This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Apothic Wine. From rich red blends, to an alluring white and a rosé with dark secrets, Apothic makes wine that is anything but ordinary. Ignite your curiosity with Apothic red, the intriguing red blend that launched the Apothic legacy. And yeah, there’s a sly, roguish wink to every one of our bottles, because we think a good wine, like a good time, should mix things up a little. I mean, bold nights call for rebellious wine. Apothic Wine: There’s mischief in the making.

In this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers is joined by VinePair co-founder and CEO Adam Teeter. The two discuss the wine style and trend that is taking American wine culture by storm: red blends. Teeter lends a hand in tracing this style back to its roots and explains that red blends really emerged at the tail end of a previous obsession with Zinfandel. As American consumers grew tired of the Zinfandel that had flooded shelves for years, winemakers had to get creative and start blending the fruit with other grapes.

This process was led in part by David Phinney’s Prisoner wine, which spurred a new line of lush, plush red wines. Other wineries like Apothic have continued to produce new red blends each year with varying grapes, and enjoy the fact that there’s no solid definition of what goes into a “red blend.” Unlike other blended, area-specific styles like Chianti and Bordeaux, red blends can still live by their own rules.

This new wave of popular red wines has finally created an “everyday drinking” wine in America. While other countries are able to play on softer styles or versions of their own national wines, red blends have launched a new way for American oenophiles to end the workday — with or without steak, pasta, or other popular pairings.

Here, Teeter and Beavers dive deep into the history of red blends and what consumers should look out for when shopping for one today. They also discuss the one term that became consumers’ go-to descriptor for red blends — yet failed to make its way to wine tech.

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Keith: My name is Keith Beavers, and — oh, hey, dude.

Adam: Hey, Keith. I’m Adam Teeter, the co-founder of VinePair.

K: I know you are, but what are you doing here?

A: I actually don’t know what I’m doing here, I think to help you.

K: Well, since you’re here, I mean, it’s a little bit annoying. It’s my podcast.

A: I know.

K: But, you know, if you want to hang out, I do have a couple of questions if you’re totally cool with that.

A: Yeah, sure.

K: Thanks for your time. Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair.

A: You’re welcome, Keith.

K: What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Season 2, Episode 3 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast — it’s a lot to say. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. Not the CEO. What’s going on? Today, we’re talking about red blends, and I got to say, it’s a history thing happening right now. So I had to bring somebody in to help me understand what this new movement is. So we can move into the future with it as an American drinking culture. I brought in … the CEO. So the term “red blend” is pretty self-explanatory. Right? But the thing is, it’s evolving. That term is evolving into a new category of wine here in the American drinking culture. And it’s happening right now, in real time. So for me as a history buff, I was like, where do I start? How do I start researching something that’s actually happening right now? So, thing is, we’ve been talking about this at VinePair for a while, for a few years now, this idea of the red blend. We’ve been watching this thing evolve. So I decided to have a recorded conversation with CEO of VinePair, Adam Teeter, because he’s got it down. And I just wanted to pick his brain about it. And so the two of us kind of riff back and forth. And I think we’ve figured out what’s going on. Actually, I know we figured out what’s going on. Actually, Adam told me what was going on and I figured out what was going on. So I know this is a little bit different, but this is really good information because right now, this is happening. And as we move into the future, this could be a good timestamp. Like this is when it really started to take off, because for the last few years, the Nielsen Ratings have finally been tracking this idea of the red blend. So we’re just in the beginning of it. So sit back, relax, hang out. Me and Adam Teeter, CEO, let’s have a convo about the new phenomenon of red blends. Adam, thank you for coming on my podcast.

A: You’re welcome. Keith. It’s always great to be here. Well, it’s my first time, actually. Longtime listener. First time guest.

K: Do you listen to the podcast?

A: Yeah, I do, man. Every week.

K: All right, fine. So I brought you on here because I love this idea of the American red blend. I just need to understand what we do about it and where did it come from? I guess if you think about it, I’m going to say this — it’s going to sound really “wine pretentious.” But when I think of red blends, most of the wines from antiquity until now and around the world that we drink are blends from Chianti, Bordeaux, Champagne. These are all blends. But we have this term that we’re using to define something. And I need to understand what’s up. Can you riff for a second on what you know about what’s going on?

