Conquering the Red Wine Headache

I did it! I did it!

Sort of. Read on.

Three years ago when I was in New York City, I’d drank two glasses of an indeterminate red wine at a publisher’s party. After the party, I felt kind of “off.” Nauseated. Maybe a little headachy. Just not well.

I didn’t fathom there was a connection between my malaise and the wine. I had never heard of such a thing. It was the last night of my stay in New York, so I didn’t drink any more wine until I returned home.

Bad! No! Ouch!

The following Wednesday night, I met a friend for an Italian dinner. I was walking home, so I indulged. Over the course of almost 3 hours, we drank a bottle of red Bogle wine. It was a Cabernet Sauvignon, which was my favorite of that particular label. (My favorite overall wine, however, was a Bordeaux called Château Mayne Guyon. I could take that to fancy dinner parties and it would be gone in 2 seconds.) My friend was a bigger drinker than I was, so my share was not even half the bottle. Again, I felt “off.” This time, I attributed my illness to the rich pasta dinner.

I woke up in the middle of the night nauseated and with my head splitting. I thought, “You drank too much, dammit!” Annoyed with myself, I got up in the dark and groped my way to the kitchen for some water so I could take Advil. But when I opened the refrigerator, my eyes blurred with this crazy halo of light. It wasn’t just bright. It was as if my pupils wouldn’t dilate. The light seared my eyes, leaving a furry cloud in my sight. All the symptoms of a migraine. The craziest part was that I didn’t have a hangover in the morning…

I jumped on Google and started madly searching for the answer to my problem. That’s when I read about “red wine headache.” I mentioned it on Facebook, and got many sympathetic responses. It drove me fucking insane whenever anyone asked me what the problem was. “Is it the sulfites? Or the tannins? Or…?” HOW THE FUCK SHOULD I KNOW? I ate and drank many other things with tannins and sulfites without problem. It made no sense on any level. I loathed the question, as innocent as it was.

Red wine had been a big part of my life for the last 5 years. Not being able to drink it felt like a huge loss. Experimenting to solve the problem was too physically painful. So, I gave up.

For the next three years, I drank almost no red wine at all. I went to a fancy wine bar with a friend, and when I told the bar owner about my problem, she recommended a spectacular glass of red wine that started twisting its corkscrew in my temple before I had even finished it. I tried drinking my Château Mayne Guyon with an antihistamine because I’d heard that maybe my problem was due to a sulfite allergy, but that did nothing to abate the fire-breathing aliens behind eyes.

Manhattans: My Forever Drink

I stayed clear away, buying red wine only for housewarming gifts. I drank dark beer, sparkling wine and champagne, as well as lots of cocktails. I learned a lot about whiskey, tequila, and the wonderful layered flavors in a well-mixed drink. It kindled a love triangle with the gin martini and Manhattan that will never die.

But then the other night, I started craving red wine like never before. In my tiny wine rack sat a random Italian wine I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s called Barbaresco, which was specifically for bringing to parties. I’d bought it based on the flavor description, figuring if I’d have liked it, others would, too. I thought, “I’ll just have a little bit and see how it goes,” knowing full well it would probably go very badly.


I drank about 4 oz. without ill effect as I ate a piece of dark chocolate. The next night, I drank a little more but in stages. No problem. By the third night, I had worked my way well into the bottle and was not having any problems.

I rekindled my research and read about red wine headache on Wikipedia. That’s when I saw this under “Tannins”:

Certain wine styles have much less tannin content than others, due to reduced maceration time (grape juice contact with the grape pulp, including sources of tannin such as stems, seeds). Grape varieties like Pinot noir, Sangiovese, Gamay (Beaujolais), Tempranillo, and the Italian grapes Dolcetto and Barbera, are less tannic. Also, grapes grown in certain wine regions are less tannic, like French reds from Burgundy, and Spanish wine regions like Spanish Riojas.

Barbera. The Barbaresco I’d been drinking was a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) appellation.

That was the problem. Tannins. Specifically, grape tannins, which are different from chocolate and tea tannins.

I went to BevMo and spoke with the wine guy. He said that the tannin amount changes depending on the region. Just because something is, say, a pinot noir doesn’t mean it has low enough tannins to prevent a headache. He recommended the Castle Rock Pinot Noir Reserve from Santa Barbara, which was has been amazing. I also picked up a Barbera Italian wine. He said that would work, too.

(For the record, I first went to Trader Joe’s to pick up another bottle of the Barbaresco, but even at 2:30 p.m., the parking lot was jammed with honking, shrieking, venom-spitting, SUV-driving she-goblins. I couldn’t find a parking place. In the afternoon. On a weekday. This was the second time this had happened in two weeks. So, I left and went to BevMo.)

I can’t just order a red wine off the menu and drink it without worrying that it’s too heavy in tannins, but I can experiment more confidently. This is huge. Red wine has so many health benefits that liquor and beer simply don’t. It’s the magic ingredient in meals and a far less fattening way to mellow out.

Also? Three words: dark chocolate pairing. Yes, you can do it with liquor, but this is far better.

As I find more red wines low in tannins, I’ll report back.


2 thoughts on “Conquering the Red Wine Headache

  1. I have the same issue. I just gave up and switched to white, which I generally prefer. My husband prefers reds though, so maybe now we find something that works for both of us. Thanks for posting this, it was really helpful!

    (The Trader Joe’s parking lot is the same where I live too, at any hour of operation.)

    • Hi! I apologize for the 3-year delayed response, but I hope your husband found some low-tannin reds that worked for him and that you like, too. I’ve found I can also tolerate grenache and beaujolais, although I’m not as fond of them. I also found that, over time, pinot noirs of every shade are now pretty much okay. Maybe I’ve built up a little more tolerance, although I’m not willing to test that with other wines yet.

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