subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Trying to comprehend the red blend trend



I’ve been watching this burgeoning red blend trend for years. Although red blends have been around forever, I first learned that they were seriously on growers’ and producers’ radar about 5 or 6 years ago, when I spent a most delightful day with Joey Franzia, Fred’s son, of Bronco Wine Co.

We had driven down and back from Oakland to Paso Robles, and on the long haul we had a good conversation about all kinds of stuff. When I asked Joey what was new with Bronco, he mentioned two things in particular: the growing popular interest in Moscato and in red wine blends, both of which Bronco was planting furiously.

Well, when the scion of the fourth-biggest wine company in America (20 million cases annually) tells you about trends, let me tell you, your ears prick up. So from then on my brain was alerted to any news about the red blend trend. (Not so much about Moscato. I thought that trend had a short shelf life.)

The latest wine writer to opine on red blends is Lettie Teague, in the Wall Street Journal. She cites Nielsen as saying that “the domestic red-blend category…is one of the fastest-growing wine sales categories in the country.” The trend began, asserts Teague, with the 2001 release of The Prisoner, “the first American red-blend superstar.”

The Prisoner indeed is something of a pheenom, but it’s not as if it emerged parthenogentically from the mind of Zeus, or of Dave Phinney. It had historic and notable antecedents. For most of history wine was not labeled at all. Varietal labeling in America is a more or less modern occurrence, the brainchild of post-Prohibition purists, such as Frank Schoonmaker, who wished to distinguish our wine from its European brethren. (Yes, there was varietal labeling in California in the 1800s, but it was the minority.)

Even with the popularity of varietal labeling, though, there always has been a feeling among winemakers that they did not wish to have their hands tied by the government’s rules. If it took less than 75% of a named variety to produce a better wine, so be it. Hence Meritage and proprietary names. Then, too, the practice of “field blends” also came roaring back in the 1990s and 2000s, with the success of bottlings like Carlisle’s “Two Acres” blend of Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Carignane, Peloursin, Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel and a white variety, Helena. Such old-vine blends can be really superlative.

The juxtaposition or intersection of winemaking style versus government winemaking rules is complicated and as old as time. Phillippe the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, forbade “disloyal Gaamez” from growing in his realm in 1395, an early example in Europe of the intrusion of government (in this case Royal) into winegrowing affairs. The A.V.A. laws as drafted by our own Federal government in the late 1970s and early 1980s were merely a democratized version—one widely thought to be innovative and reformative then, but could just as easily be seen as nanny-state meddling now. There is no reason, and there never has been, why a varietally-labeled wine should necessarily be better than a blend.

Some producers will point out, accurately, that consumers are now used to varietal labeling; they (the producers) can’t be expected to pioneer radical marketing practices that will cost them business. This is true. But all things evolve, even in an industry as resistant to change as is wine. There is no reason to think that younger consumers today are as obsessed with varietal labeling as their parents and grandparents. If anything, there’s reason to think they’re moving in exactly the opposite direction.

Teague points this out, suggesting that many younger wine drinkers find red blends more “friendly” than varietals (and cheaper, too). The current (April 2015) issue of Wine Enthusiast has an article on “The Changing Face of Wine” (sorry, I can’t find it online to link to) that’s all about “a new generation of winemakers…the world over” who are creating wine labels that are “fun, bold [and] wildly creative”—and many of these wines are red blends that eschew identifying specific varieties and whose “coolness” appeals to younger drinkers.

I do think producers of these red blends are going to have to give consumers a little help regarding what the wines taste like. Consumers know that a Cabernet Sauvignon will be full-bodied, a Pinot Noir lighter and more elegant, a Zinfandel spicy and bold. But they have no idea what a fancifully-named blend tastes like or what kinds of foods to drink it with. This is where the back label comes in. I’m a big fan of back labels. They’re the producer’s opportunity to talk directly to consumers at the point of sale. I know there have been studies on the impact of front labels in off-premise sales. It would be interesting to study the effect of a well-produced back label. If I were looking at two bottles that were similar in every respect, except that one had nothing on the back label except the usual boring stuff, while the other gave me information about grape sourcing, wine style and food suggestions, I’d be much more likely to buy the latter.