A: Yes, I think that’s what is so interesting about this, is that for people who are traditionally “learned” in the world of wine, let’s say, your WSETs, your self-taught people like yourself. Those that follow, as you refer to her, Jedi Master Jancis Robinson. We know of lots of wines being blended. Right? So if you say, “Oh, I’m really into red blends,” you could mean you’re into Southern Rhone wine. You could say you love Bordeaux. As you said, you could be really into lots of different styles, Chianti, etc. But what happened in the U.S. is, about 10, 15 years ago, you had this emergence of red wines on the market that in place of the label saying Merlot or the label saying Cabernet or Pinot Noir, just said “Red Blend.” And because we don’t name wines after places here, we don’t have our own version of “Napa,” let’s say, right? If you see a wine on the shelf and it just said “Napa” on it, you have no idea what it was. But we don’t do that. It was a way for American wine producers to market a new style of wine that was basically an old style. They were doing the same thing that winemakers in Chianti had done. They just were actually telling you it was a blend because they couldn’t say that their wine was called “Paso.” Did that for you.

K: Thanks, Adam.

A: Yeah. So basically this idea of “red blend” really took off. And now, red blend is looked at by a very large portion of American consumers to be the same thing as asking for a Merlot or asking for Cabernet. Not a trade-off. Right? You’re not going to drink a Merlot or a red blend. But what I mean by that is that when you order a red blend, you expect to receive a wine at your table or at the store that says red blend on the label. And I think that it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around, right? Because we are talking about a new category of wine. And a category of wine that is treated the same as if a consumer were to say they like to drink Zinfandel. And actually, that’s what’s really interesting is that red blend is, in a lot of ways, the creation of the demise of Zinfandel.

K: The creation of the demise of Zinfandel? The demise of Zinfandel?

A: Out of the ashes of Zinfandel came the red blend.

K: Right! Because isn’t it true that most of these red blends are based on either Zinfandel or maybe Petite Sirah or something like that?

A: It used to be. But again, this is why this is crazy. So if we were in France or Italy, and we were in one of these AOCs, DOCs, etc., and we had written laws that said we’re going to name our category of wine, the red blend, “Keith’s Paso Blend” or whatever.

K: Aw.

A: Like if we were to say that, we would say, OK, well, this came about, let’s see, 20 years ago, 10 years in it became really popular. And when it was popular, the grapes used to make this specific kind of wine were Zinfandel, of which 65 percent was used; Petite Sirah, which the majority winemakers were making, like 20 percent. Then people were using a little bit of Merlot, whatever, you could use anything else you want. But those were the main. And then we would sit down and we would have a meeting, right, among all the people who voted in the AOC. And we’d write the guidelines and we’d vote on those guidelines. And we’d ratify them much like we try to ratify the tax code. Right? So we’d say these are the laws. But because, as you like to say all the time, “This is America,” we didn’t do that. And so the red blend has become basically any blend of red grapes that creates a red wine, for the most part, which is crazy. But the way that the red blend came about was, as you said, as a way for a lot of winemakers to use Zinfandel and Petite Sirah — primarily Zinfandel — that had gone out of fashion.

K: OK.

A: So basically in California, there was so much Zinfandel. I mean, I remember when I even came of drinking age, which was, you know, only 14, 15 years ago.

K: That’s all?

A: That’s all. It’s a long time ago, though, right? Even then there was still a lot of Zinfandel. I used to see it all over the place. And when I was in college and drinking underage, it was definitely everywhere. You’d walk into Publix and Kroger and there’d be all these Seven Deadly Zins and Ravenswood. Tons of Zinfandels all over the shelf. And they started to dwindle because Zinfandel became less popular. Now, you’ve talked about this before, but ripping up vines and replanting is very expensive.

K: Right.

A: And so all of a sudden, there were a lot of these grapes just on the market that nobody wanted. Or they didn’t want them for the price that people were originally paying for them. So a lot of really smart winemakers were like, “Well, this is still really high-quality fruit.” This wasn’t like this was fruit that was garbage. Right? This was really good fruit that made really good wine. Just the problem was that American tastes had changed. People didn’t want Zinfandel anymore. It wasn’t seen as like “The wine you always order with steak.” You know, big bad boy Cabernet Sauvignon was like, “No man, you’re not taking my spot. And so basically it just wasn’t something that people were ordering as much. And so these winemakers said, “Huh, what can I do with this really high-quality fruit?” And one of the winemakers who was trying to figure this out was a guy named Dave Phinney. And Dave Phinney is from Napa.

K: Oh!

A: Yeah. You know, Dave, he is from Napa. And he had access to all this fruit that other people didn’t want because they were going after Cabernet and Merlot, but there was a lot of Napa, and then I think also, if I’m correct, also the surrounding area of Sonoma etc., a lot of Zinfandel that was there that was really good. It was being grown in the same vineyards. And he said, “Huh, I’ll take all of that, and I’ll make a blend with it. Zinfandel will be the base, and I will call it The Prisoner.”

