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Jun 12, 2012 01:12 PM

Meritage: Time to retire the moniker?

Last months newsletter from The Wine Country (SoCal) had an article by owner Randy Kemper making the argument for retiring and/or replacing the term Meritage due to the confusion created over blended wines. Would love to hear folks thoughts, PDF download:



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  1. Opening thought: I've suggested here, some time ago, that a major part of the solution to clarifying "what's in the bottle" is to state the grapes used and their percentages, on the label. Personally, I could care less what they call it......... Claret, Meritage, Red Blend, or a proprietary name.......... I get my clues primarily from my experience with the grape varieties used and the region where they're grown.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Midlife

      For me, "Meritage" has no value as a label or a category. I'm content that the website for the wine, rather than the label, provide details about the particular blend. It is inconceivable that a top Bordeaux chateau would be expected to reveal their proprietary blend on the label. Why should non- French producers be expected to do otherwise?

      1. re: cortez

        "Why should non- French producers be expected to do otherwise?"

        Because it may help sell wine? BTW....... I don't "expect" them to, I just think it would be helpful if they would do it. If they'll put it on their website, what's the secret?

      2. re: Midlife

        This presumes that it's known -- often it's not; but we've discussed this before . . .

        1. re: zin1953

          Good point. In the past, one could have called a certain wine "Cain Four," and once, "Cain Three," but they would have to be "in the know."

          I feel that "Meritage" has passed, as most of the "majors" have not bought in. Great idea 10 years ago, but it just did not work out.

          Though I have used this example before, and in this thread, Insignia is but a "Red Table Wine," and over he last few decades, has seldom scored below a 93, on many scales, and has contributed at least two "Wine of he Year" awards. One has been argued to be "Wine of he Decade."

          No, Meritage was a marketing ploy, with a purpose, but its time has come, and gone. It never gathered traction with the wine-buying public, as it was intended. Part of that was because of he fees, but some of that was just a lack of embrace by the public. "Super-Tuscan" has had similar results, though might have scored a few more "points?"


      3. Personally I like the designation. I'd like to see it be refined and added to. To me, meritage should denote a Bordeaux blend, and we should find something else for other blends. But then here in the US, we label by varietal, so there is a need for something like Meritage to denote when it is a blend.

        1. Yes. Should be given up.

          The problem is, the term Meritage is trademarked by the Meritage Alliance. A winery cannot use the term without paying the Alliance a flat sum for every 500 cases of wine labeled with that name.

          Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the name caught on as an easy term for consumers to describe a Cabernet-blend.

          At that time, the Alliance was called the Meritage Association, and in addition to charging wineries for every bottle labeled with that term, the Association also stipulated that any wine labeled "Meritage" had to be the most expensive wine a winery produced. Even if a winery made a 100% single-vineyard Cabernet that was a better wine and a more expensive wine, the Meritage wine from the same winery had to cost more. This was a silly rule, one later abandoned, but does give some insight into the "marketing cachet" the term Meritage was supposed to convey.

          As the years went by and consumers became more educated and conversant about wine, the terms Cab-blend or Cabernet-blend or Bordeaux-blend became more understood, and the invented term Meritage fell out of favor.

          At the same time, wineries grew resentful of paying for the Meritage name and of following the other Alliance rules, and left the Alliance in droves.

          Nowadays, wineries label a Cabernet blend as Cabernet. Or, they will invent a name for their proprietary red wine -- like Maya or Trilogy -- if the blend has less than 75% of a single grape. For the winery, this means both better branding (a new product name!) and less money paid to an organization with dubious benefits. Or, a winery will use the simple term Red Table Wine.

          Today, the term Meritage seems dated. I'm glad it's on its way out. Too many problems with the trademark and its usage.

          Read more:


          Meritage Agreement:

          9 Replies
          1. re: maria lorraine


            Could not have said it better, myself.


            1. re: maria lorraine

              Well said Maria.

