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Winemakers, Watch out for Wasps!

Most winemakers are looking for a very specific reaction to their wine -- somewhere between an "aaah" and a "wow!" Which is another way of saying that I'll bet most of them would want to avoid a reaction called Wine-Induced Anaphylaxis and Sensitization to Hymenoptera Venom. Unfortunately, this problem seems like it may be hard to avoid.

You see, apparently some people in Spain have been admitted to the hospital with severe allergic reactions to wine, or so they thought. Instead of being allergic to wine, however, these folks seem to be having reactions to trace amounts of wasp venom contained in the wine or grape juice they drank.

Wasp venom in wine? Sounds like a homeopathic energy drink, doesn't it? Or a really evil cocktail that some Indiana Jones villain would order in a Bulgarian tavern.

The problem here will be immediately apparent to anyone who's ever been around a winery crushpad in mid-harvest. For those who haven't seen such an operation let me paint a picture: huge bins of grapes being dumped into crusher-destemmers or into tanks, and above all the crushed fruit, a lot of sweaty, exhausted winery workers, and inevitably some swarming, dive-bombing yellow jackets, wasps, and other creatures who are out for a free lunch.

It seems nearly impossible to keep bugs out of the wine. I may be the one to have to break this to you, but you've been drinking wine that had bugs in it your whole life.

Say what?!?

Let me explain. You've heard of "the lees" right? I use the term here on Vinography sometimes. It refers to all the sediment that falls to the bottom of tanks or barrels as wines ferment and age. Well in addition to skins, stems, and yeast, there's also likely some "bug" in there too. It sounds gross, but it's actually pretty innocuous. All of this type of sediment is removed from the wine with procedures like racking, in which the clear wine is carefully poured off this settled muck at the bottom of the barrel, or fining, in which a substance (like egg whites) is added to the wine which grabs particles of stuff as it settles to the bottom. And then there's sterile filtration, which presumably also does the trick

But I suppose if the venom is just a chemical that binds with the other chemicals in the liquid of the wine, no amount of racking or filtration is going to get it out. So does this mean that some people will have to start carrying bottles of serum so they can squeeze a few drops in their glass before taking a sip? Or are we now going to have to arm all our sommeliers with Epi pens and train them in administering adrenaline injections as well as the Heimlich maneuver?

I don't mean to make light of the unfortunate fate that some folks seem to be suffering from their reactions (having seen someone in anaphylactic shock, it ain't no picnic), but it seems like a nearly impossible problem to solve unless someone figures out a treatment for the wine that neutralizes the venom. Organic chemists, sharpen your pencils!

Read the full story.

Comments (14)

Mike Appleton wrote:
08.16.07 at 7:33 PM

and I thought I'd heard it all! Very interesting Alder

doug wrote:
08.16.07 at 8:42 PM

yes, very interesting - hate yellow jackets, hate, hate, hate!

Homer S. wrote:
08.16.07 at 9:16 PM

...mmm, Yellow Jackets. I see, I see, ah, a new warning label on US wine bottles. But for me, a tasty treat!

Arthur wrote:
08.17.07 at 9:19 AM

That is a very interesting situation, from a point of view of a physician and wine writer.

I suppose the alcohol in the wine extracts and retains the venom as much as it helps extract and retain resveratrol.

I wonder if all those wine allergies we see here in the US are allergies to hymenoptera venom. People also can have pretty severe yeast allergies. Perhaps the allergies in wine are also be traced to yeast?

This also goes back to issues of fining agents in wine but I am not sure if isinglass has a cross over reaction in people allergic to fish or seafood.

Alder wrote:
08.17.07 at 9:30 AM


The same idea crossed my mind, but I believe that the number of people who have allergies to bees and wasps is quite small isn't it? Versus the number of people I meet anecdotally that claim some allergic reaction to wine.

Also, if all these "wine allergies" were really anaphylaxis due to a venom allergy, I would think that we would have had enough serious cases of severe reactions that there would be some knowledge of such things, let alone some public outcry or regulations.

