Friday, March 19, 2010

Select vs. Reserve: The Constellation Merlot smackdown

Am I the only one who doesn't know what corporate wine names mean anymore?

Example: Which of these is more expensive: Sonoma Reserve Merlot, or Winemaker's Select Merlot?

How about this: Private Selection Merlot, or Central Coast Merlot?

The folks at Constellation Brands sent me a box of 6 of their California Merlots recently, and looking at the labels made me realize how bewildering the wine-buying process must be for the beginning drinker, not least because several claim to be "handcrafted."

What the hell does that mean? The winemaker crushed the grapes with his hands?

All 6 of these wines retail between $11 and $20. You'd think, made by the same company in a fairly narrow price range, there would be taste similarities. But in fact, they were dramatically different, and not in any predictable way.

Take the two Blackstones. Being a wine writer, I guessed that the Sonoma Reserve is pricier, and better, because the Winemaker's Select has a California appellation. But would the average drinker know that? Are we used to Vintners Select not meaning anything of the sort?

Moreover, the heavy bottle and overall look of the Blackstone Sonoma Reserve had me expecting an oaky, full-bodied wine, but in fact it was leaner than I find appealing in a Merlot.

The Blackstone Winemaker's Select made me bow down to Constellation's marketing expertise. Nobody has published more incisive research on how different types of consumers respond to wine marketing. I'm going to guess that Constellation knows people who don't realize "Winemaker's Select" is meaningless are beginners, and in fact that Merlot is so much like Juicy Juice that I felt the need for a sippy cup. I'm not its target market.

Maybe it's just "Select" that's meaningless -- after all, that is what Safeway calls its private label brands, and personally I don't look to Safeway canned goods for exquisiteness.

Even with that said, Robert Mondavi Private Selection Merlot is the kind of wine that convinces people that beer is better. The taste took me back to the 1980s when I had a razor cut and hung out in overheated punk rock clubs, drinking warm wines sloshed out of a big jug. Perhaps there's a market for this in the bad-bar nostalgist. (Here's a completely non sequitur shout out to the best band you've never heard, Charlie Pickett and the Eggs.)

However, you have to wonder when Constellation will give up on Robert Mondavi Winery as a superpremium brand and just shelve it with Inglenook (once the best winery in California). If I were 22 years old and I tried this wine, I would not later want to spend $150 for a Robert Mondavi Winery Private Reserve Cabernet or Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet or Winemaker's Handcrafted Reserve Special Single Vineyard We Really Mean It This Time Cabernet. I'd just order the Spottswoode.

About the Clos du Bois North Coast Merlot (not shown) -- where the hell is the North Coast, anyway? Eureka? Vancouver? There's another wine label term I just don't understand. Officially, it's a six-county area of 3 million acres. Do consumers find it more appealing than "California?" And is it better? Kendall-Jackson gives some of its nicest Chardonnay blends the California appellation because there's no easier way to combine Santa Barbara County and Sonoma County. A "North Coast" wine could legally have 85% Solano County fruit with 15% from anywhere else in the state.

Oh, yeah, the wine -- meh. Inoffensive.

I expected to like the Simi Sonoma County Merlot because winemaker Steve Reeder is a great blender, Constellation has good vineyard sources, and that's a recipe for success. But how would a consumer know that? There's no bonus selling language on the label: no "reserve," "selection," or vineyard name. (The wine turned out to be competent but innocuous; Reeder has done a lot better.)

Then there's Estancia, which offered for $12 what appears to be a single-vineyard wine ("Keyes Canyon Ranches"), although it is a 600-acre vineyard and the appellation is Central Coast, one of the largest and most generic in the state.

However, the technical sheet I got with the wine -- something consumers wouldn't see -- raised more questions than it answered. "Estancia Merlot is sourced from Monterey County and Paso Robles," it read. According to US law, wineries can't list a vineyard on the front label unless at least 95% of the grapes are from that vineyard. How could this wine be a Keyes Canyon Ranches wine and not qualify as Paso Robles appellation? Is Constellation convinced that "Central Coast" is a better selling point than "Paso Robles"?

If only the wine weren't filled out with 4% Syrah ... that said, all these wines except the Simi have some Syrah in them. Nothing against Syrah, but I prefer Bordeaux grapes blended with other Bordeaux grapes. But still, this is the bargain of this group: I like it almost as well as the Simi and better than all the others, and it's probably available discounted under $10. It tastes like juicy red currant, a little on the tart side, but better with food because of it.

Moral of the story: When confused by label language, go for the single-vineyard wine -- whether or not it's handcrafted.


Unknown said...


Thank you for writing this - it gets to the point of the large wineries and just how meaningless and confusing their marketing is. I make a small amount of wine at a Custom Crush and once suggested on Tom Wark's blog that I would name it "Estate, Old Vine, Famous AVA, Legally Enforced Middleman, Over Taxed, Reserve, Zinfandel."

What is really needed is education - because "reserve" and "estate" and even "old vines" are, effectively, meaningless, various winemakers use the terms in different ways - not that I'm advocating government regulation of the terms as I think that would make things worse - look at the three tier system. Just that wineries need to be more careful and people need to be more educated in their wine selection. So, thank you for educating us!


Ian Bennet - Isaaks of Salem said...


This is a very interesting look into all the available marketing terms out there. It appears from your article, that it would be possible to get these printed on refrigerator magnets, and swap in-and-out as you please and probably would come up with a 'great' name for your wine.

Thankfully Isaaks of Salem will not be needing any of these terms when we create our own honey-wine.

Hopefully the consumer will stop the large conglomerates confusing people. I certainly wouldn't trust the government to regulate labels anymore than they already are!

Good Article,
Isaaks of Salem