One for You, Two for Me: Blending Can be Fun!
Joe definitely is the cook in our house. He has also had success making his own beer. But there is a little something I can brag about from out latest trip to Wine Country – blending. I won two of three blending contests. My individual honor came at a blending session in the wine cave at HALL, after we and a few other wine journalists (aka bloggers) spent the day learning about the HALL practices that earned a prestigious LEEDS Gold Certification.
Another was part of a team at Twisted Oak, competing against two other teams. It was one of those rowdy and raucous events; typical of what happens when you get about 20 or so people in one room, who have been tasting wine all afternoon. (You can go straight the Twisted Oak blending story here.) The third I opted to sit out. A lot of my good fortune in winning came from simply listening to people who know a lot about wine. The rest was just good luck and great fun!
Blending in the Cave at HALL Rutherford
Following a tour of La Residence with Graham Yallop; a historical tour at the HALL’s Frank Gehry-designed St. Helena Winery and Visitor Center; a trip through the vineyards with Don Munk and a delightful lunch (that one’s for you, Steve H. *wink*) at the private-access Rutherford Tasting Room; we headed downstairs to the wine cave for a blending session. When I first noted “blending” on our e-mailed pre-visit itinerary, I was thinking “lecture” but was delighted to find this was to be a hands-on experience.
We took at seat at a long table. In front of each chair was a beaker, dump bucket, some note paper, a pen, and several glasses. One contained a sample of 2005 “Jack’s Masterpiece” – a WS-rated 96 pt Cabernet Sauvignon that sold out in about 17 days. This was all that was left from Kathryn Walt Hall’s personal stash – it was truly a fabulous and full-bodied Cab.
Wines for blending were barrel samples from HALL (1) 2008 Napa River Ranch Merlot (2) 2008 Hardester Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (3) 2008 Sacrashe Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and a (4) 2008 HALL Estate Vineyard Malbec/Petite Verdot Blend. The Merlot was pretty high in tannins, and there was an abundance of fruit on the Hardester Cab. The Sacrashe has some fruit, but a bit of earth and truffle on the nose, and the Malbec Petite Verdot blend was all fruit!
HALL’s winemaker Steve Leveque walked us through the process — first through tasting “Jack’s Masterpiece,” then tasting of the other wines we can use in the blending. Ambassador Kathryn Walt Hall came in to join us for a bit, and sat beside Thea. Which started all sorts of comments from the peanut gallery, because Thea has been known to occasionally always spill wine. Then Steve told us the sad news: we’d either have to dump or drink one of our glasses, so that we can use the extra glass to taste our blends. Of course no one dumped the “Jack’s Masterpiece.”
Our beaker’s went up to 50, so when calculating the percentages of each wine, we had to double it. I started with a blend of 24% Merlot, 38% Hardester, 26% Sacrashe and 22% Malbec/Petite Verdot. Someone asked, “How do you make a wine that’s approachable young, but also age worthy.” Steve had told us we should have the Merlot for the “punch at the end” but I was trying to play it safe with a pretty even balance. I was thinking the big tannins would mellow in time. But that didn’t allow for the wine to be at all pleasant to the palate now.
Steve said that was a common mistake when it came to blending a California Cab. “If you don’t have a wine that tastes great now,” he said, “you’ll have a wine that will never taste great.”
He asked if anyone wanted some feedback before the final judging. I opted for all the help I could get. He said he’d probably back down the Malbec/Petite Verdot Blend, as well as the Merlot, and bump up the Cab from the Sacrashe vineyard. Well that was easy enough to do, so that’s just what I did, and I ended up with the winning wine!
My final blend consisted of 8% Napa River Ranch Merlot; 36% Hardester Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Sacrashe Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% HALL Estate Vineyard Malbec/Petite Verdot. I’m hoping maybe Steve will make a full bottle of it and send it to me.
Twisted Oak Blending Competition
Our pre-WBC trip to Murphys included visits to a number of Murphys tasting rooms (one of which included a chorus of “Summer Nights” from Grease by Ashley, Thea & Liza.) Following a brief stop at Alchemy for a round of beer, and respite from the heat, we headed for even more winery fun!
Jeff and Mary of Twisted Oak and Scott and Melanie of Newsome – Harlow hosted a little barbecue out back of the Murphys Twisted Oak Tasting Room. After much spilling of wine and blue cheese sauce, and The Beer Wench‘s dip in the creek at Murphys Park, Jeff and Scott (that’s Scott, pictured) divided us into three groups with six team members each. We had a really great team: Gabriella from Catavino; Liza of the BrixChicks; Russ the winehiker; Ken from Reign of Terroir; me and winemaker Oscar Quevedo of Quevedo Port Wine.
Jeff and Scott gave us big sheets of white butcher paper and sent us to our meeting room. Our mission: to create a wine in the style of The Spaniard. This didn’t just include blending the wine, but also coming up with the name of the wine, the name of the blend as well as the label. We also had to make sure that we had plenty of wine left to fill a 750 ml bottle, provide the names of the team members and all of the information on our competition form.
We had several Type A folks on our team so we made sure we “followed the rules!” Someone (either Gabriella or Liza) insisted we fill out the paperwork FIRST, so we wouldn’t forget. Russ kept track of the percentages of various varietals, Oscar did the actual blending into the beaker. Most everyone but me had significant input into how much of what got added. Most of my input was limited to “Yeah, that tastes good! or “No, too much oak!” and working on the label. That and collecting a bottle of The Spaniard as my prize!
I think most of our success was because we kept on task, worked as a team, and provided all the information about our wine. I say this because Joe’s team had a good tasting wine but they were disqualified. That’s because they tasted so much they didn’t have enough to fill their bottle, and they didn’t write down anything on the paper. Joe says, “You take a former punk, and a guy who sported a Mohawk (drXeNo) at last year’s WBC. You gives us a lot of wine and what do you expect?”
The session in Murphys with a great team helped me learn about blending. And listening and tweaking my blend based on feedback from HALL’s winemaker Steve Leveque helped me win “by myself.” (You can see more pictures from the blending contests here.) If you get a chance to participate in a blending session, I highly recommend it. Just make sure you save enough wine to fill a bottle.