Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The screen is more powerful than the pen...

Oz Clarke (right,) Britain's best-known wine writer,
with TV motoring presenter James May),

An article that first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

There are many positive and negative things to be said about the UK wine market nowadays, but one that is rarely denied is the quality and global influence of Britain's wine writers. For any wine producer or region wanting to build awareness and sales in the UK and, by extension, elsewhere, all that is needed, surely, is to attract the attention of a few of this country’s leading names. Send them a sample or two or invite them to a tasting, or better still entertain them to a lunch or dinner in an appropriate restaurant. Or possibly, for the maximum possible effect, fly them to the place where the wine is actually produced, to allow them the chance to walk among the vines and barrels.
Today, courting the British wine press is arguably more important than ever. In Britain, unlike many other countries, it is very hard to build retail sales from the reflected glory of being served in smart restaurants; the influence of sommeliers is very limited. Well over 80% - and a growing proportion – of the wines is sold by a shrinking band of big brand- and discount-focused supermarkets, with the remainder being distributed through a handful of specialist chains and a couple of hundred or so significant independent retailers, most of whom offer ranges covering the entire world. Given the huge number of wines that are either already on, or trying to get onto the market, without a bit of critical help, the risk of an un-marketed, non-discounted wine going unnoticed is very significant. One favourable mention by the appropriate writer might, however lead to a significant leap in sales.

Sue Harris of Westbury Communications illustrates this with sales figures from ASDA (the UK chain owned by WalMart). When Anakena Varietal Chardonnay from Chile was featured in The Daily Express, a mid-market tabloid, on the 2nd of October 2004, sales rose from 741 per week to 1034. The following week, the same wine was recommended in featured in the Sunday Times, which has a larger circulation and a more sophisticated readership. Sales went up to 1128. In November, they slipped back to 938, at which point a mention in another quality newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph pushed it back up to 1205. In each case, the change in the wine’s fortunes could be directly attributed to the newspaper coverage rather than the effect of the writers’ words appearing on shelf-barkers. Asda regularly sales growth after articles by Matthew Jukes of the Daily Mail – and has just recorded a 4,000% increase in the throughput of an Italian white following a glowing endorsement by Tim Atkin of the Observer. It is generally acknowledged by chains like Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer and Oddbins, that Jane Macquitty of the Times “sells” wine when she writes about it, and almost all retailers know that a recommendation on Saturday Kitchen, a popular television programme, almost always translates into sales over the following days.

But working with the UK wine press is far easier said than done. While favourable press comment will help to move bottles off shelves, there is no Robert Parker-Wine Spectator duopoly of influence of the kind that exists in the US, and no individual critic who can single-handedly transform a wine’s fortunes. The diversity of Britain’s writers and their interests and audiences (especially, given the growing importance of media such as television, radio and the internet) is almost as broad and complex as the selection of wines on the shelf. Some consumers follow recommendations from presenters on television whose names they may not even remember, while fans of particular wine styles will learn to follow critics who share their interests and tastes. Jancis Robinson, for example, has a well-known affection for German Riesling; Steven Spurrier is more likely to recommend lower-strength, traditional French wine than powerful Australian Shirazes. Other names worth noting that certainly carry great weight among particular sets of enthusiasts are witers like Charles Metcalfe and Giles McDonagh (on Portugal), John Radford (on Spain) and Remington Norman (on the Rhone).

In October 2008, the UK-based research organisation Wine Intelligence attempted to throw a little more light on the issue as part of a study entitled Decisions Decisions in which it asked the over 1500 members of its Vinitrac panel - regular wine drinkers all - about the greatest influences on their wine buying behaviour. At first glance, the findings of this survey might actually seem to undermine the apparent importance of the wine press. Fewer respondents – 29% - said that the critics were a major influence on their buying than the 30% who followed the advice of staff in wine shops and the 34% who said that their purchasing decisions were driven by printed material on shelves. And, strikingly, none of these came close to competing with the 68% who rely on recommendations from friends and family.

A little closer analysis, however suggests that these statistics – assuming they are truly representative of UK wine drinkers’ attitudes - only paints part of the picture. First, of course, there is the fact that the shelf-talkers – the “printed material” in the shops that influences over a third of respondents – usually consists of quotes from wine writers. But second, there is the little matter of where all those friends and family got the information they were able to share with the respondents. Experienced public relations specialist Rosamund Hitchcock of R&R feels that the friends are almost certainly “heavily influenced by wine writers. Where else would they get their on-going knowledge of wine?”. For Hitchcock, the potential effective influence of wine critics/communicators is actually a huge 97% (68% friends plus 29% critics). The figure is of course an exaggeration, but the effect should not be underestimated. As another PR, Yvonne May says “the friends who shape most people's drinking are most likely ‘wine-aficionados’ who take insights from leading writers and broadcasters. Were I to be purchasing a car, there is nothing on earth that would persuade me to buy a heap of car magazines. I'd ask my brother-in-law for some leads, as he is a car-enthusiast".