K: The Prisoner, the big old bottle that everybody buys.

A: Yep, and so basically he creates this bottle. It becomes this sort of cult wine. And at the same time, you had other winemakers making other wines like Apothic, another really big red blend. I mean, big in terms of popularity. And all kind of doing the same thing. Like they saw that they had access to these grapes. And so then when people asked someone like David, “What is the Prisoner?” he wasn’t gonna call it a Zinfandel because it was out of fashion. He said “Oh, it’s a red blend.” And so that’s kind of the origin story. I mean, the wine that’s really famous for making red blends what they are actually isn’t The Prisoner. It is Apothic. You can look at just what happened with that wine and how it just exploded on the American market and just became this massive phenomenon.

K: I remember buying it for my wine shop in 2009 when it came out.

A: Yeah. I mean, it’s really helped define what the red blend is. But now it’s really expanded past that. And now the red blend grew, and grew, and grew. And I think American consumers started saying, “Huh, I like this.” And so what is the flavor profile of the red blend? That’s what’s interesting, because it’s not now based on any specific grape, there’s no laws like we talked about. It’s hard to say, “Well, with all red blends, you will get X, Y, or Z” in the same way that you could probably say to me, “Well, when you have Chianti and it’s from this commune, you should expect to have this.” Or when you have Bordeaux from the Right Bank, you should look for wines that are softer and more supple, maybe drinkable at an earlier stage because they’re heavily based on Merlot, where on the Left Bank you’re going to get wines that you probably need to lay down for a while because they’re more based on Cabernet and things like that. You’re not going to get that with a red blend because every blend can be different. And so then here, I guess, flash-forward to another interesting part of the story with red blends is, I don’t know if this is responsible or not for also why red blends just kind of became any kind of blend of wines. But there did come a time when Mr. Phinney had a very successful product, and he sold it to another winery. And in selling that wine, he was not allowed to make a blend of wine, red blend of wine based on Zinfandel, for I think it was seven years or eight years.

K: Wow.

A: I think he has a wine called Seven Years in the Desert, or Eight Years in the Desert. I feel bad that I actually don’t know the actual name. So we might have to look that up. You can correct me. But yeah. And that now is sold through his label Orin Swift, but it’s the first Zinfandel-based red wine he was allowed to make after selling The Prisoner. And so he made other red blends that maybe were based on, like you said, Petite Sirah. Maybe he found some Malbec in California that people weren’t using as much or some Syrah or things like that. And it kind of just became this idea of red blends as these usually bigger, powerful, luscious wines.

K: Luscious is the big key there right?

A: Luscious is the word. I mean, that’s what I choose to use when I talk about red blends, they are luscious.

K: Every one that I have tasted and reviewed it’s about lush, plush fruit. It can be a big wine with a ton of alcohol, or it could be even a medium-bodied wine with lesser alcohol or the perceptions of either or. But, it’s always plush and smooth.

A: Yes.

K: So this is my theory, because again, I dig history, and I love watching how we evolve as a drinking culture in the United States because we’re so young and we had 10 years of Prohibition to mess around with our drinking culture. And then when we came out of Prohibition, we had to rebuild everything. And the first thing, we rebuilt instead of just like everyday wine, we built a fine wine region in Napa Valley and made it so that it was a fine wine region. And then there were all these AVAs across America and all this stuff. So then Robert Parker comes around with the point system and now everyone’s learning how to drink fine wine in America. But there’s never really been an everyday wine, which you have in Europe. Every DOC, like you said, even though they have these hard-and-fast rules that lasts for decades and decades, there’s always some sort of fun, easy-drinking wine that the region will make, whether it’s joven in Rioja.

A: Yep.

K: Or it’s, Rosso di Montalcino in Montalcino, or something like that. So it seems to me that because we are who we are and how we’ve come up in drinking culture and especially in wine, we came out of the Prohibition era with a big sweet tooth because all the wine that was being poured during Prohibition was kind of a sweet red wine. And when we started to actually learn about what fine wine was, we missed that one thing. We miss that everyday wine thing, the stuff that helps a culture build as a drinking culture. And you don’t just build as a drinking culture, like, “OK, we drink fine wine now. It’s all we do.” So this seems to me a great moment in our history of wine, is that we have now created this thing. We call it the red blend.

A: Yeah, just the red blend.