  1. Dusty Gillson says:

    I just have a couple of comments on red blends. Personally, I am much less inclined to try an obscure or proprietary red blend from a producer I don’t know than to try a varietal wine from the same producer. I think that comes from the fact that I have a strong baseline in my mind on what Sonoma Pinot Noir tastes like, by which I can judge any new wine, but I have no such baseline for some offshoot blend.

    I will buy blends from producers I know and trust (Carlisle Two Acres being one example), but I would tend to be very picky.

    They may be gaining popularity all the time, but to me, the generic red blends in the $10-$30 range are typically very uninteresting and any enjoyment I may have had from a consideration of varietal typicity has been removed.

    As to your comment about back labels, I think the quality of back labels can be as varied as wines themselves. I’ve heard stories of large wineries tasking their people to type the copy for back labels without ever having tasted the wines. It also has been my experience that it s mostly the luxury brands (Rochioli, Ceritas, etc.) that tend to have minimal to no content on their back labels.

  2. It’s interesting in Chile almost all the labelled Cabernet Sauvignons have 10-15% other grapes blended in often not mentioned on the bottle, its most often Carmenère or Syrah, they have realized adding another grape brings in greater complexity and improves the wine……..

  3. Blends are more exciting (broad statement). Syrah, kind of boring. GSM, fun. Cab boring, Bordeaux blends more exciting. I believe it is the 75% law causing this. It used to be 50%. Maybe we could use a label law saying you can call it a “Cab blend” if it’s at least 40% or 50% Cab.

    Last night’s dinner was with a red from Yorkville Cellars of Zin, Carignane, Petite Sirah, and small amounts of a few other grapes. And it was a fun night. lol

  4. The so-called red blend category is a trap. Dusty Gillson has it exactly right. Any wine labeled “red blend” or other unidentified red generic name or proprietary name gives the buyer no clue as to what to expect.

    Now, Dusty is also right that one can count on producers whose quality and styles are known so one would not expect a “claret” blend from a Rhone producer.

    I don’t know about other writers, but since I taste by variety, I ask wineries what is in the blend in order to put the wine in with wines of similar composition and then tell my readers what the wineries tell me.

    In the US of A, we can make varietal wines with 75% varietal content, and while many wines get identified on their labels, or on the winery website, a bottle labeled Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Syrah or Grenache, may very likely have other varieties in the blend and no one is the wiser.

    Those blends are not what this conversation is about, but, rather, generic blends. They may constitute a growing category, but I am with Dusty. Without knowing what they are, why would one buy something generic just because it did not bear a varietal name?

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Not all red blends are created equal nor come from the same philosophy. The Ridge vineyard designated field blends (granted, their often labeled as Zins) are some of the greatest wines in California, and I would put them high on the list worldwide. They bear zero resemblance to The Prisoner which–as accurately destroyed in Ms. Teague’s column–is a cynical, market driven exercise in lowest common denominator winemaking. It has more in common with the Cupcake wines than it does with Ridge’s red wine blends.

    Prisoner may be a phenomenon, albeit a transitory one, in the market, but it’s the last thing that the premium Cal industry should be trying to emulate.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section
    (April 5, 2009, Page E1ff):

    “Consumers and Vintners Hop on the Blendwagon”


    By Tim Teichgraeber
    Special to The Chronicle

    If a wine’s first duty is to be red, its second is surely to taste good. For many, any bottle that satisfies those two prime directives is good enough, and no long-winded discussion of terroir justifies spending an additional $20.

    More and more, those looking for a hearty, straightforward red are looking to the “everything but the kitchen sink” red blend category – labels like Red Truck, Marietta Old Vine Red and Big House Red to name but a few. These are lightly oaked, unpretentious reds assembled from a handful of grape varieties, usually tagged with a nonconformist label that helps them stand out on shelves.

