Vintners See Less Federal Regulation as Answer to 'What's in a Name?'

Times Wine Writer

Opus One, Dominus, Trilogy and their brethren now have an umbrella name to connect them: Meritage, a word that years from now its backers hope will be widely accepted as defining a super-premium wine made from a blend of the traditional Bordeaux grape varieties.

Meritage is the name selected by a group of 31 wineries that staged a nationwide contest late last year to come up with a designation for the new premium blends of wines springing up all over California. The name was announced here this week.

The idea of naming a premium wine with a proprietary name is a relatively new phenomenon, but it's clearly a major trend in premium wine. It marks the third wave of wine designations in the United States and is an attempt to get out from under government restrictions.

The Meritage Assn., the group backing the concept, is hoping consumers across the country, and worldwide, will see the value in having a term to define the concept of super-premium blended wine.

The drive to come up with a designation was spearheaded by Augustin Huneeus, president of Franciscan Vineyards in the Napa Valley, a winery that had produced a super-premium blended red wine similar to that made in Bordeaux, but it had no unique name to call it.

Huneeus discussed the problem with a number of winery executives and then realized that a "universal proprietary" designation, one that all wineries could use, was the perfect answer. So he joined with other wineries (among those at the first meeting were Merlion and Meridian) and a number of appropriate-sounding terms were suggested. None sounded right.

Then Dick Graff of Chalone Inc., whose Sonoma County winery, Carmenet, makes such a blended red wine, joined the group. He suggested a nationwide contest to name the emerging category of wines, with a prize of about 50 cases of the blended wines.

Since the mid-1970s when Joseph Phelps Vineyards produced California's first super-premium blended wine from the Bordeaux grape varieties and used a proprietary designation on it, California wine producers have eagerly sought a way to make a better wine without the varietal labeling limitations placed on them by the federal government.

One of those restrictions says that any wine labeled as a varietal wine (named after the grape from which it is made) must have in it at least 75% of the grape named on the label. Thus, a Cabernet Sauvignon you buy today must be composed of at least 75% Cabernet grapes.

And since varietal wines were the best wines California made, there were virtually no super-premium wines that were generic.

Before the rule was boosted from a 51% minimum varietal content in 1983, wineries had the flexibility to add in a greater percentage of Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petite Verdot--other Bordeaux varieties and close cousins of Cabernet Sauvignon--to make a better wine.

For instance, in 1972, rains hit the vineyards of the Napa Valley before harvest and the Cabernet suffered. The earlier-harvested Merlot, however, survived better, and many wineries made a better wine than they might have made by blending in Merlot. That year, Sterling's Ric Forman chose to make his Cabernet fully 40% Merlot and the wine was one of the stars of the vintage.

By 1973, however, public pressure was building to boost the minimum content in varietal wine to 75%, and the first official proposal to that effect was made in 1975. The gears of bureaucracy were inexorably grinding to make 75% the minimum in varietal wines.

Wineries complained that any such move would remove colors from their palette that permitted blending artistry in the making of great wine. But the foes of 51% minimum content in varietal wines argued then that under those laws, a Cabernet could be 49% swill.

The 75% rule then in the works would clearly have little effect on wines like Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, which usually were not blended. But the new rule handcuffed makers of wines from the Cabernet varieties, which often were better when blended.

In anticipation of a rule change, Phelps blended a wine in 1974 that was intended to be an annual blending statement. That wine was called Insignia. It was a courageous decision, but it left Phelps with a marketing problem since outside a few sophisticates, few people knew what the wine was all about.

Over the years, other premium Cabernet blends were added to the list; and in 1977, Robert Mondavi and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild certified the trend when they announced a joint project to produce a top-quality Bordeaux-styled wine blended from the traditional varieties.

The first vintage of that wine, then named Opus One, became the prototype premium blended wine to which all the others are compared. And there followed a half dozen other similarly named and similarly blended wines including the most recent, Christian Moueix's Dominus.

A problem existed, however. Marketing such wines to new consumers wasn't easy. In each case, the new consumer would say "What's in it?" and indirectly, the question carried the often unspoken question of "Why is it so expensive?"

So a category was needed in which to place this growing number of wines, which incidentally also includes white wines made like the great white Graves of Bordeaux.

A century ago, the California wine industry was in its infancy, struggling to make decent wine. It had few real thoughts of competing with the great wines of France, but producers here couldn't sell their wines unless the public had some vague idea about the style of wine they were making.

So California wine makers unabashedly adopted the names of European wine regions for the names they placed on their labels. Most wines were labeled things like Chianti, Sauterne, Rhone, Burgundy, Chablis and Champagne.

