Merit System: Would You Pay Top Dollar for "Red Table Wine"?

By Schneider, Sara | Sunset, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Merit System: Would You Pay Top Dollar for "Red Table Wine"?


Schneider, Sara, Sunset


Wine experts might be guilty of occasional pretension, but sometimes we read snobbery into the wine world that isn't there. For instance, how would you pronounce "meritage," a word appearing on a growing number of wine bottles? More often than not, I hear "mer-i-TAHJ," which presumes some sort of lofty French-ness. But "meritage" is simply a made-up word--a contest-winning merger of "merit" and "heritage" that rhymes with the latter. It was invented to identify an awfully good but potentially misunderstood group of wines made from blends of the classic Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec (or Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Sauvignon Vert for white). Until the early 1980s, a blend like that might have been called Cabernet Sauvignon, because a wine had to contain only 51 percent of a variety to be labeled as such. But it likely would have been shoddy, since makers tended to use that freedom to "blend down."

Blending up the best

Ironically, about the time regulators responded to the mediocrity and raised the varietal content requirement to 75 percent, many vintners were becoming convinced that the best wine might not be 100 percent--or even 80 percent--Cabernet Sauvignon. It might be 62 Cab, 18 Merlot, 14 Cab Franc, and so on. They were blending up. Trouble was, the only legal name for the mix was--and still is--"red table wine," a tag people might associate with schlock.

Two strategies emerged. Early blenders, like Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps Vineyards, gave their Bordeaux-style blends creative names and relegated the table-wine bit to small print. The Phelps "Insignia" has since become a yummy, if pricey, legend. The second approach was to coin a new name for Bordeaux blends and try to persuade the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to recognize it. Thus, the Meritage Association--now some 125 wineries strong--was born.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The fact that the ATF has never recognized Meritage wines as a category doesn't reduce their quality. …

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