"My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne."
John Maynard Keynes, famous economist
Meritage: Americas Great Wine?
Winery Insight Featured Article - August 2003 by Timothy O. Rice
In 1988, a contest was underway that I wish I had known about.
A group of California winemakers, faced with a name problem for a style of American wine they wanted to produce threw the door open to suggestions from the public. More than 6,000 names were submitted, from the sublime to the ridiculous. One Neil Edgar submitted the winning entry. His prize? Two bottles of the new wine every year for ten years from every member of the new association they were forming.
The name he selected was Meritage. This is an invented word, which he made by combining the words merit and heritage, pronounced like heritage. The vintners liked it so much they changed the name of their new association to match, and the Meritage Association was born.
The purpose of the Association was to promote blended wines, which were difficult to sell in the United States. Over the decades of recovery after Prohibition and the Great Depression, American vintners had stumbled along burdened with an image as low-quality wineries with only rare exceptions. Fine wine came from someplace else, usually France or Germany, but also Italy, Spain, even Portugal. It was almost Anything But American. When they began to climb out of this hole, they had fixed on selling their wine as identified by the grape variety it was made from and therein lay the seeds of the problem for the new Meritage Association.
Under U. S. law, a wine had to contain at least 75% of wine made from that grape to be labeled as that varietal. So for a wine to be called Chardonnay, it had to be at least 75% wine made from Chardonnay grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon: at least 75% made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and so on for Merlot, Pinot Noir, and the rest. Fall below the magic 75% figure and you suddenly had to switch to a generic term, usually red table wine. Artistically, this lacked fulfillment and soul. In marketing, it was a money-loser.
These winemakers wanted something different. They had learned their craft and produced wonderful wines. Theyd looked to Europe to see their goals, and they had clawed their way up to where they could match up head-to-head with Europes best. But they knew the Europeans didnt limit themselves to single-varietal wines. In Bordeaux, heart of the great French wine country, the great crus of Bordeaux-Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite, Latour, and the rest made no mention of which grapes they used on their labels. They blended their wines, free to make the best use they thought possible of the crop the year brought them.
The Americans were envious. They were sure they could do just as well (Okay, they were Americans and winemakers; I am sure they thought they could do better!) But the US labeling requirement would make it difficult to sell the wine and make a profit. What to do?
Thats why they formed the association. From that early 1988 beginning they grew slowly at first. There were only 22 wineries in the Meritage Association in 1999; in September 2002 there were 82. For most of that time they concentrated on protecting the trademark, but as the new millennium came in they switched over to marketing the idea, promoting the concept of Meritage as a quality label for American wine, and convincing more wineries to participate. Obviously they are doing something right.
Meritage wine has strict requirements. It is intended to be an American style of wine using the noble grapes of Bordeaux, allowing American vintners to show their creativity and skill in direct competition with some of Europes best. To obtain a license and use the term Meritage, a wine must meet the following criteria:
1. A red Meritage is made from a blend of two or more of the following varieties, with no single variety may make up more than 90 percent of the blend:
o Cabernet Sauvignon
o Cabernet Franc
o Petit Verdot
o St. Macaire
o Gros Verdot
2. A white Meritage is made from a blend of two or more of the following varieties, with no single variety may make up more than 90 percent of the blend:
o Sauvignon Blanc
The success has also started to spread to other parts of the world: Canada, Australia, even South Africa. There was a tasting of a dozen Meritage wines organized at VinItaly 2003, apparently well received. Only time will tell what Meritage will develop into, but it seems so far that American winemakers are looking at this as an opportunity to create a uniquely American wine to stand before the world.
Winemakers are out there now, using all their craft to make their Meritage the one all the rest will be measured against. Most seem to be taking this as an opportunity to create a premium wine, the best of their offerings. By 2003 there are almost 100 members of the association, scattered from one coast to another, all striving to be show what they can do. Maybe Meritage will indeed come to be thought of as Americas best one day.
For us the excitement is now. A few more years and the whole world might know, but they havent all caught on yet. Now is the time to go out and discover, to find that special wine no one else really knows about yet. Check to see which of your local wineries has made the commitment, then drop by their tasting room to find out what their vision is. You can find a list of members at www.meritagewine.org.
MeritageŽ is a registered trademark of the Meritage Association
Last modified: August 07, 2007