K: Just the red blend. And what it is, is it’s like, “Hey, every year the blend is going to be different.” Because I talked to Deb Juergenson. She is the winemaker at Apothic. And that wine is always smooth, always chill, always plush, always deep. But she changes the blend every year based on what they get. So it’s like it’s our version. Even though they can get — I don’t know what The Prisoner, I don’t know how much that bottle costs nowadays. But in our range of what’s available, what we’re willing to pay for for everyday wine, the red blend is now there for us to have that everyday drink instead of freaking out, stressing out every night about buying something that’s fine wine for dinner. Does that make sense?

A: Yeah, man. So here’s what I think it’s interesting. Because first when you’re talking, I of course looked it up, so it depends on where you buy it. But from most places, The Prisoner is $55 a bottle.

K: That’s not inexpensive.

A: No, but I think for red blends, it’s really interesting — whether it’s Apothic, which is, you know, a more everyday red blend, it’s more affordable, or it’s some of the other really amazing red blends that Orin Swift makes, obviously. So Phinney, when he left The Prisoner, he started Orin Swift. And Orin Swift makes a lot of red blends. For a lot of people, it hits everything they’re looking for. It has that power, it has the plushness. I think what’s interesting about red blends that I hadn’t thought about until you were talking, and I think it’s really interesting because we like to geek out on this kind of stuff, is we always talk about Malbec is the wine that became popular without the help of the wine industry, if that makes sense. It wasn’t a wine that was really popular. The red blend, actually, is truly that wine. We sat here being wine writers and journalists, whatever you and I do, being like, “Oh, it’s Malbec.” But actually Malbec in a lot of ways was very traditional in the way that it still came out. I mean, yeah, fine. In America, maybe it became popular through the people and through wine shops, but in Argentina and things like that, it was still very highly touted by sommeliers and stuff.

K: Well they didn’t give us any. Initially, they drank all of it. Until like the ’90s.

A: Exactly. But in the U.S., the red blend is 100 percent a wine that became popular because of consumers. It is the people’s wine. It’s the best way to describe it.

K: Cool. That’s very American.

A: Yeah it is. It’s this phenomenon. And I think it’s really cool because you can’t define it. As you’re saying, I didn’t know that about Apothic. That’s crazy. That every year the blend is different. I mean, that is very much “I’m going to use the best things that are available to me to make the best wine I can,” as opposed to having to use this grape or that grape. That’s what’s so interesting about the blend, and the reason that I caught you and said you can’t say American red blend anymore is that that used to be true. But now you are seeing entrepreneurial winemakers around the world who are saying, “Huh. There’s something here.”

K: Especially Argentina.

A: Yes. And also, I’ve seen it now in Australia, too. They are now making — mostly, of course, New World wine regions. Can we say that term anymore?

K: I think so. It sounds a little bit.

A: Yeah, but so we are seeing now red blends coming out of Argentina. We’re seeing red blends coming out of Australia, and it’s all the same idea. And it all is kind of that same profile we’re talking about: lush, plush. And the word that consumers use that the trade doesn’t: smooth.

K: Smooth.

A: And I think smooth is the most interesting word to me. And like you can have a whole podcast about what smooth is.

K: I know. I know.

A: But smooth is this word that every time, when you and I first started really digging on wine, going to the wine festivals and teaching and stuff there together, that’s the one word we used to hear every single consumer say: “Oh, I love this wine. It’s so smooth.”

K: Right.

A: And if you were ever to talk to a WSET-trained —

K: They hate it.

A: Or they don’t really know what it means, because they don’t use it.

K: It’s rejected. I should say it’s rejected.

A: Right. They weren’t taught that, they didn’t come into wine using the term. And it’s one of these things that is such this, like, disconnect, because I think because wine professionals don’t know what that term means to most consumers, they don’t know how to fulfill what that consumer is looking for. And basically what that consumer is looking for is what you said. To me, “smooth” is the red blend. It is like this wine that is luscious and plush and ripe and very low in tannin with a nice amount of acidity that is not super-high acidity. But that has acidity. So it’s not a flabby wine, but it is a wine that is very easy-drinking even at a high alcohol content.

K: And it goes with burgers, pizza, steak. It can go with pasta.

A: Yes.

K: It can go with hot dogs. Pretty much everything you would drink with a red wine, a red blend will go there.

A: Exactly. And I think the most interesting thing about red blends is the beginning of the red blend was also the beginning of the change in behavior amongst American consumers, where a lot of people were choosing wine at the end of the day in the way they used to have a cocktail or beer, meaning sans food.

