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Whither Meritage?

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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.

  1. In my opinion the term only causes more confusion. Most consumers I talk to know very little about its meaning. And they ALWAYS pronounce it “Mer-a-taj” with a phony accent.

    Secondly, I don’t see why a winery would want to pay $500 for the right to use the word. And I suppose a case of wine for the East Bay supermarket buyer (that must have one hell of a cellar at this point).

    Thirdly, most lists in restaurants have a “Bordeaux (or red) blends” section anyway so whats the advantage?

    What I think is funny is the number of hotels, restaurants, apartment complexes etc. that have adopted “Meritage” as their name. Seems to be more successful than using it on wine bottles…

  2. Steve,

    I still do not get this. Why would a US wine producer, free from all the European restrictions want to promote a blend that is the hallmark of another region? I guess I never got this line of thinking, unless you come out and admit: “I have Bordeaux (or Burgundy or Rhone…) envy”. Haven’t we evolved beyond this? What if 5% of Dry Creek’s fab Zin makes the blend 100 times better? Do you exclude it? And you do have to admit that the French sounding “Meritage” has a real snooty ring to it. I say be real, call it “Heritage” (like it is meant to be pronounced) and allow anything that originates from a grapevine in it (but dissallow mega purple and other agents that change a wine’s natural character). After all, aren’t we all about freedom from archaic regulations?

  3. Hi Oded, everything you say is true from a common sense point of view. However, the wine market isn’t rational. People buy based on image and the perception of elitism. But you know that!

  4. If my memory serves me one of the issues a maker of “a blend using the noble Bordeaux varieties” was the restaurant wine list. The restaurant owner would say, “Where do I put it? It’s not a Cab, it’s not a Merlot.” But we didn’t want to give up the story, cause it was a good story. So the idea was there would be a place on the list for this category of wine. So Meritage came to pass and within a few years most of the good wine lists in the country had a Meritage section on the list separate from Cabernet and Merlot.

    The irony was that wines in the Meritage section didn’t sell. Wines in the Cab and Merlot sections sold just fine. So in a few years we saw the vintner making great efforts to get the restaurateur to put his Meritage in the Cabernet section of the list. The point here is that giving a wine type a new name only works if the consumer knows about it and there is a demand for it. It’s an interesting fact that it took 25 years to get around to promoting it with a tasting!

    Another reason that Meritage hasn’t taken off is that as a practical matter -from a purely taste standpoint – there is nothing distinct and unique about them. Put them in a blind tasting with equally good Cabernets and I bet no taster, no matter how perceptive, would have results that were statistically significant picking out either. What is different about Meritage, as we see them, is that blending made it a different wine, but really the winemaker knows what that difference is. Who knows, maybe it would have been better as pure Cab without stretching it with all that Merlot that he couldn’t sell.

    Finally, it doesn’t take too much discussion of a percent of this and a percent of that to make the customer’s eyes glaze over.

  5. Steve,

    I get the valid point you make but I think that behind the pursuit of elitism there is a genuine search for authenticity and uniqueness. What made California wines great to begin with (on the production level, at least) was the fact that we did not keep secrets from each other, we let other wineries borrow our pumps, we shared results of our experiments. All in the spirit of: “We all make better wine = the Consumer wins = We win”. In short, we had an INCLUSIVE attitude which we lack today, we are happy to just steal customers from each other.

  6. A great idea, and certainly some great wines, but too little control over what wines could use the name. I represent several wineries that tell me they have belonged to the Association and have left because they were disappointed in, and didn’t want to be associated with, the amount of junk that was labelled Meritage.
    I think this is similar to what happened fairly quickly to the label “Super Tuscan”. A lot of junk (cheap junk) bottled as that just to take advantage of the halo effect of that name.

  7. Rick, yours is an important comment. It should be read by everyone who thinks they can pass off inferior wines with some title or spin. Thanks.

  8. I’d like to drink a Super Maritage…like a Super Tuscan, only better.

    Nice keynote at #wbc10. I tried to say hi a couple of times, but you were popular.

  9. DrH, please just come up next time and introduce yourself. I can use all the friends I can get.

  10. In order to resolve the issues surrounding “Meritage” I think the following needs to happen:

    1. The association agrees on an acceptable definition that can be easily and widely understood and marketed.
    2. Meritage wines associate/brand themselves with creativity and the expertise of the wine-makers producing them.
    3. Wineries market these wines piggybacking off their wine-maker’s name and the uniqueness of their blend.