    There’s nothing terribly new about these. Marietta Cellars owner Chris Bilbro recalls running into Gina Gallo at a party where his Old Vine Red was being poured. “She said, ‘Hey, my grandfather used to make that wine. He called it HEARTY BURGUNDY!’ ”

    Ridge Vineyards CEO Paul Draper points out the field blend vineyards where Zinfandel was long interplanted with other varieties like Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet — grapes that add some color or structure to Zinfandel’s rich fruit. Such blends were standard practice more than a century ago. “These 19th century growers really knew what they were doing,” he says.

    Today’s winemakers, with more grape varieties to work with than ever, are taking the same creative approach: blending various grapes to concoct affordable wines that taste great.

    “These days the skill of the vintners … has improved so much that they can accomplish a lot when they have a number of varieties to work with,” says Wilfred Wong, cellar master for Beverages & More. That’s why blends can offer better value than varietal wines. “If I’m drinking (unblended) California Pinot Noir, I’m going to be paying for it,” says Wong. “Someone who used to buy a $40 Cabernet and can’t afford it now, they’ll buy a $20 Zinfandel blend instead – there’s more character in those blends.”

    . . .

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Ridge bottled a 2012 “Three Valleys Sonoma County” red blend comprising 79% Zinfandel, 12% Carignane, 8% Petite Sirah and 1% Alicante Bouschet.

    Under the 75% grape variety composition law, it qualifies for designation as a Zinfandel.

    But that’s not how they labeled it.

  8. Dusty Gillson:
    “I think the quality of back labels can be as varied as wines themselves. I’ve heard stories of large wineries tasking their people to type the copy for back labels without ever having tasted the wines”

    I wonder if that accounts for some of the “all things to all people” back labels I see: labels that claim that the wine pairs well with steak, chicken, seafood, pasta, or salad, and also works well as an aperitif! Or that the wine is bold and hearty, yet subtle, refined, and complex. Bursting with fruit, but also earthy and spicy and … (a dozen other descriptors). There’s a point at which a label says so much that it says nothing.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B:

    See this wine blog and the research paper it cites:


  10. I’m not much tempted to try unknown blends (can we say A-patheticRed?) unless I have some idea of what’s in them.Just so I can put them into some sort of context. And then I try to see if the predominate grape speaks the loudest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes you can pick out two or so, sometimes it’s just a muddled mess.
    One wnry that I think does an extraordinary job w/ blends is TablasCreek. They always identify the varietal composition on the side label. Most of the time, the wine rings true to the predominate grape. But not always. But they put their pride & reputation into their blends and the mono-varietal wines are often sort of a side-issue. I almost always find their blends better & more seamless & more interesting than their mono-varietals. But, then, TablasCreek is a pretty special wnry…least in my book.

  11. Bob Henry says:


    I recall your tasting notes from some years back on attending the Ridge Winery verticals.

    What is your opinion on Sean Thackrey’s “Pleiades” old vine red blend — a mashup of what he had hanging around after making his Orion red field blend, Taurus Cline Vineyard Mourvèdre, Sirius Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino County Petite Sirah, and Aquila Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino County Sangiovese?

    ~~ Bob

  12. Bob,
    I’ve not had Sean’s wines in many a year…so not really qualified to speak on them. I did like his Pleiades way back then, but don’t recall it being as well-focused as the TablasCreek blends.

  13. Is the winemaker’s FIRST intent to make make a good wine that represents his vision, terroir, and region or is the winemaker’s intent to make a lot of money with a commercial wine that will sell easily. All other considerations just follow. There is a dichotomy between artisan products and manufactured products. They both have their own intrinsic value; it just depends what your interests are in the wine world. It is a large universe. Many of the wines mentioned in this discussion should not even be compared.

  14. 1. The comment section is missing the fact that Menage-a-Trois, Apothic, Essential Red, etc are what most consumers now mean by “Red Blend.” They allow the (Large) company to build brand loyalty beyond the ‘variety seeking’ behavior of most American wine buyers. You take an “unpronounceable abstraction” like Cabernet Sauvignon and transfer that effort to solidifying the brand.

    2. Steve, studies from the Ehrenberg Bass Institute in Adelaide seem to present the fact that only 7% of the shoppers who touch a bottle read the back label prior to purchase*. If a winery wants a shopper to know something, they need to put it on the front label.

    *this is even smaller when shopping for wine in a restaurant, of course.

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts