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The art of the blend: What I won’t be telling the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium

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I was asked to moderate a panel next month at the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium in Sacramento, and while I had to decline due to circumstances beyond my control, I was intrigued by the topic: The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine.

The person who invited me, David Akiyoshi, is winemaker at Lange Twins Winery. (I remember years ago visiting them, when I covered the wines of the Sierra Foothills.) David explained to me, in an email, what he was looking for:

“The moderator should have the ability to provide an overview of historical wine trends from the generic 70’s chablis/burgundy, the demographic shift beginning in the 80’s to wines with varietal labels and the latest trend of proprietary red/white wine blends. There has always been a market for these wines such as with the European Meritage or Rhone blends and today’s consumers are more accepting of this category. Significant for the success of these wines is that there is less need for consumers to be a connoisseur or to be handcuffed by the latest 100 pt score.  Quite simply, it is all about the enjoyment of wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice.’” 

One could obviously write a book about all this, but I’ll try to fit it into a blog-length post. We know, of course, that from the end of Prohibition up to some point in the 1970s, American wines (mainly from California) labeled “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” “Rhine,” “Sauternes” and the like dominated sales in this country. Educated people understood the wrongness of this; as early as the 1930s, folks such as Frank Schoonmaker argued for true and honest labeling: “Napa Valley Red Wine,” that sort of thing. By the time the boutique winery era was rolling, in the late 1960s-1970s, and mainly in Napa and Sonoma, this point of view had become the accepted norm. Varietal labeling was celebrated as being refreshingly honest and distinctly American, an early practice of truth-in-labeling.

In the late 1980s, a group of vintners who were producing Bordeaux-style wines in California became frustrated with varietal labeling. They were blending the major Bordeaux varieties to produce the best wines they could, but the amount of any given variety was insufficient to meet the Federal government’s requirement of at least 75% of that variety in order to so label the wine. So they held a contest to come up with an alternative name (a contest I entered, and lost). The word “Meritage” won. The concept was good, but unfortunately, that term proved not to have staying power. Although some wineries still use it, it never caught on, and seems to me to be in dimenuendo.

However, that never stopped vintners from blending to below the 75% threshold. They simply called their wine by a proprietary name, like Joe Phelps did with Insignia. At first, these blends were almost exclusively Bordeaux varieties, but by the 1990s, Rhône-style blends began appearing. Spearheaded by the “Rhône Ranger” movement and the Hospices du Rhône organization, these wines were modeled after southern Rhône blends, usually based on GSM: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. They, too, could not be called by a varietal name, so the wineries gave them proprietary names, such as Tablas Creek’s Esprit de Beaucastel. (Some of these wineries also produced white wines, most often based on some combination of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc.)

David Akiyoshi asks, “Are [these] blended wines merely a fad, or are they creating a new and lasting category of wines that promises to bringing new consumers to the table?” My answer, clearly, is a loud NO, they are not merely a fad, and YES, they are a lasting category, although I couldn’t say whether or not they’re “bringing new consumers to the table,” which is a complicated issue.

I’ve blogged about this and written about it in Wine Enthusiast, and in fact, one of the main reasons why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be the magazine’s Wine Region of the Year was due to the success of the blends, red and white, made there, often of varieties previously unrelated by region or historical practice (Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Merlot, for example).

There’s no reason why a varietally-labeled wine is necessarily better than a blended one. Bordeaux itself is always a blend of varieties. One could even argue that so is red Burgundy, given Pinot Noir’s proclivity to spontaneously mutate to different clones. The Federal government’s requirement of 75% for a variety is patently arbitrary: Why not 60%, or 90%? The only reason, in my opinion, why so many vintners choose to label their wines varietally is because the consumer believes that varietally-labeled wines are superior to wines with other names.

When David says “It is all about the enjoyment of a wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice,’” he’s onto something. It’s the job of us educators to teach the public that varietal labeling in and of itself is meaningless. The problem, of course, is that this is an uphill battle, and will take time.

