Although California winemakers had been making so-called “Bordeaux blends” for years — Inglenook and Martini pioneered mixing Merlot or Cabernet Franc in with Cabernet Sauvignon, and Joseph Phelps’ Insignia was a blend from its first vintage, in 1974 — it wasn’t until 1988 that a group of Napa Valley vintners decided the blends needed a collective identity.
The founding wineries included Lyeth, Flora Springs, Franciscan and Dry Creek Vineyard. “Back then, you’d see a wine labeled ‘red’ or ‘table wine,’ and since consumers weren’t very knowledgeable, they assumed it would be inferior. We needed a categorization that felt right,” Kim Stare Wallace, Dry Creek Vineyard’s second-generation owner, said.
The wineries launched a nationwide competition to come up with a name; the winner would get a case of wine from each member winery, on an annual basis, for the rest of his or her life. I entered that contest, but did not win. Instead, a young man who was the wine buyer for an East Bay supermarket won by coming up with the term “Meritage,” and the wineries eventually formed themselves into the Meritage Association.
The Association has always had marketing issues, always struggled to make “Meritage” a universally-accepted term in the on-premise, off-premise, critical and consumer communities. Some of the original member wineries have since quit the Association; some important wineries that make Bordeaux blends never joined; and although the 250 members today are scattered across six countries, including Israel and Mexico, most of them remain located in California.
The Association’s president is Kim Stare Wallace. Its treasurer is Bill Smart, a likeable young guy who is Dry Creek’s communications director. I ran into Bill at the Wine Bloggers Conference last week, where he reminded me that the Association is engaged in a renewed P.R. push to increase its visibility. Here’s a brief Q&A:
Steve: Why do you need a special word for Bordeaux blends? Why not just educate the public about blending in general, and that any wine with less than 75% of the varietal can’t be named after a grape?
Bill: Well, it’s a valid point if you’re saying “Meritage is a dead term, so why have it?” But the reason there’s no credibility there is because we haven’t been consistent with marketing and messaging. Why is Rhone Rangers and ZAP what they are? Because they do a really good job of promoting. And we feel this category is worth promoting.
How are you promoting Meritage?
In 2011, our dream is to have the first ever consumer tasting of Meritage. It will be in San Francisco. We’ll partner with Wine 2.0, and it will benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Our hope is to get 50 wineries pouring.
Why wouldn’t they all come?
Well, there’s an extreme amount of apathy, because most members have less than 250 cases [of Meritage], so it’s not a focus. They focus on their 5,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc [or whatever] they have to sell.
How come so many wineries that make Bordeaux blends won’t join the Meritage Association?
You know, it’s the old explanation, “I have a proprietary red wine and I don’t need ‘Meritage’ to promote it. I already have enough credibility, so I don’t need you.” I always reply, “Well, you can throw ‘Meritage’ on the back of your wine label. It’s not that big a deal.”
[This is Steve again, opining.] I have mixed feelings about “Meritage” and its usefulness or lack thereof. I am, of course, entirely in favor of Bordeaux blends, red and white, if that’s what a winemaker wants to do. And I do understand that some education has to be given to consumers, who might expect to see a varietal name on every bottle of wine. The object, I think, is to explain that Bordeaux itself — which everybody’s heard of — is never a varietal wine, but always a combination of certain varietals. You could tell people, “This is a blend using the noble Bordeaux varieties,” and I suspect they’d be impressed. So why saddle consumers with yet another complicated word to remember and understand, when they’re already overwhelmed with wine minutiae?
On the other hand (there’s the Gemini in me), it does seem reasonable to make the case that these Bordeaux blends should be independently categorized. A categorization is always a justification for existence; the justification, in this case, is that a winemaker might be tempted to make a varietally-labeled Cabernet Sauvignon (i.e., containing at least 75% of that grape) merely in order to put Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, and not necessarily because it makes the best, most rewarding and complete wine. Meritage adherents thus are in a position to argue that they have freed themselves from the addiction to varietal labels. That’s a simple message to deliver, and one the public would understand.