wines contain sulfites in amounts greater than 10 parts per million (ppm), in part leading many headache sufferers to incorrectly conclude that sulfites cause wine headaches. Unlike sulfites, which can cause mild-to-severe allergic reactions that generally do not include headache in about 1% of people, no labeling requirements apply to wine biogenic amine content.

Without this information, what can the average headache-prone wine consumer do to limit their intake of wines that are likely to have higher biogenic amine content? Is it even possible for the average wine consumer to choose wines that are likely to be lower in biogenic amines, even when that information is not on the label?

The answer is a rousing maybe. Because the BA concentration in a given wine can vary widely according to factors such as the vintage, the type of fermentation yeast used, lees aging, whether the wine underwent malolactic fermentation (MLF) and if so, the type of lactic bacteria used, the wine’s aging and storage and a host of vitivinicultural practices that take place in the vineyard and in the winery itself, it can be daunting if not impossible to reliably assess a given wine’s biogenic amine content vis-à-vis its headache potential from one bottle to another. Further, because different individuals may have differing sensitivity levels to biogenic amines, it is difficult to predict the chances of the same wine precipitating headaches in different individuals. 

However, if science continues to finger biogenic amines as likely and common headache triggers, expect some help for consumers in the future regarding labeling or adaptive vitivinicultural practices.

Meanwhile, here are a few types of wines that could be less likely to contain higher biogenic amine levels for wine headache-prone consumers who hope to limit their BA exposure from wine, given what's currently known about the BA content of wines:

Choose young, fruity and aromatic white wines that have not undergone malolactic fermentation. Whites that typically undergo MLF include Chardonnay and some other whites that have a rounder, fuller texture such as some Pinot Gris (but not usually Italian-style Pinot Grigio) and Pinot Blanc. Consider Albariño, most Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo, among others, instead.

Avoid wines that have been aged sur lie. Examples of some wines that are aged on their lees for added softness or richness include Champagne and other sparkling wines, Muscadet, Chardonnay, white Burgundy (such as Montrachet) and infrequently, Sauvignon Blanc.

Experiment with red wines that are lighter in style or those from cooler climates. Examples to try include Northern Italian reds (except for Valpolicella and other ripasso-styled reds) and Chilean or New Zealand Pinot Noir.

Try red wines from producers who use bentonite for fining. This tip takes a bit of homework. Fining is a late step in winemaking just prior to bottling that removes excess proteins that may cloud a wine. Look up the technical sheet on the winery website of some of your favorite producers to find this information, which won't be on the label. Bentonite-fined red wines, most of which have undergone MLF, tend to have lower BA content.

Tempt fate with a rosé. Provided your wine headaches are not debilitating or disabling, you might want to try your luck with a young rosé that has not undergone MLF or sur-lie aging. Most rosés do not undergo either process, although some rosé makers do either or both to a small extent. The tech sheet should provide the information if you are unsure.

Just as uncertainty remains regarding the source and prevention of wine headaches, these tips may or may not work for you. Formal studies evaluating these theories are lacking so these ideas can't be taken as medical advice. However, if you are a wine enthusiast who gets somewhat bothersome but not disabling headaches from certain wines but not others and who wishes to try another approach in avoiding wine headaches, these tips may help you find wines that are lower in biogenic amines and perhaps, help you remain wine headache-free.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Wine Headaches: Has the Culprit Emerged?

Wine headaches have received a lot of media coverage lately, thanks in part to a couple of commercial products that claim to remove sulfites from a glass or bottle of wine. In his June 28th story for Wired, ‘Wine Sulfites are Fine, But Here’s How to Remove Them Anyway,’ Christopher Null likened the hot button issue of sulfites in wine to that of gluten in food. As he predicted, many readers savagely took him to task.

From another corner of the world, University of Otago PhD-candidate Erica Syzmanski wrote about a small preliminary study in ‘New research: Wine allergies exist. You probably don’t have them.’ on her probing wine science blog, The Wineoscope.

In my conference preview article this week for Wine, Wit, and Wisdom, the official blog of the Society of Wine Educators, ‘Wine Headaches: Is Malo the Culprit?’ I discussed a few issues regarding biogenic amines such as histamine and tyramine.

Essential to human health in small amounts, biogenic amines are present in wine as well as other beverages such as beer, cider and a variety of fermented and aged foods, including soy products, cheese, fish sauces and processed meats.

However, whether due to genetics, other medical conditions or medications, some people can’t process some biogenic amines as quickly or as completely as needed before reactions ensue, from headaches and rashes to more serious effects on the heart, lungs and digestive tract.

