On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Joanna and Zach discuss why, despite their popularity on store shelves and with consumers, many wine professionals and media outlets seem dismissive of red blends.
On this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try The Prisoner, a wildly popular and somewhat controversial red blend.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
J: And this is the “VinePair Podcast,” Friday edition. Hey Zach, what’s up?
Z: Oh, just counting the days till our beloved Adam Teeter is back.
Z: On Monday, folks.
J: It’s been forever.
Z: It has.
J: I feel like we could dedicate one whole podcast to his travels throughout Italy.
Z: Do you think Adam would have an issue with that?
Z: I think we’re going to end up doing that whether we want to or not, frankly.
J: Story time with Adam Teeter.
J: Yeah. So we haven’t decided on anything we’ll talk about ahead of getting into our Friday conversation.
Z: We’re going to rip the Band-Aid off. Get right into our topic.
J: We’re just going to jump right in. All right. Go for it, Zach.
Z: Sure. Well, I think you and I wanted to talk about this. We’ve wanted to talk about this for a while, not to say that Adam hasn’t, but I think we’re both really intrigued by something that we’ve noticed, which is that, if you look at what some of the most popular wines are in America, they are red blends. And yet, both the trade and I think the media as a whole, really have a blind spot about this category, either not talking about it, dismissing them, or just sort of focusing on varietal wine to the exclusion of blends, even though blends have been a huge seller for decades. They are incredibly popular, both as a whole and individual brands within them. And I don’t know. I’ll start by asking you this question, Joanna, since you are, in some sense, newer to this field than I am.
Z: Why do you think it is that people just don’t talk about this category?
J: I think it’s partially because there are a lot of really bad red blends out there. And I think that can be said for a lot of wines, but I think people like— Well, I also think you probably don’t see them a lot on wine menus. So I think that’s part of it as well, because like you said, the industry maybe doesn’t respect red blends as a category as much as other wines. So I think that those are two big factors in it, even though, like you said, there are a lot of them out there and I’m sure if we looked at data from retailers, it would tell a different story.
Z: I definitely think there’s a quality component to this that I agree with. That the category as a whole is viewed with suspicion and I think not unjustifiably so. I think “red blend” as a catchall is very vast and can incorporate a lot of different things.
J: I think that’s part of it too. It’s kind of confusing.
Z: Well, it’s just ill-defined, I think. Here’s my very kind of quick and dirty explanation for both. I think why the category is so popular and also why it hasn’t captivated people in the trade and maybe in the media to some extent, and it’s because red blends taste like red wine, they have generally ample fruit character. They might have some tannin. They’re certainly generally on the boozier side. They might have some residual sugar, they might not. But they are not, they lack in some sense, because maybe they are blends, they lack a kind of, not easy to describe, but distinctive character that if you are someone who wants to talk about Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir or Syrah, or pick another variety, it’s easier in some sense to talk about those individual varieties and the wines that they make than to talk about red blends, which as you mentioned are both broad and somewhat amorphous, but also their whole appeal is kind of that they lack those sort of sharp well-defined borders. But — and this is where I would sort of respond to myself, I guess — just because this category isn’t as easy to define or it lacks some of those clear-cut characteristics, we, to some extent as the media and as trade, need to pay attention to what people actually want. And I think this is where I get sometimes frustrated on both sides because I think there is this tendency to take everyone whose preferred wine is a red blend and sort dismiss them as a wine drinker. And that, I think, is the really unfortunate side.
J: Yeah, I think that’s unfortunate. I think another part of this conversation is that there are few very well-known red blends that I’m guessing would dominate this segment. And I think that they’ve definitely helped to drive the popularity of, or the purchasing of red blends. And that’s, Apothic I think is one of them, and then another that we’ll be trying today. But I think also those are wines that people will be buying from the store and drinking at home. And those are wines that you can buy in cases and drink privately. And so I think that’s also kind of contributed to this idea that the trade may not take the category as seriously because you have a $9, I don’t know, whatever you have, people who love Apothic or something like that. And it just feels a certain way to a somm at a fine-dining restaurant.
Z: Yeah, but what’s funny to me about this is that some of these red blends, yes. Maybe Apothic isn’t the thing I’m talking about, but some of these red blends, the thing we’re going to drink, is not cheap, not cheap.