The crucial question is how many of the 1500 Vinitrac respondents are wine-enthusiast brother-in-laws: people who effectively share the information they have absorbed. The most useful of these will be what US marketing guru Seth Godin calls “sneezers”: talkative people who naturally tend to spread the virus of their experiences to those around them. In other words, one assiduous reader of Decanter Magazine (UK circulation of less than 25,000) who tells all of his colleagues and friends about the wines he has read about in a column by a specialist writer like Steven Spurrier might be responsible for far more sales than the person who casually buys a single bottle for himself after seeing it described to millions by one of Spurrier’s fellow critics on television. This may be particularly true of the higher-price and/or more esoteric wines that are more likely to be mentioned by more specialist critics.

Considering the Wine Intelligence study, public relations professional Emma Wellings wants to know “who are these 1,500 regular wine drinkers? It's not enough to survey just 'regular wine drinkers'… For a survey of this ilk to command respect, surely you'd need to break it down into different categories and then compare responses from those who drink regularly, but never spend over £5, with the ones who spend between £6-12 and those who don't really drink anything under £12.

Wine Intelligence may not have segmented its respondents in the report it published, but it did try to use them to segment the wine writers. Which of these, the analysts wanted to know were most familiar to consumers? Here, they discovered an interesting phenomenon. 29% of the Vinitrac panel may have said that they followed advice from critics, but 82% were unable to name even one. The best known, by far, was Oz Clarke who scored 18% thanks largely to his exposure for over 25 years on a series of of widely watched television programmes. followed by 9%, 7%, 6% and 5% respectively for Olly Smith, Sarah Jane Evans MW, Matthew Jukes and Malcolm Gluck, none of whom has the kind of global recognition enjoyed by Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier and Tim Atkin, who all scored 4% or less.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these findings disconcerted some of the writers concerned - and those members of the wine industry who delude themselves that the people who drink wine are as obsessive about its background as they are. Victoria Moore, wine writer for the Guardian newspaper, and one of the few wine critics who earn most of their living from general journalism, took a more level headed view. "How many people who buy CDs could name a single music critic? Do people who own lawnmowers know the names of anyone who writes about gardening? How well would 1,500 drivers do at naming a motoring critic? And if you asked the same question about almost anything from fashion to books I'm sure people would mostly say they listened to the advice of their friends. What's wrong with that?" Public relations specialist Emma Roberts makes a similar point: "I have to say whenever I speak to my friends who all like wine and read the papers, very few of them read or take any notice of the wine columns, which in some ways is surprising but also isn't because there are a lot more interesting things to read in the papers than the wine columns…".

At this point anyone with ambitions to sell more wine in the UK might be forgiven for feeling rather confused about the best ways to spend their time and money on the UK press. To which the only answer has to be that the Brtish wine market is, as many have discovered, a country with no reliable maps. To succeed, it is essential to devote significant effort on defining the part of the market in which one is trying to establish a foothold – and the consumers to whom one is aiming to sell. Unlike mainland Europe, where there is a tradition of drinking cheap basic wine during the week and much more premium fare at weekends, in the UK, it is not unusual for financially comfortable wine drinkers to limit almost all of their their vinous spending to under £7 or £8. Britain is one of the few countries where it is socially acceptable to serve relatively inexpensive wine at dinner parties whose hosts and guests all drive Jaguars. This phenomenon helps to explain why, despite the sophistication of many UK wine drinkers, critics never embraced the £50+ super-premium wines that were routinely recommended by their US and some of their European counterparts in pre credit crunch days. Even wine writers like Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times regularly recommend best buys at £5 or so – and criticize premium California wines for being over-priced. But these are precisely the critics that producers need to be addressing if they want to sell wines that aspire to more than the supermarket gondola end. And if they seek to promote their brand. Yvonne May points, “We have had UK agents tell us about calls they’ve received from European distributors when articles have appeared in major broadsheets or Decanter magazine. Jancis is the journalist most frequently cited by those speaking to us from continental Europe”.

