The heritage of "Meritage"
It's a word worth getting to know, though, as the story behind "Meritage" gives us a quick overview of the modern development of California wine.
For centuries, wines were routinely named and labeled on the basis of geography. Consumers purchased Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or Chablis or Chianti because they knew and loved the styles of those wines, and nobody thought much about the specific grapes that went into the press.
When American wineries returned to production with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many of them casually borrowed the famous European place names. To the horror of the French (and of serious wine fanciers around the world), cheap red domestic wine came to be known generically as "burgundy" and inexpensive white as "chablis."
During the 1950s and '60s, as the American market became a little more sophisticated in the booming postwar economy, the more ambitious wineries - spurred by the wine merchant and writer Frank Schoonmaker and others - started labeling their best wines by "varietal" - the name of the wine grape predominant in the bottle - as a way to distinguish their specialty wines from the mass market. Wine lovers soon learned to ask for "Chardonnay" or "Cabernet Sauvignon" or "Merlot" if they wanted better wines; and it wasn't long before "100 percent varietal" came to represent the best on the American market.
But this otherwise happy trend overlooked a simple reality: Many of the top European wines used blends of many grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and others in Bordeaux being perhaps the most obvious example), and they did this for a good reason: Each component of the blend contributed its own special elements, making a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Many California wineries continued making such blended wines, but under U.S. law, they could only label them "red table wine" ... or market them under trademarked proprietary names, some of which (like Phelps "Insignia" or the Justin "Isosceles" featured below) became sought-after in their own right.
And in 1988, a group of California wine makers formed a non-profit consortium, The Meritage Society (now called the Meritage Association, with a Website at www.meritagewine.org), to encourage - and trademark - the development of California blended wines made in the fashion of Bordeaux.
U.S. wineries that wish to use the proprietary name "Meritage" must obtain a license from the association (for an annual charge of $1 for every case of Meritage wine they produce), and may use it only on wines that meet these criteria:
In my experience, borne out in the brief sample featured in this week's tasting (below), Meritage wines may bow to France in their blending tradition but typically represent California in their big, fruity (and often oaky) style. Be that as it may, they're typically very fine California wines, well worth seeking out with the understanding that they are often the winery's most expensive product.
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Two Bordeaux-style California reds
St. Supéry 1996 Meritage Napa Valley Red Wine ($35)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with char-grilled lamb steaks.
WEBSITE: www.stsupery.com. There's lots of information about the winery and its wines on this stylish site, but its extensive video features, animations and graphics make it a bit frustrating to view if you have a slow dial-up connection.
Justin Vineyards & Winery 1997 Paso Robles Isosceles ($34.99)
FOOD MATCH: Calls for a rare steak, but serves surprisingly well with a summer veggie meal of caprese (tomatoes and fresh mozzarella) with a tomato-basil risotto.
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Vol. 2, No. 34, Sept. 11, 2000