Each of us has something that bugs the crap out of us. For my wife, one of those is my gum chewing.
Because I write about wine, my biggest pet peeves seem to involve the misuse of “Meritage.”
Vintners ignorant of its history and its definition should not be using it. And for those who do know, well, they need to coach their customers on how to pronounce it.
A First World problem for sure, yet the purpose of the Meritage Alliance has merit. It’s also operated by a membership hoping that winery owners pay for the right to use the nonprofit groupʼs trademarked word.
“We frequently run into wineries that are not up to speed on the trademark,” notes Jane Young, who serves as President of the Meritage Alliance.
This spring, while setting up for a competition, there was a red wine that carried “Meritage” on the label. Syrah was a component — in this case, the dominant red grape in the blend. The winery had no clue about the purpose of the program.
Meritage is a mashup — a portmanteau — of “meritorious heritage.” It is an American word, NOT a French word. Merit + age. It doesn’t rhyme with garage, and it has nothing to do with a Northern Rhône blend from the appellation known as Hermitage. (That’s air-ME-tahj). Heck, even the historic home of President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson rhymes with Meritage.
The standards established by the Meritage Alliance are straightforward:
- “Red wine may be designated as Meritage if it is made from a blend of two or more of the following varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmènére. No other varieties can be in the blend, and no single variety may make up more than 90 percent of the blend.”
- “White wine may be designated as Meritage if it is made from a blend of two or more of the following varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle du Bordelais. No other varieties can be in the blend, and no single variety may make up more than 90 percent of the blend.”
The proliferation of proprietary red blends produced in California during the 1980s prompted a group of 30 wineries in Napa and Sonoma to address U.S. government regulations on labeling. They also would help the consumer by creating a reference point. If a winery was developing a wine with high expectations and aimed to command a high price, then the buyer deserved to know something about such a prestigious blend.
The group decided to stage a contest, which brought in 6,000 entries. According to legend, the winner received two bottles of every Meritage wine produced by each member for a decade. Acclaimed Napa winemaker Mitch Cosentino was the first to adopt the term — which he applied to a 1986 red.
In the Pacific Northwest, Chateau Ste. Michelle was among the first to become a member. The 1993 vintage marked the beginning of its Artist Series Meritage, and the usage continued on the front label through the 2011 vintage.
Benson Vineyards a Meritage supporter for 2 decades
Halfway through that string of Meritage bottlings by Château Ste. Michelle, the Benson family launched Benson Vineyards Estate Winery near the Lake Chelan town of Manson, Wash.
“We are a long-time member/producer of the Meritage Association starting in 2004 and today a member of the Meritage Alliance,” says Scott Benson. “We don’t make a Meritage red wine every year, but make sure to pay our dues to support a fantastic wine concept. Here’s to hoping everyone who uses Meritage on their label understands that it’s a trademarked name and using it requires payment to the Alliance.”
An early and steadfast supporter of Meritage was the late Harry McWatters, the Okanagan Valley vintner dubbed by a Canadian wine critic as “the Robert Mondavi of British Columbia.” At Sumac Ridge in Summerland, he was the first in Canada to bottle both a red and a white Meritage.
“Harry was a great supporter and a Meritage pioneer,” Young says.
The list of British Columbia producers on the Meritage Alliance website is not deep, but it is more current than most in the U.S., including Chaberton, Jackson-Triggs, Lake Breeze, Moraine Estate, Nk’Mip and McWatters-led TIME Family of Wines.
For years, Wild Goose Vineyards bottled a Red Horizon Meritage and was a dues-paying member, but it recently included Dunkelfelder — a German grape. It dropped Meritage from the name.
Leslie Matheson, a longtime marketing professional and consultant in British Columbia, has spent the past decade focused on the Okanagan Valley wine industry working with brands such as Burrowing Owl, Noble Ridge and Wild Goose. Noble Ridge has three tiers of Meritage blends.
“We’ve explained it by saying, ‘We couldn’t use the term Bordeaux blend, like you can’t call sparkling wine Champagne, but that Meritage was what North America has used to call its Bordeaux-style blends,’ ” Matheson said. “I think it’s well-understood by the consumer once it’s been explained, but it’s not well-known across the marketplace. Education was definitely needed.”
And in a country where French is often required to appear alongside English, helping someone with the pronunciation of “Meritage” wasn’t a big deal.
“It was a fun talking point,” she added. “It is pronounced like ‘heritage’ — with no French accent.”
A search of Great Northwest Wine’s recent archives helps identify other worthy examples of Meritage.
- Dr. Brian Petersen at high-scoring Mosquito Fleet Winery in Belfair, Wash., uses Starboard Meritage for his Merlot-leading blend and Meritage Portside for his Left Bank-inspired red.
- The Arbor Crest Wine Cellars 2018 Dionysus Meritage Red Wine earned a Double Platinum last year during Great Northwest Wine’s 23rd annual Platinum Awards.
- Dan Brink at Pomeroy Cellars also won a Platinum for the 2018 Michelle’s Meritage, which featured acclaimed DuBrul Vineyard and helps support the Cancer Can’t Foundation.
- In Oregon, the group’s website includes Iris Vineyards near Eugene, Troon Vineyard in Grants Pass and winemaker Linda Donovan’s eponymous brand in Medford.
The fee to use the term is $1 per case of wine branded as Meritage, and the annual payment is capped at $500 per vintage. In British Columbia, wineries can pay their Meritage Alliance fees directly through Wine Growers BC. Honourable folks, those Canadians.
“The Meritage Alliance is chugging along,” says Young, who oversees the advocacy group from her headquarters in Sonoma County. “The wine industry has grown sooooo much.”
So for those who do use Meritage on the label, please learn the history, understand the definition and pay your way. Those who do it properly are helping the consumer to navigate the sea of red and white blends.