Uncorked

Not your parent's sauvignon blanc

Catching up with fume blanc, the wine Robert Mondavi made famous

Sauvignon blanc is popular in the U.S. today largely because the late Robert Mondavi had the smarts 40 years ago to market the white wine under another name: fumé blanc.

Seems Americans in the 1960s had little use for the grape. American wine made from sauvignon blanc tended to be sappy and sweet. French versions were lauded for their crisp elegance, but few Americans knew exactly what a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé was made with because the French traditionally labeled bottles with the place of origin rather than the name of the grape. Mondavi wanted to sell a sauvignon blanc made in the Loire style and chose to name it fumé blanc (FOO-may BLAHNGK) to denote how different his wine was stylistically from the American. That fumé blanc conjured up connotations of quality akin to Pouilly-Fumé didn't hurt either.

The wine was a hit back in 1968. Mondavi never trademarked the fumé blanc name because he wanted his fellow winemakers to use it if they wished. Over the years, a number of wineries began selling their own versions using fumé blanc as a legal synonym for sauvignon blanc.

At the same time, sales of dry sauvignon blanc began to take off. Today, sauvignon blanc is one of the world's most recognizable wine names.

According to The Nielsen Co., a market research firm, more than $310 million worth of sauvignon blanc was sold in American's supermarkets and drugstores over the year ending May 3. That puts the wine in third place, behind chardonnay and pinot gris/grigio, in terms of top-selling white in the U.S.

Ironically, while sauvignon blanc has blossomed in the public eye, use of the term fumé blanc has withered away to such a degree that one California winery, Dry Creek Vineyard, has launched a "What is fumé?" campaign complete with Web site (whatisfume.com), brochures, store signage and educational tastings. Dry Creek Vineyard is even wooing young, adventurous drinkers so desired by the wine trade, offering them merchandise ranging from beach chairs to clothing to lip balm emblazoned with the slogan, "Do You Fumé?"

"All these young wine drinkers think fumé blanc is their parents' wine. They think it's ridiculous not to call it sauvignon blanc," said Bill Smart, the winery's communications director. "They think it is passe and old-fashioned."

Agreeing with Smart's view is Joe Kafka, owner of Kafka Wine Co. in Lakeview.

"If anyone comes in asking for a fumé blanc, they're my parents' age, in their 60s," he said. "Those in their 20s and 30s don't ask for it at all."

Kafka, for one, thinks fumé blanc should be retired as a phrase.

"It's a made-up name and doesn't mean anything," he said, noting that none of his stock carries the term. "It would be much less confusing and I'm for anything that makes life easier."

The term reached its peak use in the mid-1980s and then began to fall away in the 1990s as more wineries used sauvignon blanc on the label instead, Smart said.

"There are less than 20 producers in California who produce a fumé blanc," he added.

Dry Creek, which has been making a fumé blanc since 1972, surveyed visitors, wine club members, distributors and others in the wine trade on whether fumé blanc should be dropped from the label. The result? A 50-50 split. The Healdsburg, Calif.-based winery decided to keep fumé blanc on the label and to fight for its wider use and greater awareness.

"For a lot of people it still resonates," Smart said. "To them, fumé blanc is part of what Dry Creek Vineyard is."

Since the fumé blanc campaign began May 1, sales in the winery's tasting room have risen 3 to 5 percent, Smart said.

wdaley@tribune.com

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