This is a question that I am often asked when serving wine in the tasting room. There are times when I have had several glasses through the course of an evening and felt absolutely great, and there are times when I have had one glass and felt less than great. The answer is obviously more complicated than the amount consumed.
Many people tell me they think it's the sulfites in wine, particularly red wines, that give them headaches. I guess people make that correlation because 99% of all wines state on the label, "Contains sulfites". The reality is that sulfites exist naturally on the skins of grapes and are produced through the process of fermentation. It is virtually impossible to produce a wine that is totally sulfite free. The problem with the red wine sulfite theory is that white wines generally have a lot more sulfites than red wines. In addition, there are more sulfites found in cheeses, beer, french fries and dried fruits.
Another theory is that the tannin in red wines can give you headaches. Tannin is an acid found in the skins and seeds of grapes that leave your palate with a sense of astringency and give wine texture and structure. I am not aware of scientific proof that tannin is difficult for the body to metabolize. The cold climate varietals used at Vines & Rushes typically have a chemistry that has often half the tannins of our California and European red wine counterparts.
The most likely culprit is the histamines that are contained in the skins of red grapes. These can be anywhere from 20 to 200 percent more than in white wines. If you have a sensitivity to histamines you may be more prone to get a headache. One suggestion I have heard of is to take something like Allegra or Zyrtec before drinking a glass of red wine.
If you are not sensitive to histamines, then the reason you may sometimes feel less than great is that the wine may be of poor quality. If the wine was only five dollars for a bottle, then chances are it was mass produced and industrially processed. These cheap wines can contain preservatives and higher levels of sulfites in order to avoid spoilage for the large volumes of wine that may sit a long time before you get to consume them.
In the end the jury is still out on this issue. The goal is to enjoy wine in moderation and to find those wineries and wine styles that you find most pleasing to you.