Of all the wine bottles crowded on supermarket shelves, those that fall into the category vaguely dubbed “red blends” have been flying off the fastest for quite a while now. People just can’t get enough of these unrelated-grape mashups, loosely modeled on the edgy Zinfandel-based blend The Prisoner, created by Dave Phinney more than 20 years ago now. At a time when most winemakers were focused on mono-varietal wines, Phinney broke new ground by splashing other grapes (Cab, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono) into a Zin, and the wine went viral before going viral was a thing. What started in 2000 as a mere 385 innovative cases grew to 165,000 cases in 2017.
It’s safe to say that today’s imitators don’t all have Phinney’s vision. Many of those supermarket red blends are generic free-for-alls, devoid of any distinctive character—no purpose visible for why the disparate grapes got together in one bottle. You’re left to wonder perhaps they were left over from making other wines or simply created from the cheapest grapes on the bulk market. And there’s the fact that the wines are generally pretty sweet.
This has all given blending a black eye, and a reality check is in order. Blending at the craft level is the foundation of most winemaking. And there’s fine traditional precedent for blending: Champagne grapes with Champagne grapes, Bordeaux with Bordeaux, Rhône with Rhône.
But a contingent of winemakers on the West Coast aims to break those rules for good reason—blend across tradition for intentional effect—at a quality level well beyond those lower market shelves. In the right winemakers’ hands, even grapes that wouldn’t seem to play well together can create a whole that’s bigger than the sum its parts. Innovators in California and Washington have used a mélange of grapes to layer flavors and textures to create exceptional wines you’d never confuse mass market red blends. Here are seven of our favorites.