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Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Magic Potions & Formulas of Wine - Part 2: Mega Purple and Enologix

If you haven't read The Magic Potions & Formulas of Wine - Part 1 yet then you should go read it before you continue. That first installment gave an introduction to the concept of wine formulas, the blending of trending grapes into other varietals, and additives used to fix faults and create consistency. Part 2 picks up where it left off with the addition of grape concentrates, then modern machinery used for manipulation, and concluding in wines designed to receive high scores.

In that first half I made it clear that, although this information may come to some as shocking, it may not be all that bad. Learning of additives and manipulations is both disappointing and sometimes gross. It takes away from the romance of the earth to the vine to the glass concept. But, in the end, a formulated wine is about making an enjoyable one. Whether that's for the everyday average Joe, the wine knowledgeable, or the reviewers that hand out the scores. This is the age of technology, information and marketing. Virtually everything is "improved" upon for one reason or another, including wine.

This next one here, though... this one seems to affect every wine lover when they first hear about it. We have a great connection to the aromas and the flavors of wine, but the color is something we can either focus on and admire or pass right on over. Either way, you'll never look at another glass of red the same way again...


Literally when I sat down to write this two part article Vino & Vinyl posted a blog about Mega Purple. They did a great job and you can read it here:

Or you can curb your ADD and keep reading this.

In the beginning there was a man named Dr. Harold Olmo, who lived from 1909 to 2006. He had nothing to do with Mega Purple or Ultra Red directly but he was a viticulturist that created over 30 grape varieties in his lifetime, one of them being the grape that Mega Purple and Ultra Red are produced from. He took the grape Alicante Ganzin, a hybrid of vitis rupestris and vitis vinifera vines, and made yet another hybrid by breeding it with the vinifera Tinto Cão. He named the result Rubired.

The purpose of cultivating Rubired was for high yields in hot climates for the production of fortified wine, but there was something special about this grape. Rather than having clear flesh like most red grapes where the wine gets its color from the skins, the flesh of Rubired is pigmented. Perfect for making concentrate.

Mega Purple is a brand of Rubired concentrate produced by the Canandaigua division of Constellation Brands. Ultra Red is its brother from another mother. Neither of them are cheap. But they're cheaper than buying darker wine to add to the wine you want to darken, and it doesn't take a lot of it to work. Along with color they can also add a touch of sweetness and cover up brettanomyces.

They're used A LOT, mostly in California and the rest of the New World, and I'll tell you just how much soon enough... but they've never been used in the history of the universe if you went around asking winemakers. And you really can't blame them for their denial. Additives, especially when their name sounds like a foreign chemical, scare people even if they're completely safe. Plus, there's the fear of being called a cheater. Mega Purple and Ultra Red offer winemakers a way to not only keep the color of their wine consistent but also look appealing. I know of many wines that are clearly using Mega Purple because it's really not that hard to spot sometimes, but there is an overwhelming number of wines that you would never guess that it's included in.

And so this is where it might hurt. According to reports, as pointed out in Vino & Vinyl's blog, the number of widely available red wines that use concentrate is overwhelming. If it's a dirt cheap red then there's no doubt that concentrate is included. If it's even under $10 then it's in there. Raise that price up to $20 and you only slightly improve your odds of a concentrate free wine. Mega Purple and Ultra Red essentially imitate the color of the bigger wines on the superior level where it isn't needed, such as a $50 Napa Cabernet where it's afforded to take the time and care to extract that attractive coloration naturally. Pinot Noir isn't one of those bigger wines, so if you've ever wondered why a $10 Pinot is darker than a $100 Pinot then you have your answer: Mega Purple and possibly Petite Sirah.

I'm not one to Google something and take what I see as the truth, or convince myself something is true because I want it to be. And I'm certainly not a conspiracy theorist. I'm a man of science, my kid is vaccinated, I trust in facts. The wide use of grape concentrate to the extent I just described isn't yet a fact because of its secrecy, but more and more it appears to be true as information is leaked and the secret tricks of the trade are revealed to the public.

Mega Purple and Ultra Red are the most heart breaking to wine lovers out of all the things in this two-parter but it's important to note that without it you might have been turned off from your favorite red wine just by appearance alone before you even tried it.


Today in the production of anything, if stainless steel equipment and modern machinery isn't used somewhere along the line then you're not trying hard enough or you're about to fail. I call 'em like I see 'em.

Spinning Cone Column
Spinning Cone Columns are large stainless steel columns with, surprise surprise, a series of spinning cones on the inside. They were originally used to take tannin out of tea and strange odors out of cream but the mechanism found its most important job in taking alcohol out of wine and beer. Not only is this how non-alcoholic stuff like Sutter Home Fre and O'Douls becomes non-alcoholic, but a ton of other fermented products go through it just to cut their alcohol down a bit.

For example, Zinfandel's alcohol can get out of hand so the winery may choose to send it to a place like ConeTech to put it through their columns and get it down to the desired ABV. Like Mega Purple, more wineries use this process than you could ever imagine. Scott Burr, vice president of ConeTech, claims "Some of the best-known Pinot Noirs out there have come through our doors." Ridge Vineyards, ever the honest labeler, admitted on the label of their 2002 Spring Mountain Zinfandel that they used this process on that wine. They even listed how much it was cut down.