              I will say though, there is one slightly redeeming quality I've found: How someone pronounces "Meritage" is one useful marker of how much a person actually knows about wine. This is rarely of import when talking to trade but rather useful when interacting with those not in the industry. :)

              1. re: ellaystingray

                For all, think "heritage," but with an M, instead of an H. Many pronounce it Meri TAGE, which is how it seems like it would be - but it is not.


                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  I lost a bet on it, before I was in the know, and will never forget. I've always thought it would be better accepted if it WERE pronounced MeriTAHJ........ kind of French sounding.... No, Monsieur?

                  1. re: Midlife

                    I was with you, and tried to do a Franco-take on it, until I also was corrected, and by the Meritage Society, none the less. I mean, who knew?


                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Amongst other things, this sort of branding mistake is one of the many factors that have hamstringed the Society from the beginning. I bet every single one of us who thought the pronunciation was Francofied and had to be corrected (myself included) felt a tinge of dislike for the people who made use look like rubes if only for a minute.

              2. re: maria lorraine

                Maria Lorraine,
                I always appreciate how well you are armed with pure facts. You have made a great case on this subject. Good work, once again.

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  Excellent summary, ML. But let me add a bit more historical perspective, if I may . . . .

                  In the 1950s, there were many *proprietary* wines on the market. The ones most remembered today were produced by Paul Masson -- "Baroque," "Rubion," "Rhine Castle," even "Emerald Dry," among many others. This isn't to say there were no varietal wines on the market -- obviously, there were -- but proprietary wines were just as common as semi-generics and varietals. However, by the mid-1960s and 1970s, proprietary wines all but disappeared, and as the "Third Wave" of California winemaking took off, varietal wines became overwhelming dominant in the marketplace.

                  Varietal wines were the "important" wines, the "better" wines, as semi-generics were "cheap jug wines," and many wineries ceased producing proprietary wines in favor of varietals, which were associated with higher quality.

                  NOTE: The legal term "semi-generic" is important here. It is, simply, defined as American-made wines named for European geographic places of origin, but with little or no resemblance to the European wines of the same name. The most famous of them are "Burgundy," "Claret," "Chianti," "Chablis," "Rhine," and "Sauterne" (sic). True generic wines are simply "Red Table Wine," "White Table Wine," and "Rosé Table Wine," and HISTORICALLY, these were even less expensive than semi-generics and proprietary wines . . .

                  In 1973 or 1974, the ATF changed the regulations governing wine labeling. Previously, to be a varietal wine, the wine needed to contain only 51% of a single grape in order to be labeled by the name of a single grape variety -- e.g.: if a wine contained 51% Cabernet Sauvignon and 49% Chenin Blanc, it could be labeled "Cabernet Sauvignon." Also, all a wine needed to contain to be labeled with a specific appellation was 75% grapes grown within that appellation -- e.g.: 75% Napa Valley grapes and 25% Central Valley grapes, the wine could be labeled "Napa Valley." Furthermore, these two things -- grape variety and grape origin were NOT tied together! Therefore, if a wine contained 26% Napa Valley grown Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Central Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and 49% Napa Valley Chenin Blanc . . . 51% was Cabernet Sauvignon, and therefore in was a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wine, and 75% of the grapes were grown in Napa Valley, so it was a Napa Valley wine!

                  For wines made from Vitis vinifera (only), the 1973 (or was it 1974?) changes in the Federal regulations meant that the varietal content was increased to 75%, AND that 75% had to be from the appellation -- i.e.: if the wine was labeled "Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon," not only did 75% of the wine need to be Cabernet Sauvignon (as opposed to 51%), but a minimum of the wine had to contain 75% Cabernet Sauvignon that was actually grown within Napa County. If the wine was labeled with an AVA (think "Napa Valley," rather than "Napa County"), that was increased to 85% origin.

                  Enter Joseph Phelps Insignia. This was, IIRC, the first über-high end wine following the changes to the labeling requirements to be Cabernet-based AND labeled as a proprietary wine. The 1973 was Cabernet-dominant, but the 1974 was Merlot-dominant, and Phelps was attempting to point out that a) one didn't need 75% to be a great wine, and b) consumers need only look to the name "Insignia" to know they were buying Phelps' very best wine.