For sales in supermarkets, nothing will ever beat the numbers game. It is no accident that publishers talk about costs-per-thousand when selling advertising space. The more people who are exposed to any kind of information about wine – whether in the form of an advertisement, an article, or a recommendation on television, the greater the number of bottles that is likely to be sold. The newspapers that helped to sell the Chilean Anakena wine in Asda all have circulations of between a million and a million and a quarter copies. The Independent newspaper, in which, the highly respected Anthony Rose has a column, can only claim sales of around 250,000 so it is hardly surprising that it has less of a direct impact. Newspaper editors acknowledge that the proportion of their readers who follow wine columns is, in any case, limited (which is why the size and length of these columns has shrunk in recent years). Television viewers are more likely to absorb the wine component in a programme that is generally focused on food. Which helps to explain why Oz Clarke, whose most recent TV series attracted an audience of 3.4m viewers and Olly Smith, whose Saturday Kitchen show has 1.6m both came top of the Wine Intelligence poll. It is also, perhaps relevant to note that Clarke is a trained actor (he was Peron in the London production of Evita) and Smith has experience as a stand-up comedian. Both understand the need to present wine in a way that is as entertaining as it is informative.

Having chosen the critics that seem most appropriate to their wine, how should a producer approach the UK press for the first time? For this article, we canvassed leading UK writers including Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin, Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon, Simon Woods, Steven Spurrier, Sarah Jane Evans, Jamie Goode, John Stimpfig and Christine Austin. They were asked to imagine their likely response to a range of possible approaches from a producer with whom they are unfamiliar – and from a region they do not already know well. First, the good news, in budgetary terms at least, is that they don’t want to be entertained at one of London's top restaurants – or the ballet. One critic admitted that a major rugby game or tennis match might work greater magic – but had only accepted one such invitation in the last year. A one-on-one interview with the winemaker was also generally rejected, as was the chance to join them in a private tasting of their latest vintages. Sarah-Jane Evans generally “really dislikes” meeting winemakers, however famous, “in anonymous hotel rooms in London… Always the conversations are less interesting than you get in the winery". There was marginally more keenness to taste old vintages with the winemaker, but not enough to justify pulling out precious mature bottles. Some were slightly more tempted by the offer of a talk by the winemaker on the soils, rootstocks, clones or terroirs of their region or a tasting of the producer's wines for a larger group of writers, "providing" as Simon Woods' of Wine & Spirit says "I'm not obliged to talk to anyone". There was a similar lack of excitement at the proposal to sample the wines with a specific style of cuisine, though Sarah Jane Evans recalled "an unforgettable evening tasting Georgian wine at the Georgian restaurant. Very eye opening in plenty of ways". Ms Evans, however admitted to being "less attracted by big budget wineries bringing over a chef to cook food that is probably rather international and lecturing me about what I ought to think about the pairings”.

Apart from simply posting a bottle and fact sheet and hoping for the best, the approach that it most likely to succeed with the critics was the tasting of the wine alongside others from the same region. Most of the critics would consider taking a brief trip to visit the wineries and vineyards - provided that it was organised generically. As Jancis Robinson said, "I'd want to know exactly who was funding this as I try not to be beholden (other than for tastes and the odd meal) to individual wine producers". Finally, unless you already know the writer quite well, don't waste the time and expense of laying on a private jet trip to your winery. This earned an average of 1 point out of a possible 10.

Sarah Jane Evans’s comment about the PR raises another crucial question. Should a winery approach the writer directly, or should it employ a public relations company? In theory, there is little reason for not going it alone, and a significant financial incentive. PR companies charge £600-£1000 per day, plus costs to put the winery and critic in contact with each other. Simply subscribing to the database of UK wine writers from the Circle of Wine Writers – from administrator@winewriters.org – would cost a mere £95 per year, a sum that would enable you to contact them all personally. But before you rush to adopt this strategy, listen to Jamie Goode of the Sunday Express and wineanorak.com “It depends who's asking. For me, one of the main determinants in whether or not I'd accept the invitations below is my relationship with the PR companies in question, and my judgement of their competence. There are some who I trust to the degree that I know they wouldn't waste my time”. And this is a point echoed by Sue Pike of Pike PR. “An important part of our role lies in persuading clients not to waste particular critics’ time with invitations or information that might actually be counter-productive”.