J: No, it’s not.
Z: And I think that these wines, when they are on lists, I mean, I’ve heard countless stories in certain kinds of restaurant settings, even relatively high-end restaurant settings, these wines sell. They have a huge built-in fan base. They are very easy for people to enjoy and appreciate. And I think there is this part of the dynamic that I find sort of odious, which is trying to get people away from what they like into something that the wine director or sommelier or retail proprietor feels is more interesting and okay, some people want that, right? And if you go into a certain kind of setting, that might be the thing that you desire from the beverage professional, is to say, “Hey, I’m going to give you the opportunity to go outside your comfort zone.” But I think there is a real kind of-
Z: Yeah. A disservice and a kind of complete misunderstanding of what the job is about. If you approach every table with that mindset. Again, setting aside maybe some very specific kinds of establishments, I think even if you are a sommelier or a wine director or whatever, I mean in the end, your job, I think, is to mostly get people what they already like, in the same way that a bartender should not put their own personal ego or curiosity in front of the preferences of our guests. I mean, imagine, I’m sure this happens from time to time, but imagine going into a bar and ordering a Margarita and hearing the bartender be like, “Oh, really, you don’t want a Margarita. You actually want this other drink that is made from ingredients you’ve never heard of and barely tastes like a Margarita.” Yeah. Okay. It has lime juice in it. I mean, again, maybe to come back to something that I think we’ve talked about in the podcast recently, if you went into a bar and ordered a Margarita and the bartender said, “Actually, what you want is a Last Word,” I think you would be justifiably kind of pissed. Just because they share an ingredient in common does not mean that that is the same, that they are close to one another. And telling someone who likes red blends that actually what they should prefer is varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, which is maybe an approximation since many of these red blends do incorporate Cabernet Sauvignon or any kind of varietal wine to some extent. You are just kind of missing the point of what you do from my perspective, at least.
J: But I also think that there’s a certain snobbishness in wine that makes that more common than maybe a bartender doing it, but yeah.
Z: I mean, maybe not the exact example I gave, but there’s plenty of looking down upon people who order “basic” cocktails in bars too. I can assure you. I’ve seen lots of that.
Z: I think it’s an unfortunate trend in the industry as a whole, sadly.
J: Agree. Agree.
Z: I also want to talk about something else with red blends, which is that this is a pet peeve of mine. And I don’t know that it applies exactly to the kinds of wines that we have been discussing in the first part of this episode or even necessarily what we were going to taste here. Although I think that this wine is maybe a better example of it than Apothic, for example. But I think that we are also in this unfortunate period in time where, for a variety of reasons, the discourse around wine has really kind of shifted away from valorizing the act of actually making wine. That the role of the winemaker has been sort of downplayed by a lot of different sources, right? Winemakers themselves sometimes downplay their own role. There’s a lot of discussion on both the trade and the press side about the growing of grapes, the terroir, all these things that sort of treat the actual winemaking processes sort of perfunctory or ancillary or whatever. And some of it is a response to what frankly could be thought of as a pretty heavy-handed winemaking style that was dominant in a lot of places that really did center the winemaker 20, 30 years ago. But I will say — and again, this is coming from someone who is not a winemaker, has never made wine, so take this for what it’s worth. But I think that the act of blending wine, whether you’re blending varieties or even individual lots of the same variety, is a far more difficult and complicated process than the average person is aware of. I mean, I have had the opportunity to do some blending exercises and trials in my career and it is much more complicated and it’s much easier to f*ck up than I think we tend to think, and getting it right at any scale — small, medium, or very large — is harder than I think it is generally discussed. And so I think the other thing that sometimes happens with blends is that they are thought of as easy wines, not just easy to drink, but easy to make. And sometimes, look, there’s undeniably red blends that are on grocery store shelves for $11 that are adjusted in a variety of ways that maybe make the winemaking itself not so challenging. There’s more lab work than it is what we would think of as winemaking. But a lot of red blends, even relatively inexpensive red blends, are really the product of skilled, experienced blending, which is a real, viable, valuable, and I think, important skill in winemaking and one that we should do a better job of talking about and valuing.
J: Yeah. I mean, like I said, I think there, from the consumer point of view, I think there’s just probably more information and education that needs to happen around red blends. And then to your point from the trade point of view, I think there’s probably a lot of work to be done there to better respect the process of making them. Are you drinking yours already?
