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Understanding Wine Labels (Part 4)

Prosperity Red, Mendoza bottle.Wines with names that are created and owned as a trademark of the brand evolve when the winery proprietor wants to create something unique in the marketplace. There have been many proprietary wines that have gained broad familiarity and popularity over the years. Examples range from Paul Masson's mass-marketed Emerald Dry and Rhine Castle to the "tres cher" Opus One, from the Mondavi-Rothschild partnership, or Gundlach-Bundschu's comical Bearitage, which pays humorous homage to Meritage, the most important and probably enduring proprietary name in the premium wine marketplace.

As the property of the producer, wines labeled in this manner are less subject to the strictures of appellation and varietal content. The owners of these brands hope to gain your trust in the product behind the label, even through radical change of the contents. For example, our first article in this series, "Label Basics," uses a reproduction of a proprietary label of Firestone Winery to point out and explain common labeling elements. This particular "Prosperity Red" label, on a wine that was made from a blend of grape varieties grown in California, came from a few releases back. The particular release, pictured at left, was made primarily from one variety, Malbec, grown in Mendoza, Argentina! Is this a deception? No; the label tells what the bottle contains. Automobile manufacturers should be so candid; there's certainly no label on your Chevy that says, "Assembled in St. Louis, primarily from parts made in Mexico and Japan" ...

While most proprietary wine names are found on only one brand, the proprietary designation Meritage is a registered trademark, owned by an association of wineries that has set the rules for grape variety composition and usage. Meritage may be found on the many brands of wine of the member wineries. As such, Meritage has evolved from a trademark into a class designation of American wine and may someday even extend to other countries.

Meritage Alliance logo.In the 1980s, several American winemakers banded together who shared the common feeling that 75% minimum grape variety requirement for varietally-labled wines was too restrictive. That law was intended to guarantee against "diluting" with inferior varieties, but also had the effect of limiting the art of blending superior ones. Until this association formed, the only name legitimate for blends was "red table wine" or "white table wine" and neither indicated any level of quality. Deciding to formalize their group, they established standards for these American-made Bordeaux-style blends, created a name to designate them, and marketed the name to legitimize this category with retailers, restaurateurs, and consumers.

The association sponsored a yearlong contest in 1988 to invent a name for itself and its category. The winner would get two bottles each vintage of each member's wines labeled under the new moniker for ten years. Chosen from over six thousand entries, Neil Edgar of Newark, California, cleverly combined the words "merit," suggesting excellence, and "heritage," as from inheriting the Bordeaux tradition of blending these particular grapes, to come up with the word "Meritage."

Meritage is a thoroughly American word which rhymes with "heritage." Turning it into some lame French word that rhymes with "mirage" displays ignorance of the word's origin and disrespect for the association and its member-producers (the Meritage Alliance members probably wouldn't tell you that, but I will!). Just remember: Meritage is not a mirage; it's as real as your heritage!

In order to become members and use the term Meritage on their labels, wineries must pay dues of $1 per case produced (up to a maximum of $500) annually and their wines must meet the following criteria:

• A red Meritage must be a blend of two or more of the following varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Gros Verdot, Carmenère, and St. Macaire.

• A white Meritage must be a blend of two or more of the following grape varieties1: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Vert2, and Semillon.

• For either red or white, no single variety listed may make up more than 90 percent of the blend.

• The Associates also strongly suggest that any wine labeled Meritage also be the most expensive offering in that brand line.

The Meritage Alliance currently has over 240 member wineries. Over half are located in California, but there are also members in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and, in late-2003, the first Canadian winery joined. International membership has spread to include wineries in Argentina, Australia, France (!), Israel, Mexico, and also Canada's Vintners Quality Alliance.

Some wineries prefer to use their own proprietary names in addition to, or instead of, Meritage. There are also wineries who may produce wines that meet all of the requirements, but do not choose to belong to the Meritage Alliance and therefore may not use the name on their labels, since Meritage® is a registered trademark of the Meritage Alliance.

There are also wineries that make their own proprietary blends using some of the Meritage list of grape varieties, along with others. Blends that include Sangiovese, for example, or Zinfandel, do not qualify and may never use the Meritage designation in spite of meeting the other membership requirements; no varieties may be used unless they are on the approved list.

In testimony to the wide acceptance of the term, there are also numerous non-winery businesses, as diverse as wine distributors, finance companies, housing developments and restaurants that call themselves "Meritage".

The use of proprietary labeling is not unique to American wines. Three of the most popular imported wines during the 1950s and 60s were proprietary brands of larger wine producers or cooperatives: Blue Nun, from Germany, and Lancers and Mateus, both from Portugal. In addition, much like Meritage in California, sometimes a proprietary name is shared among producers in Europe.

Hugel "Gentil" label.Alsace has two proprietary names shared by more than one producer. Any producer in the region may use either Edelzwicker or Gentil on their label. It is a tradition that goes back centuries.

Translating literally to "noble blend", Edelzwicker refers to any combination of AOC Alsace varieties, regardless of the percentage of each. They may be separately or co-fermented and designating a vintage is optional. Typically, wines labeled Edelzwicker are simple, easy-drinking wines of popular appeal.

The name Gentil on a label signifies a superior quality standard. Gentil may be used on any blend that derives at least 50% of its volume from the region's Noble Varieties: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot Gris. The balance may be any combination of Pinot Blanc, Golden Chasselas, Sylvaner, etc., as long as each grape is fermented separately and meets AOC Alsace regulations prior to blending. The final bottled blend must be vintage-dated and its quality certified by the regional wine organization.

Another French regional proprietary wine is Pouilly-Fumé from vineyards around the Loire Valley town of Pouilly that are planted to Sauvignon Blanc. The Loire Valley is blanketed by a layer of fog nearly every morning that hangs like fumé, French for "smoke," thus the origin of the name.

When Robert Mondavi first made Sauvignon Blanc in the mid-1960s, he made a sweet style, modeled on the French wines of Barsac and Sauternes, and bottled in a claret-style bottle. In the following years, Mondavi also began releasing a dry style Sauvignon Blanc that had been oak-aged and bottled in a burgundy-style bottle. The bottle shape clue was a little too subtle for the sophistication level of the average American consumer; to further differentiate the two styles, the name Fumé Blanc was originated, inspired by the wine from France's Loire Valley. (Mondavi subsequently discontinued making the less-popular sweet version.)

Although the name Fumé Blanc was invented by Robert Mondavi, he has allowed any winery to use the designation freely, to label wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes in a dry style. A popular idea has been that the Fumé name came from the smoky taste of the toasted-oak aging, but this is myth. Nearly all Fumé Blancs adhere to a dry style, yet many may spend no time in oak.

There are too many other examples of proprietary labels to review individually here. The important information to retain as a consumer is that proprietary labels often represent relatively unique, fairly consistent, and usually popularly-priced wines.

Jim LaMar

1. Although Sauvignon Musque and Muscadelle are also white varieties that are traditionally permitted in Bordeaux, these are not specifically allowed in Meritage. In California, Sauvignon Musque is considered to be a clone of Sauvignon Blanc, rather than a separate variety. The Meritage Association simply didn't consider Muscadelle important, since so little is planted in California. RETURN

2. Sauvignon Vert has all but disappeared from California vineyards. RETURN

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Article created December 23, 2000; last updated March 12, 2018
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