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How I Overcame My Battle With Red Wine Teeth

After stained teeth ruined a photo, one man went on a mission to find out why

Brendan Fitzgibbons By March 3, 2022
illustration of girl holding red wine glass to her teeth
Illustration by Ananda Walden

I never thought my struggle with wine teeth was a significant problem until it almost ruined my dad’s 70th birthday party. 

It was an idyllic October Saturday in the suburbs of Chicago, and I was surrounded by my closest friends and family, who were in town to celebrate my dad turning 70. My mom prepared a lavish, farm-to-table home-cooked meal that made Whole Foods look like McDonald’s, equipped with a multi-faceted charcuterie board, and several bottles of Pinot.

One glass turned to five, and I reached the peak moment in a party where you’re convinced everything you say is brilliant or funny. But my wine-inspired confidence and cheer came to a screeching halt when I headed to the bathroom and caught a look at my smiling face in the mirror.

My teeth had been transformed into a reddish-purple horror show. I looked like a 19th-century orphan with black teeth. 

My sister had hired a professional photographer to document the occasion, so my wine-soaked choppers ruined just about every picture we took. 

After the party, I embarked on a journey to figure out why I was getting wine teeth — and how I could make it stop. 

After doing extensive research on the subject and speaking with my dentist, I discovered that there are several reasons why this technicolor tooth display happens. 

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Wine staining at a glance

First of all, red wine is well … red. The color results from the fermentation, when the grape skins remain in contact with the juice. The red pigment in the skins is largely due to anthocyanins, which are also found in red onions, kidney beans, tomatoes, and acai, among others. Red wine also has a high number of tannins which help the red pigment stick to your teeth. And last but certainly not least, wine, in general, is high in acid, which can wear and discolor the porous enamel in teeth, making them susceptible to staining. 

Dr. Amanda Ahmad, resident dentist at Onsite Dental, however, cautions that this erosion happens over a long period of time. “Just like we tell people about cavities, it’s not that eating sugar is necessarily bad, it’s the consistent intake of sugar over long periods of time,” she said. “The same is true with wine. The longer it stays on your teeth, the more likely the acid will hold and cause staining. And there’s a big difference between drinking wine for 35 years versus 21 years.” 

It’s also important to note that the level of wine staining varies depending on the variety. According to Madeline Puckette, James Beard Award-winning author and co-founder of Wine Folly, drinking lighter Gamay and Pinot will cause less tooth coloration than darker varieties like Syrah and Malbec. 

But if drinking red wine can contribute to unwanted coloration, why not just drink white? It turns out white wines are generally more acidic than reds and can be worse for teeth over time because they can create more holes and pores in teeth. 

There are several ways to reduce wine teeth. These include rinsing and swishing with water between sips, brushing your teeth an hour before you taste, using wine stain removal wipes, or — my personal favorite — eating cheese. 

“The cheese neutralizes the effect of the wine’s acid on our teeth, making it more difficult for the wine to strip away your enamel,” said Puckette.

An unexpected twist

In the middle of my quest to cure wine teeth, something miraculous happened. I moved to California and discovered the luxurious, pillowy red wine from the Central Coast. 

I went on several wine tastings in the quaint California town of Los Olivos and visited wineries like Stolpman, Carhartt, Story of Soil, and Solminer that served mostly organic and biodynamic wines. I sampled all their reds, a few times or 40, in light and heavy pours, and the result: not a single trace of a stain on my teeth … nothing, zero, zilch. 

Surprised, I traced back my wine history and realized that in my pre-California red wine drinking career, I generally stuck to consuming big brand reds in the $15 to $22 range — the kind of wines you’d find on the front of the shelves at Trader Joe’s. 

And after further research, I discovered that such wines tend to use an additive known as Mega Purple, which is made from a teinturier grape called Rubired. It’s basically grape concentrate, and big brand winemakers are known to use it to make their wines darker and plump up the flavors, smoothness, and sweetness.

Could Mega Purple be the real reason I used to have horror movie wine mouth? 

“Mega Purple increases the concentration of the color of the wine,” said Maurice DiMarino, beverage director of the Cohn Restaurant Group. “So, therefore, it’s definitely going to increase the staining of your teeth.”

Or as Puckette put it, “Mega Purple is the reason you were getting major wine teeth,” she said. “But the good news is that it’s actually not bad for you. It just makes you ugly and not particularly ready for job interviews.”

But how do you know if a wine has Mega Purple or not? Since winemakers aren’t required to label their bottles with the additives they use, it’s hard to tell. But it’s most likely to appear in cheaper bottles. “If you’re going to mass market wine at a lower price point, typically it will have more additives like Mega Purple,” said Joe Roberts, author and founder of 1 Wine Dude. “It’s just like a fast food restaurant. If you’re going to mass-produce burgers quickly, you can’t take the time to handcraft each one with high-quality wagyu beef. You have to use additives to make them on a large scale.”

Both Roberts and Puckette mentioned that just because a wine is organic, doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t have any Mega Purple. But as DiMarino points out, your odds are significantly better with organic wine; the higher the wine quality, the less likely producers are to use such additives.

And for any wine consumer who might be concerned about the prohibitive costs of organic Mega Purple free wines, Roberts offered some key wisdom, “The good news is that there is a lot of pressure on wines now to be great,” he said. “It’s the best time ever to be a wine customer with so many choices at such high quality for such low prices.” 

And I’m happy to report that this delightful discovery has led to a wine-stain-free smile on my face in all my pictures.