Meritage Death Of A Marketing Label

Posted: Jan 18, 2017

As searches for the term enter a terminal tailspin, W. Blake Gray asks why producers still call wines Meritage.

But the term Meritage rarely pops up on wine lists. Not many people search for it, especially when compared to its main components, Cabernet and Merlot. Searches for Meritage have been in freefall for the past five years. Last year, 82,000 people searched for Meritage on Wine-Searcher, which is not nothing. But 1.8 million people searched for Merlot, and 11.2 million people searched for Cabernet. Even Carmenere, the rarely-used sixth authorized Bordeaux variety, had 340,000 searches.

There is good news on the Meritage front: the world's best winery that makes the world's best and most awesome wines, Trump Winery in Virginia, makes a Meritage. And it is, no doubt, super awesome.

On the down side, Washington's Chateau Ste Michelle, the only other non-California winery to make a top-searched Meritage, has decided to stop using the term.

"I talked to a number of restaurateurs and a master somm and asked: 'Is that term important to you?'" Jan Barnes, Chateau Ste Michelle's vice president of marketing told Wine-Searcher. "They said, no, not really."

Meritage was created in 1988 for the best of reasons. Napa Valley wineries had a labeling problem. They couldn't call their Cabernet-Merlot blends "Bordeaux blends", like most of us do informally, because that doesn't respect the Bordeaux place name. But they couldn't call them Cabernet Sauvignon unless the wine had at least 75 percent Cabernet. Marketing departments wanted winemakers to adjust the grape variety mix to make the wine easier to sell. That didn't seem like a good idea in a quality-focused region.

Making up names is a skill for California wineries. Just 20 years earlier, Robert Mondavi had decided to call his Sauvignon Blancs "Fumé Blanc", and sales went up. Why wouldn't that work again? The wineries held a contest and came up with a name that combined "Merit" and "Heritage." Voila!

The rules for a Meritage are simple: it's basically a Bordeaux made outside Bordeaux. It must include at least two of the six authorized varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere), but no more than 90 percent of any of them. It is possible to make a white Meritage with the Bordeaux white grapes Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle, but white Meritages have always been exceedingly rare.

These blends make sense. The wines make sense. Everywhere in the world, Cab and Merlot go together. Between 1999, when there were only 22 members, and 2003, suddenly there was a lot of interest, with membership shooting up into triple digits.

So what happened? Why isn't Meritage on the tip of everyone's tongue today?

Part of the issue is the grape-variety restriction. Wineries wanted to put in Syrah, Zinfandel or Petite Sirah.

But for the main culprit, we refer you back to this statement: "Making up names is a skill for California wineries." Napa Valley wineries figured out that if they make a wine called Insignia or Trilogy or Élu, they might as well spend their time marketing that name instead of Meritage. This is especially true at the very high end. None of the small-production, super-expensive Napa wineries that make a red blend – the kind of wines that would bring prestige to the name – call it Meritage.

"The original notion of Meritage wine was that producers thought this was a clever way to market premium-priced Merlot/Cabernet blends," Gerald Weisl, proprietor of Weimax wine shop in the wealthy San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, told Wine-Searcher. "But look at the wines that are prominent in the market – it seems like many brands devalue the Meritage designation. And you don't see Opus One using the term. They could certainly afford to use that name if they thought it to be advantageous. Do you know of one seriously outstanding, benchmark wine bearing the Meritage name these days? Sadly, neither do I."

This is not to say that there are no good Meritages. But even for the wineries that make the most popular Meritages, the Meritage is often not the top of the line.

Rodney Strong makes 6000 cases a year of the second most-searched Meritage, also called Symmetry, and it's one of the most expensive, at $55 suggested retail price. But Rodney Strong has a whole higher tier of red wines, its Single Vineyard wines, priced at $75.

Dan Wildermuth, Rodney Strong's vice president of marketing, told Wine-Searcher that the winery hasn't considered dropping the term, because Meritage has meaning in Canada and the UK.

"When we travel internationally, people are attracted to the name," Wildermuth said. "They know that it is a red blend based on Bordeaux varietals. In a sea of red blends, it enables people to quickly identify it."

Dry Creek Vineyards was the very first winery to put Meritage on a label and it still makes one of the most-searched Meritages.

"We definitely advocate for Meritage," Sara Rathbun, Dry Creek director of marketing and communications, told Wine-Searcher.

However, after spending years at the top of Dry Creek's blend portfolio, its Meritage was superseded 15 years ago by a new red blend just called Mariner. Dry Creek Meritage has a suggested retail price of $30; for Mariner, it's $45.

"They're different wines," Rathbun said. "The Meritage is more of a retail wine, whereas the Mariner is more of a high-end wine." The Mariner outsells the Meritage, she said.

John Wight is the wine buyer for Healthy Spirits, a wine shop in San Francisco. If any consumers in the US would know what Meritage is and ask for it, you'd think it would be in the traditional capital of California's wine industry.

"Once in a while, maybe once a month or once every two months, somebody asks for Meritage," Wight told Wine-Searcher. "We don't have anything with that on the label. I tell them it's just a marketing term and steer them toward a Cab-Merlot blend."

Source: Wine Searcher
By W. Blake Gray
January 17, 2017

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