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.