Witch's Brew

This past weekend some friends joined us for a Zinfandel blending party at Alderbrook Winery in Healdsburg.  The event was designed to replicate the blending process winemakers’ use to orchestrate the final composition of the finished wine.  For this exercise, Alderbrook provided each participant with three different glasses of Zinfandel, base wines “A-C,” plus a glass of Carignane, wine “D.”  Using pipettes, graduated cylinders, and a judicious dose of moxie, we were set loose to mix, blend, taste, spit, dump, re-blend, and try again until we hit gold, that unified chorus of harmony in a glass.  (Cheesy but true.)  After crafting our personal super-blend, we were asked to mix up a big 1000 ml beaker-full which was individually bottled, corked, and foiled for us to take home.  Then we made our own labels using magic markers and colored pencils.  I may suggest this artistic D-I-Y to the mommy hosting our next preschool birthday party.  



Wine blending combines artistry with methodical precision.  Different lots of wine are mixed, tasted, and remixed until the integrated parts fuse perfectly.  It is incumbent on the winemaker to gauge how minute permutations in the ratios of the blending wines affect the final mix, if at all.  Adding or subtracting < 5% volume of a given wine from the composite brew can perceptibly alter what you taste and smell.  Sometimes nudging a blending wine just a few percentage points in either direction renders the final concoction undrinkable; other times it’s way better.  The base wines integrate differently based on their relative proportions.  And when blending on a small scale, say in a wine glass, it’s imperative to document exactly how much of each base wine muddles the mix so that the recipe can be extrapolated from that one glass to hundreds of barrels, in identical ratios.  Sometimes tasting glass after glass of nearly identical wines is maddening, since eventually my taste buds burn out, and they inevitably all taste the same.  I think that’s called “buzzed.”

Presumably your base wines are different enough to provide a template of how to proceed.  You may aim to blend a more tannic, astringent wine with something rounder and softer or a wine with more front palate-weight with one that warms the back of the throat, to indulge every single taste bud.  Base wines may be as similar as same varietal, same vineyard, different clone or as divergent as zinfandel and petit syrah.  And winemakers are at liberty to blend and bottle their wines in any way they wish.  However, what the label can say about it is another issue altogether.  In the United States, state-specific laws dictate the connection between the label and the concoction inside.  For example, a label stating “Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford Hill, Napa Valley” means that 100% of the grapes are from California, 85% must be from Napa Valley, specifically and 75% of the grapes are indeed cab.  Theoretically, through blending trials and taste tests, a winemaker may decide her melange-du-95-points should include 50% cabernet grapes from Colgin, 30% cab grapes from Harlan, 5% cab from Della Valle, and 15% Thompson seedless from a Salinas Valley grocery store.  And happily you don’t even need to specify which grocery chain it is on your label. 

Disclaimer: This is purely a fictional example.  I made it up for fun.  Sonoma County vintners will in no way suggest, insinuate, or blindly guess the composition of Napa Valley Cabernet.

Blending is an art and a science, to me one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of winemaking.  I like to think that we really elevated the aromatics of our ’08 Santa Lucia Highlands pinot by adding a mere 2 ½% of “Swan clone,” a California heritage clone from the contiguous vineyard site.  Last Saturday, for example, I started with wine “A,” which I felt had the richest, most beautiful color, fruitiest aromatics, and heavier tannin.  Brian, in contrast, started with wine “B” which had a lovely, mouth-filling richness with much softer tannins.  Clearly mine will be killer drinking at next year’s event while Brian’s label should read “drink now through May 15, 2010.”  In fact, all four of us participants selected a different base wine to use in greatest proportion.  That is what makes wine so wonderful.  Everyone’s palate is different.  My supremely awesome blend of wonder is very different from my husband’s.  If you’ve never attended a blending seminar, they are a blast.  Educational and fun, they really provide a lively window into the details of winemaking.  They are even better when they conclude with a decadent lobster boil and ice cream.  Just don’t forget your calculator, point dexter. 

Lobster Boil - Before.....:




....and After: