Winter 2015

Nom de vine: Ste. Michelle’s Tenet turns Syrah on its head

This column doesn’t usually offer spoiler alerts, but those who enjoy discovering oddities on wine labelsfor themselves had better stop here before ordering a bottle of Tenet at a restaurant.

Didn’t think you could wait. Read on.

The more observant might see it quickly, but it becomes obvious once the bottle is turned upside-down to drain the last drop of the GSM blend: The wine’s name, spelled out in a calligraphy-like script, reads the same right-side-up or upside-down.

The Tenet label uses an ambigram — the typographical cousin of the palindrome, a word spelled the same forward or backward — a word or phrase that, usually through some clever type design, reads the same when turned on its head.

Yes, it’s a marketing device but one with a legitimate mission, said Ryan Pennington, director of communications for Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Despite critical acclaim and success, particularly in Washington, Syrah remains a tough sell, Pennington said, much of it because of the variety’s ability, like Pinot Noir, to take on different reflections depending on where its grapes are grown and how it’s made.

“It can be big and ripe like an Australian or Californian style, or lean, meaty and elegant like a northern Rhône, and every point in between,” Pennington said.

Ste. Michelle wanted to launch a project that would bring attention to Washington Syrah by capitalizing on that range and challenging assumptions about the variety.

A chance reunion in a Hong Kong men’s room got the project rolling, Pennington explains.

In the 1980s, Chateau Ste. Michelle imported a little Bordeaux wine from France and developed relationships there with winemakers and vineyards. But when it decided to concentrate its winemaking in the Northwest, it stopped importing wine and ended those relationships. But 30 years later, Ste. Michelle’s CEO Ted Baseler bumped into one of the winemakers the winery had worked with, Michel Gassier, in a restaurant men’s room during a wine fair in Hong Kong.

With Ste. Michelle wanting to make a statement with the Rhône variety and Washington Syrah, the relationship was rekindled, Pennington said. Joining Gassier in the project is Ste. Michelle head winemaker Bob Berthau and French enology consultant Philippe Cambie.

Production might have started with the 2012 vintage. But as good as that year was for Syrah, Pennington said, the trio decided to wait until the 2013 vintage when Gassier and Cambie could participate in designating vineyard blocks so the project could start from the terroir up.

Three wines are being made under the Tenet brand, two of them from Washington grapes, the third from grapes from the Rhône Valley’s southern-most appellation, Costières de Nîmes. The namesake Tenet is a blend of 40 percent Grenache, 35 percent Syrah and 25 percent Mourvèdre. The Pundit, with a pen-nib-beaked ow staring from the bottle, lets the Syrah star at 94 percent with 3 percent Grenache, 2 percent Mourvèdre and 1 percent Viognier co-fermented with Syrah. The import, Le Fervent, dueling full-combed roosters arranged like playing card Jacks on its label, is 91 percent Rhône Valley Syrah, 6 percent Grenache, 2 percent Mourvèdre and 3 percent Viognier.

The ‘13s have just been released, the ‘14s have been blended and bottled at Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge facility in Paterson, and crush was just completed for the ‘15s.

Tenet is being sold primary in regional restaurants, where the ambigram has already resulted in some dining room buzz as it’s noticed on the table and in wine racks.

“There’s been a fantastic response to the labels and the wine,” Pennington said.

So which came first, the name or the typographical trick?

The name, Tenet, which conveys the winery’s belief in Syrah, came first out of a brain dump among in-house staff and an outside agency, Pennington said. It didn’t take long after the name was selected to see the word’s label possibilities.

The calligraphy gives it a classic look fit for a fine restaurant, but there’s some fun there.

“There’s a little gamesmanship in the branding design, an Easter Egg effect, something to hunt for,” Pennington said. “But the most gratifying comment is it doesn’t look like anything else in (Ste. Michelle’s) portfolio.”

Certainly not when you turn it upside-down.

This story was originally published December 14, 2015 3:17 PM.

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