                  Then add to the mix Opus One. When this Robert Mondavi-Phillippe de Rothschild joint venture released its first wines, "Opus One Red Table Wine" was highly anticipated . . . but it was sold NOT as a proprietary wine, but as a generic . . . it was a "Red Table Wine."

                  The Orange County (California) Fair has always judged wines by category AND price, but generic wines were always low-end, so there were no price sub-categories in the generic class. One year -- I forget, but it was in the somewhere around 1982-1985 and BEFORE the whole "Meritage" thing -- Hop Kiln "Marty Griffin's Big Red" Red Table Wine took a GOLD medal in the generic class . . . Opus One Red Table Wine took a SILVER in the same category!

                  Clearly something had to be done! And thus, the idea behind creating a "Meritage" category was born -- come up with a name/category to separate and distinguish high-end generic Red (and White) Table Wines from lower-end Red and White Table Wines which were clearly more like semi-generic jug wines . . .

                  Did it make sense originally? As an IDEA, my answer would be yes. But in practice, it was always (IMHO) flawed.

                  Should it be abandoned? Well, it never (again, IMHO) should have started, so yes . . . .


                  1. re: zin1953

                    Yes. The concept of "Red Table Wine," had many, negative connotations, just as similar had in other areas of the world. As laws are laws, some wine makers took it upon themselves to get around those, and produce some very fine wines.

                    The Meritage Society was formed, to skirt some of those negative implications, but they never got the traction, that they had anticipated, so have probably failed. Without some of the "major players," they were doomed to fail.

                    Now, I would vote for it to be disbanded, but that is just me.


                2. I have never been keen on that term. However, many feel that it fills a void, where the ATF designation of "Table Wine" has a big hole, such as Jos.Phelps' Insignia.

                  I understand what it means, BUT they sort of shot themselves in the foot, by determining that all US wine makers would join, and pay the royalties, just to keep from being called "Table Wine." They were wrong. Many serious producers just declined.

                  I feel that it is a moot term, though there were noble thoughts, way back when.

                  Some years back, I hosted an International Wine & Food Society event, that was titled "Meritage vs Bordeaux." I actually had to define "Meriage," and then point out that none of the US wines in the event were "official" Meritage wines.

                  It seems that only mid, and lower-level blends, actually pay for, and use the term. The "major players," see no reason to do so. Think Insignia, Cain Five, and many, many more. They do not need that term, nor do they need to pay some organization fees to use it.

                  I agree - Meritage is so 1990, and should be retired.


                  1. Meritage indicates a "Bordeaux blend" of grapes. You all know it and I know it. So that's certain information it provides.

                    It doesn't provide more so it should be eliminated?

                    I see a wine labeled Meritage I know at a glance it is not a blend of "Rhone grapes". Granted "Bordeaux" on the labell tells me geographic origin as well, but I don't mind reading one additional word.

                    So you stop calling certain Bordeaux grape blends Meritage. What do you call them so one knows by a look at the front label what sort of a blend is in the bottle?

                    I have no trouble with Meritage as a wine identifier. It doesn't work the best, but no one has any suggestions as to what would work better to provide the consumer with a quick hint of what an otherwise proprietary-named wine contains.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: FrankJBN

                      A respectful reply to your post.

                      <<Meritage indicates a "Bordeaux blend" of grapes. You all know it and I know it. So that's certain information it provides.>>

                      There's so much wiggle room in the Meritage rules that the blend could be South American in style and not at all Bordeaux-like:

                      Carmenere and Malbec
                      Carmenere and Merlot
                      Malbec with a tiny touch of Cab
                      Malbec and Merlot
                      Carmenere and Cabernet

                      Only two of these six grapes are required for a Meritage blend: Carmenere, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet. Wineries outside the US may now use the term.

                      So, a cheap Chilean wine *could* be called Meritage and priced like a Meritage wine, but not "delivering" to the customer what s/he expects a Meritage wine to be. The possibility of deception is enormous.

                      All to say, the assumption that a Meritage wine is a typical Bordeaux-blend or Cabernet-blend is not guaranteed in any way.

                      What most of us assumed to be so, is simply not so.