Larry Johansen, owner of Wine Wizard’s has an extensive collection of empty wine bottles circling the top shelves of his store, each a testament to the amazingly good wines he has drank over the decades. Amid this makeshift museum of exceptional labels is a unique bottle that earned its place among the best of the best for a different reason.
Entitled “Purple Death,” the wine was so bad that it outdid any bad wine we had ever tasted. So, Larry placed it on his top shelf. I had the distinct pleasure of being responsible for Purple Death, for I was the one who brought it to a Friday night tasting back in 1997. No one who attended that tasting forgot the experience.
The label on the bottle was quite honest. The winemaker did not make Purple Death out to be something it was not. The description began thus: “An unusual ‘Rough-as-Guts’ wine that has the distinctive bouquet of horse shit and old tram tickets.”
Was this for real?
It went on. “Connoisseurs will savour the slight tannin taste of old tea leaves and burnt cat fur. Possessors of a cultivated palate will admire the initial assault on the taste buds which comes from the careful and loving blending of animal manure and perished jock straps strained through an old miner’s sock. The maturing in small pig’s bladders gives it a very definite nose.”
It sounds like a parody of hifalutin labels ubiquitous in the wine world. It is, but they were not too far off. Back in 1997 the wine tasted like a combination of black currants, the worst cough medicine, sweaty feet and liquorish. It was a nauseating combination of sweet and scuzzy.
“Bottled by the mad scientist – just for fun,” the label proclaimed, and announced that it was made for the Sapich Brothers in Henderson, New Zealand, 18% Alcohol.
Over the years we occasionally recalled Purple Death and had a chuckle. We kept accumulating a diversity of experiences with bad wines but none ever came close to Purple Death.
Then, one recent Friday night, some twenty-three years after I first uncorked Purple Death, Larry pulled the bottle out of his top shelf and circulated it among us. He must have had a special fit of nostalgia.
As I examined the bottle and read the inscription, I noted that it was still half full. Curious, I pulled out the cork and gave it a smell. A clean aroma of fresh strawberries struck me dumbfounded. “Check it out!”
The bottle went around various noses, everyone nodding in surprise. “Could it still be drinkable?”
“No, don’t!” someone yelled as I poured a bit into my glass.
“Marketed under the Saviour Brand,” said the label, “ (9 out of 10 people who drink it for the first time exclaim ‘Je-e-esus Chri-i-ist’).”
The wine was not all that bad. It tasted like a sweet fortified wine, strawberries and a strong hint of cough medicine.
“Je-e-esus Chri-i-ist,” I said. After more than two decades it was not only drinkable, it was actually a better version of its younger self.
It turns out that back in the 1970s Purple Death was a popular wine Down Under, before Blenheimer and Blue Nun took over. It is still available, still made by the Sapich Bros. in West Henderson, New Zealand. The price, around $15.
It acquired a special notoriety in Twitter a few years ago when a debate erupted as to whether it could be the worst wine anyone ever tasted. No one asked us. We would have given them the definite answer.
I bet the young version of Purple Death would still taste as nasty as mine did back in 1997. Do you have the staying power to keep it for two decades? No one does, except Larry.
I didn’t tell you how I came into possession of what became a historic bottle for our wine group. It was a gift. Everyone in our wine group gets gifts every now and then, and they all end up in our tastings.
This one, ironically, was given to me back then by a patient I had operated on for a malignant brain tumor. She was originally from Australia. I never discovered if she meant Purple Death as a serious gift or a joke. She passed away soon thereafter.