I’ve wrestled with this one for a long time.

I’m about 95 percent from the school of thought, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The other five percent of me shows that I’ve not completely mastered this one, yet. Alas, I’m still human, and sometimes don’t always carefully measure my words. I’m working on it, though.

(I’ve also learned… people who write novels are the ones who have a way of dealing with characters in their lives who have been less than favorable to them. It’s a lot more fun to get even with someone, than it is to become angry.)

Meanwhile… This has just been nagging at me for a long time, and I just woke up with the reality of this one. What I’m about to write may save a life, if someone else is like me and allergic to fish.

DISCLAIMER: All of this is relevant to me personally, and may not affect anyone else the same way. Still, I’m not sure that I’m an “only” example, so I feel like this might help someone else who is also allergic to fish.

I’m very sensitive about what I eat. I have to be. With food allergies, it can be life threatening. Benadryl needs to be in my home and pocketbook at all times. I’ve already had two anaphylatic reactions, both when I was enjoying wine.

I told one wine writer about what had happened to me, the first time it happened, and I told him the name of the wine. He was shocked and wondered if there were other instances. That’s something I have no way of knowing. I just know my own reaction. As a former journalist, he felt the need to spread the word. I actually really didn’t want him to at the time, and he didn’t have other instances, so we both let it go.

When my second incident happened, I realized that something was really going on between certain wines and my body.

The two wines: their stories and their reactions

Two Buck Chuck: Everyone was talking about the Charles Shaw wine when it first came out. At $2.00 a bottle, it was a good way to take advantage of the wine glut at the time, and the wine was selling like hotcakes through Trader Joe’s. I finally gave in and bought a bottle. This inquiring mind wanted to know. I tried it, and found that the flavor was pretty homogeneous… a typical bulk wine, so I could see why people looking for a really inexpensive bottle of wine were being driven to it in droves.

The next morning…

I woke up with my eyes so puffy that I could barely open them. That reaction lasted for a day. I thought about what might have caused it… Had prepared my own dinner the night before with everything I can (and do) safely eat, which is most foods. I’m deathly allergic to fish, so that doesn’t ever get cooked in my house. Everything else, I’m pretty much okay with. I just avoid fish like the plague. Meanwhile, “It wasn’t fish, so what could it be?” I wondered. I talked to a winemaker friend, and he said that it could be copper sulfates, which are sometimes used to stabilize wine of questionable quality. Heck, a $2.00 bottle of wine might not be the same as one that has been handcrafted from harvest to fermenting to aging… Who would argue with that?

So, copper sulfates… I kept that one in mind, and avoided Two Buck Chuck, as you can only imagine. I was safe for many more years. I also was avoiding all really inexpensive wines, as I didn’t want that to ever happen again to me.

Black Box Chardonnay: Many years later, I was visiting my daughter Katie. I had already turned her onto the glories of having a box of chilled white wine in her fridge. Ah… the joys; chilled white wine, made really affordable, and readily available… A tiny tap in our own homes. I had worked with Underdog Wine Imports in their first year of launching, and learned to really enjoy the concepts and their boxed wines. All had gone pretty well. I had nothing to fear, yet; so when Katie offered me a glass of wine, I happily went for it. I had just crossed the United States to be with her and her small family, and I was ready to toast our visit.

The next morning…

I awoke and – like we all do – I opened my eyes… The bottom half of my range of vision was obstructed… by my cheeks! They had risen so high that I could only HALF see everything. If you want to know what that’s like, take your hands, make them flat (right and left hand fingers pointing at each other), then bring them up to the middle of your eyes, and look out over them. That’s all I was able to see, with the bottom half being non existent.

“What the heck is going on?” I thought.

I ran to a mirror and saw a woman looking back at me that seemed to have elephantitis of the face. Oh my God… What the heck?

Okay, the bad news was that I had had a terrible reaction. The good news was that all of my wrinkles in my face had miraculously disappeared. I was ready to take my wrinkles back ASAP, but that wasn’t to be for the next four days… So, my entire visit with my daughter and her family had Nana looking like an idiot.

I knew what was the cause, because Katie had home cooked whole foods; and there was no fish… no fish sauce… no copper sulfates. The only thing different was a wine brand I had never had before.

I knew that now I had had two wine experiences that were the same; although, it was getting far worse, and much more severe. At the time, I didn’t even realize how bad of a reaction it was. I just patiently waited for my swelling to go down… which happened just before I flew back to California. (I drank no more wine during that visit, because I didn’t know if it would be touched off again by ANY wine.)

Once I took time to study it thoroughly, I realized that it’s time for Benadryl to be in my house and pocketbook, because maybe I wouldn’t be so lucky the next time. Each one of these sessions is supposed to get worse, with the eventuality of a throat closing because the victim has an obstructed airway.

Fast forward to Portugal

Being in the “land of fish,” I had a lot to dodge, but did really well. It was hard for others, though, because Portugal is defined by their fish dishes. Just look at a map of the country. It’s a long, lean rectangle, bordered by water on two of its four sides. Most of Portugal isn’t even 140 miles wide. The Portuguese are famous for fish, with Portuguese fisherman having immigrated to the Americas, bring their knowledge for fishing with them. And, there I was; brought to the finest of restaurants, so I could write home about their fabulous uses of the freshest fish on the planet. From their waters, into a basket of fresh fish, onto your dinner plate. It’s a typical offering, and an amazing presentation.

At each lunch or dinner, people would check with me, just to be certain that my aversion to fish wasn’t in my imagination. After all, I grew up in a Catholic household, and every Friday was fish day. My father enjoyed force feeding me. Gagging was always his easy opportunity to put more into my mouth, with no coaxing for that bite. Maybe that was my mental block. I was coming very close to trying, because everywhere I went, the restaurants were so proud of their dishes. Maybe I was missing out. I was that close.

The food and wine gathering

At this event, I met a very prestigious winemaker. He was actually a professor of winemaking, for many years. Imagine a professor and head of the enology department at UC Davis, and you get his credential. As a fish appetizer was passed, and I said no thank you, I felt compelled to tell the winemaker why I was passing… that “I’m allergic to fish, and sometimes pistachios can give me an instantaneous UTI…” but not an anaphylatic reaction (different foods equals different reactions).

I told him about my two instances with wines, also. That’s when he told me… “Fish can sometimes be used to stabilize wine.” Oh, boy… That did it… From Barnivore (Your vegan wine and beer guide):

When filtering the drinks prior to bottling, companies can use things like isinglass (from fish bladder,) gelatin, egg whites, and sea shells, among other things. These products grab onto the impurities and make it easier to catch them in the filters, though there are many animal-free alternatives in use.

These ingredients don’t usually show up on the label, so the only way to find out is to ask.

I’ve had two negative reactions, and I avoid these two wines like the plague now. Even if I asked, and these two brands were to tell me that they don’t use fish products, I can’t even go there again. I can’t risk it. It’s entirely possible that I’ll find this filtering agent again in some wine, so I’m prepared… period.

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