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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