But this is all just speculation on my part.

Alder wrote:
08.17.07 at 9:34 AM

P.S. When I researched the controversy on the proposed legislation about putting the warning labels "contains eggs, contains animal products" on wine I believe I read several reports claiming that there had never been a single reported case of an allergic reaction to wine treated with isenglass.

nrcvino wrote:
08.17.07 at 10:29 AM

From what i understand of allergic reactions, they are basically a reaction to specific proteins or enzymes, (anyone feel free to correct me on that...) And I know that proteins are denatured in wine, but it is not an immediate process, and depends on the type of protein and composition of the wine. (That is why you don't have people reacting to the egg white that is often used to fine red wines; proteins react with tannins and drop out of solution.)

It does state that this was young wine, or juice, perhaps it is more likely in that form? Or perhaps they were really reacting to histamine, or other biogenic amines, which are very present in red wine, particularly wine with high pH, such as in Spain and California, and which pose a real health risk to some people, which has led to regulation and suggested regulations by some countries.

Anyone have insight as to the nature of wasp venom, and potential stability in a high acid, high alcohol, high phenol, low pH environment? How many wasps/litre are we talking about to get a reaction?

Alder wrote:
08.17.07 at 6:40 PM

I've been contacted by several winemakers who wish to remain anonymous, explaining some finer points of this problem. Hand sorting every cluster of grapes when they get to the winery gives an opportunity for yellowjackets and other flying insects to get out, but most huge winery operations don't do such things. Also, by quickly removing the pomace (the empty grape skins left after pressing) apparently you can keep bugs down to a minimum.

Apart from yellowjackets and other wasps, apparently in some places black widow spiders are also a problem. One of these winemakers says he regularly removes several black widows from each ton of fruit.

Youch !!!

Apparently dry ice (used to keep grapes cool and to do cold soaks) tends to shoo away the insects who don't like the C02.

Benito wrote:
08.17.07 at 8:54 PM

When I first saw this title, I thought it had something to do with those Peter Mayle /Provence stories about the mean little wasps that would sting you in the armpit while standing around drinking pastis and playing boules.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
08.18.07 at 10:55 AM

It is an inescapeable fact that bugs end up in fermentors. No amount of chilling or sorting will prevent it. I know of one winery that has a powerful vacuum on thier sorting table to help remedy this but nonetheless, most wine has had some bugs in it. I would however like to outline the positive aspects of this...
Early in may winemaking career I worked at a large winery that practiced not so 'soft' conventional farming. The fruit we received had few if any bugs in it, though at the time I thought this was normal. Later I worked with fruit from organic and sustainable vineyards and let me tell you there are thousands of earwigs and lady bugs per ton of fruit. Many escape during cold soaking and early part of fermentation, but not all. So the positive side of having bugs in the fruit is that you have bugs in your vineyard suggesting a more 'intact' ecosystem. It reminds me of a restaurant I worked in that used organic green. Occaisonally someone would find a prying mantis or something in thier salad. The servers were trained to tell the guests that the bugs are there because the greens were organically grown and gently washed and that sometimes this happens. It is the result of trying to put out the best salad possible ( or course we gave them another salad, if they could bring themselves to eat it). Bugs in your wine is similiar; it may not sound appetizing but it does say alot about the way the fruit is grown and the intentions of the producer.

08.20.07 at 1:00 PM

I personally think these bugs add to the charm of hand-crafted wines.

My favourite is these guys, which seem to be all over the Zinfandel grapes we get from Dry Creek Valley:


Alder wrote:
08.22.07 at 8:48 AM

And apparently there are other bugs which can cause problems too: http://www.decanter.com/news/138438.html

David Vergari wrote:
08.24.07 at 1:37 PM

Dear Alder,
I'm late getting to this post. Jeez, this story really activates my "urban legend" detector. Thanks.

celeste wrote:
04.14.10 at 1:00 PM

This is indeed bad news for me! I am severely allergic to yellow jackets and wasps. I'm even starting to re-think my plans to visit some wineries in Italy when I go next week.

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