Berger on wine: Parallel brands allow room to grow

Dan Berger discusses the history of second labels, and a more recent trend, that of parallel brands that don’t compete with each other.|

Healdsburg’s David Ramey, one of the world’s finest winemakers, is pioneering a new category of wine: the parallel brand.

The idea hearkens back to the older idea of second labels, a wine industry tradition that began in the 1870s in Bordeaux. Second labels were adopted in California in the 1970s, and for a time the category had a major market impact here for bargain hunters.

Second labels were a prestige winery’s lower-priced version of its main label, intended to offer good value for a wine that wasn’t up to the standard of the main label.

In Bordeaux, some of the finest houses developed second labels, like Pavillon Rouge of Chateau Margaux and Carruades de Lafite-Rothschild. In most cases, the wines weren’t from the primary (mature) estate vineyards, but were from the same varieties from younger vines, made by the same winemakers.

As good values, they eventually grew into a serious category and by the 1980s, many budget-conscious Americans swore by the quality of Bordeaux second wines.

California wineries adopted the idea when prices for the top wines rose above what most consumers could afford. Prices for top 1974 Napa cabernets had risen to the exalted level of $7.50 per bottle (a lot back then.) Second labels could be sold for $4.50, and they commanded much attention.

Most had less cellar-aging and were simpler but often represented great value. As a result, the market began seeing wines like Chalone’s “Chaparral” Chardonnay priced a lot less than Chalone Chardonnay. And quality was very good for the price.

Second labels began to decline in the last two decades as larger wineries simply created new, stand-alone brands at different price niches. If a winery’s main line sold for $35 a bottle, it might create additional lines to sell for $20, $13 and $10 (or less).

Now enter a new category of “second” wine: the parallel brand, supported by Ramey and other top-rate wineries. This is a relatively new phenomenon that allows wineries that specialize in some wines to delve into other things without competing with themselves.

One of the best is Cathy Corison’s small Corazón and Helios brands. This parallel project doesn’t clash with Corison’s main focus, which is stylish Napa Valley cabernet.

Under the Corazón name is a totally dry rosé ($35) and a dramatic gewurztraminer from Anderson Valley ($40); Helios is a superb (and in-demand) cabernet franc ($100). Most such wines are available mainly at the winery.

One of the most fascinating parallel brands I have seen is Ramey’s Sidebar. Visionary parallel brands such as this one don’t replicate the primary brands’ varietals.

Since Ramey makes world-class chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet and syrah, those grapes will not find their way into Sidebar wines. Instead, Ramey has found other grapes that meet his demand for distinctiveness. He crafts Sidebar wines to be everyday values for those seeking the unusual - not to mention superb flavors.

Take, for example, the 2015 Sidebar Kerner ($25).

I asked why he chose to make a Kerner, a white grape normally found in cooler areas of northern Europe. David said, “It allows us to have fun.”

He discovered the kerner in a cooler area of Lodi, and the wine has a wild spiced aroma not unlike riesling, with a hint of peach. It is completely dry.

A 2017 Rosé of Syrah from the Russian River Valley ($21) is darker in color than I imagined, but the wine has amazing sprightliness and personality.

Perhaps the best wine in the Sidebar line is an 80 percent zinfandel from Bill and Betsy Nachbauer’s excellent Acorn Ranch in Russian River Valley. The 2015 Red Field Blend ($27) has a dramatic blackberry/raspberry and spice aromas. Thus far, the visionary parallel brand Sidebar is working brilliantly.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Poggio Apricale Rosso di Montalcino ($22): You would be hard pressed to find a better example of this Sangiovese-based Italian wine at even $10 more. The aroma is classic dried sour cherry and faint earthy notes, and the mid-palate is dry and characterful, great with red-sauced pastas. It was aged in barrels but not for long, so the wine is fruit-based.

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