Z: No, sorry. No. I had a tickle in my throat and I needed some water. Very exciting over here. But we should probably get to it. So what are we drinking, Joanna?
J: So I have a bottle of The Prisoner 2019, California Red Wine. That’s the same.
Z: Exact thing I have.
J: That’s what it says on the bottle.
Z: It definitely has the smell.
J: Smells like red wine.
Z: Lots of fruit character, lots of black fruit, some red fruit. It has a very kind of broad fruit profile. Definitely generous on the palate, but not quite the super-lush, velvety thing I might have expected. I think I interviewed the winemaker for the Prisoner Wine Company for the podcast, gosh, within the last, let’s say year and a half, I don’t actually remember how long ago it was. And in talking to her, it was interesting to talk about this winemaking process, because The Prisoner has a really fascinating history. It was created by Dave Phinney and has this very defined aesthetic part of, I think, undeniably what made it so popular is that aesthetic, and then it was sold.
J: Copied and emulated.
Z: Yes. By many, many, I think, we did 19 Crimes on the podcast a while back. That’s obviously a brand that has taken a huge amount of inspiration, to put it politely, from The Prisoner.
J: But I feel like The Prisoner has really defined the category, right?
Z: Yes. Well, and it’s the aspirational bottle within the category. That is the thing I was getting at. The Prisoner is a high-end bottle of red blend for this specific part of… Obviously there are wines that are blends in multiple varieties that command much higher prices, whether they’re domestic or European or whatever, but for this category that we’re talking about, mostly California, but to some extent many other states as well, maybe New World, Australian, South African, Argentina or whatever, The Prisoner is maybe one of, if not the best known. And again, definitely commands a higher price point than most of its competitors because of that pedigree, frankly. And a lot of the fruit comes from Napa Valley. Not all of it, obviously it’s labeled as California for a reason. Or no, this is labeled as Napa Valley, rather. I should say, the one I have. So maybe, I don’t know, maybe we have two different bottles.
J: Mine says California Red Wine bottled by The Prisoner Wine Company in Oakville, California.
Z: Okay. Well then we have, perhaps I didn’t even realize they made two different bottlings, I’m very confused. Maybe we can clear this up after the fact, but yeah. So I think there is that Napa, at least with the bottle I have, that premium appellation attached to it and that’s no joke. That matters to people. And this remains a bottle that a meaningful segment of the wine public thinks of as their fancy bottle of wine.
J: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s good. I get the cocoa, chocolate notes on it. There’s big fruit here. I certainly get the appeal of this wine.
Z: Yeah. It definitely delivers the things, I think, if you’re someone who wants this style of wine and these got a lot of fruit character. It’s got a lot of those kinds of chocolaty oak notes, little coffee notes. It’s definitely got a fair bit of alcohol, but it’s not over the top. The tannins are gentle. I mean, that’s something definitely that we talked about in that episode about the viticulture and the winemaking is really designed around softening the tannins because that’s what the drinkers of this wine like. But again, this comes back to something we’ve touched on a few different times in the podcast, for so many people, a prime wine drinking occasion for them is in the evening, frankly, in front of a screen.
J: Often at home, yeah.
Z: And this is a perfect wine for that. You don’t necessarily need to have food with this wine. You can have things with it, of course, but it’s a great wine for drinking wine in the way that a lot of people drink wine in America, which is by itself with entertainment, or chatting with friends or whatever. You’re just hanging out around the table or on couches or whatever. This is a wine that is enjoyable, it’s pleasurable, it isn’t going to require that you eat anything to kind of balance it out, and you feel cool having it. I think that’s always been The Prisoner’s appeal.
J: Yeah. All right. So I’m just looking at the label again. It’s very compelling to me.
Z: Yeah. I want to know if people out there listening have favorite red blends. It’s okay, this is a safe space. If you don’t want us to give your name, we can anonymize it. But if you’ve got favorite red blends out there, firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know.
J: Tell us what you think of red blends. Yeah.
Z: Yeah. That, too.
J: Yeah. Well, Zach, I look forward to chatting with you next week.
Z: And Adam.
J: And Adam. Have a wonderful weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
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Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.