K: Right.

A: And I think that is also where the red blend also comes in, where, as you said, it goes with everything. But if you chose to pop on Netflix and pop a bottle of Apothic, it would be fine.

K: Yeah. Pairs with “Bridgerton.”

A: It’s funny, I knew you were going to say that. But yeah, it pairs with “Bridgerton.” So it’s like that is really what has been so interesting about the red blend. And this year you saw in just sheer data the interest, especially the pandemic of it, just skyrocket. I mean, still behind; you’re not going to knock King Cab off the throne.

K: Right.

A: But just behind it.

K: Yeah, I read that Cabernet Sauvignon is by far No. 1. But the second category for wine, not just the grape, but as wine — the second category is red blend. I think up until 2014 or something like that, the term red blend was lumped into the “sweet wine” category. The Nielsen data wasn’t even looking at red blend, but since it has, it’s increased over like a three- year period. It just keeps on increasing, increasing, increasing in popularity, and it just can’t be ignored now. And I think it’s so great that we have this, and it’s weird. I know that people would try to copy big oak to please the Parker thing back in the day. But it’s very interesting how now, other New World regions are sort of — we’ve spent a lot of time in America from the beginning until now just trying to emulate what happened in Europe. That’s a lot of what happened back in the day. And then we slowly but surely figure out our own style in the ‘90s using these big, oaky red wines. And we kind of backed away from that. But we still have that structure in our lives. And it’s very interesting how now it seems like places like Argentina are looking at what this red blend is. And now they’re trying to say, “OK, we know what Americans like. They like the smooth, rich, red blend. We’re going to try to now create something that’s similar to that.” And I think that it’s a major success. I mean, Santa Julia has a Malbec-Cab Franc blend. It’s called Mountain Blend. It’s their red blend. It’s awesome. It’s like $12.

A: Yeah.

K: That’s another thing. I know The Prisoner is expensive, but isn’t it true that most of these red blends are pretty affordable?

A: Yes, they’re pretty affordable. They’re usually $10 to $20. But that’s the thing is that I think what people are showing is, OK, you have some of those. But then you do have these much higher-priced ones that are more premium, and I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a flavor profile now that people have gotten used to and like, both as a more everyday bottle as well as one of these bottles that when they go to the steakhouse they would order and they would like. And I think a lot of the things with red blends that people also appreciate is they pretty much pop and pour at whatever price range. They are wines that are good to go the second the cork is popped. You’re not as worried about the things that might come along with Cabernet and what was the vintage? It’s very different in a lot of ways with the red blends, because they can blend so many different things in to achieve the profile they’re looking for in any given year. Again, no rules.

K: And it’s not easing into some sort of complexity and tertiary aromas. What it’s doing is enduring.

A: Exactly.

K: So The Prisoner is a few years old or 10 years old. It may not have changed into a very kind of brickish, beautiful wine, but what it is instead is like this wine holds. You can have this wine in 10 years. It may not be complex, but it’s going to be a little bit more solid. That’s it. It kind of feels like this is just a good, solid wine. But then again, these wines aren’t aging. They are ready to drink now. That’s why you have that sort of everyday feel. We finally, as Americans, have everyday red wine to drink that’s actually really good and smooth and easy. And we can say smooth. I think the wine industry needs to get used to that word. The science of smooth. We gotta get it.

A: Yeah, man. So that’s red blends.

K: Wow. Man, thank you so much for coming in. I guess it’s cool you came to my podcast because I got some info, so thanks a lot.

A: Yeah. Man, I appreciate, you know, somehow winding up here.

K: Yeah. I don’t know how you got here. All right thanks a lot.

A: You’re welcome.

K: So there it is. I think we have in America, finally, for the first time in our history, a category that defines our everyday, easy-drinking style. It took a while, but here we are. So red blends, they’re fun, they’re expensive, they’re not expensive. But they’re always plush, soft, smooth, and ready to drink. And that’s an awesome American innovation. You’re welcome.

@VinePairKeith is my Instagram. Review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from, it really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair.

And I mean, big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also Darby Cici for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week. See? Totally awesome credits.

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Apothic Wine. From rich red blends, to an alluring white and a rosé with dark secrets. Apothic makes wine that is anything but ordinary. Ignite your curiosity with Apothic red, the intriguing red blend that launched the Apothic legacy. And yeah, there’s a sly, roguish wink to every one of our bottles, because we think a good wine, like a good time, should mix things up a little. I mean, bold nights call for rebellious wine. Apothic Wine: There’s mischief in the making.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.