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Over the 13 years that Meritage wines have been around, their profile has waxed and waned. Although Meritage sounds French, the wines were created in America in 1988 amidst great fanfare and in typical American fashion — as the result of a contest. It was a California grocery store wine buyer who dreamt up the word, beating out thousands of entrants in a competition sponsored by vintners looking to create a special name for their signature blends of the esteemed Bordeaux varietals. When these winemakers formed an association and obtained a trademark on the word, they proclaimed that Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”) represented the highest manifestation of a winemaker’s fruit and art. But, as it turned out, the road to consumers’ hearts and favorable ink met a few roadblocks along the way. In 1992, the Chicago Tribune dryly observed that “whether the association will survive beyond the training-wheel period or not is unknown.” This was, in part, due to the association’s focus on cracking down on trademark violators rather than on educating the public about the wines. “When we started, the concept wasn’t well understood” acknowledges Michaela Rodeno, the talented chairman of the Meritage Association and the chief executive officer of St. Sup�ry, a California winery. “It sputtered.” But now under Rodeno’s guidance and imbued with a new sense of purpose, approximately 65 wineries in the association are making red Meritage blended from two or more of the following varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenere; and white Meritage from a blend of two or more of the following varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Vert. It seems the perfect time to sample wines not yet known to many, but which are standing up and demanding notice. We set out to compare 15 of these gems in a nonblind tasting hosted by Nick and Stef’s Steakhouse in Washington, D.C. The panel of 12 tasters included wine enthusiasts and novices, lawyers, journalists and restaurant professionals. All tasted the wines at the same time, offered impressions out loud, considered the winemakers’ notes, and discussed the merits of the varietals, the percentage of grapes blended, and the region from which the wines hailed. We also utilized a scoring system that considered appearance, aroma, taste, balance, aftertaste and overall impression. The retail price of the wines was not known to the tasters. Quite frankly, this was an embarrassment of riches. When we lined up the bottles shoulder to shoulder prior to the tasting, we were impressed by the packaging and the exquisite proprietary names like Legacy, Justification, Mosaic and The Poet. Only one wine was outright disliked, so we’ve grouped the others into the three tiers below, with the wines listed in alphabetical order. Bear in mind that not all of the wines are on retailers’ shelves, and some are only available in restaurants or at the winery. The prices listed are approximate. TOP PICKS: � 1998 Cosentino “The Poet” Punched Cap Fermented Meritage ($65). Self-taught Napa Valley winemaker Mitch Cosentino blends differently each year based on the character of the fruit. This very refined blend of 61 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 percent Cabernet Franc, 15 percent Merlot, 1 percent Malbec and 1 percent Petit Verdot inspired awe. As one taster stated, “It finished and then finished again.” � 1998 deLorimier Mosaic Alexander Valley Meritage ($30). With 67 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 21 percent Merlot, 8 percent Malbec, and 4 percent Cabernet Franc, owners Al and Sandy deLorimier appropriately call this their powerhouse. Tasters loved the balance of good fruit, the cherry nose and flavors, and the long, smooth finish. � 1999 Jefferson Vineyards Meritage ($27). This Virginia wine turned the heads of the snobs with its elegance, earthy nose, balance and currant notes. This is a blend of 33 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 33 percent Cabernet Franc, 23 percent Merlot and 11 percent Petit Verdot. � 1997 St. Sup�ry Red Meritage ($50). This is a Napa Valley blockbuster made from 86 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 13 percent Merlot and 1 percent Cabernet Franc. Tasters were bowled over as it opened up into rich and smooth flavors of blackberry, chocolate and cedar. The finish was influenced by a process whereby the juice remains in the barrel for an extraordinarily long 30 months before blending. DEFINITELY WORTH ANOTHER SIP � 1999 Dutch Henry Meritage ($34). This is a light-bodied wine made in Napa Valley, with spice and bell pepper aromas. Tasters also suggested that it had marmalade and honey flavors. Made from 56 percent Cabernet Franc, 34 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and aged 18 months in Missouri oak barrels, a quarter of which are new. � 1999 Fess Parker Santa Barbara County American Tradition Reserve Meritage ($30). Preferring a riper, more fruit-forward style, this winemaker — the TV actor who portrayed both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone — created a big, balanced wine with peppery notes. This blend of 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 44 percent Merlot and 11 percent Cabernet Franc came from grapes grown on three Santa Barbara vineyards. Most agreed this would be a good food wine, and the only criticism was that the finish dropped off too soon. � 1999 Justin Justification Paso Robles ($29). This wine made from 55 percent Cabernet Franc and 45 percent Merlot and aged for 18 months in 40 percent French oak received mixed reviews. Winemaker Jeff Branco achieves intense concentration of fruit and velvety tannins, but without Cabernet Sauvignon it lacks backbone and a long finish. � 1999 Oakstone Fair Play Meritage De Cascabel Vineyard ($18). The first wine to be labeled with the newly approved Fair Play American Viticultural Area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Proprietors John and Susan Smith have created a 44 percent Merlot, 31 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Cabernet Franc blend that has a creamy texture, chocolate-covered-cherry flavors and a mouth feel that gets richer and richer over time. Sorry, only 393 cases made. � 1999 St. Sup�ry White Meritage ($22). Napa winemaker Michael Scholz has fun with 41 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 59 percent Semillon. This does not have the expected grassy nose. Instead, it fills your senses with crisp, fresh lemon and lime notes. Most agreed they would enjoy this as an aperitif. NOTEWORTHY ALL THE SAME � 1998 Boeger Reserve Meritage El Dorado ($23). This wine from the Sierra foothills is blended from 33 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 26 percent Cabernet Franc, 24 percent Merlot and 17 percent Petit Verdot and aged 14 months in French and American oak. This light-bodied wine is well-integrated with a soft finish, and is meant to be drunk young. Although they enjoyed this wine, tasters commented that the nose was bigger than the taste. � 1998 Dry Creek Vineyard Meritage Sonoma County ($28). While this 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 38 percent Merlot, 4 percent Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot is pleasantly fruit-driven with plums and raisins, all the flavor is up front. Tasters would have preferred this to have played more than one note. � Llano 1999 Texas Signature Red Meritage Estacado ($9). The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes that make up this blend are grown in the Texas high plains. Mark Hyman, the winery’s president, has had the distinction of having his wine served at the White House. He says: “I believe we remain the only wine” in this prestigious organization with a retail price under $10. This wine offers peppery and vegetal and herbaceous aromas. � 1996 Stonestreet Legacy Alexander Valley ($80). This blend of 57 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 26 percent Merlot and 17 percent Cabernet Franc was full of jammy fruit, but didn’t have the acid to balance it out and suffered from a slightly metallic taste. � 1997 Vigil Winery Valiente Meritage Table Wine ($30). This garnet-hued Napa Valley wine is a blend of 56 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 17 percent Cabernet Franc, 25 percent Merlot, 1 percent Malbec and 1 percent Petit Verdot. Tasters thought it resembled a smoky and spicy Spanish Rioja. NOT RECOMMENDED � 1998 Clos Du Val Ariadne Napa Valley ($25). An uninspiring blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and, oops, Viognier (a Rhone grape). Elisabeth Frater writes “Wine Counsel” for Legal Times. Dar Wiczek is a wine aficionado and researcher who lives in New York City.

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