What's in a name? With luck, honesty Labels: Instead of expropriating the naming system of French blended wines, American vintners are creating their own brands.

February 16, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

This is a genteel wine column, so we don't get "pig-biting mad" here, as the legendary Ed Anger does in his commentaries for the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid.

So let's just say I was "pork-chomping perturbed" recently when I picked up a log of "Montrachet" cheese in my local Safeway and found it had come from Wisconsin.

Excuse me? Last I heard, Montrachet (besides being the name of a famous wine) was one of the most prized cheeses of France -- a delicate chevre of the highest quality. But here was some U.S. company claiming that honored name as its trademark.

Perhaps I'm slow, but would somebody explain to me the moral difference between this name-jacking and common theft? Legally the company might be on solid ground, but if so that is a sorry reflection on U.S. law.

How much more honorable it would have been if the company had decided to create a distinctive cheese with its own proprietary brand name instead of expropriating a name that properly belongs to the French.

That is what many American winemakers are doing with their blended wines, instead of calling them Margaux, Chambertin or Cote-Rotie. It is more work than stealing somebody else's hard-earned reputation, but it is capitalism at its finest.

So let's pay homage to some of these brand-makers.

You can start with Gallo, which built its Hearty Burgundy into a respected brand name for inexpensive red wine.

(I can already hear the objections, but Burgundy -- unlike Chablis and Champagne -- is not a stolen appellation. The region we know as Burgundy is Bourgogne to the French.)

Special mention also must go to Joseph Phelps Vineyards for its Insignia -- the pioneering Bordeaux-style blend that inspired dozens of luxury-priced proprietary red wines such as Opus One and Dominus.

Here are some other owner-created brand names you can rely on:

Geyserville: Once this wine was marketed as a zinfandel, but Ridge Vineyards dropped the varietal name to more accurately reflect the composition of the vineyard. Geyserville is simply one of California's great red wines -- a monumental blend of black raspberry, meat and herb flavors. The 1994 is superb, more than justifying its $23 price tag.

Old Vine Red: This full-bodied, nonvintage red blend from Marietta Cellars has been a Sonoma County treasure for more than a decade. Its price has been creeping over $10, but it remains a great value. Each new release carries its own lot number, but there's little variation. It's always wonderful.

Marty Griffin's Big Red: Loyal fans of Hop Kiln Vineyards know Marty isn't kidding when he says big. The 1994, like all vintages, is a burly wine with loads of blackberry fruit and a good lashing of tannin. The blend seems to combine elements of zinfandel, petite sirah and other southern French varietals. It'll cost about $12.

Reds: Patrick Campbell, producer of the renowned Laurel Glen cabernet sauvignons from Sonoma County, has established this blend as an inexpensive (about $9), soft, fruity, meaty wine with lots of rustic charm. The 1995is fit for immediate consumption.

Big House Red: Perennial punster Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards is the sole dad of this blend, produced not far from California's famous Soledad prison. It's an aggressive, unsubtle wine; consumers appreciate its ample fruit and nuances of chocolate and smoked meat. The 1995, bottled under the Ca' del Solo label, costs about $10.

Clos de Gilroy: Pronounced "close ta Gilroy," this is Bonny Doon's homage to California's famed garlic capital. It has evolved over the years from a nouveau style to a more weighty red wine with distinctive black raspberry fruit. The 1995 (about $10) is a grenache.

Pastiche: This charming, medium-bodied red wine from Joseph Phelps offers plentiful fruit, admirable length and little tannin. It resembles a pinot noir flavored with a little grenache. The fully mature 1994 costs about $10.

Although reds predominate in this category, there are also some excellent whites, notably Caymus' full-bodied Conundrum ($20-plus) and Hop Kiln's delightfully fresh A Thousand Flowers ($10). You could also put Flora Springs Soliloquy ($15) in this category, although the 1994 is 100 percent sauvignon blanc.

Incidentally, the 1994 Soliloquy would likely match up beautifully with Montrachet cheese -- that is, the real stuff.

fTC Pub Date: 2/16/97

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