We live in an age where American faith in branding has yielded true corporate giants; where Walmart and Amazon wage war on an influencer battlefield; a world where you slip on your Nikes to go eat a Big Mac and play on an iPhone while drinking a Starbucks without even thinking about it. But when it comes to wine, people become more willing to take a chance and search for hidden treasures, to explore what tastes standard, and then explore more deeply what tastes good, in the best and most subjective possible way.
In fact, the conception of a wine producer as a "brand" has French roots. As an primer, let's look at a wine called Blason d'Issan, a second label created by a famous wine estate called Château d'Issan, a classified Third Growth winery from the Margaux appellation in the Bordeaux region of France. That's a lot of information to parse about this wine in one sentence, and we haven't even talked about what grapes are in it.
For the record, it is a red blend, reliably mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot, produced in a more ready-to-drink style than the vins de garde put out by the mother estate. It is made from young vines being cultivated for loftier bottlings, and the grapes in the bottle must only come from Margaux, where the Château owns 40 hectares. It costs $50 and tastes powerful and elegant, but vintage variation makes a difference and this wine is never truly the same year after year. Even though the winery makes over a hundred thousand bottles, it will never be a "ubiquitous" wine ... and that's what makes drinking it so much fun.
Since Folgers and Coca-Cola debuted in the 19th century, thirsty Americans typically have looked to trusted brands to supply them with quality and value. Less than a century later, the American wine industry was forced to rebuild itself after the damaging erasure of Prohibition. When the 21st Amendment was ratified, handing over control of importation and distribution to state and local government, 48 different wine markets were created. To be effective, an American wine producer in the early days needed to produce wine on a large enough scale to make national distribution worthwhile. The national taste for wine prioritized a wine that tasted exactly the same from bottle to bottle. The "house style" rather than the "regionality" or "terroir" of a wine became all-important. A perfect example is a wine called Meiomi.
Meiomi is a pinot noir for cabernet drinkers. It has a body unlike any other pinot noir I've met—full rich ripeness, it appeals to people who like the sweet tannin of American cabernet sauvignons. Created by Joe Wagner of the famous Caymus Vineyards, it was bought in 2015 by Constellation Brands, one of the most powerful forces of wine distribution in America. Annual production of the wine exceeds 500,000 cases and is on the rise. It retails for $28, and you can buy Meiomi practically anywhere.
According to the label, the grapes can be sourced from three different California counties: Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara. Between the three of them, the grapes can be sourced from over 70,000 hectares. That's 1,750 times more than what Château d'Issan owns in Margaux, without even getting into yields or aging requirements or any of the other factors that make quick, high-volume production possible. And yet, Meiomi does what it does well—it is remarkable in its homogeneity, but it does not drink like a cheap bulk wine. It also is not a treasure to hunt down in a secret corner of a wine shop.
Not all American wines are like Meiomi. Some are small-production and limited in distribution—which brings us to the 2014 Belle Pente pinot noir, from the Murto Vineyard in the Dundee Hills of Oregon. Produced from a single vineyard of grapes, it emphasizes regionality. Annual production of this wine is 573 cases. It tastes like ripe fruits with natural tartness—pie cherry and cranberry and pomegranate—with a beguiling earthy note of dried leaves and forest floor. It retails for $35, is a little harder to find than Meiomi and may taste different from bottle to bottle because of a multitude of factors, including vintage variation and a less homogenous house winemaking style. Regardless, it's typically perfect for drinking in the fall.