One of the major differences between American winemakers and their European counterparts is that here wine is largely made and sold based on grape variety rather than a growing area. So, a Californian will make a cabernet sauvignon or a merlot while a French vintner will produce a Pauillac or a Saint-Emilion.
Both winemakers have to deal with regulatory issues unique to their location, but in some ways the French vintner has a little more leeway. A Pauillac or Saint-Emilion is often a blend of grape varieties. The formula can change from year to year, depending on the harvest and quality of the grapes. The Californian, however, can be hamstrung by regulations that require any wine labeled "cabernet sauvignon" or "merlot" to contain at least 75 percent of that particular grape.
American consumers like buying wines by the grape name because, frankly, it's easier to suss out what one is getting. But American winemakers can and do chafe at being constrained at spitting out bottles that must be at least three-quarters full of just one grape. They want the freedom to blend, to create, as the French and other Europeans do.
For John Williams, founder and winemaker at Frog's Leap Winery, evoking a sense of the place is what pushed the creation of Rutherford, a red wine named for a region in Napa Valley noted for the quality of its cabs. The wine has ranged from 60 percent cabernet sauvignon to 100 percent cab since its introduction in 1996.
Given that the current vintage, 2006, is 92 percent cabernet — and could be labeled as such — one might wonder why Williams bothers with the Rutherford moniker.
"If this was a Bordeaux wine, it would never have occurred to you to ask the question," he replied with a chuckle. "The attitude we take with this particular wine is how to make it smell and taste like Rutherford. We consider it the most noble goal to make a wine that smells and tastes like where it comes from."
Freeing oneself from the constraints of having at least 75 percent of a wine be one variety opens far more avenues for creative winemaking.
"Blends are always more interesting, for me anyway," said Tim Mondavi, who along with his sister, Marcia Mondavi Borger, is behind Continuum, a red wine blend now entering its third vintage.
"There are so many ways to approach it," he added. "It's fascinating to see how different varieties are realized in different soils and different exposures."
For Mondavi, the policy of blending goes back to Opus One, a joint venture begun by his late father, the legendary Robert Mondavi, with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and even further to the Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve line, which, although labeled as cabernet sauvignon, features a number of different grapes.
"From 1974 to 2004, I can recall only two vintages (of Mondavi Reserve) that were not blends, and that's because the cabernet franc and the merlot didn't do as well,'' he recalled. The 2007 vintage of Continuum is 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent cabernet franc and 18 percent petit verdot. Mondavi expects the percentage of cabernet franc to grow because it gives silkiness and long aging capability.
Mondavi's Continuum is not the only example of a proprietary red wine. There are wines like Maximus, Illustration and Seduction, to name a few. Some winemakers call their wines Meritage, a trademarked designation for wines made in a Bordeaux style. To use this term, a winery must join The Meritage Association and follow the association's rules.
Williams shrugs off any concern that consumers may not buy a wine that doesn't explicitly call itself "cabernet sauvignon." Given that the retail price is $75 and the wine is produced in small quantities, Rutherford appeals to a relatively focused segment of the wine market, he said.
"There are a number of us, a growing number, I hope, who want a sense of place," he said.
Standing out by blending inThere is a kindred spirit to these seven wines that goes beyond their Napa Valley address. Cabernet sauvignon is dominant in most, with varying percentages of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. All evolved markedly in the glass with time, offering a changing roster of flavors and aromas. Where they differed was on price, ranging from $25 to $140.
2007 Continuum : This proprietary red wine is a sophisticated blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot. There are ripe berries and a touch of smoke on the nose, and a smooth, slightly oaky accent atop the major flavor notes of berry and cranberries. The finish is a bit astringent. ✭✭✭ $140
2006 Bennett Lane Maximus: This "red feasting wine" is 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent merlot, 10 percent syrah and 5 percent malbec. Colored a dark brick red, with a spicy nose of cinnamon and black pepper, this wine is plush with rich blackberry flavors. ✭✭✭ $35
2006 Frog's Leap Rutherford: Almost completely cabernet sauvignon with just an 8 percent splash of cabernet franc, this red offers bright fruit at first, then an earthy tartness. Look for a black raspberry and graphite aroma. ✭✭✭ $75
2006 Hestan Vineyards Stephanie: A blend of 66 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent petit verdot, 10 percent malbec, 8 percent merlot and 3 percent cabernet franc. A deep garnet red, with a slightly fleshy nose, this wine offers plenty of berry flavor with accents of oak and earth. ✭✭ $60
2006 O'Brien Estate Seduction: Colored a dark, inky purple, this wine is composed of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent merlot and 20 percent cabernet franc. The nose is sweetly ripe, the flavor offers notes of blueberries, plums and violets. ✭✭ $45
2007 Chappellet Mountain Cuvee: A blend of 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 46 percent merlot and 1 percent each of malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Plush if a bit jammy on the palate, this red offers touches of cherry, plums, oak and a little stemmy bitterness. ✭✭ $25
2007 Duckhorn Vineyards Decoy: This wine is made from 43 percent each cabernet sauvignon and merlot, plus 10 percent cabernet franc and 4 percent petit verdot. A bit leathery on the nose with a soft, slightly sweet cherry flavor. ✭✭ $30
You want that wine. But your store or distributor may not carry it or state law may prohibit you from ordering online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Prices may vary.