Why do we get headaches drinking wine in the U.S. and not in Italy?

Benny Rossi of Il Podere del Falco winery outside Rome says U.S. wines cause headaches when winemakers don't have confidence and add too many sulfites.

Benny Rossi of Il Podere del Falco winery outside Rome says U.S. wines cause headaches when winemakers don’t have confidence and add too many sulfites.


DEC. 11

When I moved to Rome the first time in 2001, I knew three things I absolutely positively had to pack: one, an Italian-English dictionary; two, a black scarf; three, a family-sized bottle of Excedrin Migraine medicine. After all, every time I drank wine in the U.S., I woke up with a headache. I was moving to a country where wine is one of the four major food groups. I figured 200 pills would get me through, oh, the first couple weekends or so.

After more than 16 months, I returned to the U.S. with that same bottle still nearly full.

Today marks my 11-month anniversary back in Rome. That same sized bottle a friend brought me last spring (I should’ve asked for a couple of those sample sizes from 7-Eleven) has barely been dented. Most were inhaled two months ago during nine days spent in an alcoholic fog in Mexico. It begs the time-honored question, one I’ve asked ever since I was old enough to buy a drink and mature enough to use a passport.

Why don’t Italian wines give me a headache while wines in the U.S. send me screaming to pharmacies?

It wasn’t just the mile-high altitude in my former post, Denver. I had the same problem in California, Florida, Nebraska. In America, two Excedrin became part of my breakfast. In some bad restaurants or bars, I’d drink a house Merlot at 7 p.m. and have a splitting headache by 10. Why go to A.A? Just drink American wine. That will make you quit drinking.

My two favorite lines in movie history are Russell Crowe telling his troops in “Gladiator,” “On my mark, unleash hell,” and Paul Giamatti in “Sideways” yelling, “I am NOT DRINKING FUCKING MERLOT!” I never do.

Seeking answers, I went to a little wine tasting Wednesday night. It was put on by Wine Enthusiasts in Rome, a terrific Meetup group run by Spring Berlandt, a San Francisco native who helps her boyfriend, Enrico Gallinaro, run a small vineyard in Abruzzo, east of Rome. They were one of four small wineries who gathered in the basement of a small bookstore in Trastevere just across the Tiber River from me. These were small operations. Their wine is sold in public markets and fairs. But people run small wineries for their love of wine, not money. They love wine and know wine. Who better to ask but the people who put their heart and soul into making their product the best they can be?

Benedetto “Benny” Rossi was holding court with some wine mavens, proudly holding his bottle of Cabernet Atina Doc from his Il Podere del Falco winery in Atina, about 60 miles southeast of Rome. Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and a full head of dark hair, Rossi chuckled when I asked him why American wines always give me headaches.

“It’s because they don’t have confidence in their wine,” he said. “If you make a good product, you don’t need sulfites.”

Sulfite is the magic word here. It has caused more debates in wine bars than sports. A sulfite is the compound that helps preserve wine. In actuality, all wines need sulfites. What Rossi means is some wines add more sulfites and others do not. Gallinaro told me some of the bigger commercial wineries do most of the adding. That explains why I often compare drinking a bottle of Kendall Jackson with going three rounds with Manny Pacquiao.

Governments put limits on the amount of sulfites in wine. The European Union sets a maximum of 160 milligrams per liter for red, 210 for white and 400 for sweet. Surprisingly, it’s similar for the U.S. But in Italy, they are very conscious of sulfites. In fact, Gallinaro belongs to a growing group of winemakers who are trying to make wine with very low sulfites. His delicious 2013 Montepulciano had only 60 mg of sulfites.

Another theory I heard last night is Italy itself. Most of the country’s soil is volcanic. For some scientific region that’s totally beyond my comprehension, volcanic soil is very good for the preservation of wine. Look at a geological map of Italy and you’ll see 12 volcanoes strung from Etna in Sicily to Larderello in Tuscany. Three — Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius — remain active.

In the U.S., all this makes about as much sense as Roman dialect. According to U.S. wine writers, wine in the U.S. has the same amount of sulfites as in Italy. Sulfites have been around wine since the Roman Empire when they burned sulfur candles in empty wine containers to keep wine from turning to vinegar. It was used in the early 1900s to stop bacteria from growing. It’s also used to extract pigments to make red wine even redder.

According to Lisa Shea, who writes a wine blog called WineIntro, we wake up in Italy without headaches because we eat healthier food with the wine, drink more water with dinner and get more exercise, presumably from walking from wine bar to wine bar. In the U.S., the food isn’t as healthy, we drive everywhere instead of walk and often eat faster.

“All of these things combine to cause the wine to hit you with a much harder effect,” Shea writes.

