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Meritage Schmeritage


The Meritage Association is doing just fine, MSNBC reports, citing figures showing that the 21-year old trade association now has more than 220 members, with the recent additions of Costco, Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Sterling Vineyards. Those are some heavyweight players to have on your side.

I remember when the M.A. was born. They didn’t have a name for the red and white wines blended in the Bordeaux style back in 1988, and so the organizers — Agustin Huneeus, Mitch Cosentino and Julie Garvey [Flora Springs] launched a contest. They asked the public to come up with suggestions, and the winner would receive a case of wine from every member winery, every year, for the rest of his or her life. Or so I recall…

Anyhow, I entered, and came up with some silly pseudo-French name that I no longer recall. They eventually chose “Meritage” (rhymes with “heritage”). A year or so later, I ran into the guy who coined it. He was a bagboy at a big supermarket in the East Bay, just a young kid who lived in a studio apartment. He told me he had cases of wine piled up to the ceiling! I sometimes wonder about him, and if he’s still getting free wine. Two hundred and twenty members x 12 bottles each = 2,400 bottles of wine a year. That’s a lot of wine, although it’s somewhat less than the estimated 4,000 I review annually.

I always liked the idea of Meritage. A word was needed because wine store owners didn’t know how to display the wines, since they’re not clearly varietal. Restaurateurs also weren’t sure where to put them on the list. These blended wines do seem to be in a different category, at least terminologically, from varietal wines. On their website, the Meritage Association, quoting Huneeus, says that the term “Bordeaux blend is a misnomer.” I’m not sure that’s true; I use “Bordeaux blend” frequently in my articles and reviews, and to me, there’s no difference between it and “Meritage.” As far as I can tell, most California Bordeaux blends don’t use the word Meritage, although I’m not sure why that is. The word never became the hit that the originators thought it would. But it’s still useful.


Regardless of whether you call it Meritage, Bordeaux blend or whatever, these wines, mainly the red ones, are some of the best in California: Harlan, Rubicon, Colgin, Phelps Insignia, Opus One. (Blended Bordeaux whites have some room for improvement, to put it mildly.) Yet it’s also important for consumers to realize that just because a bottle of wine has the word “Meritage” on the label doesn’t mean it’s a great wine! Once again, it’s not about words, or AVAs, or anything like that, it’s about what’s in the bottle.

And this (bad news) just in…

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting, in its online edition, that Food & Wine’s talented wine writer, Lettie Teague, is being laid off, and will now work for the magazine as a freelancer (as I do at Wine Enthusiast). The article also reports that “Gourmet is rumored to be close to calling it quits in all but web form.”

Bette Davis: Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Bob Dylan: Could this really be the end?

And finally, as long as I’m in an evil mood…

I got this email press release from an El Lay p.r. firm I won’t identify, except their  letterhead calls them “Specialists in Launching New Concepts & Bringing Existing Ideas to the Mainstream”
A decade ago LA native Scott Palazzo was nominated for a Grammy for his career as a music video producer. Today he’s a vintner whose wine, in only four short vintages, is being called “the next Harlan.” Palazzo’s entry into this status has been a more than charmed rise, after his first vintage landed into the legendary French Laundry. Then the famed founder, chef Thomas Keller, requested he create an exclusive Cab Franc. Furthermore, Parker is giving him high-90 scores. Interested  in featuring this former Grammy winner turned cult wine sensation in Wine Enthusiast?

Readers: please rate this pitch on a 100-point scale, and don’t forget to include a brief review!

  1. I think the fascinating thing about Meritage circa 2009 is how the membership reflects the position Meritage has assumed in the “big picture.” Back in 1988, the founders of Meritage included some of Napa and Sonoma’s heavy hitters (Flora Springs, Franciscan) who were trying to gain more attention for the success they had had emulating Bordeaux chateaus. These days, the vast majority of official Meritage Assn. members or lesser-known wineries who are trying to get more attention for the way they are emulating the big shots in Napa, i.e., the labels you mention above. The hunters are now the hunted.

  2. JD in Napa says:

    For all the work the Meritage Assn has done (they have done work, haven’t they?), most folks seem to have little idea what the term infers. And they can’t pro-nun-ci-ate it, either – tell them that it rhymes with “heritage”, and you get the space alien look. I don’t care if a label says “Meritage”, and I’m pretty sure that most of my wine friends don’t. I’ll have to ask the owner of my favorite wine shop if anyone asks about Meritage.

    I conclude that Meritage is a pretty big “So What?”.