Where I digress from David’s point of view is when he says that the success of blending as a consumer category will result in “less need for consumers…to be handcuffed by the latest 100 point score.” I can understand why he (or anyone else) would object to the 100 point system, but I don’t see what varietal labeling has to do with it. I gave 100 points to La Muse 2007, which has no varietal labeling, just as I gave 100 points to the Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, which obviously does.

In the end, it’s a sign of a culture’s wine maturity when the populace understands that the ultimate duty of a wine is to provide pleasure, not to adhere to some government rule. If it can best do so by the winemaker crafting the most perfect blend he or she is capable of, then why should anyone care that the wine doesn’t have a varietal name? This may sound like Jesuitical, angels-dancing-on-pinheads rhetoric, but it actually strikes the point that American consumers, still rather infantile about wine, have stereotypes and preconceptions that must pass, before we can truly become a wine-appreciating country.

  1. Steve,

    Great blog post – and too bad you will not be moderating. You would have been able to provide a ‘historical perspective that many others simply cannot.

    I’ve found the distinction between blends and varietally labeled wines interest to explore and discuss. I have some folks who come into my tasting room specifically asking if I have blends, saying that they ‘prefer blends over varietal wines’.

    On the other hand, I continually get folks walking in, looking at my varietally labeled grenache, and asking ‘what kind of blend is this’?

    It all starts with education on the wine industry’s side as to why blends are created. Is it:

    1) To mimic wines from other regions of the world?

    2) To create a wine where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts?

    3) To simply ‘try something different’.

    4) To get rid of ‘extra’ wine . . .

    I think, from an industry standpoint, it’s actually all three, depending upon the winery and the vintage. And you’ll see this in price points, etc.

    I dig the fact that wines like ‘The Prisoner’ have done so well in the wine marketplace – consumers have ‘warmed up’ to ‘moderately higher priced’ blends without really knowing what’s in them. They have grown to like what’s inside the bottle regardless of how ‘strange’ or ‘unorthodox’ a blend may be. That, to me, is a great sign.

    And I dig that more of more of these blends are appearing, from Ojai’s basic table red and table white wines that can be found for under $20 and are an absolute steal, to Lone Madrone’s uncharacteristic blends that will make you really think about what you’re drinking. It’s good to push wines and categories in different directions.

    I do NOT see this in the same vein as why we saw the rise of the Super Tuscan’s, though – this isn’t about government labeling laws or the such. I see it about economics and/or creativity.

    My point? Not sure I have one – too early . . . but just wanted to pipe in (-:

    Cheers!

  2. Bill Crowley says:

    Worthy article, Steve, and a good read.

    I’d just make two points. With respect to the 75% requirement for varietal labeling (and since you were asked to give an historical perspective), I think it’s worth noting that the varietal minimum was only 51% until 1983! Now 51% to 75% is a big change. And even with the 75% requirement, a Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon could contain as little as 50% Napa Cab (could be 25% Napa Carignane and 25% Fresno Cab).

    Oh, and the 51% requirement still holds for Labrusca wines. That Concord you’re drinking could be 49% Merlot.

    With respect to the level of sophistication (or level of wine knowledge) of the U.S. wine consumer, I’m not so sure the average consumer from Mediterranean Europe is any more sophisticated or informed with respect to general wine knowledge than domestic consumers. They may drink more wine, but that doesn’t mean they know more about what they’re drinking (or not drinking) than folks here do.

    And I agree, you’d have been a great moderator for the proprietary wines session.

  3. Steve say’s ” The problem, of course, is that this is an uphill battle, and will take time”

    …and all great things take time : )

