For decades, the best red wine California made was Cabernet Sauvignon.
So successful was Cabernet early in its career as a noble wine that some of the state’s best were deemed good enough to test against the best of Bordeaux, in a tasting that took place 34 years ago.
Over the years, Cabernet has made some mighty impressive wines in California, to the point where it began to be grown in areas as diverse as Monterey, Temecula, Lodi, Livermore and Lake County.
Merlot may have started out the near-equal of Cabernet, but today it plays a relatively minor role. Indeed, if California red wine has a Best Supporting Actor, you could say (at least from its popularity) that it’s Zinfandel.
With Napa Cabernet Sauvignons ruling the roost and Sonoma coming in a strong second, marketing Cabernet from other areas of California has become a bit more problematic. Although most of Lodi, all of Mendocino, and parts of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Lake and Monterey counties grow excellent Cabernet, selling it as a varietal wine simply has never been easy.
So, although Cabernet is still made in many regions of the state, the task of convincing Napa-focused consumers on the other regions has gotten more difficult. Over the last decade, many non-Napa wineries actually scaled back on Cabernet production in favor of a new approach.
These are blended red wines, most of them using proprietary designations. Many have Cabernet as a key part of the blend, but others are special blends from vineyards with a unique mix of varietals.
Two Marketing Ideas
There are actually two marketing ideas that took hold to give wineries a chance to market their wines without necessarily bumping heads with Cabernet. The first was the development of Meritage wines, Cab-blended reds with other Bordeaux varieties.
Such wines are headed by Opus One (the Mondavi-Mouton joint venture); Dominus of Christian Moeuix; Insignia by Phelps, and literally dozens more.
More recently, and notably because of slower sales of some varietal wines (most of which normally sell for more money than do generics) as well as a surplus of certain grapes, dozens of wineries around the state have developed blended red wines that are aimed at being great values. Others are making such blends at the top of the price niche.
Some blends can be sold for a more reasonable price without consumers thinking there is something wrong with the wines. But the more expensive of these wines are now becoming hot properties on their own. At the top of the proprietary blend chain is Icon, a blend about which winemaker Joel Peterson of Ravenswood said, “I have wanted to make a blend like this all my life.”
The key aspect of Ravenswood’s existence is Peterson’s quest to keep separate the fruit from various ancient Zinfandel vineyards. His vineyard-designated Zin program is one of the greatest features of Ravenswood’s lineup.
The blend for his 2006 Icon, which sells for $75 a bottle, is 39% Carignane, 38% Petit Sirah, 22% Zinfandel, 2% Alicante Bouschet – and it’s the high caliber of the Zin that gives this wine its main aroma and finish character.
Peterson especially loves this wine for emotional reasons.
The Italian Winemakers of Sonoma
“The idea of blending red wine grapes goes back to many of the Italian farmers who settled in Sonoma County,” he says. “The field blend of grapes was called ‘mixed blacks,’ and that set the tone for the way red wine was made 50 years ago.”
Peterson’s reference to the importance of Italian culture on the wines of the pre-and post-Prohibition era in California includes such names as Foppiano, Pedroncelli, Martini, Rochioli, Sebastiani, Martini and Simi.
Their blended red wines relied on fields of mixed blacks, many of which remain.
Many of these red blends were called Burgundy or Claret (Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy remains an homage to the concept to this day). These were hearty, often heady red wines with alcohol levels pushing 13% – which was very high for the period.
They were often sold at the winery. (Simi bottled some of its wines specifically for the elegant Hotel del Monte in Monterey in the 1930s and 1940s.) Some San Francisco wine shops offered Burgundies to consumers who would bring in their own gallon or half-gallon jugs to be filled directly from the cask. This system was in effect through the early 1950s.
Such wines were popular with northern Californians because of their rustic nature and their distinctive house styles. Foppiano’s Burgundy was based on Petite Sirah since that was the dominant grape of the Healdsburg producer, which is located near the Russian River/Alexander Valley border. Sebastiani had more Zinfandel on its Sonoma property, so that was the largest grape in its Burgundy. Simi Burgundy had a healthy dose of Carignane.
And almost all such wines had a bit of the black-skinned, red-juiced Alicante Bouschet, which by itself makes a wine almost black in color.
Growers of the pre- and post-Prohibition period also sold grapes to wineries, and prices for them varied based on numerous factors. These intermixed vineyards were usually planted with numerous varieties and the grapes usually were termed “mixed blacks,” referring to the color of the resulting wine.
One vineyard that still grows a huge number of different varieties, inter-planted, is the Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley. There, Will Bucklin still grows vines, some of which were planted in 1851.
Although Constellation, which now owns Ravenswood, copyrighted the term “Mixed Blacks,” the company has allowed many others to use it. In 2006, for example, Girard Winery in Napa made a blend of Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Carignane (as well as a number of other as-yet unidentified grapes) for a wine that it calls Mixed Blacks.
One of the un-sung heroes in this blending game is Grenache, a grape that has a dual reputation. Many consumers think of it as a no-account, déclassé variety that mainly makes sweet and innocuous rosé wines. And it can.
But most growers and wine makers love Grenache for its unique aromatic character.
One drawback is that the variety is remarkably prolific. Early every spring, when the vines first begin to throw out shoots, Grenache is the easily the most vigorous in a vineyard, with canes that rise far above all other vines’ growth material. As a result, if left to its own devices, the grape would produce 12 to 20 tons per acre! At that level, the resulting wine would be totally lacking in color, aromatic pizzazz, and would be so light in flavor and texture as to be a rosé by any other name.
