that way. Back before my near Handshake with the Grim Reaper, back in ’95, I could drink like a parched Bedouin and pop out of bed at 6:30, ready to spit ‘n’ cuss. Immediately after I got out of Overlake and had my very first two glasses of Cline Zinfandel, the Agony began and it continues to this day.
For me, working in the wine trade, this isn’t just something I can choose to avoid altogether. In 2007, when we owned our wine shop in Woodinville, I attended four trade tastings, one sunny-but-cold Monday, and tasted FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY-TWO wines. In one day. I spit all but two, which I just could not bring myself to waste, but even when you don’t swallow, you inevitably imbibe a trace. After that marathon, I had considerably more than a trace. As I stood in the men’s room at Cavatappi Distributors in Ballard, scrubbing at my purple tongue with a wet paper towel, like some surly, vertical Chow-dog, I felt it coming on.
In a previous post in this blog, I noted that I got headaches and didn’t know exactly why they happen. By some happy quirk of fate, a genuine medical professional, Bob Condon, read my little bloglet and sent me this email in response:
“Wine headaches are specific to both wines and individuals. The exact causes are not precisely known, but some broad brush statements can be made.
There are two main agents causing wine headaches: histamine1 (but not histamine2) and serotonin. Both are called congeners, and come from wine skins and the wood in barrels in minute amounts that are difficult to measure but biologically active because they interact with specific receptors.
We have receptors for histamine1 and serotonin on the vasculature of our brains, as well as elsewhere. When a specific congener links up with a histamine1 receptor, it causes dilation of blood vessels; flushed cheeks are one sign. But inside our head, a closed space, the increased volume of blood in the dilated vessels increases pressure and causes a headache. Histamine1 headaches are mostly related to red wines. You can prevent them by taking a non-sedating histamine1 blocker, such as claritin, before you drink the wine.
The congeners linking with serotonin receptors are usually associated with white wines, and cause blushing and sweating, sometimes profuse, that can be embarrassing. Headaches are less common, and less severe when they do occur. It can take only a few sips to set off serotonin related reactions. Unfortunately, there are no readily available good serotonin blockers, so you need to remember the wines that set off such reactions for you and avoid them. The presence of reactive congeners seems to be limited to individual batches of wines, so a reaction to a wine from one vintage is no predictor of reaction to another vintage, nor to the same wine made by another winery.
Try taking a non-sedating histamine1 blocker to see if it helps with your wine headaches.“
Having, uh, rather a LOT of wine in my possession and, happily, a handful of Claritin, I decided to test this out. A third of a bottle is usually enough to make my head ring like – exactly like – The Liberty Bell: cracked and dissonant. I shot a cap of Claritin, sat and had three glasses of a nice Spanish Mourvedre, read a book, and waited. In about 45 minutes – about the normal interval for my Descent Into The Bowels of Hell – I began to notice…nothing. No headache. Hey! No Headache! I waited another hour. Nada. Three hours later, I was still dandy and now deeply in love with Bob Condon, MD.
I was never allergic before moving to Washington in 1992. In North Carolina, I could have smoked while wearing a cat-hair sweater in a dust storm, lying on a bed of Scotch Broom, and walked away unscathed. (Have you ever heard of anyone being “scathed”? Me, neither.) Out here, I get the Two Dwarves Effect: Sneezy and Grumpy. It figures that my histamine receptors would seek out and mate, floozie-like, with every passing congener…or even the congener’s dumpy wing-man buddy. Drinking red wine and not paying the piper after was a revelation. It’s hard to even find the words to describe the euphoria. It was exactly like being let out of a small closet filled with sharp objects.
I’m not saying this will work for you – and neither is Bob. As he said, wines differ from vintage to vintage and from one bottle to the next. In my extreme case, all reds do it. So your problem might be different. I also correspond with a buddy of mine who became a noted Maryland immunologist and whose hobby is studying wine. He’s working on a possible source of allergic reaction to the tannic content of reds. The subject is far from closed but even having a chance at a solution is more than a lot of us ever expected to see.
For years, I advised my customers and friends to keep a log of which wines cause their headaches and avoid them, especially the whites, which cause far fewer problems. But I had no idea there might actually be a preventive. It just proves, I guess, that if you want actual information on something having to do with one’s anatomy, going to a trained medical professional makes a lot more sense than going to an artsy, crabby 50-something ex-actor who thinks “persistent cloaca” has something to do with door-to-door sales.