Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse, Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!

Uh, make that the thundering hoof beats of generic red wine. And the ranger is alone no more. He’s been joined by a cast of thousands—of wineries trying to get rid of wine grapes to a public that is simply swamped with boring varietals.

Those old enough to remember the 1970s and early 1980s may recall the fun we had with California Burgundy: Sebastiani’s with its core of Zinfandel, Foppiano’s with lots of Petite Sirah, Simi’s with a slug of Carignane, and dozens more.

These were the original two-buck chuck wines because, well, they were all about $1.99 a bottle and they went well with ground chuck. And they assiduously avoided the use of varietal names, since that was reserved for “fine” wine.

IMG_2328Today, however, we are faced with a terrible dilemma: too much generic varietal wine.

What’s that you say? There is no such thing as a generic varietal? Well, let me direct you to your nearest wine shop, supermarket, gas station convenience store or pharmacy where you will find shelves groaning with hundreds of California varietal wines all vying for your attention with aroma and taste profiles that are essentially exactly the same. Prices are about $12 a bottle or less. With emphasis on the less, especially lately.

There are many complicated reasons for the utter uniformity (and blandness) in the aroma and taste of so many California wines, mainly reds. Without addressing that, we now can all agree on one thing: There is too much sameness in too many varietal wines.

With red wines, at price points all the way from the lowest to highest, Cabernet Sauvignon now smells and tastes about the same as Merlot, and neither smells or tastes like the grape from which they supposedly came. The higher you go on the price scale, the more over-ripe and oaky the wine becomes, and the less varietal character you get. And the less said about Mega-Purple the better.

Syrah? It’s all pretty much the same sort of thing. Except for a tiny handful of cool-climate Syrahs, most everything is a boring, simplistic and indistinct red.

With whites, it’s almost as bad: Chardonnay that’s flaccid and lacks much food compatibility; Sauvignon Blanc so bland you’re hard pressed to identify it; Pinot Grigio that would lose a taste-off with San Pellegrino.

Is it any wonder than Americans are spending more of their money on imports today (31%) compared to 15 years ago (20%)? Is it any wonder that U.S. wine sales are flat and that a record number of U.S. wineries are for sale?

So where do wineries go when they have an excess of so-so Cabernet and Merlot and Syrah and a whole bunch of other stuff?

They make blends.

The word blend once was déclassé. It was seen as a mishmash, a cuvée fit for a café, not for a white tablecloth and crystal. We first started seeing upscale blends emerge from California with the Meritage wines of about 20 years ago, the Cabernet-Merlot wines that sold for as much as Reserve wines.

In the last few years, since about 2005, we have seen many red wine blends from California wineries that may make some sense to the winemakers, but to me they act a bit like the old “red table wine” and “Burgundy” blends of the past.

The main difference is that some of these wines are priced to compete with those winery’s higher-end Cabernet bottlings—and I’m left shaking my head and palate alike.

Now, I’m all for blends with a philosophical idea behind them, such as the Coro Mendocino wines, which must be at least 40% but no more than 70% Zinfandel, and which allows the winemaker to create from that partially painted canvas a wine that leans in the direction of the Rhône, Barolo, Chianti or even California.

I’m all for Rhône blends such as Ventana’s superb Grenache-based Rubystone, using Syrah to great advantage. And then we have Cabernet-Syrah blends and Syrah-Cabernet blends, some of which can be very nice, but many of which are simply brutes, lacking the character of either grape.

mad_scientistBut what do you make out of Lava Cap’s American River Red Celebrated Cuvée, the 2005 of which has in it Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Barbera? The fact is, it is a nice wine and sells for $15.

Then there is Three Alarm Cellars’ non-vintage blend of Petite Verdot, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Merlot; it costs about $8. Save room in the pantheon of blends for Rutherford Ranch “Rhiannon,” which has 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 5% Syrah and 2% Petite Sirah; this one costs $28.

Meritage wines are in vogue in many places, but a wine like Zerba Wild Z from Washington has 47% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah and 3% Petit Verdot. And Vina Robles’ Signature is 66% Petit Verdot, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Syrah. Not Meritage exactly.

