Friday, June 11, 2010

The smell of Mega Purple

Is Mega Purple "wine"? You can add it to wine without listing it on the label, and it's not a filtering agent that's later removed. So technically, I suppose it could be.

I can say with confidence that you have drunk Mega Purple. You can't be a regular US wine drinker without having had some. This is the stuff that has eliminated forever the idea that a $9 wine will be light in color.

Mega Purple is a grape-based compound that is supposed to darken the color of a wine without adding any flavors or aromas. I found out that's not true.

While it is almost flavorless, it definitely has an aroma. I compared it yesterday* to a gymnasium floor -- something I have smelled in many cheap wines over the last few years.

(BTW, congratulations to Guren and Meg for correctly guessing it. You win a No Prize!)

Wineries adore Mega Purple because American consumers are caught up in the idea that for wine, darker is better. Black fruit is better than red fruit. Roses should be red, not light pink. And heaven forbid if a bottle of Zinfandel doesn't look inky.

When your cheap wine does look inky, there's your reason.

But is it only cheap wine? Not likely -- but not easy to prove.

I want to thank Charlie Kidd, winemaker at Flat Creek Estate in Texas, for mixing me up the pictured sample of Mega Purple in water. Texas wineries have an annual problem with grapes not getting enough color because of their short growing season; Mega Purple is a good solution for them. But it wasn't developed in Texas -- it's a California innovation.

However, I have never been offered the chance to taste it here. Whenever I ask, the winery representative responds with something like, "Let me show you our new $6.3 million tasting room."

Mega Purple is like steroids in baseball in the '90s: plenty of people are doing it, and it might be increasing their average, but overall it's bad for everyone because it changes the expectations of what's possible.

If a vineyard manager can't get enough color in California, he's doing something wrong. But wineries aren't satisfied with enough color -- they want The Dark Knight. And they want it every year in every wine. Nobody wants to have the one maroon-colored Cabernet on the shelf.

I wish I could say categorically in every review, "Includes Mega Purple." I'll never be able to do so with authority. You can't say for sure when you see dark purple if you're seeing this additive.

But now I know what it smells like. Many winemakers have better noses than me, so you know what I'm saying -- this stuff is not odorless. And its odor isn't great.

Is there any chance we can ever bring the "red" back to red wine?

26 comments:

Meg Houston Maker said...

I would say, "Cheers, drink up!" but first I'd recommend cleansing glass, palate, and psyche with a little NV grower champagne.

Jon Bjork said...

Similar to Mega Purple is 8000 Color made by California Concentrate that sells for about $100 per gallon. Large and small wineries buy it by the 6 gallon pale on pallets. Because of its high cost and intense color, very little is required. I always had to avoid getting it on my hands, because it was hard to wash off. It literally stained like ink.

It was made by concentrating grape juice in a method involving heat that also sterilizes it. The result is syrup that would be pretty tasty on pancakes. This version actually has a taste of intense blackberries, though so little is used it would have a minimal effect on the final flavor. It is definitely not wine and would be hard to ferment unless diluted.

I think more of the "fake" taste you get in mass-market sweetened wines comes from the less-expensive concentrates made from Chenin blanc, Muscat or other whites. Those are used in larger quantities when adjusting the RS.

Anonymous said...

Let us not forget about our friend Mega Red. Wineries have caught on that an artificially purple wine is eventually going to be noticed as "fake" so red is being used more and more. A winery I used to work for would do about 50% Mega Purple and 50% Mega Red. Purchased in 55gal drums. (in Napa Valley by the way-not cheap stuff). Keep in mind it adds sweetness (mouthfeel) and not just color.

I've seen jugs of "Mega" in several wineries in Napa. Some with $100+ bottle prices and names that would shock you.

Thanks for the blog. I think it has just given me a few marketing ideas...

Anonymous said...

It is easy to tell if a wine does not contain one of these additives... it is labeled as "Estate"

Anonymous said...

Oh fellow anonymous, the estate designation won't help. For one thing plenty of people add it "under the table", secondly you could add a drum of it to a 4000case blend and still be more than 99.5% estate. (Which rounds up to 100%)

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

Okay folks. Let's look at a few numbers. According to the manufacturer, who has a vested interest in saying how important MegaPurple is, 20% of the 50,000 gallons produced is sold to the wine business (which tells you, first, that if you want to worry about MegaPurple, then worry about it in the foods you eat and non-wine drinks you drink. And I don't believe you've ever seen it listed on a label there.). ---

So 10,000 gallons are sold to the wine business. At an addition rate of .2% that means 5 million gallons of wine have MegaPurple in them. The United States produces approximately 575 million gallons of wine a year. MegaPurple being added to red wine only that mean 2%of the wines have MegaPurple added to them. Undoubtedly there are other concentrates out there --- including the longtime use of sussreserve in German wines. But to advertise MegaPurple as ubiquitous is simply not true. I'm sure Constellation would like it to be true -- but it isn't.

