The Mystique of California

Red Blends

By W. Peter Hoyne

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Have you ever considered why red blends continue to dazzle consumers and remain one of the hottest trends in the wine market? Perhaps it is their eye catching, colorful labels with quirky, offbeat names that you will immediately remember or may want to quickly forget. There is Fat Bastard, Mad Housewife, Broke Ass, Sassy Bitch and too many others to mention in a short piece. Admittedly, the names can be amusing, but what lies underneath can be quite serious. Also, they’re not always politically correct, although they don’t need to be as they have a love affair with the public for their easy-going temperament and ripe, in your face personality. There is a pricey subgroup from Napa Valley referred to as proprietary reds, but otherwise the vast majority of California red blends are well within your weekly budget and are most often referred to as affordable luxury.


In fact, most wines are red blends as they are crafted using several grapes, each complementing the other in the final product, usually with one grape being the dominant player. Within the US, wines labeled with a specific grape such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and so on, must be at least 75% or more of that single varietal. Of course, if it is named Mommy’s Time Out, it is left to the discretion of the winemaker to choose which grapes work best for his own unique style. In the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, typically it is balanced with Merlot to soften its edges, a small percentage of Petite Verdot to enhance the color and occasionally Cabernet Franc to bring out some savory notes and earthiness. Red blends originate from many wine-growing regions including France, Spain, Italy, Australia, Portugal and of course California, Washington and other states. I’ll limit this discussion to California red blends that are not dominated by a single named grape and those that are readily available or visible on store shelves.


Throughout Old World Europe, the art of blending has existed for centuries dating back to 4000 BC in Greece. With the sheer number of distinctive grapes grown in each country; there are over 1,000 in Italy alone, it seemed natural that winemakers would blend multiple grapes from varying sites in order to achieve a unique flavor profile and textural quality.


Historically, the benchmark for red blends has always been those produced in Bordeaux, where up to five noble varietals can be used. The term  “Bordeaux-like” became a cliché for producers of high-end Cabernet Sauvignon, as they desired to elevate the status and recognition of their wines. The term Meritage was introduced in 1988 by a group of California vintners who formed the Meritage Association. The term combined “merit referencing quality with heritage,” acknowledging the traditional history of blending. At least two noble grapes have to be used and no single grape can make up 90% of the blend. Needless to say, that while many embraced this exclusive title, most in California did not label their wine with this designation.


Early in the evolution of California’s wine history and before modern cuvees, field blends became a way of life for Italian immigrants who migrated to the US. Field blends occur when multiple grapes are planted together in the same vineyard, then harvested and fermented together. Mother nature blends the grapes together in the vineyard rather than in the winery. Intensely colored “mixed blacks” of old vine Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan and Alicante Bouschet were part of the mixture in the vineyard. They were fermented together and then sold as bulk wine labeled as Burgundy or Claret. Over time and after prohibition, vineyards were gradually replanted. In Sonoma and elsewhere in California there still exist heritage field blends of Old Vine Zinfandel planted with mixed blacks. In California’s early beginnings, 4-5 liter jug wines were popular with brands like Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Carlo Rosssi Paisano, Almaden Mountain Chablis and others. Italian immigrants and Italian American families started commercial wineries where they would fill up gallon jugs of blended bulk wine for locals.


In the 1970’s, single vineyard labeling of wine became part of the landscape, due in part to the efforts of Robert Mondavi. With a vision that California wines could compete with the most notable wines from Europe, Mondavi advanced the quality of premium California wines while labeling his wines with single grape varietal names. Vintners adapted, planting single varietals in specific locations while exploiting new avenues of revenue. The concept of premium quality Napa Valley wine was enhanced further when Insignia was introduced by Joseph Phelps Winery. In 1974, Insignia became “California’s first proprietary red Bordeaux-style blend” that others would try to emulate.   


Lodi, located in California’s Central Valley, is somewhat less prestigious than Napa and Sonoma, yet it also has a place in wine history. With its warm climate and sandy loam soils, it became the central hub for California’s agricultural industry and is interspersed with wild grapes. While Lodi became a melting pot of Italian, Spanish, German and Southern Rhone grapes, it is most well known for plantings of Old Vine Zinfandel that date back to the late 1880’s. Lodi produces nearly 40% of California’s premium Zinfandel and is also home to some contemporary, exotic red blends. They are not for the faint of heart, but instead are made for those willing to venture beyond traditional boundaries and rules. These wines are defined by their ripe, sultry, fruit-driven character, which occasionally is complemented with Zinfandel. These thought provoking and seductive wines have become part of the millennial culture.


With a wealth of high quality, value driven California red blends at your disposal, it may be just the right time to abandon your conventional thinking of sipping a serious Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps, consider a playful diversion and exploit the world of pleasurable red blends.