For anyone with serious ambitions in the UK, the use of a good public relations company is almost essential. Their fee does not only cover the insight a professional can provide into the market (an alternative view to the one offered by the producer’s importer) and the relationship they have with the writers. It should also pay for local knowledge such as the best choice of when and where to hold tastings. A skilled PR knows which venues are most likely to be convenient for critics, and which time and date will attract the greatest number of invitees. The challenge of hosting events that do not clash with other tastings is huge in the UK, and the better PRs actually work together on occasion to enable the writers to move from one to another. Finally, though it goes beyond the scope of this article, a PR should be able to introduce a wine to writers who are not specialists in the subject. As Sophie Vallejo of A la Carte Public Relations says, “When I started looking after the PR for a young brand of Champagne a few years ago, I was surprised to discover that journalists from women’s magazines were not contacted much by Champagne companies. Unlike wine writers, they did not receive many invitations to Champagne events or many wine samples for photos. Consequently, they responded very well to our campaign to build a new brand of Champagne.”

The Meininger Lists

The UK Wine Writers you need to know

1) Tim Atkin MW www.timatkin.com (The Observer, TV, radio Off Licence News, Intelligent Life, Decanter etc. A member of the newly founded The Wine Gang with Tom Cannavan, Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon and Olly Smith. Wines tasted by any of these may appear on the thewinegang.com website. Professional subscribers can use comments to promote wines.
2) Suzy Atkins www.susyatkins.co.uk (Sunday Telegraph, Delicious magazine, TV, radio).
3) Christine Austin (Yorkshire Post. Probably the UK’s leading regional wine writer)
4) Michael Broadbent MW (Decanter magazine, books. Specialist on fine wine)
5) Steven Brook (Decanter, books. Very respected on Bordeaux)
6) Jim Budd (Decanter, editor of the Circle of Wine Writers newsletter – read by most UK wine critics)
7) Tom Cannavan. (top online critic/editor, The Wine Gang, www.wine-pages.com)
8) Oz Clarke (TV, radio, annual guide, books, online, www.ozclarke.com)
9) Sarah Jane Evans MW (BBC Good Food Magazine, TV, radio )
10) Jamie Goode (Daily Express, magazines, influential online writer www.wineanorak.com)
11) Malcolm Gluck (Formerly the Guardian, Sainsbury Magazine. Now books, radio)
12) Andrew Jefford (Radio, Decanter, books. Leading radio wine commentator. Very well respected on France; now looking at Australia. www.andrewjefford.com)
13) Matthew Jukes (Daily Mail, annual wine guide. Very influential, particularly focused on Australia. www.matthewjukes.com)
14) Hugh Johnson (Decanter, books – with Jancis Robinson)
15) Jane MacQuitty (The Times. One of the most influential newspaper columnists)
16) Charles Metcalfe (Magazines, books. Specialist on Spain and Portugal)
17) Victoria Moore (The Guardian)
18) Jonathan Ray (Daily Telegraph)
19) Peter Richards (TV-Saturday Kitchen. Specialist on Chile)
20) Jancis Robinson MW, OBE (Financial Times. www.jancisrobinson.com. Most influential fine wine critic)
21) Anthony Rose (The Independent, magazines, the Wine Gang)
22) Joanna Simon (The Sunday Times, magazines, the Wine Gang)
23) Matt Skinner (Annual wine guide, Waitrose Food Illustrated, www.mattskinner.net)
24) Olly Smith (TV- Saturday Kitchen, Wine & Spirit, The Wine Gang, www.ollysmith.co.uk)
25) Steven Spurrier (Decanter magazine, books. Specialist on fine wine)
26) Tom Stevenson (Decanter, books, annual guide. Particular focus on Champagne and Alsace)
27) John Stimpfig (Financial Times, Decanter)
28) Simon Woods (Wine & Spirit magazine, books, www.drinkingoutsidethebox.blogspot.com)

Going for closure

An article that appeared in the March 2009 issue of Decanter magazine

Ten years ago, if anybody had predicted that I would one day lose sleep over the best way to seal a million bottles of wine, they might as well have suggested that I’d be thinking of methods to steal the stuff. But a lot can happen in a decade. Back in the last year of the 20th century, I divided my time between writing articles and books on wine, and chairing wine competitions in London and Asia. It was then that I started to metamorphose into a dangerously geeky creature: a person for whom wine closures would be a special subject. The process began gradually, as I began to notice how many wines in the competitions were tainted with TCA by bad corks and a recogniseably “flat” character of wines that were stoppered with a then-recently developed and widely used “technical closure” called Altec that was made of tiny cork granules and touted as being totally free of TCA.