    This will give consumers understanding, interest, and something different to try.

  11. The intersting thing to me after all these years is that the original Meritage makers have sort of come full circle. In the 1980s, these earnest, mostly Napa/Sonoma producers were emulating the Bordelais.

    Twenty+ years later, the ranks of the Meritage Association are filled with dozens of small, lesser-known wineries, including many from far-flung reagions, states, even countries. In essence, the original hunters are now the hunted: newer memebers are emulating their Napa/Sonoma peers, hoping some of the Meritage halo will shine on them.

    Not a surprising evolution, but considering how slow many things change in wine, this one happened pretty quickly.

  12. Probably shouldn’t comment because Calif Cab & blends are simply not my thing. But, being a LosAlamos guy, we have authoratative opinions on everything..whether we know anything of the subject or not.
    To me, the problem with Meritage wines has not been their quality (the DryCreekVnyd is particularly good), but there has not really been much of a push to promote it as a genre. A wnry isn’t get much out of its $500 except the use of the name. With Kim as the president of the Meritage association and the loyal BillSmart at her side, I’m hoping that’ll change.
    The other big problem is that some of the biig movers&shakers who make Meritage-style wines are not part of the organization and would rather go it alone. Not sure what you can do about that issue.
    Tom

  13. Tom, I think Meritage may have missed the boat. Not sure, but if lightning hasn’t struck over the last 22 years, it may be too late now.

  14. It all comes down to claiming the name, and rights of ownership of that term or name.

    You can’t put ‘Bordeaux’ on a label (TTB won’t approve the COLA) because of the USA/EU agreement that the ‘term’ Bordeaux speaks of a region/place, and on a label, the contents can only come from that region or place (or it’s misleading).

    I doubt you could get a label approved with the TTB now with “This is a blend using the noble Bordeaux varieties” on the label (back or front). If it’s not on the label, the consumer can’t identify what it is. So telling them or advertising would be difficult.

    “Meritage” is a term/name (being the Assoc. attempt to have the same meaning as “Bordeaux Blend”) is no different. The Meritage Association has legally claimed the word (Trademarked) and you can’t use it on a label unless you are a member of the Meritage Association.

    In my eyes, both are terms I can’t legally/freely use on a label.

    More importantly though, my guess is that the average Betty or Jim doesn’t know what a Meritage is.

  15. Sorry I’m a bit late to the party here, but I’m still recovering from the terrific Wine Bloggers Conference in WA, where the Meritage Alliance was proud to pour a handful of its members wines. Based on the quality of the wines and feedback of the bloggers who tasted these wines, I’d say the category is anything but dead. Maybe a bit delayed in its marketing efforts (which I agree) but definitely not dead. Case in point: the June issue of Wines and Vines Magazine sites Meritage wines as among the fasting growing categories in the industry.

    http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=75022&htitle=Retail%20Wine%20Sales%20Grew%20Faster%20in%20May.

    Membership continues to grow as winemakers and wineries continue to passionately pursue the art of blending the traditional Bordeaux varietals. Does anyone really see that going away? I don’t. And, while we don’t have an exact count (we should but since this is a volunteer organization some things just don’t get done!) there are countless retail stores, restaurants, and hotels across the country that have established Meritage sections on their wine lists. Why? Because these wines need a category other than the lowly descriptor of Red Table Wine. It doesn’t really matter whether one likes the term or not, what matters is the fact that the wines are among the most artistic, innovative and exciting to make from a winemaking perspective. That is because marrying the different varietals creates elegance, drinkability, and complexity far beyond a single varietal can particularly in certain vintages. Besides, if the practice was all that bad, why would they have been doing it in Bordeaux for all these centuries? All we’re trying to do is create a synonym, a classification we can call our own, so we don’t’ have to continually reference the Bordeaux region.

    Finally, I’d like to clear an inaccuracy above regarding membership fees. The fee is not $500 for every winery. In fact, the MOST a winery could pay is $500. The fee is $1 per case not to exceed $500. (The vast majority of producers are small, boutique wineries with very limited production)

    Thanks Steve, for helping to educate your readers.

  16. Kim, thanks for clearing up that $500 thing. Best of luck.

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