Allergic To the Sulfites In Wine? This Edgewater Chemist Has A Solution

By John Lenart in Food on Aug 19, 2015 6:34PM

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Image via Üllo

It breaks my heart when I open a bottle of wine and offer it to a friend and they respond, “Oh, no thanks, I have a sulfite allergy.”

Sulfites occur naturally in wine as part of the wine-making process. They are often added to wine to halt fermentation and act as a preservative to help wine age. Without sulfites, wines would quickly spoil. Unfortunately, about one percent of people are either sensitive or allergic to sulfites. Sulfite allergies most commonly affect people suffering from asthma. About five to ten percent of people with asthma also have a sulfite allergy.

Symptoms of a sulfite allergy reaction can include hives, dizziness, trouble breathing and in rare cases even death.

It can be serious stuff. People who are sensitive or allergic to sulfites have to avoid drinking wine. Can you imagine life without wine? Well, the thought of it was just too much for one chemist living in Edgewater. James Kornacki is the Chief Wine Revolutionary of the startup Üllo. While earning his PhD in chemistry from Northwestern, Kornacki studied chemical compounds found in red wine and the chemistry of wine.

“That understanding of the chemistry of wine led to an in depth understanding of sulfites,” says Kornacki. “I had an aunt who is sulfite sensitive and I found out later that I have a sensitivity to sulfites, I discovered that I'm sensitive to them not from wine, but from hard cider, which can be higher in sulfites than wine.”

Not being able to bear a life without wine, Kornacki invented Üllo, a filter that removes sulfites from wine.

Now, there are a lot of wine "accessories" out there and quite frankly, many of them aren't much more than snake oil. I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to wine gadgets. So when presented with Üllo I was intrigued and came at it with a bit of a skeptical eye.

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The inner workings of Üllo. Image via Üllo
Here's how it works. You pour your wine through the Üllo filter, inside of which is a disposable pod containing a granular food-grade polymer.

"What we've done is modified the surface chemistry so that it's selective to sulfites. In the presence of wine, sulfites will actually form a covalent bond, so they'll literally stick to it like a magnet. But it's inert to everything else. So everything else will just flow right past it,” says Kornacki.

Voila, sulfite-free wine.

OK, so obviously you want to know how it affects the flavor of the wine. I did a tasting of the same wine, poured from the bottle and poured through the Üllo filter. The wine was a 2013 Russian River Valley L'Oliveto chardonnay (about $20 per bottle). White wine was intentionally chosen because white wine tends to be higher in sulfites, according to Kornacki.

The glass poured directly from the bottle tended to be brighter with higher apparent acidity. The glass poured through the Üllo filter, while having the same fruit and secondary flavors felt rounder, almost lower in acid, a bit flabbier. It was as if someone had taken sandpaper and smoothed off the edges of the wine. It wasn't bad by any means, only a bit softer. “In the two years I spent developing the chemistry for it, I didn't want it to change the taste of wine at all. Sulfites are a minor contributor to wine's overall flavor,” says Kornacki.

When I told Kornacki my thoughts about how the wine's flavor did change he responded, “That's absolutely consistent with what we've heard. We've measured acidity, volatile acidity, and they don't change. However, I'll tell you that sulfites are not the sulfury taste you might expect, but they are a very bitter, harsh and pronounced sharp chemical taste. So the sharpness from the sulfites gives wine that bite that makes the acid seem a little more present.”

My final determination is, while I have no need to personally use Üllo, given that I'm neither sensitive nor allergic to sulfites, if it was a choice between no wine and wine through the Üllo filter, I'd gleefully choose the later.

Üllo is designed so that you can use it as an aerator as well. Should you not want to aerate your wine this function can be turned off. Each disposable filter is good for one bottle and while final cost has yet to be determined, Kornacki tells me he intends to keep the filter price “below two dollars per bottle.” Kornacki partnered with MINIMAL, a Chicago-based design firm, to design the product. Part of the design process was to ensure that Üllo would fit a wide array of wine glasses and decanters.

The plan is for Üllo to hit the market in February of 2016 and it is currently being crowd-funded on Kickstarter. The campaign ends Thursday.