In those long-distant days, screwcaps were still more or less restricted to the cheapest most basic wines. The talk was all of synthetic corks which were predicted by some to replace the real thing completely. But there were also suggestions that they caused wine to age prematurely and broke corkscrews. And then there were the spin-doctoring skills of the larger cork manufacturers who not only brazenly denied that TCA taint was a problem, but also seemed to be associated with scaremongering rumours linking alternative closures to cancer.

I remember a number of thought-provoking moments. There was the encounter with a brilliantly youthful 25 year old screwcap-sealed Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley Riesling which proved that white wine at least could age perfectly well without a cork. There was the well preserved 1907 Piper Heidsieck rescued after 86 years on the ocean floor during which time it presumably didn’t do much “breathing” through its cork. And then in 2000 there was the blind tasting of wines produced by the then newly-formed Union des Grands Crus de Chablis at which low level taint or random oxidation caused one of Michel Laroche’s wines to tasted uncharacteristically flat and dull - and drove M Laroche to use screwcaps for his Grand Cru.

The more I thought about the issue of closures the more fascinated and frustrated I became by the lack of available information. So, in a moment of madness (I really did have better things to do with my life), I started a non-commercial website called corkwatch.com which impartially covered news about all kinds of natural and alternative closures. Over its nearly five years’ lifespan, the site raised issues such as the blame that corks unfairly received for TCA-taint from newly treated timber in wineries and cellars. It looked at rubbery “reduction” odours from screwcapped bottles (almost always a result of winemaking not being adapted to the closures) and scraped the surface of the mysteriously short-lived white Burgundies of the late 1990s (probably caused by a combination of factors including insufficient use of sulphur and faulty corks). It covered the threats to Iberian wildlife caused by the move away from natural corks, and the stories of unfortunate producers such as Elio Altare in Barolo who lost an entire vintage to tainted corks. Perhaps most usefully, its existence also prompted me in the summer of 2003 at the Vinexpo wine fair, to set up the first blind comparative tasting of older wines sealed with corks and alternatives.

My experience at that tasting - where the alternatives, including a 1983 Beyers Truter Paul Sauer from South Africa generally showed well, left me with no patience for the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad absolutism of the pro-cork and pro-screwcap lobbies. To talk generically about”cork” is like referring to “beef” or “claret”. There are 700 manufacturers in Portugal alone; some are a lot more conscientious than others. Synthetic corks vary too, as indeed do screwcaps, though this last category does seems to be more homogenous than corks. Some wines suit some types of closures better than others. Any discussion of the way a wine improves with time under a cork, for example, is of absolutely zero relevance to a Pinot Grigio or a rosé that’s intended to be drunk within weeks of its purchase. On the other hand, despite my deep misgivings about the unreliability of corks, I’d still rather not unscrew a Romanée-Conti.

In 2005, after the sale of the International Wine Challenge and my retirement from the role of its co-chairman, these questions ceased to be hypothetical. With former flying winemaker Hugh Ryman and label designer Kevin Shaw as partners, I became involved in the business of creating, branding and packaging some entirely new ranges of wines. Working with producers in France, Spain and Italy, our self-appointed role was – and is – to come up with wines that look and taste good and sell in reasonable volumes in a wide range of countries, for the most part at under £7 or the local equivalent. Hugh and I had mixed, and in some cases, differing views on the subject of what we would put in the necks of our bottles. We had to consider a wide range of criteria. Performance - which, for us, meant consistency and an absence of taint rather than long-term ageing - was crucial, but we also had to consider price. When you are being paid €3 a bottle, it makes no sense to spend a sixth of that sum on a top-quality cork, or the new glass Vini-Lok stopper which might score highly in the next category: aesthetics. Then of course, there are environmental factors, ranging from preserving Portuguese flora and fauna to carbon footprints. For some people, of course, these last considerations are sufficient in themselves to tip the scales in favour of natural cork, despite its shortcomings And I respect that view, just as I respect the decision by a biodynamic producer like Vanya Cullen in Australia to seal her bottles with screwcaps in order to allow the flavour of her “terroir” to get into the glass without any interference from a closure.

But it’s not that easy. British supermarkets, for example, don’t want natural corks in our kinds of wines, because they don’t like having to deal with bad bottles. And ever since they switched to synthetics and screwcaps, the number of returns has dropped dramatically. As the price of corks has risen, getting even half-decent ones for much less than 25 euro cents is almost impossible. Reliable Nomacorks, cost 5-7 cents by comparison, while screwcaps cost 12 cents. These, however, need no capsules, so ultimately work out at around the same cost as the synthetic closure. Until recently, it was generally agreed that synthetics offer very short-term prospects for wine, but Nomacork’s manufacturers now guarantee their closures for up to three years, rather longer than some of those white Burgundies survived.