There is no doubt that using the reverse osmosis of spinning cone columns is part of many wine formulas, as well as micro-oxygenation. Take the two minutes to watch the following video about micro-oxygenation. It's pretty awesome. And the guy's accent is even awesomer.

So just like oak adjuncts simulate the oak flavors of oak aging, micro-oxygenation simulates the oxygen exposure that also occurs during oak aging and the softening of bottle aging. The completed wine is put in a specialized stainless steel tank and oxygen is systematically pumped in on a schedule, bubbling through the wine to get to the top. It was developed by Patrick DuCournau in 1991 while he was trying to tame the tannins of the Tannat grape in Madiran, France.

We owe a lot to the micro-oxygenation process. It improves the wine drastically and swiftly. And it's a big reason, if not the main reason, why the affordable bottle of wine is better than it's ever been.

United Vacations


Imagine that your job is to taste dozens to hundreds of wines a day. Sounds awesome, right? Well, I once had to taste 300 wines with only a few hours a day for three days straight. It sucked! The acidity of all those whites was awful and the tannin of all those reds was worse. My taste buds were wrecked for days after. In the end, the wines myself and my counterparts liked the most were naturally the big ones that overpowered the rest.

The big-time point-system wine reviewers are not immune to this and the big powerful wines get more high scores than any other. And those big-time point-system wine reviewers carry a lot of weight in increasing sales when they hand out a high score, so you're damn right that wines are designed and formulated to please them.

Robert Parker loves insanely bold Cabernet and Natalie Maclean loves syrupy Zinfandel. It's not their fault that they're targeted to impress, that's just what happens when you're as influential and successful as they are. I'm nothing but a pathetic flee compared to them but I know my own weaknesses as well as they know their own. Send me your semi-sweet and late harvest Riesling! That's a slam dunk high score from!

Wine writer Joe Roberts wrote a great piece in 2013 about California winemakers using formulas for those high ratings, and even talked to one of those winemakers about it. That winemaker wasn't shy about spilling some of the beans, admitting that they develop recipes and standards that have been proven to get them the ratings they want within four points. You can read the whole article on Joe's website:

Luckily for those wineries that really want -- no -- need their wines to get a high score for whatever reason, there's Enologix. This is where the world of predictive analytics meets the wine world. The company was founded in 1989 as McCloskey, Arrhenius and Company. After four years the name was changed to Enologix. Oeno is the Greek goddess of wine. Logic is the the Greek word for reason.

Founder Leo McCloskey was once an employee of Ridge Vineyards in the 1980's and earned his way up to run their laboratory before creating Enologix. Paul Draper of Ridge says that McCloskey is a genius and that the Enologix service MINIMIZES the use of modern technology actually touching the final wine, allowing them to create outstanding juice the first time without being forced to use that spinning cone column or other machinery.

Enologix itself is the furthest thing away from low tech, though. It's home to the largest wine database in the world, storing on its servers the complete data of what must be over 100,000 wines by now. And when I say complete, I mean everything. Overall climate, specific weather, soil type, grape yields, how the grapes were grown, the techniques used to make the wine, additives, how much it cost to purchase a bottle, and the notable scores it received. The levels of the chemical compounds are recorded such as polyphenols, acidity and oils. McCloskey believes that he has identified what proportions of 84 specific compounds will lead to a high score, 32 for red and 52 for white. Enologix, through its experience and algorithms, will tell you how to get there.

During the growing season the Enologix clients bring in grapes once a week. Those grapes are turned into a super-fast wine to have its data processed. From there, by comparing the data of other wines, the next steps to making the perfect wine are suggested. Pruning, yield control, picking early or later. Whatever it takes, McCloskey will let you know. After harvest and crushing, the tests and guidance continues. What temperature to ferment in, how long to barrel age, what should it be blended with. McCloskey won't tell his clients why he's telling them to do those things. It's a business and you don't want to give away your secrets. But his clients are paying him to just advise them, so they don't have to do everything he says if they don't want to.

Joseph Phelps Insignia
Joel Peterson of Ravenswood told the New York Times that they had employed the service of Enologix once upon a time and all of the suggestions they were given was to create one style of wine and nothing else. "It's a very low definition of taste," he said of the Enologix favored style: dark, rich and moderately tannic. The nuances and experience is lost that makes having a different bottle of wine so great. Joel didn't want to be a part of that anymore.

All clients of Enologix must sign a confidentiality agreement and that could either help the company or hurt them. Because of confidentiality there's no proof that it actually works. All we have is McCloskey's word that wineries can get their score within two and a half points with 95% accuracy.

"The wine world is so big today that without ratings it would be chaos," he told to the New York Times. "The consumer doesn't need to know about terroir. He just wants to know whether a wine is worth $28 or whatever he's paying for it."

I don't know, man. Sounds like bullshit.

- Joey Casco, CSW

Thank you to my good friend Angela Busco for suggesting this topic and helping out with the research material!

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