The Red Blend Explosion: From The Prisoner to Apothic

Around twenty years ago, winemakers from Paso realized that the Napa Valley had a reputation for Cabernet, Sonoma had Pinot and Zin, and Paso didn’t really have a reputation for anything.  They decided they were going to make themselves known for The Paso Rhone Blend.  This blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache was going to catapult the region to fame.  To varying degrees this has been successful despite the lack of favor of Syrah in the market place, but along came a brand that really muddied the definition of “Red Blend”.  That was The Prisoner.  There were other’s, like Marietta’s venerable  Old Vine Red, but it was The Prisoner, with its cult-like status, that really opened up what a Red Blend category.

Then along came Apothic, an enormously successful, ridiculously large production, red blend from Gallo. It has made a massive mark on the industry, because it sells for under ten bucks and it is available everywhere.  It is a baby The Prisoner, for the masses.  From Apothic’s huge success, the copycats have sprouted like weeds.  They are made from anything and everything, as long as they big, thick, juicy, and faintly sweet.

“Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor.”

English: Freshly harvested grenache grapes in ...
English: Freshly harvested grenache grapes in the California wine region of Santa Barbara, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last one to two years, I have been almost overwhelmed by the presentations of  these Red Wines.  At first they were mostly less expensive copies of The Prisoner, with varying degrees of character.  Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor. To attain that thick almost sticky richness, undoubtedly they have to use a good dose of grape concentrate to boost concentration, giving the wines their similar flavor profile. They are all tasty, some bordering on delicious, but as a retail buyer, it begs these questions:  Do you buy them, and if you do buy them, how many do you really need?  Finally, how do you sell them? Do you put them with the Paso Reds that have regional, and varietal definition, and undermine their years of effort to forge an identity?

We have found, almost no-one comes in saying “I want a red blend.”  If you make a whole section of Red Blends (say, ten wines that taste almost identical), they won’t get shopped, since most people are still conditioned to buy by varietal. In our case, we have reluctantly put most of them in the Zin or Syrah section depending if they seem to have any hint of either of those in the mix, or, (the shame of it) in the Cab section.  We had been told there was Cab in The Count by Boisset’s Buena Vista Winery, and because we positioned it in the Cab section, it has become one of our best-selling “Cab blends.” Yes it is dis-indigenous, but people really like it, and they would have never found it in a “Red Blend.”section. As for how many of these Reds my store needs, I’m holding the line at around 6 or 7, out of 1600 SKUs, about as many as I carry of Sancerre.

As a wine buyer, and a wine seller, I do not feel it is not my job to be an arbiter of good taste. It is my job to only select wines that represent the spectrum of tastes of my customer base. Do I think they will like it? Is it the right price?  Because of this philosophy, I carry The Prisoner, and I carry Apothic, despite the underlying feeling that these are formulaic and somewhat contrived wines.  They have their place in my store because my customers buy them.  On the other hand, I also carry the flag of exploration, having a selection of Natural wines, and wonderful wine from some of the more obscure regions across France and Italy for those who are more adventurous.  Can I interest you in a lovely Mondeuse from Savoie?

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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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