As I now say in Italy, “CAZZO!” (BULLSHIT!)

I am far from a wine expert but I have a full-proof measuring stick: My head. I drank wine the same way in Denver as I do in Rome. I drink it with antipasti before dinner such as prosciutto and cheese and olives. I have it with pasta. I have it in wine bars late at night without even a cracker to accompany it. Yet in the U.S. wine has given me more headaches than all my ex-girlfriends combined. In Italy, I wake up every morning looking straight out at a bright sun.

Last night I probably drank the equivalent of two bottles of wine, including one of Rossi’s Cabernet Atina Doc. I woke bright eyed and reached for my eggs instead of my Excedrin. Then I remembered. I went back and looked at the label. The Cabernet Atina Doc is 15 percent Merlot.

You see? Even in Italy I’ll drink fucking Merlot.

29 thoughts on “Why do we get headaches drinking wine in the U.S. and not in Italy?

  1. We enjoyed a bottle of super Tuscan wine last night and it was absolutely the best! No headache either. I just looked at the bottle to see if there was a label listing the amount of sulfites. No! Did the vintner tell you how much or was your bottle labeled? I hate those wine headaches.

  2. Yeah. Me too- exactly the same. I have seen claims online that this difference is either imagined, or the result of my general tourist activity abroad, or whatever, but I don’t buy it for a minute. I can have an incredibly active day in the US full of walking and general happiness and a bottle of wine will not only put me on my ass, but the first half glass will deliver a heady back-of-the-neck sensation that is the first promise of what is in store tomorrow- not so in Italy; not at all. I have yet to encounter a satisfactory explanation.

    • Thanks for the kind, intelligent note. Yeah, the explanation baffles me, too. At my old Denver Post, we had a wine writer who wrote the same thing. He totally ignored the greater amount of sulphites and preservatives in American wine. Like you, lots of people drink wine in the U.S. without stress. Like you, they all get headaches. My only problem here in Italy is if I mix. One rule of thumb: Don’t finish a night with a Prosecco. That will kill you.,

  3. I have noticed the same. In most European countries, I drink wine and I feel fine. In the U.S. most of the wines, I drink actually make me sick. I’ve always wondered why and was never given a satisfactory answer. I’ve tried everything from eating while drinking wine, drinking lots of water before and afterward and walking home afterward. Nothing works with the majority of American wines. I always suspected it was additives and sulfites but was never able to find an article on this.

    • Well, now you have an explanation. Thanks for the note. Glad I could help. People in the American wine industry, including a totally corrupt wine writer at my old paper in Denver, claim the only reason you don’t get headaches in Europe is you’re on vacation and you’re relaxed. Come on! I’m relaxed when I drink wine in the U.S. So are you. That’s why we drink wine. All wines have preservatives and sulfites. They won’t last very long otherwise. It’s just that Americans put way too much in them. Even the imported wines have too much.

  4. This is absolutely true. I can’t even think about drinking a red wine in the US & majority of whites. Just got back from a Italy holiday & I drink both red & white with no headaches.

  5. So, is there an answer as to why? And it’s not just Drinking wine in Italy! I’ve found it to be true in France, Austria (surprisingly good wines from Wachau Valley) and elsewhere in Europe, so if it’s not the Merlot and it’s not the sulfites, not the food or walking, what is it?

    • It’s the sulfites. As I wrote: “Sulfite is the magic word here. It has caused more debates in wine bars than sports. A sulfite is the compound that helps preserve wine. In actuality, all wines need sulfites. What Rossi means is some wines add more sulfites and others do not. Gallinaro told me some of the bigger commercial wineries do most of the adding. That explains why I often compare drinking a bottle of Kendall Jackson with going three rounds with Manny Pacquiao.”

  6. You don’t discuss drinking Italian wines in the US. I find if I drink French or Italian wines here at home I’m fine but if I drink any wine made in the US I suffer.

    • I wrote that sulfites are the reason. Americans put more sulfites in their wine than Italians do. Also, the earth in Italy is more natural. They don’t need as many preservatives here. What bothers me most about American wines is the expense. I just got back from the Pacific Northwest and couldn’t find a glass of anything for less than $8. In Italy, wine is considered a grocery item.

  7. We just got back from 3 weeks in Italy. We knocked off a bottle or two of red (occasionally white) every night. I woke up the first morning subconsciously reaching for the headache tablets only to realize I didn’t need them. I didn’t need them the whole time we were away. When we got back to the USA the first bottle of Californian Cab Sav ($20 bottle) I drank I woke up with a beating headache. The same happened with other reds and we were back to only drinking on the weekends. I decided to test my apparent drinking headache by purchasing a few Italian reds from the local store. They weren’t as high quality as we were drinking in Alba but from the same region. NO HEADACHE!!!! I don’t mean to become an Italian wine snob but for the sake of my head I might have to be!!!