To make a blend because it tastes better than a varietal is a noble tradition, and wines from the south of France often are based on blends with a regional tradition behind them. That tradition, however, was to make more interesting wines—not necessarily more expensive or sophisticated ones. But I am afraid that blending for blending’s sake is spinning out of control in California. A blend of Cabernet, Zinfandel, Gamay and Viognier is kind of a hodgepodge that oughtn’t cost $25. Too often such a wine does.

Maybe if producers were not aiming so high they’d be able to deliver some blends that shake off the sameness that is burdening their varietal palette. More like the old Beaulieu Burgundy, which was made up of 15 or more varieties. And which wasn’t made to compete with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Dan Berger is a freelance writer based in Sonoma County. Today, in addition to his privately published weekly wine commentary, Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences, he writes a nationally syndicated wine column for Creators Syndicate as well as articles for numerous other publications.

16 Responses

  1. tricerapops

    i must admit, i have been picking up a few blends lately – as I’ve hitten some palate fatigue with some of the california varietals i have purchased as of late. agreed, blending for the sake of blending is not necessarily a good thing – but given i’m new to this wine thing, i guess i’ll really need to drink it before i can really come to a conclusion either way. great write-up.

  2. Randall Grahm

    Blending is a strategy deployed in virtually every Mediterranean wine growing region for any number of reasons, but I believe that the principle one is to make a wine of greater complexity and balance than could otherwise be achieved with a monocépage. (In a warmish climate, it is far more difficult to achieve a balanced wine without some blending options.) As much as I have always enjoyed blends – both making them and drinking them, I always worried a bit that with too many options, a winemaker, especially one as excitable as myself, might essentially, vertiginously spin out of control. For that reason, for our premium wine, Le Cigare Volant, I elected to create certain boundary parameters for myself and for the wine: I would limit myself exclusively to the grapes that were permitted in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and rigorously exclude all others. (N.B. Recently a little Carignan has crept in.) Now, granted, this – the limitation to CdP varieties – was partially a marketing ploy, but also to some extent an aesthetic one: I felt that if I could offer some sort of coherent paradigm, or Platonic ideal, for the uninitiated, there would be a far greater likelihood that these would-be Rhônely-hearted might well be able to wrap their palates around it. (Remember, this was back before the Central Coast was crawling w/ Rhône Rangers and Chave was as cheap and largely unknown as borscht.) Whether Cigare ever ended up tasting much like Chateauneuf is somewhat moot; what is more to the point is whether I was able to achieve something like a defined style over a period of time, or some other organizing principle of consistency, so that customers might have some reasonable expectation that their wine was going to occupy some potentially stylistically defined space. What we New World winemakers so conveniently ignore is that if we are to create real value with our wines, we must not merely make “good” or “great” wines tout court, but create a universe or context in which they can live. Appellation and the expression of terroir within an appellation are great organizing principles that give a consumer a conceptual matrix within which he or she can better grasp the essence of the wine. I am not a lover (or comprehender) of atonal music, and I truly believe that wine has to be organized along certain harmonic principles or it will be cacophonous. Blending grapes that have historically been shown to have an affinity for one another is one strategy. The other of course is to fully embrace the notion of terroir, and downplay the contribution of the particular grape varieties, and attempt to accentuate the taste impression of the site itself. But, I believe that our brains are wired to seek context and organizing principles, even if we are not explicitly aware that that is what we are doing. Some of us key on fruitiness, or high alcohol, or texture, or presence of 200% new oak as signifiers of wine quality, but certainly over time, some of us will be fortunate enough to recognize the transcendental virtue of terroir as an organizing principle.

  3. Ashlynkat

    From my perspective of working with the grocery retail side, the popularity of blends is intimately tied into the growth of new wine drinkers in the US. Consumers (esp relatively new wine drinkers) are increasingly moving to blends because they are less intimidating than varietals. Many people don’t KNOW what is the difference between a Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel or Cab-much less what a “good” one should taste like. Standing in front of the varietal section can make them feel lost.

