Merlot for the masses

Blackstone Winery’s success also raises buyers’ expectations

Gary Sitton, chief winemaker and general manager, checks a wine’s progress from vats at Blackstone’s facility in Kenwood, Sonoma County, Calif. Gary Sitton, chief winemaker and general manager, checks a wine’s progress from vats at Blackstone’s facility in Kenwood, Sonoma County, Calif. (Clay Mclachlan for The Boston Globe)
By Stephen Meuse
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2010

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It would be wonderful if all the wine we consumed were made by salt-of-the-earth types working 100-year-old vineyards amid picturesque landscapes. But no amount of craft-scale winemaking will ever be sufficient to quench America’s thirst for wine. Corporations have always understood this, and long ago stepped in to fill this gap with heavily marketed brands made on an industrial scale. It’s big business, not art.

We admire the skill of craft winemakers and even make celebrities of them (scores will showcase their wares at the 19th annual Boston Wine Expo next week), but rarely do we give a thought to what’s required to make a million-case-a-year brand wine. That’s 12 million bottles of something that has to be consistent and pleasing whether it’s sipped at a bar in Southie or a bridal shower in Boise. It may not be your idea of romancing the vine, but doing it well is no mean accomplishment.

Gary Sitton, chief winemaker and general manager of Blackstone Winery in Monterey, Calif., is responsible for making what his company bills as the largest selling domestic merlot in the country. Blackstone Winemaker Select Merlot, which sells for around $10 per standard-size bottle, is pretty much everywhere. “From a technical point of view,’’ says Sitton, swirling and sniffing his own wines during a recent visit to Boston, to make good wine on a grand scale “all you really need is bigger equipment.’’

Equipment at the company’s main facility is massive, but tank capacity is really just the beginning. After every harvest, enormous amounts of grapes have to come in on time - a cacophony of fruit Sitton must compose into a harmonious unity. Then there’s the national marketing, sales, and distribution effort to get all that wine into the glasses of customers. Once on shelves, Blackstone faces fierce competition at the $10 price point from labels such as Mondavi Private Reserve series, Bogle, Clos du Bois, and Meridian, among others.

Sitton says his goal is to create “an approachable wine with ripe fruit expression, varietally correct flavors, and balanced acidity.’’ When deciding on final blends, the winemaker aims to please himself first, then looks to incorporate specific elements - depending on who his customer will be. “For instance, if I am making a bottle of $10 merlot,’’ he says, “I make a wine with a soft, supple mouth feel. It needs to appeal to a wine drinker looking to buy a bottle of wine for dinner tonight.’’

To help achieve this approachability, Sitton subjects nearly all his reds to a process that steadily infuses them with minute amounts of oxygen. Combining this technique (micro-oxygenation) with the use of submerged oak staves mimics the effect of long-barrel aging - at a fraction of the cost. The two techniques induce easy-drinking qualities. It must be working. Blackstone sold around 700,000 cases of Winemaker Select Merlot last year, about half the winery’s total output. Mike Gilly, wine director at Blanchards Wines and Spirits, describes the merlot as a “solid, dependable brand that customers are comfortable with and comfortable buying for others.’’ He considers it a “category leader.’’

In a market that sometimes seems intent on dumbing down the wine experience for consumers, Tom Schmeisser, longtime buyer for Marty’s Fine Wines, sees Blackstone as an example of a brand wine that is actually raising expectations. “We’re going to see more of this,’’ he says. “It’s the future.’’

Merlot made Blackstone. The brand was created in the early 1990s by serial wine entrepreneur Derek Benham, who, in six short years with little more than a telephone and a fax machine (he owned no vineyards or crush facility) built the operation from 10,000 cases annually to more than 400,000. In 2001, Benham sold most of the company to Pacific Wine Partners, then a joint venture of Constellation Brands and BRL Hardy, for $148 million. The same year, Constellation (now the largest wine company in the world by annual case volume) bought Ravenswood winery in Sonoma. Sitton was at Ravenswood, polishing his winemaking skills under founder Joel Peterson, and moved to Blackstone in 2007.

Craft winemakers like to say that wine is made in the vineyard, meaning that the quality of fruit is crucial. To fill its orders, Blackstone must purchase between 50,000 and 75,000 tons of grapes annually from a network of contract growers, mostly located in California’s sprawling Central Coast. Bringing fruit in, rather than growing your own, has its drawbacks. “You lose the ability to deal only with the fruit you know best,’’ Sitton says. Despite choosing growers carefully, harvest time always means confronting a spectrum of fruit that varies “from very good to lower quality.’’

The team addresses ups and downs in fruit quality by skillful blending, the traditional nontechnical way winemakers have of compensating for variability in raw materials so weaknesses are less noticeable. It begins with a triage. Each lot is vinified separately. Lots of finished wine are subsequently tasted, rated, and assembled into successively bigger lots. “We make an A blend, a B blend, et cetera, always using the best we have on hand to make up the amount of wine that needs to be made,’’ Sitton says.

Multiple lots of diverse fruit may give a winemaker more options. But more sources don’t guarantee better wine any more than more colors in the paint box guarantee better portraiture. In the end, the quality has to be there or it can’t work. Our tasting suggests that at Blackstone it is (see related story, Page 21).

One way to interpret the company’s success is to view it as having narrowed the gap that has traditionally separated craft and mass-market approaches to making and selling wine. It’s an analog, perhaps, to home furnishings powerhouse Ikea or cheap chic clothing retailers like H&M.

If true, and the approach catches on, we might be able to look forward to a generation of better-quality brand wines than we’re used to. Still big business, but with a little art thrown in.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at

BOSTON WINE EXPO Takes place Jan. 23-24 at the Seaport World Trade Center. Until Jan. 15, tickets are $85 for Saturday admission, $75 for Sunday. After that, each ticket goes up $10. For more information go to