Due to a unique upbringing, my editor for this column didn’t start drinking adult beverages until relatively recently. He informs me that red wine is, in fact, an acquired taste.
I find this hard to believe. Not only do I not remember acquiring it, but it seems to me that our connection to wine is an integral part of being human — as magically organic as physiology or consciousness. That said, I can’t ignore the fact that there are people I love who can’t even touch the stuff — and for reasons even more disturbing than pre-adolescent taste-buds. It seems every day now someone else close to me has to give it up entirely due to migraines and other weird symptoms. For them, the pain of not drinking red wine is finally outdone by the pain of drinking it.
Not only does this seem tragic and unjust, but also historically, biologically, and even spiritually impossible.
Wine dates back to the dawn of humanity or, depending on your beliefs, the Garden of Eden. Early Israelite tradition, as well as later Christian and Jewish belief, has it that the tree of knowledge was actually a sacred vine and the forbidden fruit was a bunch of luscious grapes. When Adam consumed them he felt himself become enlightened, powerful. And it was this godlike high that caused his fall from grace.
In most every ancient faith, wine was acknowledged as a healing gift from god that no one should live without. Hebrew sages taught that “if a man has a cask of wine in his home, he has no need of drugs, for the wine will heal him.”
But what is wine? Although the term can refer to the fermented juice of any fruit, it is most classically that of grapes, which require only sunlight, earth, and water to grow. Galileo Galilei famously defined wine as “sunlight held together by water,” while the American journalist and critic Margaret Fuller calls it “Earth’s answer to the Sun.” Scientifically speaking, it’s a microscopic miracle sitting on the skin of the grape that facilitates its transformation. These are known as saccharomycetes — tiny germs that contain the enzyme that acts as the catalyst for fermentation. This is why you can’t wash a wine grape before it is crushed.
But after thousands of years as both a bringer of light and the most common ingredient in medicines and therapies around the world, the past half-century has seen wine turned from saviour to scourge, then halfway back again.
As John Varriano writes in Wine – A Cultural History, “No sooner did most of the world’s pharmacopoeias eliminate prescriptions for wine or wine-based medications in the 1960s, but studies began to appear that indicated a lower rate of cardiovascular disease among the wine-drinking French, known for their rich national diet.”
I started bringing organic wine to all sorts of people who’d sworn off reds because of migraines, and for nearly all of them it appeared to work
This became known as the “French Paradox.” But the one we’re facing now is much stranger and more dichotomous. On the one hand, we have discovered that a full-bodied, well-constructed red wine is just as, if not more, miraculous than even the ancients believed. It can help with everything from arthritis to Alzheimers, dementia to diabetes, halitosis to heart disease – apparently one glass is as good as a trip to the gym, and can turn water into Jesus.
At the same time, it seems the stuff is hurting us in new and immediately painful ways. Red wine migraines now top the list of first-world problems. It seems that common knowledge has already formed — with everyone convinced that tannins are to blame.
Luscious, full-bodied reds are made that way mostly by the tannins on the skins of the grapes, languishing as they ferment. And they’re the ones causing instant migraines and migraine-type hangovers. But those wines that barely sit with the skins, or touch them not at all — the thin reds, rosés and whites — seem relatively innocuous in these regards.
But if that’s true, why only now? Why, after hundreds — if not thousands — of years of documented wine production, are there no references at all to well-made red wines causing this kind of immediate pain?
Not so long ago, my dear sister Cassidy — who I don’t get to see nearly often enough — invited me over for dinner,
“You don’t have to bring anything,” she wrote. “But if you do, I can only drink red wine if it’s organic. Otherwise I get migraines. Weird, right? I guess I’m a full-on flake now.”
Being a fairly good brother, I brought a couple of organic wines from California. They were lush and delicious, and my sister appeared to get not even the twinge of a headache.
Over the next while I started bringing organic wine to all sorts of people who’d sworn off reds because of migraines, and for nearly all of them it appeared to work — even though tannin levels should be no different whether a wine is made organically or not. Of course, this is the very definition of anecdotal evidence — when it comes to wine, I’m not a doctor (or even a sommelier) — but these experiences seem compelling.
In over-protecting our grapes, over-producing our wine, and covering the Earth with vineyards picked by robots, could it be that we are, poisoning the nectar of the gods?
Plus, I’ve also talked to a lot of people on the other side of the bottle: wine-makers, vitners, chemists, critics, and collectors. Many of them chalk it up to sulfides — a necessary part of the winemaking process, but at least half as prevalent in organic wines. According to some of these experts, it’s feasible that certain people may have an extreme sensitivity to sulfides, causing allergic, asthmatic, and migraine-like symptoms.
But there is another suspect, too — one that seems far more likely the more I look. It would explain why full-bodied reds are the source of such distress, why this appears a purely modern phenomenon, and why truly organic wine may cause no pain at all: pesticides.
I know, I know, now who’s the flake? The powers that be in the wine industry will no doubt dismiss a column like this as the ravings of a crackpot. But this crackpot’s only concern is his sister and other loved ones being able to drink a glass of wine without undue pain — as the ancients taught was our god-given right.
The fact is, there are few fruits in the modern world more saturated with dozens, if not hundreds of types of pesticides than wine grapes. They are, after all, immensely valuable — whole economies depend on protecting them — and pretty much all they are is surface area: little spheres of juice wrapped in skin that can’t be washed. And a robust red needs to lie and luxuriate with those skins, no matter what else might be on them.
In over-protecting our grapes, over-producing our wine, and covering the Earth with vineyards picked by robots, could it be that we are, in fact, poisoning the nectar of the gods, or at least making it increasingly undrinkable for so many mere mortals?
If all of this gives you a headache, I’d recommend trying it for yourself. The grapes may not be from the Garden of Eden, or cultivated by Noah, but a little sun-kissed vineyard in the Okanagan Valley or a hillside in Argentina is pretty nice, too — even with a few bugs around.