    With blends they go with a name name or wine region they recognize (Napa, Columbia Valley, etc) and judge it simply on whether or not they like it. When consumers find a red blend they like, they become intensely brand loyal to it even if the winemaker changes the composition every vintage and I think it because of the security blanket that familiarity breeds.

    Before blends were popular, the market sort of forced consumers to become vaguely familiar with what a Merlot is or what a Cabernet is and the consumer base grew a little slowly because of that. But the rising visibility of blends have struck a cord with new influx of beginning wine drinkers and will contribute to the long term success of the blend categories. I strongly suspect that within a couple years, a topic of much discussion will be “What is the future of varietal labeling”.

  4. BigSkyMind

    Wow…what an inanely ignorant and snobbish article. It is attitudes within the wine world such as these that keep average consumers from ever reaching beyond their comfort zone to try new things and ultimately come to appreciate the countless subtle nuances found in a VAST array of wine styles, varieties AND price points. You sound awfully jaded, tired and bitter if you ask me. Maybe it’s time for you to take a break?

    To me, there is plenty of room in the marketplace and in the wine glass for any number of iterations that may arise from either a winemaker’s (admittedly sometimes wild) imagination and creativity or even (gasp!) new regions that pop up from time to time. Varietal and AVA purists such as yourself who snub your nose at anything even vaguely suggestive of out-of-the-box thinking are precisely what keep the wine industry firmly planted in your average consumer’s brain as hard to understand and snobbish.

    I chuckled when I read that you are “all for blends with a philosophical idea behind them”. Ummm, what about taste? So if the wine has a good IDEA behind the blend, irregardless of how it tastes to you, then you are all for it? You forget that your average consumer drinks wine for any number of reasons, not the least of which is because it just plain tastes good. And to most, even better if you can get a wine that tastes good for under $15! Whether it was made with a good “philosophical idea behind” it is lost to a large percentage of wine drinkers.

    I think that it’s easy for a lot of wine geeks to forget that not everyone needs to be a geek to appreciate wine. Sometimes, all one really needs is a drinkable wine that tastes good, helps you forget about the stresses of life for just a moment and loosens the tongue just enough to get a good conversation flowing….without breaking the bank.

  5. Mike Holland

    Another perspective, that of the home winemaker – ok, amateur if you insist:
    Wine is a food and an agricultural product subject to some hideous gambles in any given year. You blend a low acid, high alcohol or aroma-challenged wine to its complement to improve the whole. The 75% varietal really makes most straight bottlings somewhat dishonest because that Estate Cab can still have 20% Estate merlot and still be legally a Cab but won’t taste like one.
    Our mutual friend, Mr. Stai, goes the opposite way with his geek sheets. But he is an exception. At home, we make and blend wines for ourselves and what we like and what we serve with it. The varietals are ingredients to us.

  6. Larry Chandler

    Maybe Americans are spending more on imports than they used to not because California wine has become more boring, but because wine drinkers have become more interesting, i.e., interested in other styles and tastes of wine. And perhaps many wineries are for sale because business models that require wineries to produce and sell $50-$100 wines are not sustainable in this economy.

    Generic tasting varietals are not new. The category was called “fighting varietals” and they pretty much all tasted alike. Now we have “fighting blends.”

    What was the point of this article? The author used to dislike badly made varietally-labeled wine and now he dislikes badly made blended wine?

  7. William

    Article is a tad negative and loses its points in the venom I think.

    Generic-ness in varietals isn’t unique to the US, globally everyone is changing methods to pursue New World palettes, which I’d agree is a shame.

    “Prices are about $12 a bottle or less. ”
    …up your dollar game a bit, you’ll find more uniqueness. I can’t choke down half of the wines, save maybe Chile/Argentina, under $10. Yellowtail…really?

    “Is it any wonder than Americans are spending more of their money on imports today (31%) compared to 15 years ago (20%)?Is it any wonder than Americans are spending more of their money on imports today (31%) compared to 15 years ago (20%)?”
    …..I’ll give you that ‘maybe’ this is a contributing factor, but I’d point to other significant developments such as the globalization of the wine industry. (Argentina 07 US exports, 40% YoY growth.) 15 years ago we didn’t have access, and/or the quality was poor, of wines from Chile, Argentina, NZ, Australia. I’d also contend that as US consumers have gotten more educated, they explore and buy more Old World, as much for education and palette growth, than just sick of US wines.