However, when it is grown in lesser amounts, trimmed back to give only six or so tons per acre, the wine it can be coaxed to make is not only relatively dense in color, but it gives a wine an aromatic component unlike any other grape, with more fresh cherry, cranberry and pomegranate aromas than any other grape.
Indeed, in cooler climes (in which it is rarely grown because it needs a lot of sun to develop certain characteristics) it can make for a wine with a distinctive peppery component.
Grenache can make a terrific varietal wine, but occasionally it is one-dimensional all on its own. It is best seen as an additive to Syrah, Mourvedre and other grapes when the blend is entirely aimed at mimicking Côtes du Rhône.
Literally dozens of Rhône blends are being made in California including the superb Cotes du Crow’s from Mogran winery in Monterey, Cuvée le Bec from Beckmen in Santa Barbara County and Bonny Doon’s reliable Le Cigare Volant.
Beckmen has superb acreage for its Grenache on Purisima Mountain, which is among the best places for the variety in California. Cuvée le Bec is typically about half Grenache, a fourth Syrah, and has chewy flavors that lengthen in years to develop nuances in the bottle.
Dan Lee of Morgan says of his Cote du Crow’s: “The goal is to produce a wine that has the bold, spicy, rich flavors of the Southern Rhône,” but with the added depth of a warmer region.
To get this character from Monterey grapes, Lee ferments the varieties in open-top fermenters, punches the cap for gentle extraction and to ensure that tannins will be soft. It is aged in French oak barrels for less than a year since the wine is aimed at relatively early consumption. The blend of 55% Syrah and 45% Grenache allows for the wine to age a few years, but appears to be best at four years from the vintage.
In addition to Cote du Crow’s, Lee also makes a wine called Rio Tinto under his Lee Family brand. This is a dry, red table wine produced from classic Portuguese Port varietals – about 55% Touriga Francesa, 25% Alvarelhao, 10% Touriga Nacional and 10% Tinta Roriz (the Portuguese name for Tempranillo).
Another wine in the same Rhône range is Le Cigare Volant, Randall Grahm’s homage to the regional blend. Once this also was best at about four years of age. However, this wine is one of the few in bottles sealed with a screwcap. As a result, it appears to be aging better, and needs six years to display the kind of complexity seen in others.
Adding Some Zinfandel
What really drives this blended red wine category, however, are non-European-model wines. That is, they include a bit of Zinfandel (non-existent in France, for instance) as well as cross-regional blends.
One of the most respected is Paraduxx, the winery that became an outgrowth of Duckhorn, the Merlot specialist. Paraduxx winemaker David Marchesi use both Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to create its own benchmark style of wine.
Each vineyard is harvested and barrel-aged separately, as distinct lots. Use of both French and American oak for 18 months gives Marchesi different flavors to each lot.
Blends are assembled to take advantage of Cabernet’s structure and Zin’s forward fruit.
He also makes Canvasback, a Rhône blend based on Syrah and Grenache, as well as a wine called Postmark, a 60%-40% Zin-Cabernet blend.
Vina Robles in Paso Robles began making high-end blended wines in 2004 with a wine called Signature, which was about two-thirds Petit Verdot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder Syrah.
The reason, said sales manager Marc Laderriere, “was that the Petit Verdot in our vineyards was doing so well, we decided we wanted to do a blend in the European style.” But as trial blends were being assembled, the wine making team noticed that “the Syrah brings some sweetness to the wine, and some smoothness at the end.”
At $39, the 2006 Vina Robles Signature has been a hit with the marketplace, and is now joined by two more blends.
The 2006 Vina Robles Suendero ($49, 53% Cabernet, 47% Petite Verdot) is aimed at being a Bordeaux-styled blend, and 2006 Vina Robles Syrée ($39, 84% Syrah, 16% Petite Sirah) also has received recognition.
“We put the blends on the label, so it is clear that the Suendero is a Meritage wine,” said Laderriere. The winery has 40 acres of Petit Verdot, and it seems to ripen before Cabernet.
Blends need not be expensive, however, a fact that enabled Patrick Campbell to make terrific use excellent grapes from Lodi. Campbell, owner of Laurel Glen Vineyards, now makes a red blend of 60% Zinfandel, 30% Carignane, and 10% Petite Sirah that is simply called Reds.
“I started in early 1990s and the whole idea was to make a mainstream California blended red that is more refined,” said Campbell. “I’m not going just for power, but the combination we use seems to work very well from these vineyards.”
His strategy was to take advantage of the complex flavors that come from older Lodi vines, some as old as 100 years or more, and deliver a wine that needs no aging, (as do many Cabernets).
“Any wine over $60 a bottle should be very nuanced, and it better be a damn good bottle of wine, not just monolithically huge,” he said.
But, he said, the consumer of 2010 is seeking more of an everyday wine for regular consumption, “and blended wines work better for this purpose.”
Moreover, blends don’t have to be big, massive, powerful brutes. “The style of wine seems to be changing,” he said. “The top sommeliers are crying for more balance. Bigger isn’t always better.”
Campbell isn’t universally supportive of all blended wines. He said some are just as clumsy as any wine can be made to be, “[but] what is the story with these wines that are anonymously blended?” He said one could argue that such wines are there simply to make use of unwanted fruit.
And that is the great pitfall to this amorphous category: a red wine blend may have the proper blend of grapes, a good wine maker, and a solid brand name, and yet the wine can be dreary.
Blending skill, good grapes, and a lot of intuition can create a winner. With one area lacking, the result can be a loser, or worse.
The best wine is one where the blend is greater than the sum of the parts.