Could oak be the culprit behind wine headaches?

Wine is the consummate social beverage. The easy conversational flow it so effortlessly inspires is an essential component of the wine experience. So I particularly appreciate those of you who take the time and trouble to write.

There have been many thoughtful e-mails in recent months on a variety of topics sprung from my weekly columns.

Bob and Mary C. shared some thoughts on the domestic wine/headache conundrum. In their view, oak may be the culprit:

"This winter you answered a query from a reader whose wife had wine headaches with domestic wines but who found her problem nonexistent when traveling to Europe. My wine problem, consisting of a pounding heart at a rapid pace (tachycardia), sweating, bad dreams and restless sleep following wine at dinner began shortly before I turned age 50. I tried non-sulfite wines and organic wines without any improvement in my symptoms. But like the reader who queried you this winter, I had less trouble in Europe. There, I found that I could drink white wines mostly without difficulty, and even some red wines.

"A few years ago, at a wine store in St. Helena, I told my story and got an 'aha' response from one of the clerks. She told me that the culprit was oak, either oak tannin or some other constituent in the oak. She went on to explain the Europe factor. Most of the Sancerre, Chablis, and pinot grigio wines I drank in Europe, she said, were unoaked. Many European winemakers use stainless, cement or chestnut tanks for their wines, though almost all California winemakers add oak to their wines, one way or another.

"Following that conversation I investigated oak further, finding that headaches and other symptoms may be driven by oak, rather than sulfites. In the past two years I have been pleased to see certain New Zealand and Australian winemakers labeling their bottles 'unwooded' or 'unoaked.' I would suggest that anyone having uncomfortable symptoms following drinking of both red and white wine might try a few unwooded wines to see if their uncomfortable reaction abates.

"I continue to drink wine in Europe, mostly inexpensive whites, without a problem. I now drink domestic wine (mostly whites) at home after carefully researching how it was made. My list of reds is not long (no domestic reds), but Beaujolais nouveau is a perennial favorite, as are some of the Rhône reds and some rosés."

Comment: It sounds as if you have found the culprit in your case, and you will certainly find a wide range of white wines from all over the world that don't need or want oak aging. Try some of the dry rieslings from the Pfalz, for example, for some wonderful, food-friendly white wines that are pure fruit.

Lest we all point the finger at oak, however, let me share another point of view on the same topic of wine and headaches, this from another reader.

"It appears that I have a sensitivity to 'cheap wine,' which causes me severe headaches if I drink even a single glass. I was informed that this is caused by the residual fusel oil, a formaldehyde derivative created during the fermentation process. I worked in a cheap-wine winery in the Fresno area a number of years ago, and noted that the fermentation process and storage was done in either stainless steel or glass-lined tanks. In high-class wineries, the wine is stored in oak casks, which allows the fusel to pass through the relatively porous oak wood and be dissipated. I can drink wine that is properly oak-stored all day without a headache. I bring this up because of the appearance on the shelves of 'two-buck Chuck,' as it is called. This is a classic example of cheap wine produced in the least expensive manner. A glass of the 'McWine' practically knocks me out within an hour or two. Any comments?"

Comment: Actually, the inexpensive wines being sold under proprietary labels such as Charles Shaw (two-buck Chuck) are sourced from a wide variety of suppliers, and may not have started out life intended to be ultra-cheap table wines. With the worldwide wine glut forcing down prices, there are more soundly made wines selling for under $5 today than at any time in the past 15 years.

As for your fusel oil theory, such impurities are much more commonly the by-products of distillation rather than fermentation. They are indeed known to cause hangovers. However, as the previous reader points out, stainless steel and other neutral fermentation and storage tanks are used in the making of many superb wines worldwide. They do not, in and of themselves, indicate that a wine is cheap or poorly made.

Finally, Marieca D. writes:

"I have an old edition of your "Northwest Wines" book. I have referred to it often and find it very informative and useful. The only problem is that it now seems to be outdated, with all the new wineries and recent releases. Do you know where I can pick up a more recent copy here locally or where I can order one?"

Comment: Thanks for the kind words. The book went through two editions, but has not been updated since 1996 and is now out of print. I hope it will remain a useful snapshot of a particular window of time in the development of the Pacific Northwest wine industry. A new and completely different book is in the works, but still a long way from the finish line.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at