The Magic Numbers

Redemption, for me, began on a late-summer afternoon in a posh, oak-paneled tasting room at the BV winery in the Napa Valley. Two years after my first attempt at wine blending—which ended in tragedy—I’d signed up for a three-day extravaganza called Crush Camp for Weekend Winemakers, offered by Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines, corporate parents of BV, Sterling, and numerous other wineries. After a morning of hands-on grape harvesting and grape eating, and of pretending to run the crusher-stemmer machines, it was 3 p.m. and I was finally seated at one of several round tables with the two dozen other participants—wine enthusiasts all, from around the country.

Eight huge Riedel wineglasses covered the paper placemats before each of us. Six of the glasses each held the six main components of BV’s wonderful Tapestry blend, an intensely pleasurable Bordeaux-style red I’d been drinking for years, and a seventh glass held a sample of BV Tapestry itself. An eighth glass was empty, awaiting our own tapestries—our own custom blends, to be bottled, custom labeled, and sent home with us, for later enjoyment or regret.

A lot of Old World wines are blends by definition, like champagne, Bordeaux, certain Rhône reds, Chianti, and rioja, but in a market dominated by California, Australia, and South America, it’s easy to forget that almost every wine we drink, including those labeled as single-grape wines, is a complex jumble with multiple components. Even pinot noir, chardonnay, and Riesling, which don’t benefit from blending with other varietals, are almost never produced with grapes from a single lot on a single vineyard—there’s simply too much to be gained, in terms of balancing flavor, acidity, sweetness, and alcohol level, by blending different batches aged in different kinds of oak barrels.

And when it comes to grapes like cabernet sauvignon, which do shine brighter with the help of other wines, the pre-bottle blending is the only way to create a complex flavor set. A fruity merlot, for example, can sand off the rough edges of a burly cabernet; a cabernet franc can help build up the floral nose and toss in a few background flavors that cabernet rarely has on its own; and Malbec can add texture and what people sometimes call “grip,” or mouthfeel, by contributing a number of tannins that cabernet sauvignon lacks. (If you think of tannins as those dry, tart elements in cabernet that light up particular parts of your mouth, then you can think of Malbec as a way of helping a cabernet to brighten even more mouth regions, making the wine a more interesting sensuous experience.)

Delicate Sensibilities

Now consider how little garlic it takes to change a soup, and that a single varietal wine only has to be 80 percent composed of that variety, and you can easily see why this is such a big deal, and why some varietals are akin to cooking spices, to be used only in judicious dabs. For example, Petit Verdot, which punches up the color and intensity of a wine, is so intense that Tom Rinaldi, winemaker at Provenance Vineyards, feels “armed and dangerous with that stuff. It can really alter a blend dangerously, almost unpredictably.” Rinaldi also recalls a particular blending session in which his cabernet tasted perfect at about 7 percent Petit Verdot and suddenly turned awful when he pushed it to 8 percent.

To make things even more complicated, a cabernet blending might draw on as many as 100 different versions of the five basic varietals, and a blending team might spend a whole week just mixing up sub-blends before they start blending the final wine. Working only in the mornings, when their palates are fresh, the team will typically quit by noon: “If you’ve already had lunch,” Rinaldi says, “you’re not tasting anymore. You’re partying.” He also considers the job such a serious physical challenge that he mountain bikes all over Napa to stay fit, and he keeps his palate as pure and sensitive as possible. “Even if somebody’s just wearing a skin lotion with a perfume in it,” he says, “and they hand me a wineglass, it can wreck a session. I just can’t get past it.”

And if Rinaldi’s had garlic with breakfast? He might just write off the whole morning. In fact, he once stopped using a particular brand of tooth-whitening toothpaste (essential equipment for winemakers, who would otherwise have hideously dark smiles), just because the peroxide tweaked his taste buds. Throw in the use of so-called fining agents—electrically charged materials that draw certain particles out of solution, either to clarify a wine or to tweak its flavor—and you’re talking about something a civilian really shouldn’t try at home. Fining agents are never left in a wine—they settle out before bottling—but would you really want to be responsible for the impact of, say, milk protein in wine? Or how about egg whites? Or volcanic gelatin drawn from animal bones or isinglass from the air bladders of sturgeon?