  3. Many wineries that don’t use Meritage believe the fees they pay to the association outweigh the benefits of the name. It also places them in an awkward ‘Other California Reds’ location on some wine lists.

  4. Hi Steve – Yes, the man who coined “Meritage” still receives wine from Meritage Association members. He must have quite a cellar at this point.

  5. I hope he doesn’t still live in a tiny little studio apt.

  6. “most California Bordeaux blends don’t use the word Meritage”

    I think that’s because “Meritage” is a proprietary or trademarked name (or both?). Whatever the correct term, it costs money to be able to use the word on the label and some producers just don’t see the benefit of that.

    There might be a benefit to having the word on the label if it carried an assurance of some standard of quality. But that is just so un-American. It’s like trying to get producers to accept quality standards to AVAs. Instead, all the AVA name on the label tells us is that grapes for a given wine came from a specific area. It does not guarantee that the wine will be unique, made a certain way to create a distinct style and meets some specific quality standards.

  7. You know, I’ve been thinking about the pitch you received.
    I get things like this frequently.
    It doesn’t wound my ego to see yours, Laube’s, Parker’s or other people’s scores in one of these pitches.

    Still, from the perspective of tact and good taste I think that if you are going to pitch something to a writer/critic in a field where critics often disagree (and egos do clash), it’s bad form to pitch an idea or a wine to a critic with another critic’s score.

  8. Hello Steve. I’ll grant you that Lettie Teague is a talented writer, but “talented wine writer?” Her writing often strikes me as someone who thinks wine is cute, and she may know more than the average consumer. Sadly, however, she rarely touches on terroir, and often seems afraid of challenging various producers.

  9. Wow bad news about Lettie, and this comes just after Corrie being let go by the LA Times. It’s getting tough out there.

    Pitch = 84 points. Nice content, but the style doesn’t flow.

  10. Arthur: I think it’s one of the worst press releases I’ve ever seen. A textbook example of how NOT to write one!

  11. Yes, Arthur, only the wineries who pay dues to be in the Assn. are permitted legally to use the name. It was considered a backhanded compliment in recent years when non-member wineries used the term improperly; it was a sort of proof that the name carried some general clout. (Incidentally, Steve, one of those erstwhile Meritageous wineres was the one that created the private label Daisy Ridge “Meritage” sold by your employer’s “partner” wine shop; they joined only after being sent a cease-and-desist letter from the assn.)

    JD is absolutely correct about the chronic mispronunciation. The Meritage people have long been good about smiling and forgiving such ignorance, as, again, it is a small vicotry for them whenever people say Meri-TAHJ.

    And indeed, as Chuck points out, the Meritage wines can get lumped in with unofficial Meritage and other blends, but as long as there are enough people separating them out and recognizing the name in some way, it will keep hanging around.

  12. Morton Lesllie says:

    1. When people report the history of the Meritage designation they always seem to forget mentioning Dick Graff who had as much to do with it becoming a reality as anyone. He should always be mentioned, even if to just make us remember how much we miss him.

    2. Meritage isn’t widely used because it turned out not to be necessary. Most people say “proprietary blend” or use the term Reserve and hope they can get it included with the Cabernets on the wine list.

    3. It is almost always mis-pronounced, so much so, that if I ever say it I usually get a look of surprise like I had just pronounced Lynch-Bages , “Lunch bags!”

  13. How about Meri-TAHJ-Mahal.

  14. Lunch bags! Ha ha. That’s what the Brits used to call Lynch-Bages. Maybe they still do.

  15. Julie Garvey says:

    Dear Steve,

    Just wanted to add a couple of things to your excellent article on Meritage wines. When we talk about the founders of the Meritage Association, we need to remember Dan Berger who became the catalyst for the organization when he persisted in asking the question, “How are we going to categorize all these proprietary wine names?” And, as has been mentioned, one of the first people to respond to that question was Dick Graff from Chalone and he became the first president of the Meritage Association.

    And lastly, I’d like to suggest that the Meritage Association’s greatest contribution to the wine industry was the creation of a category that allowed winemakers the freedom to create wines without having them labeled “Red Table Wine” – a pejorative in those days. After the Meritage Association was recognized, a virtual tsunami of high quality blended wines hit the market.

    Thanks for you fine work. Best, Julie Garvey, Flora Springs Winery

  16. To me Meritage is a term that should work but does not. It does not make the wine easier to sell or command a higher price. It definitely does not relieve consumer confusion.

