April 6, 2016
Let's start with a few quick facts about sulfites:
The sulfite found in wine is sulfur dioxide (SO2). It is a natural byproduct of fermentation, but most vintners add some more to protect the wine from oxidation and bacteria. It is essentially harmless; it is not the cause for headache, and less than 1% of the population has any allergic reaction to it.
Every bottle of wine that has more than 10 ppm (parts per million) of sulfites sold in the United States has to carry this statement: "CONTAINS SULFITES"; I am guessing that's over 99% of all wines. It has to be printed in capital letters, and the letters have to be at least 2 millimeters high at no more than 25 characters per inch - a nice blend of metric and imperial measurements.
The legal limit for sulfites in wine is 350 ppm, but most wines are in the 20 to 50 ppm range. By comparison packaged meat and prepared soups contain around 500 ppm, french fries over 900 ppm, dried fruit over 3,000 ppm. So why do none of these items carry any ''warnings'' about sulfites?
Well, enter American politics. In the early 1970 a group of ''neo-prohibitionists'' wanted winemakers to list all the ingredients in their wines in order to deter consumption; they fought for their cause in Congress and the courts, but lost every time. Finally they found an ally in Strom Thurmond, the controversial long term Senator from South Carolina, who was as much an enemy of alcohol as he was of racial integration (see sidebar). He managed to get Congress to pass the law mandating the ''CONTAINS SULFITES'' statement in 1987, which was really not intended as information, but to scare people away from wine.
As best as I can determine the USA and Australia (''Contains SO2'') are the only countries requiring a mention of sulfites in wine labels.
The ''CONTAINS SULFITES'' labeling mandate is a bizarre byproduct of American politics, but without a doubt a lot less bizarre than the current presidential race.
James Strom Thurmond (1902–2003) served 48 years as a Senator from South Carolina, first as a Democrat (1954-1964) and then as a Republican (1965-2003).
He is the only member of Congress to reach the age of 100 years while still serving, and he has the third longest career in Congress.
He was a very controversial man. He opposed the civil rights act of 1957 and conducted a 24 hour filibuster against it. He fought against any legislation to end segregation and against the right to vote for African-Americans.
After his death it was revealed that he had a daughter by a black woman who had worked in his family's home; he was 22 years old at the time, and she was 16. Eventually the daughter was recognized by the family and her name was added to his memorial in Columbia, SC, as one of his children.
(To the best of my knowledge the image of Strom Thurmond is in the public domain.)