Necessity is the mother of invention, and in the mid 1980s, winemakers in California needed a new name for their wines.
It was a different time in the industry. Winemakers could make a Bordeaux-style blend (usually a combination of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and/or cabernet franc) and call it “Bordeaux Blend” on the label.
Also, a grape – say Merlot – had to only make up 51% of a blend before the wine could be designated Merlot.
Then the rules changed. The French didn’t like the American wine industry co-opting their appellations for wines – think of the boxed “Burgundy” that bore little resemblance to the French region’s red wines, for example – so under the new regulations, such wines now had to be labeled “red table wine.”
This didn’t sit well with winemaker Mitch Cosentino. In 1980, he introduced The Poet,
an homage to Petrus, a merlot-based wine from Bordeaux that is one of the most expensive in the world.
With the new requirements, “I was forced to call it merlot,” he says, “even though it was a different wine from my [varietal] merlot.”
He also saw fellow winemakers changing their blends – such as upping the level for cabernet from 60% or 65% to the requisite 75% – to avoid the “table wine” designation.
“A group of us gathered,” Mitch describes, “and I asked, are we compromising our wines to get them up to 75%?”
In order to keep making wine as the winemakers felt it should taste (versus meeting an arbitrary percentage) as well as promoting the wine as something special, the winemakers conceived of a contest to come up with a better name for indentifying a Bordeaux style blend.
Over 6,000 submissions came in and, after “eliminating the obvious non-choices that were silly or trademarked, “ [there were] 10 or 12 final submissions, according to Mitch.
He describes a unique voting process, where a positive was given to each name with potential, a negative to the others. “Meritage had no negatives,” he says of the winning entry. (Mitch also noted it was his second choice, declining to name his first!)
The word, a blend of merit and heritage (it rhymes with “heritage”), aptly describes the wines being made in Napa and Sonoma: quality cuvees that honored the centuries-old Bordeaux winemaking traditions.
Of course, once you have a name, you need to have a wine. “It was no small task,” says Mitch, whose The Poet happens to be the first Meritage-designated wine. “Once the name was chosen, we had to have product, a label and interstate distribution.”
As it turns out, the group was able to pull this together in just a few months. “The 1986 Poet was ready to go, the label was quickly approved (by the federal control board], we quickly bottled a small amount and shipped a case to Ben’s Liquors in Reno, Nevada.”
The concept of Meritage was not immediately or widely received; some considered it a gimmick. But the Meritage Association (as it was then known) started strong, with 20 members; now, 25 years later, that number has swelled to 300 from around the world.
This increasing interest in Meritage is a no-brainer to Jane Young, president of the Meritage Alliance. “People are increasingly aware of the value of the label,” she notes.
Plus, she says, membership is simple. In order to use the designation, no one varietal can be more than 90% of the blend, and varietals are limited to the five traditional Bordeaux grapes. Wineries must pay $1 per case to use the name, up to $500.
The wine is a hit with consumers, too: Meritage has been the fastest-growing wine category for the past three years.
It’s success that tastes very sweet. As Mitch notes, “In the early years, it was a little rough, but when you’re a pioneer, you need to take some hits and sustain what you’ve done. I believed in it all the way and am proud of those who stuck with it.”
There are a lot of happy wine drinkers out there, too.