For our Greener Planet organic wines, we decided, with the encouragement of the US retailer who is our biggest customer, to use natural corks. Corks have certainly improved in quality over the last few years, but random oxidation is still a problem and any suggestion, such as the one made in a recent BBC 2 programme, that TCA taint is a thing of the past is frankly laughable. I did not, for example, appreciate opening a nastily corked bottle of Greener Planet in the tasting room of one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains. Happily I had a perfectly sound spare bottle to hand, but I couldn’t help wondering how many of our customers have their own disappointing experiences when they pour this wine. Ideally, we’ll switch from these to Diam, the reliable and relatively environmentally friendly successor to the awful Altecs that so used to bother me a decade ago. But I can’t help noticing that Bonterra, my favourite US organic brand has recently moved from corks to screwcaps…

That decision may help us to persuade our US customers to let us use screwcaps for our non-organic Grand Noir Chardonnay-Viognier and Viognier-Chardonnay - and possibly the Pinot Noir - but so far , they have more or less insisted on Nomacorks for both reds and whites, and with sales of over 750,000 this year, we’ve had absolutely no complaints. I suspect that one of the attractions of these synthetics, apart from their reliability, is that for the casual corkscrew user, they may actually pass for natural corks, and in America, this still seems to be preferable to either screwcaps or Diam. But, I’d be very surprised if this didn’t change, and if screwcaps didn’t become as acceptable in the US as they are in Britain. Bag-in-box was, after all, similarly slow to take off on the west coast of the Atlantic, but now has a huge following.

But we’re now looking at other forms of closure and indeed bottle. The Vive la Revolution and Greener Planet Sustainable wines we’re just launching both come in a low carbon footprint, easily recyclable, one-litre PET bottle which has a built-in PET screwcap and a guaranteed two year shelf life. I’m not for a moment suggesting that these, any more than screwcaps are the ultimate answer for wine; they are merely another stage in vinous evolution. After countless false starts in Portugal, new NASA technology may finally get rid of TCA taint from corks, but I still doubt that millions of new wine drinkers in China and India are all going to buy corkscrews. The challenge for us all lies in finding ways to package wines that are both good for the liquid and good for the planet. And for the Portuguese farmers and manufacturers to come up with profitable alternative uses for the bark from their trees.

Weighing the merit of Meritage

An article that first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Among the anniversaries most members of the international wine industry failed to mark last year was the 20th birthday of Meritage. Back in 1988, a group of California wineries, including such high profile names as Agustin Huneeus of Franciscan, Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino, Julie Garvey of Flora Springs, David Stare of Dry Creek, Chip Lyeth of Lyeth, Richard Graf of Chalone and Jason Pahlmeyer of Pahlmeyer decided that a solution had to be found to a winemaking and marketing problem. The then-young industry was rapidly evolving from producing the single varietals with which it had hit the headlines at the Judgement of Paris tasting a decade or so earlier. Now it wanted to move into more complex blends of the kind that were traditional in Bordeaux. Wine labelled as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot could legally contain up to 25% of other varietals, but how were winemakers to market a blend, for example of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc? And what if, like the maitres de chais of Bordeaux, after sampling the contents of their vats and barrels, these new wave Californians decided to vary the blend from one vintage to the next? Under US law, wines like these could only be sold as Red or White Table Wine. What was needed, the producers decided, was a branded designation that would define Bordeaux-style Californian reds and whites in the way that France’s appellations have done since the 1930s. A competition was launched that attracted some 6,000 entries and Meritage was named the winner. No quality criteria were set for wines sold under this designation though it was hoped that it would be used for premium examples, but they had to be made in California from the varieties that were legally permitted for Bordeaux, with a limit of 90% being set for any grape.

Since those heady days, the world has become replete with Cabernet-Merlot blends (and increasing numbers of vinous cocktails including once esoteric varieties such as Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere), but the Meritage brand has failed to catch the imagination of either producers or, more crucially, retailers and consumers. At the end of its first decade, the Meritage Association had still only signed up 22 members. A change of gear - including an opening of membership to non Californian, and indeed non-US wineries and a reduction of membership costs - to a current levy of $1 per case with a maximum of $500 - then increased numbers. By 2003 there were 100 and by the end of 2008, there were 220, including recent arrivals such as Robert Mondavi and wines from Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Israel and Mexico. The embracing of the Meritage concept for Mondavi by Constellation is interesting, given the decision by the Mondavi family when they owned the brand not to adopt it for Opus One which would have been an obvious candidate. If Constellation puts export weight behind its Robert Mondavi Meritage Private Selection 2006, a high-volume wine selling at $10-12 in the US, its marketers will some explaining to do.