But the names generally meant nothing. In Burgundy, a red wine is made entirely from the Pinot Noir grape. In California back then, a Burgundy was simply red made from whatever happened to be handy.

Also, there were no controls over how such generic wine was blended; one winery's Chianti could be light and fresh, another's could be dark and brooding.

A few wineries (Beaulieu and Inglenook among them) made wines from the premium grape varieties and boldly called them by their varietal names even before Prohibition. It was a statement of quality, and the wines did command higher prices than their neighbors. However, varietal naming of wines didn't catch on until after Prohibition ended in 1933.

It wasn't until the mid-1930s, when Wente Bros. adopted varietal names, that they began to catch on. Frank Schoonmaker, president of Wente's marketing company, was pleased with the idea, and he encouraged the winery to do it across its line. And Schoonmaker promoted the idea that varietal wines were better than generics.

That set the tone for the second wave of wine marketing--in which the specific varietal character of the wines could be expected by the names on the label. No longer did buyers of California wine have to guess whether a Burgundy was a dark wine or a light one. They could buy wines called Pinot Noir and have some assurance that the wines at least had the same heritage.

Varietal naming remained the mark of the highest quality wines for the four decades that followed, but as blending various varieties became a way to make an even better wine than a varietal wine, a new way to designate the wine was needed.

But it also became clear that the public wasn't willing to pay a lot of money for a wine designated "red table wine" or "claret." So proprietary names began to be used to signify the higher quality of the wine.

When the number of such wines was still small, it wasn't difficult to find names for them, and thus we see such disparate terms as Mosaic (from the De Lorimier winery), Montage (The Christian Brothers) and Le Meilleur du Chai (Rombauer) adorning prestige blended wines.

But the fear was, said Huneeus, that before long the number of proprietary names needed will exceed the ability of the language to support them. Moreover, all those names will be different and there will still be no name for the category of wines into which they fit.

"Today there are about 30 wineries that are considering making a premium proprietary blend that have not yet coined a proprietary name," said Huneeus. He said that if all 30 wineries used different terms, not only would confusion reign, but there still would be no overall term to describe the category.

"We hope Meritage will reduce the myriad of proprietary names that are springing up," he said. "It recognizes the fact that California wine makers now know that the best possible wines they can make are the blends of these (Bordeaux) varieties, and I hope it will get us off the fixation of varietals."

In the case of such typically unblended wines as Chardonnay, "the varietal designation is fine; but unquestionably, the varietal designation is not enough in the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. There the case is quite different. The marriage is usually quite beautiful, better than any of the varieties on their own."

In some cases, such as with Franciscan's, a wine now will be named Meritage. In other cases, such as with Opus One and Dominus, the name of the wine will remain unchanged, but retail shop owners and restaurateurs may now refer to them as being part of the class of wines called Meritage wines.

"This is a much more focused definition than 'red table wine,' " said Huneeus.

Meritage also will be used to define a blended white wine that is based on the French model of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, two varieties that many wine makers feel are much better when blended than when left by themselves. Concannon Vineyards has a 50-50 blend of the two white Bordeaux varieties that is exceptional and needed a special category in which to fit.

"We are also hoping that Meritage will help to reestablish the beautiful possibilities of blending Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon," said Huneeus. He said such wines may be marvelous in terms of quality but that reside in what he called "a no-man's-land" in terms of image.

In the last year, Sauvignon Blanc sales have dipped in the United States, and Huneeus said he saw Meritage white wines as "maybe Sauvignon Blanc's last chance."

The Meritage Assn. will control which wineries use the name on its labels. Huneeus said the association "will not certify or police quality. All we will do is set the standard" for what a Meritage wine is.

That brief definition is that Meritage wines must be blends of the traditional Bordeaux grape varieties--Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Malbec in the case of the red wine and Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle du Bordelais in the case of the white.

Also, a winery applying to use the term on the label must declare that the wine is a top-of-the-line wine and that it will not be denominated as a varietal as well as Meritage.

Among the wineries in the association are Lyeth; Phelps; Glen Ellen; Konocti; Iron Horse; Flora Springs; Dominus; Meridian; Vichon; Beringer; Concannon; the Hess Collection; Keenan; Pine Ridge, and Rombauer.

Winner of the contest--and the only prize--was Neil Edgar of Newark, Calif. He is the assistant manager of the Alpha Beta supermarket in Foster City and he buys wine for the store. His prize is a 10-year vertical collection of two bottles each of all the Meritage wines of the member wineries, approximately 50 cases of top quality wines.

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