Although the link between wine drinking and headaches has been recognized since antiquity, surprisingly little well-controlled research has been performed to sort out wine headaches and intolerances. One reason is the barriers to performing experiments on humans that involve alcohol. Many studies are look-back trials known as observational or retrospective studies, which often involve questionnaires and self-reporting, two methods that may have serious flaws.

Curiously, most of the research on wine-related intolerances and headaches, including their relation to vitiviniculture, has come from abroad. Indeed, some of the most exciting research has come from Spain, Italy, South Africa and even China. With its status as the largest wine-consuming nation by volume, the US stands poised to advance the science of wine intolerances. Perhaps our academic enology centers will also begin to take a closer look at the reasons and remedies for such reactions, which are estimated to affect up to 40% or more of certain populations.

Other nations have already begun to act. European and other global organizations including the FAO, WHO, the European Food Safety Authority and the International Organisation of Wine and Vine (OIV) are pushing forward to study the health issues associated with biogenic amine-rich foods and beverages, including wine and beer. Their actions have included recommendations regarding viticulture and winemaking itself, including the use of malolactic bacteria that are less likely or incapable of contributing to biogenic amine formation in the finished wine.

Today’s wine labels offer few clues for consumers seeking headache-free wine enjoyment. Given the range of the many factors that can affect a wine’s biogenic amine content – including viticulture, terroir, climate, vintage and winemaking decisions besides malolactic fermention such as aging, storage and fining – we may not be able to accurately predict the headache- or wine reaction-provoking potential of a given bottle of wine anytime soon. Notwithstanding, in another post, we’ll look at the types of wines that could be less likely to provoke reactions in individuals who are sensitive to biogenic amines.

Scoot over to Wine, Wit, and Wisdom, the official blog of the Society of Wine Educators to read more about the wine headache conundrum.

Are you able to enjoy some types of wines but not others fairly consistently? Let us know in the Comments section if you associate certain types of wines with the ability to provoke headache, migraine or other bothersome symptoms you’ve experienced.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Wine Tips for the College Grad

Wine is hardly top-of-mind for the new crop of college graduates now entering the workforce, some for the first time. As reward for their hard study, many grads are hired for their academic achievements or scholarly promise. However, once hired, these former students learn about the other kinds of tests presented by the workplace, from tests of behavior and communication abilities to tests of professionalism and social skills. Wine may not seem very important to graduates eager to begin climbing the corporate ropes. 

Yet, for those entering certain career paths, nailing a few wine basics can prove beneficial. While rookie teachers, research scientists or young health professionals might not give much thought to wine beyond their own personal enjoyment, young professionals embarking on careers in finance, sales, marketing, advertising and those in a variety of corporate or urban settings should make it their business to pay some attention to wine.

The reason wine awareness might offer such graduates a bit of an edge is that, like golf and sports chatter, wine can be a bonding experience between young hires and their new company peers. This is especially important in fields in which corporate client dinners carry significant weight. Moreover, wine savvy is absolutely essential for graduates whose careers involve international companies or anytime grads are expected to interact with many foreign clients or colleagues, particularly Europeans, many of whom are already rather familiar with wine.

Even though newly minted college graduates may feel more at ease ordering rounds of beer or shots of their favorite fire water, alums who seek to climb the corporate ladder can reap rewards from building a modicum of wine savvy by applying a few basic tips.

Here are a few ideas for recent college graduates to consider the next time they are invited to a corporate dining event.   

Hold your wine glass like a wine glass. Hold your wine glass by the stem and not with your hand wrapped around the bowl. Hold the stem using your index finger and thumb, fanning out your last three fingers for greater support. If the stem grasp feels uncomfortable or effete, try supporting the base of the glass with your other hand.

Learn to swirl. No need to overdo here. Practice at home with about two or three ounces of wine in the glass by holding the glass on an even, low-friction surface and by making small circles while holding the glass at the base of the stem. Don’t belabor the swirling – just give the wine a trip or two around the bowl to release its aromatics. Avoid that half-hearted air swirl that not only looks silly but that also does little to help you appreciate the wine’s aromas.

Take a quick sniff. Begin to teach yourself to appreciate the aromas of wine, even if it just smells ‘like wine’ at first. If you’re that kind of novice, merely take a quick sniff and make a mental note of what you smell. Ask yourself the test question: Does the wine smell a) fruity, b) earthy, c) floral, d) spicy or e) all of the above? Don’t fret if you don’t seem to be making progress picking up on aromas – with time and experience, you should. If all that you detect at this time is the alcohol, make a mental note of that too.