    As a winemaker, I have poured a “Meritage” labeled wine to many people all over the country and nobody gets it and 99.99% of the people say it wrong. I recall pseudo wine-experts mocking me for pronouncing it correctly. Really just a mess in my opinion.

    Oh, and the pitch sucks. Its written to make you feel stupid for not already jumping on the Palazzo bandwagon.

  17. Hi Julie, great to hear from you! Thanks for reminding me of Dan’s role. He’s like the Zelig of the wine industry — seemingly everywhere, at all the big moments.

  18. At least they got your name right in the pitch, Steve.

    I’ve lost count of how many have been sent to me in which the email is addressed to me but with a different blog name, or to my blog but with a salutation to a totally different person altogether…

  19. Ted, I’m gonna have that pitch framed.

  20. Morton Lesllie says:

    I would give the press release two thumbs up. Just like the movie advertisements that take a critical review out of context. You know, like when the critic says the film was a small masterpiece of banality and the quote you see is “a small masterpiece.” Similarly this writer is getting the most out of having the wine the house pour of a restaurant and getting a 90 from Parker.

    Somehow I find the concept of going to the French Laundry and ordering the house wine to be a pretty funny idea.

    Ooh, I have a great French Laundry story told to me last night by a wealthy Texan. He was entertaining two other couples at the restaurant and they were all doing the 9 course menu. Since the guests were not wine people the host asked the server to select one bottle of wine with each course and “try to keep the price per bottle under $150.” So the meal is going fine, a bottle with each course, until a meat course is about to come out and the server comes over to the table and says (loud enough for not only the guests but the tables around), “I know you are in the economy mode for wine tonight, but the next course is really good and I would suggest maybe something more special with it.”

    There was dead silence, then one of the guests said…”Where I come from economy is ordering one bottle of beer and passing it around the table.” Then another guest said, “I would stay in the economy mode when it is time to tip.”

    Can you imagine? A $1000 wine tab is considered “economy” at the F.L.?

  21. Morton, that is really f****d up. That waitron should lose his/her job.

  22. Joe, welcome to the club, with all its ambiguities. You have to develop a lot of compassion and human understanding to play here.

  23. Julie, I am still of the impression that the TTB has not granted the term “Meritage” any official wine type status and that “Red Table Wine” (14% alc and under) or “Red Wine” (over 14% alc) are also required on the label. If “Meritage” is no longer a “Fanciful” name , will someone please enlighten me with the facts? Thanks a heap.

  24. The word Meritage is both problematic for the reasons mentioned above and really doesn’t set itself apart from the increasing number of “mongrel” reds being produced–blends that go hither thither and yon for their grape sources. The winemaker’s art is enhanced when you have a bigger palette to please the palate– petite sirah with Zin with Sangio, etc.

    Also wineries are having fun and I believe its proving its marketing effectiveness to give their blends of whatever type proprietary names–the pioneer and most famous , perhaps, being Phelps Insignia.

  25. In some markets its easier to sell Meritage rather than Merlot. Merlot is coming back (after the Sideways fallout) but Meritage was a nice replacement for a few years.

    It’s a little weird to quote another reviewer in a pitch, no? I think that is like having too much VA. 70 points.

  26. CMD, 70 points is about what I’d give.

  27. Ray, I think you’re right. TTB has nothing to do with Meritage. To them it’s just a proprietary name.

  28. I want to hear more about this rumor that Gourmet magazine is going to online only. That would be a real shame! Especially since I have a subscription.

  29. A very interesting post! The tide has turned for Meritage as with KJ’s recent entrance into the market the rest of the big guys will soon follow suit… good or bad depends on how much you like Meritage, but sooner than later Meritage will become a household name. Like Cab and Merlot, the big guys will spend lots of dollars to get their entry-level Meritages to the street and in the hands of consumers, which coupled with two decades of branding done by the folks at the Meritage Association (and more importantly media attention – review categories for such Bordeaux blends have helped these wines find a space on the retail shelf) the name will become a known commodity. Love it or hate it, it is such a great business move for those large producers who have stockpiles of Cab Sauv and Merlot (yes some will add a touch of Cab Franc and perhaps a dash of Malbec or Petite Verdot just for looks) and at the end of they day they even have another wine and can ask Mr. Retailer for another spot on the shelf. I won’t leave my own personal thought about it but rather ask, with all the syrah out there I wonder if some association could dream up name for a Rhone-style blend (so that the consumer can unknowingly help the big wine companies find an outlet for their Syrah inventories too).

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