  4. Mitch Cosentino says:

    Hi Steve. Good blog. Do you remember what your submission was in the competition for what became Meritage?
    Of course I was involved from the beginning and released the very first designated Meritage wine under my old original winery, the 1986 vintage of THE POET. Amazingly that release was almost 25 years ago come the third week of next February (2014). THE POET existed before the Meritage term (initial vintage was 1980). I think you underestimate the success of the term. While it did struggle for quite a few years with around 30-40 member wineries. That has changed dramatically over the past decade. I believe there is about 300 member wineries worldwide presently. While I am no longer associated with my old namesake, Cosentino Winery I am still making a red and white Meritage wine that also have proprietary names at my newer pureCru Winery: M.Coz Red and PURETY White. The importance of Meritage (that was my #2 choice when we voted) has been a means to separate and identify the Bordeaux varietal blends from Rhone blends, Italian style blends and other “fanciful” blends. Also interesting is how the name Meritage has become part of the lexicon of the language. It is used as a name for many businesses all over the country. There are hotels, many independently owned restaurants, city streets and one of the largest home builders in the US who have chosen to use this “created” name. I am not speaking for the Meritage group and I cannot claim to be responsible for the explosion of the growth. I am a member just one of the hundreds. In the early years I did encourage others to stick with it, insisting that it would take time for it to become part of the fabric of the industry and part of the language.
    I always enjoy your blogs and your perspectives.

  5. Great blog and interesting posts by all. “Blends” is a huge category. I think it is seeing success as the consumer is looking to explore more and is enjoying the non-traditional names, whether brands or proprietary wine names. I do think wine education is key as it is difficult to determine whether the blend is sweet or not–especially in the $12-$15 price point. Sweet wines at the lower price points i think are driving the positive growth trends of the category. Yet dryer blends at $15+ are providing great alternatives to classic varietals and allowing winemakers to show their creativity, much like fusion cuisine.

  6. Excellent and thought provoking post. I have noticed that red blends seem to have made a lot more traction than white blends, which are still lagging far behind their varietal counterparts. Any thoughts on why that might be the case?

  7. Steve: I think it is undoubtedly true, as you suggest, that some consumers have come to assume that a varitally labeled wine is somehow superior to other wines. However, I think perhaps a larger portion of ordinary consumers prefer varitally labeled wines for a different reason. In a country where there are no restrictions on what may be grown where, varietally labeled wines enable consumers to identify wines with flavor characteristics they have determined they enjoy regardless of where the wine comes from. It’s imperfect but it requires less work than learning the flavor profiles of wines from every famous growing region, which is not even possible in a region like Sonoma County or Paso Robles that makes significant quantities of wine from very diverse varieties. I think blends have succeeded historically in the great old world wine regions because the regional designations, due to practice and regulation, have the characteristics of a varietally labeled wine in the U.S. A Cotes du Rhone is a wine with a particular flavor profile due to pretty narrow parameters in the components of the blend. One might say, “I’ll have the Cotes du Rhone” in the same way one might say “I’ll take a Cabernet.” I’m a lover of new American blends, but even if Americans embrace more diversity in wine styles that give American blends “staying power,” I think it will be difficult for American winemakers to ever achieve the level of success of old world blends without some agreed, uniformly applied naming conventions.

  8. Mitch Cosentino says:

    Gabe the reason whites have lagged behind is that many “serious” wine buyers are frankly afraid of whites in general unless they already know the wine. They are fearful of a wine being fat, flat and/or sweet. Those that do want that already know the “cougar juice” such as Rombauer Chard, KJ Chards or Conundrum (this in particular is what many associate with white blends). The proliferation of new Muscat/muscato types are building the alternate identity. Thus White Bordeaux/White Meritage wines have to try to break thru and if it isn’t clear what they are, just using a proprietary name will not entice those to experiment. White Rhone styles have a similar problem and usually have to rely on having the varietals on the front labels.

  9. David notes the success of blending as a consumer category will result in “less need for consumers…to be handcuffed by the latest 100 point score.” … And Steven notes ” I don’t see what varietal labeling has to do with it.”

    It may be because in the consumer’s mind the 100 point system as employed by many professional tastemakers represents some sort of objective yardstick a la Clark Smith and Appellation America. The wines showing more distinctive varietal character deserve more points, the consumer suspects, and pleasure rides in the back. It reflects a kind of precision which runs counter to the genesis of ‘splendid blendeds’, when in fact it could just rate the degree of pleasure to the drinker and the critic, as you comment.

    Nonetheless, creating oddball combinations of varietals seems to move perspectives closer to personal preference which is perceived as ideosyncratic causing the yardstick to break in the perception of an increasing number of nonprofessionals.

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