Take small sips. Be slow and conservative with your sipping. Chances are pretty good that one or more of your older colleagues is keeping a subtle eye on you. Wine isn’t meant for gulping or to quench your thirst like sodas or beer. Quench your thirst first with water or a neutral beverage. Then, be quietly thoughtful with each sip of wine. Try to get a sense for the wine in terms of its flavors, how it feels in the mouth and how long it lingers after you swallow. Notice too how the flavors of the wine might change after you take a bite of food or after tasting different foods. Coffee or a very sweet dessert at the end of a meal will overtake your palate so avoid having any more of your dinner wine after coffee or sweets.

Know your limits and stay within them. Although this might seem like the most obvious tip of all, it’s also the most important. No matter how soused your junior colleagues or even your bosses might seem, stay inside the lines, especially in the earlier stages of your advancement. No one wants a guy or gal on his or her team who becomes a management problem or loose-lipped at social or corporate events. Nurse your glass to stay within your limits.

Start learning some wine basics. If it appears that client dinners and similar events will be a regular feature of your burgeoning career, start learning a few wine basics that you can always fall back on or use as stepping stones towards greater wine knowledge. For starters, become familiar with Champagne or another type of sparkling wine, Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon and perhaps a Port or another dessert wine. If you find that Chardonnay and Cabernet are most often the wines of choice at most of your events, go deeper into these wines. Learn about some basic styles, for example oaked vs. unoaked Chardonnay or Napa Cabernet vs. Bordeaux, or get to know producers whose wines are most consistently appealing to you or your colleagues. Pay attention to what more experienced colleagues are ordering and start learning a little bit at a time.

Observe the sommelier or wine steward. At restaurants with good wine service, watch how the wine staff pour the wine. Correctly done, only a small amount should be served into each glass, allowing plenty of room for swirling and also thereby conserving enough wine to go around the table. See how the somm or wine steward gives the bottle a slight twist as the pour is ended to avoid spills or dribbling wine down the bottle. Notice also that the wine bottle is held just above the glass and how wine is poured very differently from beer. Practice at home until it feels natural to you.

Begin to develop open-minded wine opinions. If your colleagues are wine lovers, they will inevitably begin to ask you about your favorite wine or wines. Even if your preferences are still up in the air, simply state that you are new to wine but that in general you prefer reds or whites or bubbles or another type of wine. If appropriate, say that you’ve begun to enjoy the wines of France, California or another region you’ve visited or a region whose wines are somewhat familiar to you. If you find that learning about wine is fun, express it. Rather than admitting to negative or narrow feelings about certain types of wine, try to convey openness about the huge range of wine possibilities, even within a certain region or style.

Defer to ‘the wine guy’. At some point in your corporate career, you are certain to meet a ‘wine guy’ or gal. Whether he or she actually knows much about wine at all is moot – all you need to know initially is that your colleagues consider that person ‘the wine guy’ (it usually is a guy), which in some circles can be as enviable an achievement as being a scratch golfer. Sometimes ‘the wine guy’ is the one who is presented with the wine list at client dinners, though that’s not a given. Your best bet is to be deferential and curious. Ask such individuals how they first got into wine or about their wine travels. Once you begin to understand whether ‘the wine guy’ mostly enjoys collecting or talking about his or her prestige bottles or whether he or she truly has a deep passion for wine, you’ll develop better questions to ask.

Remember that wine enjoyment rests largely on opinion. Be careful about judging another person’s wine preferences or opinion. Know that no matter how convinced you may be that you don’t like Sancerre or Sangiovese, there is a bottle or a pairing somewhere that will up-end your beliefs. Be open to new wine discoveries.

Colleagues who enjoy wine will be more likely to include you or to introduce you to new wines if you show genuine curiosity, flexibility and perhaps an interest in wine as a learning adventure. Wine lovers enjoy the company of other wine lovers. If you’re fortunate enough to have a few wine enthusiasts on your team, understanding more about the world of wine might open up new opportunities for social or professional interactions and greater collegiality in your working world. Embrace the journey.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Wine Dinners: RIP?

Before they became so commonplace, food and wine pairing dinners were some of the most exquisite and memorable experiences a diner could have. Chefs would spend weeks imagining, testing and refining their menus, working with a winemaker or sommelier to create singularly satisfying dishes that paired with different wine experiences, course to course. The chosen wines would pay homage to the layers of flavors and textures in the food and the artful dishes would highlight the characteristics and personalities of the wines. Harmonic excellence was the goal, the wine making the food taste even better and the food, in turn, elevating the wine experience.