Jo Ahearne who is now a senior wine buyer for UK retail chain Marks & Spencer, recalls her confusion when studying for her Master of Wine - MW - qualification while working as a winemaker in South Australia. “One of the study papers that was sent from London included a reference to Meritage wines. I’d been in the wine industry for several years and done all my exams leading up to the MW, but I’d never heard of them. In the end, I called a wine store in Sydney to ask if they had any examples. They laughed and said that mine was the fifth call they’d had that day - all from similarly mystified MW students”. Since then, Ahearne has never come across the term again. And never needed to. Meritage is not actually part of the MW syllabus; it just happened to feature on that occasion.

The - relative - surge of interest in Meritage in California and the keenness of Margaret River in particular to promote its mastery Bordeaux-style reds and whites as a unique point of interest, raises three questions. First there is the need to define what one might expect from a Bordeaux blend in 2009 - within the rules laid down by French AOC and Meritage Association. Second, there’s the matter of whether those rules are as relevant as they were 20 years ago. And third, there’s the issue of whether the wine world actually needs a Meritage-style brand.

At the heart of the Meritage concept and the Margaret River claims is the notion that there is a valuably unique quality to the Bordeaux recipe. This is a view that is certainly held by Steven Spurrier, famously the instigator of the Judgment of Paris taster and now a Decanter columnist and consultant. “Let’s face the facts: the best red wines from Bordeaux are the greatest in the world and they are all, with the exception of Petrus which proves the rule, blends… There are two pillars on which a fine wine rests: fruit and terroir. Since the latter is a given, the argument concerning the importance of Bordeaux blends outside Bordeaux rests on fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have fruit in spades, but in a single style. As in fine cuisine, you need a pinch of this and a pinch of that to create complexity, finesse and harmony. To the simple concept of fruit, Cabernet Sauvignon brings firmness, Cabernet Franc brings fragrance, Merlot brings flesh, Malbec brings spice and Petit Verdot brings grip. Is this not better than single varietal fruit? It unquestionably is if the winemaker knows how to handle these differents elements. If he does not, he should stick to single varietals.”

New Zealand expert, Bob Campbell MW agrees that blending the two key Bordeaux red grapes has been very productive in his country. “First there was Cabernet Sauvignon (from the mid sixties) but with few exceptions it was rather green, tannic and generally nasty. The arrival of Merlot (from early eighties) as a blending wine helped boost Cabernet’s fortunes by softening it and diluting weedy characters”. In South Africa, the picture was rather different, as Michael Fridjhon recalls. “Until Meerlust Rubicon made a claim for blends being worth more than single variety wines, pure Cabernet fetched more than any red blend” . Today, he says that blends are definitely an important category in their own right.

But, if New Zealand Merlot has been beneficial to that country’s Cabernet Sauvignon, with the exception of two regions, the same can not be said of Australia - at least not in the view of James Halliday. “Merlot as a varietal had an extended happy hour in Australia, as it did in many other countries, but now there is a monumental hangover…. In Merlot’s glory days, it was planted indiscriminantly across virtually all Australian wine regions from very cool to distinctly warm. It is, of course, unsuited to the latter, but the eradication phase is yet to start in earnest… Next, it is agreed by all… [that] we have a very poor clonal Merlot base. Adding these together, it is no surprise to find that there is no longer a trophy for Merlot at the Sydney Wine Show, and the market has become aware of its shortcomings. Then you take into account the fact that, for most Cabernet Merlots, it is a case of putting the least bits of Cabernet together with the least bits of Merlot in the cellar, and hoping to get rid of them without too much attention being paid”. For Halliday, Margaret River and “to a lesser degree, the Yarra Valley”, are the exceptions to the rule. “The strongly maritime climate” of the former region seems to suit these blends very well, and, in each case, Margaret River heads his database lists in terms of the top-pointed wines. Indeed, one of his reds of the year was the Flametree 2007 Cabernet Merlot from that region which won numerous awards in 2008 including the all important Jimmy Watson Trophy.

