University of California researchers think they are close to solving one of civilization’s most enduring mysteries — the cause and prevention of those nasty red wine headaches.

Dr. Morris Levin, a neurologist and head of the UCSF Headache Center, teamed up with Apramita Devi and Andrew Waterhouse from the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology to crack the red wine headache code.

Although more research is needed to say definitively, the culprit appears to be linked to a plant pigment, quercetin, which is found in greater quantities in red wine than in white.

Quercetin can block the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, which then leads to the buildup of a toxin called acetaldehyde, which in high levels causes headache, flushing and nausea, according to the research.

“People of East Asian origin, primarily from Japan, China and Korea, are among those at higher risk for red wine headaches.”

University of California study

Quercetin is also the pigment that gives skin, eyes, hair and plants their color.

“People of East Asian origin, primarily from Japan, China and Korea, are among those at higher risk for red wine headaches,” according to the study. “Approximately 40 percent of this population have an enzyme variant that fails to eliminate acetaldehyde. Not surprisingly, people with this variant have a lower rate of alcoholism.”

It also appears that the sun plays a role in people’s post-imbibing headaches since the level of quercetin is up to eight times higher in grapes that get a lot of sun, like Napa Valley cabernets and some Australian red wine varieties.

“Practices in premium wine-producing vineyards, like trellised vines, crop-thinning and leaf clearance create more sun exposure, which facilitates higher production of quercetin,” according to the study. “Mass-produced wines were found to have lower levels of quercetin.”

Fermentation, aging and filtration techniques maybe also play a role.

The researchers say that in the future they should be able to help red wine drinkers make less headache-inducing choices and maybe also help vintners make wines that are less likely to inflict pain.

The study is available online.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Pagransen on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.