  8. This helps me tremendously. I thought I would have to give up on those bold red wines that I love because of the hangoverish feeling I would get from any more than 2 glasses. I am in Rome as I type and just polished off a bottle of red myself and I feel great! I’ve been on a tour of Italy for the last 12 days and I have not had one headache or hangover since I’m here.

    • When I’m drinking wine in Europe (Italy, Spain, France) I never get a headache! Back in the states I get headaches even after one glass of wine, produced ANYWHERE even outside the US (Italy, France, Spain). Is there a difference between European wine shipped to the US and the same wine sold on the continent?

  9. We were in Tuscany in 2010. Twelve of my friends and family spent two weeks cooking, dining and drinking several bottles of local wine. Especially Montepulciano which was just down the road from our villa. Not one headache! The wine was relatively cheep and extremely good. Just last week we spent two weeks in Corfu Greece and between four people drank at lease two liters a day of local wine. Not one headache. Yesterday I had one glass of red wine here in the US. I had a headache all night. I say CAZZO! I’ve heard all this BS before and my head knows better. It’s true wine here in the US is off my list of casual drinks. Too bad I do enjoy wine.

    • Great email, Jack! Thanks! I told our old food editor at The Denver Post we must fire our wine writer for saying we don’t get headaches in Italy because we’re in a better mood. VAFFAN …

  10. I have lived in California since 1968 with a two year sojourn in Hawaii, and have enjoyed some very good California wines over the years. However, within the last year or so, I found myself getting “drunk” after just a couple of glasses which was never the case in the past. Someone suggested it could be the sulphite in the California wine and suggested trying reasonably priced New Zealand wines . I made the switch and no longer experience the effect and, when in a restaurant, and the New Zealand wine is not available I switch to Italian. I happen to like Sauvignon Blanc which is my wine of choice.

  11. Thank you for the very informative post! But as an American, what are my options when wine shopping? What should I be looking for… A label that states the wine is made in Italy, and just avoid all American farmed and processed wines? I’m assuming these aren’t the wines I can buy at my local market. Even the health food markets carry predominantly American wines. For the past eight years I’ve had to forgo a glass, even at social events, due to the incredibly bad migraines I get by morning. I assumed it to be my body aging and being less receptive to alcohol… Never considered the additives to be the culprit! Though I do believe I’ve become more sensitive to them as I’ve gotten older, as the migraines grew increasingly stronger. Or was it that the additives have increased? Now you’ve really got me wondering! Can you suggest some wines (I prefer red) that I could purchase stateside? Sadly, a trip to Italy is not in my foreseeable future.

    Thank you!

    • Thanks for the kind note, Donna. I know a little about migraines after suffering from them as a kid (usually from lack of eating) and covering the Denver Broncos’ Terrell Davis (purely neurological) for The Denver Post. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not going old. The sulfites and preservatives in American wine are just too much. All the European wine makers talk about it. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice on what wines to recommend in the States. Even the imported wines have more sulfites and preservatives to help with exporting. If you can find an objective wine salesperson or a sommelier they might steer you in the right direction. But many say the sulfites/preservatives argument is BS. It’s not. Our wine columnist at my old Denver Post once said people get fewer headaches drinking wine in Europe because they’re more relaxed over here. Come on! If it’s any help, avoid American table wine. It’s usually the dregs of the last Merlot batch or something at the bottom of a barrel they’ve propped up to bottle. The biggest difference between Italian and American wines, I’ve found, isn’t in the expensive wines or even average wines you get at Italian wineries or wine tastings. It’s the cheap table wines. I can buy a half liter bottle of wine at my local pizzeria around the corner for 7 euros and it’ll be a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that would go for about $20 a bottle in the U.S. House wine in the U.S. often comes out of a box where it should stay. Good luck.

      John Henderson

  12. Love, love your blog. I’ve noticed that several wine stores in Texas are selling “organic” wines. Haven’t looked at the label to see the sulfite listing, but I assumed that “organic” meant no preservatives. I brought a bottle home from Spain last month to my wine club and it was crowned the best and no reports of next morning headaches. Just trying to decipher the labeling.
    Cathy Sunkel – a Texan longing for a return to Italy

  13. I too get a headache from US wine, but not from wine when I am in Europe. The same goes for beer. Today I was listening to a pod cast that was interviewing the owner of a place called Dry Farm Wines. Sounds very interesting. I placed an order for 6 bottles today and I will see if I get a headache from their wine. Here is a link to their website if anyone is interested.

    https://www.dryfarmwines.com

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