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Symposuim: Brand Cru

Jack Smith

This is not for everyone, explains winemaker Eric Miller, as he hoists onto a table a bottle of Merican, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot from his new Portfolio Collection. “It’s bold, masculine, and somber. It says, ‘I’m for the big boys. I’m serious stuff.’ ” Indeed it does. But Miller, proprietor of the Chaddsford Winery in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, is not speaking about the wine; he is describing the bottle. “We put a lot of effort into finding just the right bottle. Pick it up. It’s twice as heavy as our seasonal wine bottles, which say, ‘Take me on a picnic.’ But you can tell at a glance the Merican is nothing to trifle with.”

Although Miller’s concern with message and image may be at odds with the popular notion of the winemaker as a poetic soul, oblivious to the vicissitudes of the market, he does make tasty wines that have been served at such tony Philadelphia boîtes as Le Bec-Fin, the Fountain Restaurant at the Four Seasons, and Striped Bass. However, Miller faces a new challenge: “We’ve been known for making very good wine,” he says. “Now we want to be known for making great wine.”
 
And as with any luxury item, a superior product requires an image to match. “Why will people pay hundreds of dollars for one bottle of wine but only 20 dollars for another when maybe one person in a hundred can tell the difference?” asks Miller’s wife, Lee, who oversees the winery’s marketing efforts. “It’s all a matter of image.”


In 1992, after enjoying increasingly positive reviews from critics and consumers, the Millers adopted a more upscale, artisanal image for their wines. This involved a new label showing the winemaker seated by a glass of wine, gazing contemplatively into the camera. “It was supposed to say, ‘We’re serious about this wine, and my picture is my personal guarantee,’ ” Miller explains. When sales plummeted, the Millers formed a focus group to learn why. “It turned out that people hated the new label, especially the women,” he says. “They said it looked like Scotch.” When the Millers restored the earlier label depicting the winery and a hillside vineyard, sales quickly rebounded.
 
A wine’s name is no less important than its label. It is likely that fledgling oenophiles used to envision the scenic Bordeaux countryside while picking up a bottle of Château Luzerne. Though it was manufactured in an industrial section of Philadelphia, with nary a château nor a vineyard within miles, the wine was not completely at odds with its name: The winery originally stood on Luzerne Street.
 
When Robert Mondavi realized that Americans would have trouble pronouncing Sauvignon Blanc, he simply relabeled the wine Fumé Blanc. Although Sauvignon Blanc is no longer the mystery it once was to the Stateside market, the greatest proportion of it is still sold under the name Mondavi invented.


In recent years, some vintners have employed names to counter the gravity that pervades the world of wine. No doubt the proprietors of Bordeaux’s first growths would recoil from such trendy wines as Fat Bastard (a Chardonnay from the South of France) and Scraping the Barrel (a well-regarded Spanish Tempranillo). Perhaps taking their cue from Mondavi, the makers of Cserszegi Fuszeres, a blend of Gewürztraminer and Irsai Oliver from Hungary, simply call their wine the Unpronounceable Grape. It was just a matter of time before somebody—Nova Wines—released Marilyn Merlot. The label for each vintage features a different picture of the actress.

The Millers’ new wine, which will sell for twice as much as its more mainstream counterparts, is understated and dignified, as befits a classic Cabernet blend. There is certainly nothing wrong with the name Merican, but given the wine’s rich palate, cherry nose, and chocolate finish, and the latitude now exercised when deciding on names, you have to wonder why the Millers did not simply call it I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lafite.    

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