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The Mutt of the Wine World

Columnist: Christina Julian
May, 2019 Issue

Christina Julian
All articles by columnist

When it comes to dogs, I’ve always been a mutt lover. Gravitating to those adoring mix-breed hounds with grateful eyes, perfect temperament and always-be-wagging tails. This choice has been an instinctual one, that was less about settling and more about one-of-a-kind originality. Decades of pet ownership later, my stance on blended breeds remains unchanged. As for my wine drinking preferences, the same tendency has not always applied.

Before moving to Napa Valley, I was a believer in the power and purity that came from drinking full-bred bottles of wine. When I picked up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, I always assumed it was a purebred—100 percent Cab. But thanks to California wine regs, I was wrong. The law states that single varietal wines need only be comprised of 75 percent of the varietal to bear the name on the bottle. This feels like false advertising in my book. Imagine how many tails would not be wagging if a dog breeder were to sell off a mixed mutt as a purebred hound. I’m not sure if it was this realization or the fact I’ve since opened up my mind and palate, but 10 years of

Napa Valley dwelling later, my cellar overflows with the wine equivalent to the mutt—the red blend. Based on some stats from the 2018 Nielsen report on wine trends, I’m not alone in my newfound proclivities. The dubious—or is it unidentifiable?—red blend category nabbed the No. 3 spot for most popular wine “varietal/style,” preceded only by Chardonnay (1) and Cabernet Sauvignon (2). The “varietal/style” designation is an interesting one given the last time I checked, “red blend” is not a varietal. In fact, lumping wines into such a nebulous category, feels a lot like trying to compare a mutt to a purebred, when in reality, they’re two very different animals (and wines). To further complicate matters, the red-blend-naming convention has become a slang term, and a loaded one at that. In the last five years, the phrase “red blend” has been used to describe a certain taste and style of wine. Those full-bodied fruit bombs that are purported to be highly drinkable, flavorful and most of all cheap. Think, the ever popular Gnarly Head and Apothic labels, and the countless offshoots.

It’s unclear to me if this newer distinction is a disservice to the drinkers of such wines (which sometimes I am), the winemaker or something else entirely. Blending in the historical and technical sense has often been considered an “act” and essential trade skill and a heavy-handed determining factor in the success or failure of a winemaker. How adept she is at blending grapes, be it from different barrels, blocks, appellations, and varieties. Evaluating how and when to introduce certain varietals for pronouncement of certain flavors, to correct shortcomings of others, or to leverage or compensate for high- and low-yield situations. Then there is the use of “blend” as a classification system, such as “Bordeaux-style” blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petite Verdot) and California Rhône-style, which might mix Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre.

Just as wine tastes are dependent on the palate of the drinker, the definition of “red blend” can mean different things to different people. Well-read consumer magazines such as the Wine Enthusiast have created their own definition for the phrase and have gone as far as using it to classify and rank wine: “A catch-all category for red grape blends that are not based upon a traditional regional composition.” These types of distinctions only add to the confusion because they create yet another possible meaning for a term, which already has a muddled definition to begin with. Are we speaking about stylistic drinking preference (those cheap red fruit bombs), winemaking task, or composition? And just to confuse the terminology further, let’s throw in those high-end “cult” red blends, that command outlandish prices, and totally contradict the inexpensive type. These curated wines are often distinguished by defy-the-norm taste, price and limited availability. This begs the ultimate question: is a wine distinguished because of its perceived purebred status or because of the sum of its varied, complementary and balanced parts.

Whether we’re talking wine, dogs or what goes into a build your own burrito at Chipotle, the beauty of blending comes down to what you want out of the deal. Is it a fussy show dog, or a loyal lifelong companion you’re after? A cheap and tasty table wine, or a collector’s piece to flaunt in front of friends at a dinner party? Is the wine crafted by a master mixologist, or someone who can entertain a crowd in the tasting room? As is the case with my revered mangy mutts, for me, it’s all about what’s on the inside that matters.




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