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08.16.2007

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!

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