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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blending, The art of making the sum greater than the parts.

Behind every good man there is a great woman.

I have been blessed with my wife, Kate, who serves as my lifeguard in the deep water of life. Constantly, (smile here) helping me on my path of contribution to personal goals, our family goals and life goals for the world. We share my goals; we share hers; we share ours. That's how a team works. I get the remote; she gets to say which channel (unless the Dallas Cowboys are playing, then the entire family leaves the room!) That's the way it works and it works very well.

I need more than the average amount of help so (being as smart as I am), I have a second woman guiding me. She is my "work spouse" in the new millennium speak but I call her Sensei. Most call her Cheryl Jones. She is what every beginning winemaker needs until they are retired; a consultant. Cheryl though is more than a consultant. She has 30 plus years in every corner of the business. She knows every vineyard, every row, every climate change, every back road to grape nirvana there is. That's in the field side of our business. In the lab she is amazing. She has every wine fault, every chemical, every smell memorized to ppm levels that only homeland security can compete with. A small wine issue can become a big one in a hurray. If you want good wine, you need to be clean, vigilant and proactive with "insurgencies" or taste terrorists will form. I consider my role here to be special ops trained by the best! My job is to search and identify then I call in the intelligence. That's the way it works and it works very well.

Her best attribute in the business though is her blending skill and talent. I say skill and talent because it is two qualities that meet a couple of times per year on our kitchen counter. Yesterday was one of them as we prepare the final blends for the 2008 vintage. I start by pulling 36 barrel samples for tasting and arranging them with descriptions, notes, and of course the two most important tools of the trade, a roll of blue masking tape and a sharpie. This can take a couple of hours but I get it all done before Sensei arrives. Every barrel is treated differently; as its own universe. Most of my barrels are paired with another from the same lot. These are quite similar as they came from all the same rows, bins and most specifically important here, yeast. We work with 1 ton lots which provide us with 2.5 barrels of wine each. Our cabernet franc was a 3 ton harvest. We used 3 bins and 3 different yeasts. By keeping the barrels insulated from each other until final blending, we are able to maintain many controllable flavor profiles that would be lost if this were just one large lot.

SO back to blending! We go through them by smell first.  You cannot imagine pressure until the owner of one of the best noses on the planet says on glass 6, "Do you smell that?" Thankfully, Cheryl is a great teacher endowed with Sensei patience. She brings in a teaching moment to the process to help me be a better wino. Then we start the tasting part. Many of you will laugh when I say I was working yesterday and went through over 60 different blending samples. Your teeth go purple, the tongue goes black and your gum hurts. But you take one more for the team and press on. After deciding on the better barrels for a particular varietal, I measure a composite of those barrels formulating now the base of the wine we are making. Next we start tasting through logical partner barrels from other varietals that I have to provide pallet and aromatic support for the final wine blend we are creating. Constant review of previous samples (called "control" which after 40 wine samples seems ironic) helps establish profiles that are being added or removed. The wines are tweeked slowly towards a final profile by ultimately additions of half percent increments. Many people skeptically ask me in the tasting room if the percent additions of 1% are really that accurate or meaningful. Most assuredly yes! The final 2 glasses are that small of a difference and after 100 final samples over 3 years, Cheryl and I have not disagreed on more than two. That is a testament to the real difference these adjustments can make.

Blending is not just for blends. It is for varietal expressions as well. It is for barrel selection as it involves oak (more or less), cooperage style, yeast selection and the inherent variable flavors that occur when you keep a living universe of wine isolated from all others for 2 years. I believe that after grapes, it is the most important style difference a winery offers.

Finally, the most important addition to Kate's and my wine endeavor from Cheryl is her friendship. We met first as people, became friends, and then found we shared a common interest in wine. We listen to each other and share the dreams. That's the way it works and it works very well.

Interestingly, blending people is much the same as wine; it is the art of making the sum greater than the parts. To that end, I am forever grateful to my two partners in vino for their making my contributions better and encourage all to find your own reserve blend in both worlds.

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