As a Cabernet-Merlot, the Flametree fits the definition of a red Bordeaux blend as it was generally understood in 1988. In those days, Cabernet Franc, despite its occasional glories in Bordeaux was decidedly a bit-player while Petit Verdot, if it featured at all, rarely ever represented more than 3%. Malbec was fast on its way to extinction in Bordeaux and Carmenère’s only presence in that region was almost exclusively restricted to the pages of history books. Looking back, the decision in 1980 of Jerry and Joyce Cain to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot on a vineyard in Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley would have struck many a Medoc chateau owner as downright eccentric. Today, however, greater clonal understanding of the Petit Verdot and the renaissance of the Malbec and Carmenère in Argentina and Chile respectively, has helped to change the picture radically. At the 2008 International Wine Challenge in London where some 1286 reds involving Cabernet Sauvigon or Merlot were tasted, 20 boasted Petit Verdot as their second most important grape, with percentages rising as high as 25% for silver medal winning Marqués De Griñón Emeritus 2004 from Spain. One of Chile’s gold medals in that same competition, the Carmen Wine Maker´s Reserve Red 2003, contained 20% Carmenère, a variety that, though legal, is still virtually unknown in Bordeaux. Revealingly, while the 2004 International Wine Challenge had some 256 “traditional” Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blends, that figure dropped to 153 last year, a fall from 17% of the category to 12%.

Over the same period, the proportion of single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots and wines containing 90% or more of one of those grapes rose from 48% to 62% - a trend which would presumably not be welcomed by the Meritage Association. More worrying, however, to supporters of the classic set of Bordeaux varietals, must be the gradual infiltration of outsiders ranging from the Tempranillo and Sangiovese to Pinot Noir, Grenache and beyond. 2008 was the year when a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zweigelt picked up an International Wine Challenge gold medal for Austria. The variety that has most successfully sneaked into the blend is the Syrah/Shiraz, a little of which can, it seems do as much for modern Cabernet-Merlot blends as Hermitage famously once did for top red Bordeaux. There was some Syrah in that award-winning Marques de Grinon Emeritus, as there was - 6% to be precise - in the gold medal Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Clairault, the most successful Western Australian winery in the competition. Ironically, given Margaret River’s claims to being the Bordeaux of the Southern hemisphere, the judicious use of the most famous grape of the Rhone is far from unusual. Other top class wineries that, according to International Wine Challenge records, have benefitted in this way include Voyager Estate and Vasse Felix.

Michael Fridjhon acknowledges the handicap that may be cause by total respect for Meritage/AOC rules. “In all competitions in which I have a say in the drafting of the rules, a Bordeaux blend can only have AOC varieties. However - I have tasted many wines which would not meet that criterion (e.g. include 3% Shiraz) but which are actually more immediately drinkable, more attractive, maybe even better. In the 19th century Syrah was planted in Bordeaux. Is its present outlaw status a strait-jacket for the Bordelais or a point of difference?”

In 2007 James Laube, one of the major columnists in the Wine Spectator wrote a blog entitled “At Age 20, Does Meritage Still Deserve Merit?” in which he admitted to always having had “mixed emotions” about the term, “since it requires an explanation”. And there, I think, is the rub. The creators of concepts like Meritage, and indeed the men and women responsible for French appellations tend to overestimate the knowledge and interest of the people who are going to end up drinking the wine. As Bob Campbell neatly puts it “[Cabernet-Merlot] blends are confusing to the masses though enlightening to the enlightened… Consumers (or at least “many consumers”) understand varieties. They know that Cabernet Sauvignon is big and tannic and that Merlot is softer and lighter. Most are less sure about what to expect from a blend – they tend to hang their hat on the dominant partner… [they] call Cabernet Merlot “Cabernet” and Merlot/Cabernet “Merlot”. James Halliday who produced excellent classic Bordeaux-blend at his Coldstream Hills winery in the Yarra Valley recalls the heyday of Merlot when “consumers would look at the Cabernet-Merlot bottle and say ‘I’ll have the Merlot’. I have now retired to gentler pursuits, but wouldn’t be surprised if they pointed at the same wine and said ‘I’ll have the Cabernet’.

The need for a category covering Cabernet and/or Merlot dominant wines is largely driven by the way retail stores and restaurant wine lists are laid out in the US. Consumers all too often turn straight to the area with which they feel comfortable - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz or Pinot Noir - and avoid the “miscellaneous” mixture of blends and unfamiliar varieties. But any such category needs to allow greater latitude than Meritage currently does for the addition of - say up to 15% - non-Bordeaux varieties; it needs to be marketed far more energetically and productively than Meritage. And, though this is an ideal that is unlikely ever to be achieved, it needs to come with some qualitative credentials…