As their popularity grew, wine-food pairing events extended far beyond the traditional venues of fine dining establishments. Pairing events became the rage at neighborhood eateries far removed from the chic downtown centers of the country’s hippest cities, at prices ranging from the ridiculously affordable to the once-in-a-lifetime extravagance.

Yet today, the choreographed beauty and balance of the wine dinner is under threat. The culprits are not volatile, overworked chefs or snooty, out-of-touch sommeliers. Rather, the threat comes from the diners themselves, who, it need be stressed, have elected to attend a wine-food pairing event.

In choosing to attend, these diners generally understand that the focus of the evening will be a series of courses and wine pairings that have been designed to create culinary magic that is focused and specific, therein providing the value and raison d’être for these special gastronomic-oenophilic experiences.

Notwithstanding this prior knowledge, however, diners now present laundry lists to chefs and proprietors listing their food sensitivities, intolerances, allergies or mere distaste for certain ingredients that mustn’t be used at the wine dinner. Sometimes, these guests inform the culinary team of their exceptions in advance of the event – and sometimes not, seemingly unaware that dining establishments are not also grocery stores with pools of unbusy skilled laborers.

Here is a recent list of exceptions given to a small establishment:

Multiple guests:

Shellfish allergies
Gluten intolerant

At least one guest:

No red meat
No fish of any kind
No nuts
No dairy
No green onions
No shallots
No red onions
No mold (no mushrooms, no blue cheese)
No cheese
No celery or lettuce
No dairy
No pineapple
No crab
No clarified butter
No mango
No melons of any kind
No garlic

In fairness, about 1% of the population can be expected to have a true gluten allergy. However, many gluten-related and other claimed food sensitivities are often self-diagnosed, misdiagnosed, overdiagnosed or are more a matter of personal preference or belief than a true medical exigency.

Altogether, up to 3 or 4% of the US population has a food allergy, although 15% – four times as many people – believe they have a food allergy. Cranking that small establishment’s numbers, the tally would appear to hover north of 50%.

Miraculously, one guest’s food allergy was reported to vanish at a wine dinner once the aromatic, allergenic plate of a tablemate appeared, causing the food-allergic guest to about-face and to request the unmodified, original dish instead, the one containing the previously objectionable ingredient.

Because the hospitality industry aims to accommodate and please the guest, chefs and sommeliers have attempted to extend themselves, including guests with food issues to these special wining and dining experiences. But at what cost? Does a modification of a dish that was originally crafted to marry seamlessly with a certain wine now deliver the intended food-wine experience after certain key ingredients have been left out or substituted, too often at last-minute? Moreover, how many alternate, highly specific non-this/non-that dishes can a chef and his/her kitchen staff reasonably be expected to prepare in the frenzy of a food and wine pairing dinner, which usually is a boundaries-pushing version of that dining establishment’s usual fare and often includes exotic ingredients, precise timing, innovative preparations and meticulous plating and presentation?

In hospitality terms, a wine dinner is similar to a banquet planned for a group of guests. That is, there is a set menu that has been previously been vetted and agreed to that will be served to everyone. Sometimes a meat or fish or vegetarian option is offered, sometimes not. Compare that to a personal preference or a la carte dining experience in which each diner is free to choose from a menu of offerings, some of which may include vegan, gluten-free, healthy choice or other options.

Whereas wine dinners are planned and executed more like banquets, today’s diners have come to view wine dinners as personal preference opportunities, regardless of the consequences for the chef or for their fellow diners. In a sense, the food exceptionalists are akin to the anti-vaxers of the elite dining experience, it being the exceptionalists' personal (and often nonscientific) issues that govern the consequences for the majority.

Sadly, the restaurant, hospitality and food and beverage businesses can expect to encounter more food and drink exceptionalists. It might also be expected that imaginary toxicities, overpersonalization and overinterpretation of maladies will spread to affect wine service. The wine exceptionalists' list might begin as follows:

No sulfites
No additives
No non-native yeast
No non-organic wines
No imports
No synthetic corks

Now doesn’t that sound like a fun wine event?

Perhaps, as one chef ruefully suggested, we should just serve cereal at the next wine dinner. Organic, non-GMO, vegan, dairy- and gluten-free, of course. Oh, and hold the cereal.