Proprietary Blends Make Their Mark

The tiny region of Bordeaux, centered around the Garonne River in southwest France, produces an estimated 750 million bottles of wine each year, most of which are some blend of the common Bordeaux grape varietals–for reds, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot, and the more exotic macaire, gros verdot, and carmenere; for whites, sauvignon blanc, semillon, and sauvignon vert. In France (and elsewhere in Europe) wines are identified by their appellation, or growing region, as well as their vineyard. Bordeaux produces both the stars of the wine world, like Chateau Petrus from the right-bank Pomerol “appellation d’origine controlle,” and a plethora of middle-range blends, like Chateau Lynch-Bages from the left-bank region of Pauillac.

Bordeaux grapes are cultivated in the U.S. as well, but most American wines are classified by grape variety rather than appellation. Per the rules of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, to be dubbed a varietal, a wine must be at least 75 percent one kind of grape. “In the early days of California wine making,” says Robb Hultman, manager of Randolph Wine Cellars, “most vintners were using single grapes to create wine, but they started realizing that blending could create wines of superior quality–and who did they want to emulate but the French?”

In the last 30 years proprietary blends–wines that combine two or more grapes in varying proportions–have become increasingly popular among American wine makers. But as American wines have gained a higher profile in the world wine market, some vintners have become increasingly uncomfortable with the available terminology, feeling that catchalls like “private reserve” and “table wine” (the only categories allowed by the ATF) don’t do justice to the sophistication of their signature blends.

After Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillipe de Rothschild joined forces in the mid-70s to create Opus One, the cabernet sauvignon-based blend that became America’s first ultrapremium wine, many vintners followed their lead to create proprietary blends that showcased their individuality and creativity. They hit on names outside the limited vocabulary of American viticulture. The Niebaum-Coppola estate blended cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot to create Rubicon, named for the Italian river once famously crossed by Caesar. Franciscan Vineyards created the red Magnificat in homage to Bach; Caymus Vineyards’ white Conundrum is a complex blend of muscat, chardonnay, semillon, and sauvignon blanc.

By 1988 the nomenclature was becoming confusing. Many of these proprietary blends could have been classed as varietals (for example, a 1978 Rubicon, being 88 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 6 percent cabernet franc, and 6 percent merlot, easily qualifies as a cabernet sauvignon under the 75 percent rule). Many wine makers worried that the chaos in the American market–still something of an upstart–was hurting their attempts to create a strong profile on the international market. So a group of them banded together to create a consistent appellation for American Bordeaux blends–the predominant and most sophisticated blends produced in the U.S.–and to encourage the development of wines that meet the highest standards. They coined the term “Meritage”–combining the words merit and heritage–as their trademark (no relation to the Bucktown restaurant of the same name). One of the criteria for membership in the association was that the blended product must result in a better wine than could be created as a varietal. Other criteria required that a blend include at least two of the main Bordeaux varieties (with no more than 90 percent of a single variety) and be produced in a quantity of no more than 25,000 cases per year. If a blend qualified, it was entitled (although not required) to display the word “Meritage” on the label.

Meritage was adopted into the international wine vocabulary, and today the group has 48 member wineries. The criteria for membership have evolved in the last 20-odd years: initially the varietals approved for Meritage reds included only the five major Bordeaux grapes, but now the rules have expanded to include the three more obscure grapes listed earlier, which are all but nonexistent in the States. This could allow smaller (but growing) wine producers like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile to join the association in the future. In addition, the limited production requirement has recently been revoked, a change that opens the field to larger wine producers who’ve started dabbling in proprietary blends.

But while the organization is growing, its practical applications appear to be waning. On the wine list at NoMI, the restaurant in the new Park Hyatt, not a single wine in the limited (but excellent) selection displays the Meritage mark–rather they bear names like Quintessa, Viader, and Cain Five. At Grace, renowned for its well-selected and small-producer-oriented list, the category “Other Reds” features premium blends like Justin Isosceles and Dominus, but nothing labeled “Meritage.”

Hultman and many other national wine experts believe that a fabricated category to encompass a range of unique blends is probably unnecessary. “They thought wine makers would want to have the name Meritage on the label so the public would look at it…for easy identification,” says Hultman. “But as it turned out, I think it’s on fewer labels now than it was in the past decade. People are more educated now–they know more about wine and how to read a label than ever before, so aren’t necessarily looking for a generic name.” Of the 18 domestic blends carried at Randolph Wine Cellars, only one white bears the name–and it’s produced by St. Supery Vineyards, whose CEO is Michaela Rodeno, current president of the Meritage Association.

Randolph Wine Cellars is a six-month-old retail store with an adjacent bi-level wine bar, the Tasting Room, which offers a stellar selection of 104 wines by the glass (and almost 200 bottles) as well as cheese and charcuterie plates (and a great West Loop view of the skyline). The store carries a growing collection of 800 handcrafted American wines–some produced in batches as small as 500 cases–including the aforementioned 18 American Bordeaux blends. Hultman and owners Brenda and Perry Fotopoulos pride themselves on carefully handling and selecting wines for both retail sales and by-the-glass service, and collaborate to design a list with an eye to both quality and value. (“And we mean value,” reminds a recent issue of their newsletter. “Anyone can select good $50 bottles of wine.”) Hultman’s passion for learning about wine makers and grape varieties keeps them on the cutting edge. “We have relationships with many California and Oregon wine makers, so we have the ability to get wines that aren’t always available for retail. You won’t see them anywhere else in town,” he says.

Randolph Wine Cellars is on a mission to take the mystery out of buying and drinking wine. Toward that end, the store offers a variety of complimentary tastings on Sundays from 2 to 6. Upcoming tastings include “More Merlot” on August 6, “Rhones on Loan” on August 13, “Hot Wines of Summer” on August 20, and “Italian Wines” on August 27; a six-week wine appreciation class starts August 1.

Randolph Wine Cellars and the Tasting Room are located at 1415 W. Randolph, 312-942-1212.

The Dish

Spotted at 1039 W. Bryn Mawr: a sign announcing the newest addition to the Mia Francesca empire, Francesca’s on Bryn Mawr, slated to open in late September.

The venerable Rosebud group of Italian restaurants expands into beef with the opening of Rosebud Steakhouse in the former Shelly’s Back Room space at 192 E. Walton.

Le Colonial, 937 N. Rush, has renovated its basement and plans to open Le Passage, a supper club and nightclub, by the end of July.

On July 1, Joe Russo and John Bubala of Thyme opened Sinibar, their new French-influenced Mediterranean bistro at 1540 N. Milwaukee.

Chef Michael Tsonton turned in his toque at Tizi Melloul, 531 N. Wells, last week.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Perry and Brenda Fotopoulos, Robb Hultman photo by Jim Newberry.