If a winemaker wants to produce a red wine that emulates a Bordeaux blend—say 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 45 percent Merlot, and 5 percent Cabernet Franc—what is he or she going to call it? Since it’s not 75 percent of any particular grape variety, the wine can’t be called by the name of a grape, and in fact U.S. wine laws dictate that it be called simply “Red Wine” or “Red Table Wine.” Not too sexy.
In 1988, some frustrated Napa Valley winemakers who wanted to produce Bordeaux-style blended wines got together to address this issue. Agustin Huneeus of Franciscan Winery, Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino Winery, and Julie Garvey of Flora Springs Winery knew that they couldn’t call the wines “Bordeaux Blend,” as the French would go crazy and the U.S. government agency that approves labels (at the time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) wouldn’t go for it. Besides, these winemakers and others that they attracted wanted to create a uniquely American name for their Old World–New World winemaking concept. They formed a loosely-knit association of about twenty members and announced a contest to give their “concept” wines a legal, proprietary brand name. The group received more than six thousand entries, and chose one submitted by a young Californian, Neil Edgar, who came up with the name “Meritage” (rhymes with “heritage”). Neil’s prize would be two bottles of the first ten vintages of each Meritage Association member’s wine.
The first Meritage wine was produced by Mitch Cosentino: the 1986 vintage of The Poet. Today, there are over three hundred Meritage members, most of them in California, but with member wineries in thirty states, including New York State, New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, and Virginia, and even members from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Israel. (For a full list of wine producers, go to www.meritagealliance.org.) In 2008, the Meritage Association celebrated its twentieth anniversary. In May 2009 the group was renamed the Meritage Alliance.
What, then, constitutes a Meritage wine? First of all, the wine must be made from a blend of at least two traditional Bordeaux grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot for reds, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon for whites (more than 80 percent of Meritage wines are red). Second, no varietal can exceed 90 percent of the blend. This is probably why some of the most famous “Bordeaux blend” wines—Opus One, Rubicon, Insignia, and others—are not official members of the Meritage Alliance, as these wines often exceed 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.