There’s something horrifying about our standard reaction to a food label reading “Contains X” being “Is X bad?” That appears to be the standard reaction to sulfite labeling on wines: they had to tell me it’s there, so it must be bad for me. But it would be unfair of me to harp too much on snap judgments when I feel so much instant distrust toward Üllo just because they brand themselves with this horribly stereotyped photo of four young, attractive entrepreneurs smiling broadly at each other over their glasses.
Üllo promises to take any wine that comes with a “contains sulfites” label and turn it into a kinder, gentler, sulfite-free beverage. (Pardon the irony, but I’m still getting over that photo, and their name.) Just to cover my bases, once again, if you react to sulfites, you react to a lot of foods other than wine, you’re probably a severe asthmatic, and you’ll know. There’s nothing wrong with a tool to remove sulfites per se, but it contributes to this whole myth of their being a good reason why the Ordinary Wine Consumer would want to.
The scientific principle at work here is simple, and Üllo is a miniature version of a tool chemists and biochemists use often. In a complex mixture of many different molecules, some molecules will be selectively attracted to each other on account of unique properties related to their electric charge, shape, and atomic composition. If you want to remove one specific molecule or type of molecule from a mixture, you can pour the mixture through a resin loaded with another molecule that attracts it. Your Favorite Molecule (YFM; or least favorite, if we’re talking about sulfites) will remain trapped in the resin while everything else in the mix falls right through.*
What the Üllo folk did was come up with a “food grade polymer” that uses this principle to trap sulfites and put it in this thingamajig that you can sit over your wine glass. Once all of the polymer molecules are loaded up with sulfite molecules they can’t bind to any more, which is why the little filter that sits in the Üllo cup is disposable. They probably needed to do a lot of tinkering to find precisely the right polymer, so kudos to them on that account.
There are two problems with this simple idea. The first is that it’s not perfect. Some of YFM will always miss being bound up and fall through. Üllo marketing deals with that by talking about “returning” wine to it’s “natural” state, and since yeast naturally produce some sulfites, that leaves them about 10 ppm (parts per million) wiggle room. If you’re one of those rare few with a bona fide sulfite problem, that probably isn’t enough to set you off, though individuals’ sensitivities vary.
The second problem is the converse of the first. Inevitably, some stuff other than the target molecule gets stuck on its way through the filter. Üllo is trying to turn this bug into a feature by noting that you’ll remove unwanted sediment as well as sulfites, though I’d hazard that very few people in the target audience for this product are drinking wines with unpleasant sediments in the first place. I’ve not tried Üllo, so I don’t know how wine tastes after being poured through, nor what besides the sulfites changes in its molecular profile. But no matter how good a job those smiling entrepreneurs did with their chemistry, the wine will sustain some collateral damage. Again, probably not a problem if you’re drinking a commercial wine product to have something to hold at a party, but an altogether different issue if you’re expecting to savor the winemaker-crafted nuance of something special.
Üllo is a clever idea: simple, obvious, the kind of thing that makes you wonder why no one’s thought of it before. It might be a great tool for the gluten-avoiding Yellow Tail-sipping crowd that will feel better knowing their wine is virtually sulfite-free. It may even be a real help to some of those very few people who want to drink sulfite-containing wine but can’t breathe when they do. My problem with it is precisely the same as with gluten-free products. Most people don’t need them. Some of those folk are fooled into thinking gluten-free products are healthier anyway (even though they’re often lower in fiber and sometimes higher in fat and sugar). And while some of them are fantastic, most aren’t, and you’re usually losing something else along the way.
*The point of this exercise is often that you want to recapture a purified version of Your Favorite Molecule (YFM), so separation columns are often designed to be reversible: if you pour a solution of something that binds to the resin even better than YFM, YFM will fall off and come out the other side. When I spent time in a biochem lab working on HIV proteins, we used this technique to isolate specific viral proteins so that we could subject them to more testing.
April 2017: I’m no longer accepting comments on this post after an ongoing deluge (relatively speaking, I know) of comments on this post telling me that I’m not taking individual’s symptoms seriously. Please note that I’m not telling anyone that their symptoms aren’t real or that they shouldn’t do things that make them feel better. I am saying (in addition to observing the clever chemical principle at work here) is that the best evidence we have at present suggests that sulfite allergies are very rare, and that this product preys on the same notions at the heart of the gluten-free craze: that a molecule which causes a very few people extreme harm is also somehow something the rest of us should fear.