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.
Other second labels of the day included Bell Canyon (Burgess), Bel Arbor (Fetzer), LaBelle (Raymond), Riverside Farm (Foppiano), Hawk Crest (Stag’s Leap) and many others. (Some second labels are no longer being used.)
In most cases, second-label wines were varietals that mirrored the primary label. For example, if the primary brand had a chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, and sauvignon blanc, so did the second label, occasionally from purchased fruit or from young vines.
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).
In most cases, the primary brand’s name wasn’t mentioned on the label, and some second lines had no connection to the primary brand.
Some were perfectly happy to let consumers know who made the wine. Examples include Novy, a brand developed by Adam and Dianna Lee of Siduri years ago, and Decoy, Duckhorn’s value-oriented line.
Add to that list the multi-labeled diversity of Mendocino’s Greg Graziano, who has four different lines: St. Gregory (homage to Burgundy), Monte Volpe (aimed at Tuscan and Friuli styles); Enotria (styled after Italy’s Piemonte), and the California-esque Graziano brand.
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.