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