  8. Tom Johnson

    What’s missing from this discussion is, I think, acknowledgment that California’s wine industry is very, very young. Winemakers in France have had more than a thousand years to match grape and vinification with terroir, and part of that matching process was experimenting with different blends. Even now, with conformity dictated by regulation, there are those who drop out of the AOC system to the relative freedom of Vin de Pays. This experimentation is good — whether in France or the United States — even though the results are not always, themselves, successful.

    We tend to think of what’s happening now as being permanent. In fact, we are always in a process of transition. Is California wine becoming something different? Hopefully. It would be ashamed if it stayed the same forever. A lot of the blends that are being experimented with now will not survive, but some will. They will be copied and tweaked and sometimes even improved. Being a part of that process by tasting and paying attention to the differences between approaches is one of the things we all ought to enjoy about wine.

  9. The Wine Mule

    All right, you’re talking about California, but still…if we follow your logic, then First Growth Bordeaux and Chateauneuf du Pape is all a lot of crap…jeez…

  10. El Jefe

    A soup made with a single ingredient is often uninteresting. Ditto uncomplimentary ingredients.

    We’re finding that, while some consumers still stay safe within the varietal bubble, many consumers are seeking out blends and eschewing the single note soup. They’re exploring, which can only be a good thing.

    As to what Randall said, I totally agree. Our blends each stay within a set of constraints to ensure a stylistic consistency from vintage to vintage (hope I’m still allowed to use that word.) Our *%#&@! blend may vary a bit, but it will always be the good *%#&@! you’re expecting.

  11. GianniWine

    Dear Author: You need to find a different shop to purchase your wine or switch to another beverage , maybe you would find water more appealing. There is nothing boring about any wine varietal..whether you make your choice by varietal, label, region or winemaker. Move on dude..your in the wrong industry.

  12. Simon

    Have to agree with Dan. And California’s not the only culprit. The Aussies are big on Shiraz/Viognier blends, some of which work if they’re from cool climates, but most of which are just too much of a good thing – think cream AND custard. Yet they’ve caught on, and as a result command a premium – or maybe should that be a super-ultra-premium. Blends are great when they work, but bolting on an extra grape variety and asking for more bucks isn’t a practice I want to see encouraged (and it’s the same with food – more ingredients doesn’t make something a better dish)

  13. Chris Simmons, CSW

    I have to say that this article seemed to lack the focus and direction that the author himself describes is lacking in the blends he writes about. And without sources, its unfair to say that wineries blend excess grapes in an effort to create bland wine. Just because you do not enjoy them doesn’t mean the wineries are working together in a conspiracy against your palate. If you want to give your opinion on the matter, you have to provide examples of both good and bad blends you have tried, not just what you like then write off the rest as crap. If you want tp persuade your audience, give of examples of what to try that proves your point from both sides. Dan it seems like you just phoned this one in.

  14. Tish

    What a range of comments – evidence both of the salience of the topic and the close reading of interested wine folks. As I have mentioned before regarding stories that run at Palate Press, articles are intended to start conversations; so on that front, this one is clearly working.

    Chris, in Dan’s defense, that is one of the points he and I discussed — namely reinforcing the two main points (varietal blends are boring, new-fangled blends unfocused) with a list of his favored blends; but we ultimately decided to put that off to another time/article. Don’t let that stop you (or anyone) from mentioning yours, though…

  15. Chris Simmons, CSW


    Thanks for the response. Indeed the topic of blends lacking substance has lead to some good discussion, but more than one commenter has mentioned the article’s lack of focus.

    I look forward to that future article, and might I suggest that Dan include not only the blends that he enjoys but a list of all the wines he has tasted along with reasons he did not enjoy the others? In many cases the wine itself may be poorly made and honestly have nothing to do with being a blend.