A Rough First Time

Still, my first outing didn’t have to go as badly as it did. This was back in 2004, during a Diageo winemaking seminar at Sterling Vineyards. Along with a dozen professional wine writers and wine buyers, I’d been seated at a long metal table among Sterling’s cold steel vats, under bright fluorescent lights, on a cold concrete floor in a cold air-conditioned room at the painful hour of 9:30 a.m. Pros apparently prefer stark surroundings to ensure that they don’t get distracted by nice light or the emotional pleasure of an evening cocktail. Sterling’s 2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was the control wine, and the other participants launched right into tasting its five different components. Then, with no apparent struggle, they all read aloud the freakishly nuanced percentages of their own blends: 76.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot, 5.5 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent Petit Verdot, and so forth.

Sterling’s then-winemaker Rob Hunter, trying to coax me into revealing my own numbers, kept saying things like, “Hey, really, it’s OK. There’s no right answer here. All we’re trying to do is please our own palates.”

I knew this was baloney, because he’d responded to one guy’s blend by saying, “Right on! That’s very close to the Reserve.” But I couldn’t hold out forever, so I spilled the beans: 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 12 percent Malbec, and none of the other two grapes.

“Wow,” Hunter said, his jaw falling open in confusion. I wanted to crawl under the table.

“But hey, that’s great,” he continued, being a good guy and trying to smooth over my gaffe. “I mean, if that’s what tastes good to you … but that’s quite a hit of Malbec. It’ll be interesting to see how that tastes in a couple years.”

Back to the Table

By the time I made it to that lovely oak-paneled room at BV, on that glorious afternoon a few months ago, I’d been stewing in this Sterling humiliation for more than two years—and not just because I hated being exposed as a rube. Hunter had been right: My bottle turned out to be perfectly drinkable, because he gave me such top-drawer Sterling wines to work with, but it was also astringent, lacking in complexity, and clearly in violation of one of Rinaldi’s basic blending principles—that a wine have what he calls a “good memory,” by which he means that the flavor goes on and on at the end of a sip, and that it trails off toward positive notes. While Hunter’s 2002 Sterling Reserve, composed of precisely the same grape juice, drawn from precisely the same harvest, trailed off into a rich, fruity daydream, my own stumbled awkwardly toward acrid bitterness—a flaw that several winemakers have since told me could well have been due to excess Malbec. (And what about all those wonderful Argentine Malbecs? Apparently the different climate makes it almost a different grape down there.)

So I had a lot at stake as I took glass #1 from that round table, among all the other Crush Campers. Swirling the wine as one does, I carefully read its vitals: The grapes came from cabernet sauvignon Clone 6 vines grown in Block 1-A of Lot 1 (whatever that meant), at a vineyard on the Rutherford Bench (which would account for its dusty-dry-in-a-good-way flavor), and had been barrel aged in new French oak to an alcohol level of 13.3 percent. The wine tasted absolutely spectacular to me, with huge, sumptuous tannins that weren’t at all off-putting, so I resolved to make it my centerpiece. I moved on to glass #2, a cabernet from the southern end of the Silverado Trail—aged this time in once-used French oak and showing less power but more fruit than the first. Glass #3 held a St. Helena cab aged in new American oak, smelling like turpentine but tasting of sweet Santa Rosa plums. The merlot in glass #4 smelled like blueberries and tasted like roasted pimientos, the merlot in glass #5 struck me as surprisingly tannic, and the Calistoga cabernet franc in glass #6 hit you in the nose with spice and black pepper.

In no time at all I had a blend I liked, and although it’ll be another two years before I open the bottle, an early indicator has already come up positive: Wayne Ryan, the Diageo staffer who organized Crush Camp, tells me my blend percentages are almost identical to the BV Tapestry control. Not exactly a sign of freewheeling creativity, I’ll admit, but young writers are often told to mimic their idols before articulating a voice of their own. Who knows? Maybe it works the same way with wine.