I realize that the connection between the modern popularity of “red blends” and old-vine vineyards is tenuous. But I think a case can be made that not only ties them together, but presents evidence that our taste in wines is pretty much what our distant ancestors’ was. In other words, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
That red blends are huge in the marketplace is proven by IRI data. Red blends beat all varietal types in case sales over the 52-week period in America ending Feb. 21, 2016. As Lettie Teague, in the Wall Street Journal, put it, slightly more than a year ago, “domestic red blends are some of the most sought-after wines in the market today.”
In fact, so cool have red blends become that Nielsen recently called them “the craft beer of the wine category—hip, different and trending.”
But precisely why they’re so popular is less easy to analyze, it seems to me. True, as Lettie points out, red blends “are cheap and they’re easy to drink.” But so are a good many other red wines. I don’t think the fact that they’re blends influences consumers in any particular way; the consumer may not even understand what a “blend” means, as opposed to a varietal; and I’m not sure the industry has figured out a way to calibrate “coolness,” except in a retrospective way that is not particularly predictive. Besides, I bet the same consumers who buy red blends also (contrarily) believe that varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are the best red wines. So, from a consumer-psychology point of view, the explanation of the popularity of red blends is ambiguous.
Probably it’s as much a question of branding than anything else. The most popular red blends are known, not for being blends, but for their brand names; and branding, as an advertiser will tell you, is the greatest accomplishment a product can achieve. Still, one factor—connected to Lettie’s “easy to drink” comment—may be that a blend, be it red or white, can make for a more complete, wholesome wine, because a single variety on its own may contain divots—imbalances of acidity, or aromas, or flavors, or mouthfeel, or tannins, or bitternesss—that a blend can compensate for.
By this I refer to the gestalt of a wine—when the sum total of its collective parts is greater than any of the individual parts alone. But this isn’t some modern discovery of our enlightened age. Vintners appear to have long understood it, which may be why the old Italian-American immigrants to California planted their vineyards to many different varieties. This often is explained as their solution to vintage challenges: early ripeners could compensate for early rains that hurt late ripeners, and vice versa. No doubt this is true, but I think the Italian-American winemakers also knew that a mélange of varieties in the vineyard could give them richer, rounder, more complete wines.
Yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat talks about this in focusing on one particular winery, Carlisle, whose Willowside Road Vineyard was planted in 1927 (by an Italian-American) and contains at least 39 separate, distinct varieties (Carlisle’s owner, Mike Officer, had the grapes analyzed at U.C. Davis). Carlisle long has coveted these old-vine vineyards and, as the Press Democrat article notes, “he helped found the Historic Vineyard Society (historicvineyardsociety.org).” Many vintners, particularly in Sonoma and Napa counties, deserve credit for helping to preserve these antiquarian treasures. I want to mention one, Don Hartford, of Hartford Family Wines, who has been instrumental in protecting old-vine Zinfandel vineyards. This is a labor of love, but it pays off: Hartford’s vineyard-designated Zins, such as Dina’s and Fanucchi-Wood Road, obtain very high scores from the major critics.
The question of why these old vineyards can perform so spectacularly fascinates me. One explanation is that the vine roots have dug deep into the earth, encountering minerals that don’t lay near the surface. Another is that their yields are so low. A third possibility is precisely what I’ve mentioned, that they contain numerous different varieties that make for a more complex wine. Who knows? But they are treasures. If you’ve been buying the newer red blends that are popular and inexpensive in the market, you might want to search around for a harder-to-find old-vine red wine from Napa or Sonoma. It will cost you more, but it will open your eyes to the magic of some of these old-vine blends, which are among the great red wines of the world.
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