Finally, fwiw, I've been to a lot of small wineries, have a lot of winemaker friends, and have discussed a lot of "under the radar" issues, and I have yet to see a bottle of MegaPurple.

The whole thing is over-reported.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam, I love it when you talk numbers with me.

Seriously, though, I don't think you can accurately say Mega Purple is over-reported. It's not the focus of many articles or blog posts. I have mentioned it occasionally but in no more than a proportionate 2% of my posting, I'm sure.

I also have to point out that you can crunch the numbers a bit more and eliminate white, pink and sparkling wines from the total number of gallons produced.

There's a larger issue here, though, that I'd love for you as a Pinot maker to address: Do you think Americans are being trained to reject lighter colored wines?

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

Blake,

Thanks for the reply. I eliminate white and sparkling wines from the total which is how I came up with the 2% total (5 million gallons is less than 1% of the 575 million gallons total - but 2% of the approximate red wine gallons).

As far as it being over-reported. If you do a good search you will find articles on it by Dan Berger, Wines & Vines, Vinography, the Daily Beast, etc. None of the articles or blogs report the figures in the context of the total amount of wine produced in this country.

If you want to talk about color in wine and additions we should discuss enzyme usage, which is IMHO, much more common. Things like ColorX and Color Pro. See http://www.scottlab.com/products/fermentation/enzymes.asp

On your larger question, as to whether Americans are being trained to reject lighter colored wines. It is difficult for me to buy into that in a country where White Zinfandel outsells Red Zinfandel 6 to 1.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Jon Bjork said...

On Americans being trained to reject lighter wines, I agree with Adam that I don't think the average wine drinker is being taught that darker wines are better.

I do, however, notice that when I'm tasting with others in the industry - in sales or production - I often hear, "Wow! Look at that color!" when they are seeing complete blackness in a glass. There is some sort of leaning toward a blacker is better mentality that somehow predicts that the wine will be more concentrated and complex.

Personally, I've seen some reds with nice acid balance that display a gem-like brilliant red that is captivating to me.

Todd Trzaskos - VT Wine Media said...

From a consumer's point of view, it's difficult to honor the principle of 'caveat emptor' if the truth is so far from the reach of the average wine drinker. In my own cellar, I would never think of using a colorant to make one of my wines more appealing. But, I'm not selling my wine, and as such have different motivations. I would rather see what the grapes are offering me to work with, than tell them what to be.


That said, humans have been using additives in wine since the dawn of civilization, as is so comprehensively conveyed in the work of Patrick McGovern, "Ancient Wine". Boiling down grape juice to concentrate it goes back well past the time of the pharos.

I guess the real question may be:
Are such additions, for 'cosmetic' purposes, especially in the case of color, worth it to the consumer, if it in any way degrades the other sensory experiences?

I'm with Meg, time for some bubbly.

Amy Atwood said...

In my experience, having been either buying or selling wine since 1996, consumers have definitely been trained to believe that the darker a red wine is, the better it will taste.
And perhaps it does taste better to them! Maybe many consumers have become accustomed to high alcohol, manipulated wines...and that has become what they crave now.
Here's a question. How many U.S. wine drinkers have only ever had pinot noir that has a few splashes of syrah in it?
Cannot count how many times I have been told by wine consumers that a certain pinot noir is way too light in color and does not look quite right to them.

When I was growing up the whitest and most processed bread was considered the best.
But just like with bread, a tide has turned and many wine industry pros, as well as wine consumers, are seeking more authentic (less manipulated) wines.
Cheers, Amy

Kevin Hamel said...

This post opens up a discussion of many historical winemaking practices, as has been mentioned in previous comments. Some have fallen away, such as adding elderberries to Port, some remain, such as adding brandy to Port. Both were controversial at the beginning. There is the practice of "Ripasso" in Valpolicella which is still used, and the nearly extinct practice of "syruping" in California. There is no wine which is not "manipulated" in some way, by which I mean "touched by the hand of a human". Having said all of the above, my practice is to bring grapes in and let them do their thing with as little input as possible. This means, of course, that I am rarely invited out to lunch...

Kristy Charles said...

I think discussions like this are great. There's so much in wines that consumers don't know or wouldn't ever even think about. Just try looking up the TTB's list of allowed wine ingredients. Ugh. That's why my basic philosophy is: don't add crap to a perfectly good wine, light color or not.

As far as consumers noticing color, I think it correlates with what they're used to drinking. I find that Pinotphiles tend to not be very concerned with color whereas Zin and Cab drinkers who wander up to Pinot country are amazed by the light color and comment frequently on it. As Americans become more and more wine savvy I'm sure they'll begin to understand what each individual wine should look like. No, Pinot Noir shouldn't look like concord grape juice.

Anonymous said...

Adam,

Sussreserve is not a concentrate. It's unfermented juice that is used to add sweetness and (I suppose) increase volume/lower alcohol.

Apples and oranges.

Anonymous said...

