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Explainer Feature

Mega Purple Is the Wine Ingredient Nobody Will Talk About

It's the grape concentrate that many in the wine biz would prefer to ignore

Jeff Siegel By June 7, 2022
wines lined up with a liquid dropper
Illustration by Chris Gash

One winemaker sent a sentence in reply. A PR person answered with an even shorter sentence. Another winemaker was frank, “I don’t use it, so that’s why I can talk about it. Because if I did use it, I wouldn’t be talking on the record.”

What no one wanted to talk about was a grape juice concentrate called Mega Purple, the most famous of a variety of concentrates commonly added to California red wines costing $15 or less. Mega Purple makes wine darker and even a touch sweeter, because consumers who buy $15 wine apparently like that touch of sweetness. And what producer wouldn’t want their $15 wine to be confused with wine costing twice that much?

In fact, Mega Purple may even be added to California red wines costing twice as much — or even three or four times. Who knows? After all, no one wants to talk about it.

Cone of silence

“It’s like making albums with rock bands,” says Dan Fredman, a long-time California wine marketer and retailer. “Pretty much everyone uses technology to make the album sound better, like pitch correction or moving drum tracks around. But talking about those things runs counter to what people think making music should be like. So nobody wants to talk about it.” As he says, a finished wine is meant to be a document of a particular vineyard and vintage, with no outside intervention. “So who wants to talk about adding something like Mega Purple? Hardly anyone.”

The irony about all of this is that Mega Purple and its like are completely natural, as much grape juice as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Adding them in California neither breaks state or federal laws or violates most appellation regulations. Nevertheless, concentrates like Mega Purple seem to be the wine business’ deep dark secret — pun fully intended.

Not all grape juice concentrate used in winemaking is Mega Purple; Vie-Del, the company that owns Mega Purple, sells almost a dozen other red brands. One of its competitors, Regina Grape Juice, has a similar list, including organic concentrates, while Golden Valley Grape Juice and Wine specializes in UltraVin 8000 concentrates — Red, Cherry Shade, and Purple Grape. None of these companies responded to requests for an interview for this story.

But Mega Purple is the one that gets all of the attention, including a star turn in 2010 at a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit called “How Wine Became Modern.” Wrote one reviewer, “And a strangely hidden nook shows such secretive aspects of modern production as the additive Mega Purple, surreptitiously used to darken wine.”

Which doesn’t surprise those who will talk about it. A less than robust-looking bottle of Pinot Noir might be worth thousands of dollars to wine geeks, but put it on the supermarket shelf for $12.99, and it had better be as dark as possible.

“It has been quite successfully used, and for a very long time,” says Anita Oberholster, Ph.D., an associate cooperative extension specialist in enology at the University of California, Davis. 

Where Mega Purple originates

Mega Purple was developed by a subsidiary of Constellation Brands, one of wine’s biggest corporate players, using a grape called Rubired; Constellation sold Mega Purple at the end of last year to Vie-Del. The concentrate has other uses besides wine; mostly as a food additive, though pinning those down is also difficult. Mega Purple production is simple, says Oberholster, similar to the way something like Welch’s grape juice concentrate is made. 

Rubired is a hybrid grape developed in the late 1950s at UC Davis by Harold Olmo, Ph.D., a legendary viticulturist who created 30 grape varieties. Rubired is what’s known as a “teinturier” grape, whose flesh and skin are both red. Teinturier means dyer in French, and such grapes became popular during the 19th century, for their ability to add color to red wines. Turning Rubired into a concentrate like Mega Purple is a shortcut that’s cheaper and easier than adding a blending grape, while also explaining why Rubired is rarely used for varietal wine. 

Mega Purple’s use may be declining, though — once again — it’s difficult to know. The amount of Rubired planted in California has decreased by about 1,000 acres since 2010, and its percentage of the state’s total red wine acreage has fallen from 12% to 4% in 2019. So maybe less Mega Purple is being used — but it’s being discussed more.

“That’s the reason why there is so much resistance to ingredient labels and why we need them,” he says. “No one in the wine business wants to tell consumers that there may be Mega Purple or other concentrates in their $75 or $100 wine. So that’s why there aren’t ingredient labels.”

All about scores

Don’t get wine writers and critics started on the perils of Mega Purple. A Google search returns rants, warnings, and condemnations, and then even more of the same.

“I think it’s an easy target, but maybe I trust winemakers more than some people,” says Doug Frost, MS, MW, the owner of Washington state’s Echolands Winery. “A tiny dose of Mega Purple could help wines get slightly higher scores, and I think that’s demonstrated by the way too many wine writers respond to a wine’s color. I, for one, would never add Mega Purple to my wines, but I think that the pale color of some of my wines signifies a lack of seriousness to some naive writers.”

Which raises a question — again — that almost no one seems able to answer: Which wines use Mega Purple or other concentrates? The consensus is that it’s more common in supermarket-style wines, and less often seen in those costing more than $15. That’s because producers of higher-priced wines can afford to add grapes like Petite Sirah or Alicante Bouschet, which are significantly more expensive than Mega Purple, to darken the color of their wine.

But talk to some winemakers, and there’s a sense that plenty of popular, best-selling wines that cost $20 or $30, or even $50, use Mega Purple. The color of these wines is just a little too dark, they say, or the sweetness is just a bit too sweet — so Mega Purple must be the reason. But don’t quote them on it.

Randall Grahm, the iconoclastic winemaker who has been tilting at Californian wine’s windmills for more than 30 years, says the answer to the Mega Purple question is easy: ingredient labels. Federal law allows producers to use them but doesn’t require them and almost no one adds them — and especially on wines costing $15 or less.

“That’s the reason why there is so much resistance to ingredient labels and why we need them,” he says. “No one in the wine business wants to tell consumers that there may be Mega Purple or other concentrates in their $75 or $100 wine. So that’s why there aren’t ingredient labels.”

Until then, no one knows for sure — which is about the only thing anyone is sure about when it comes to Mega Purple.