For the most part, I quit looking seriously at color as a useful determining factor a few years ago. The dark stuff tastes good but doesn't entertain my palate after 2 or maybe 3 ounces. Palate says: I hurt and I am bored. I do think that some, not all, but some, US red wine drinkers are misled about color. This is more reason why we need more amateur winemakers, home winemakers, and why, when Parker, Shanken, and Laube retire, that will be a good day for us all.

Curtis Phillips said...

Within the context of a $9 wine, this is a non-story. Mega Purple is pretty much just 68 Brix concentrated Rubyred juice. There's nothing mysterious about it. It's still Vitis vinifera and perfectly legal. More importantly, listing ingredients wouldn't prevent it's use because it is a grape product.
The real scandal is that there are hundreds of mediocre to bad US wines that fetch >$30 not that there are wines priced <$10 that are "too dark".
Coincidence does not imply causation. I suspect that the vulcanized rubber, "gym-floor", aroma has more to do with thiol production due poor yeast nutrition and overly reductive fermentation conditions than it does to the use of Mega Purple per se. That said, I generally do detect a fairly distinct metallic note (more on the tongue than in the nose) in wines in which concentrate has been used and wines made with Mega Purple are no different in that score.

Jack said...

Hey Adam,
Why do all of these so called wine bloggers and their followers think wines, winemaking, wine scores is all some giant f#$%ing hoax? Are there not real problems in the food industry to worry about? You guys think you have it all figured out and you can't wait to get home and type it all up and shoot it into hyperspace. As for color, most folks don't even get it when I tell them red grapes have white juice. Say Whhhaaaaaattt?!!
And I have had countless "consumers" ask me at what point do we "add the cherries and the plums or the pineapples and lemons"??!!! That my friend is not the fault of the winemaker. And when I try to talk to Mr and Mrs. Mainstreet about the color of wine or the flavors of wine they just stare at me and think "SNOB"....
But I'm sure they'll be really interested to read all about Mega Purple or Red and not feel like wine snobs. Because after all is just shit to them.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

Anonymous,

Sorry on the "sussreserve." Was actually on vacation when the blog came out and was trying to type and "vacate" at the same time and got sloppy. The point on sussreserve is that it was something held back, added for at least a couple of the same reasons as concentrate (weight and sweetness) and that it, too, was not a natural process (it required stopping a natural process, actually).

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Heidi Butzine said...

As a wine consumer, I completely agree with earlier posts and that the true nature of the wine should stand on its own, regardless of color. But this is a fantastic example of the pressures that wine-makers may face in appealing to a large audience and giving them what they want (or what they've been trained to want). The reality is, it's about sales, baby. Perhaps we should have more blindfolded wine tastings so that Ms. or Mr. Mainstreet can learn to love wines of any color?

Anonymous said...

I think we should also mention that mega purple is being used to paint the exterior of wine barrels to make them look like the classic barrels of Bordeaux. Has anyone calculated that into the mix?

David Vergari said...

Name names, Anonymous. Otherwise you are a coward.

Randy said...

Really interesting convo... in a wine geeky way. Thanks to gray market report for bringing up dirty little secrets that wine people are actively using in their must each harvest.

Each year, I get catalogues in the mail and visits from the friendly local chemical guy. Last year, he brought me by a sample yeast packet that stated simply "red wine" yeast on a very attractive, colorful package. I asked him as I was cleaning at the crushpad, "what is exactly this "red wine" yeast?" That's all it stated, "red wine" yeast. Yikes!!! Do people actually use stuff like that? I am not a true exclusively a natural fermentation guy, but who's going to use a yeast that simply states, "red wine" yeast?

David V. is right, put your name on your rant or get off the scene. It's tough to engage when you are anonymous. Your words become disingenuous.

G Mickey said...

I disagree that this product has no flavor. It imparts both aroma and flavor to wine that is not present otherwise. It is also my opinion that this aroma and flavor do not have a positive influence on the wine.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the anon. I work in a retail environment, am unionized, and my employer does not appreciate some of my harsher opinions about our industry. So, I contribute my thoughts, often but not always anon. And I am a strong advocate of alc. under 14%, less wood, and wish the industry would use the space on the label to provide better basics of what wine is. I do not like when big companies offer another $8 or $12 glug and hide behind anon. labels. If Gallo and Delicato don't like their family names on their own wines, then they should legally get a new one, like Doakes or Shmoe. But they own huge market share. I am merely one employee who enjoys selling wine, from white zin and Lambrusco, all the way to Far Niente and Tignanello.

Anonymous said...

I know of at least one major winery that uses it liberally.. I use Petite Sirah (which also adds color and complexity) and pass on the costs. Some people add it for the sweetness .. as much as the color. It really can boost a drab wine.

Anonymous said...

well when the californian growers stops growing 12 tones/acre and stop irrigate the vines maybe will not use anymore mega red and mega purple in wine. Normal, high tonnage, lower color. what you expect?