“The discovery of a good wine is increasingly better for mankind than the discovery of a new star.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
A few weeks ago, friends Caryl and Steve, invited us to join them for a wine blending party at Law Estate Wines in Paso Robles. We have visited the estate in the past and have enjoyed their wines for several years. This was a no-brainer!
Law Estate Wines is one of the ultra-premier wineries in the Paso Robles AVA. Don and Susie Law founded the winery with a passion for Rhone-inspired wine blends.
Paso Robles is sometimes known as America’s Rhone so they searched that area for a winery venue and eventually found an astonishing hillside site above Peachy Canyon – the perfect spot to build their dream.
After I visited Law the first time, the architect side of me was blown away by their state of the art facility.
They began planting Grenache and Syrah grapes in 2008 and have since added a dozen additional varieties to augment and round out their production.
What is a “blending party” you may ask?
To begin with, what is “blending?”
Blending is at the heart of many great wines, whether they are from California, France, Spain, Australia, or almost any other wine producing region. It’s one of the reasons that some winemakers compare their work in the cellar to that of a chef in the kitchen. Virtually all classified Bordeaux producers blend their wine from four or five varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot and that is just in a single region. The percentages of each variety are dependent on each year’s vintage and the winemaker’s taste and skill. The famous Ridge Monte Bello is a prime example of an incredible blended wine from California.
In addition to grape variety, other factors can influence blending decisions: climate, soil type, vineyard age, picking date, the aging time in oak, and even the type of oak. Winemakers marry these elements depending on what they seek to achieve. The resulting wine is inevitably greater than the sum of its parts.
There are two basic approaches to blending wine. One is to blend early, which in practice means once the malolactic fermentation has been completed. This is often the practice in Bordeaux (usually in February or March following the vintage). The second approach is to age various blocks (or parcels) separately until the barrel aging is complete. In that way, winemakers can monitor the evolution in the barrel of each grape variety and of each significant block from the vineyard(s). Inferior or disappointing lots can be declassified into a second label (if there is one) or sold off to wholesale merchants. This is the more labor-intensive choice since a wide range of factors must be kept under surveillance for twelve to eighteen months. The goal of either method, however, is the same: to make the best possible wine each year.
A blending party is pretty much what the name implies. A winery brings together a group of wine lovers with a group of their wine samples to be considered in the blend and then they allow everyone to sample, sniff, taste and mix the wines until they come up with their best possible variation of the blend. Since everyone has different tastes and wine experiences, there will be a wide range for the winery to explore and evaluate. The aforementioned Ridge Monte Bello has a blending party each April or May for their wine club members. A recent newsletter from CellarPass listed a half dozen similar blending parties throughout California.
We gathered at Law on a warm Saturday morning and were greeted by our hosts with a glass of their 2017 Soph which is a blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, and Clairette Blanche. This is a very pleasant, fresh citrusy white wine with a hint of acidity and a touch of vanilla. I want to note here that Law (like many Paso wineries) has some very interesting and amusing names for their wines: “Audacious”, “Beguiling”, “Sagacious”, “Beyond Category”, – well, you get the idea.
The cellar was laid out with ten tables – each with three hand-labeled bottles of wine, glasses, note pads, measuring cups and spit buckets. We settled on a table and met two other couples – Alan and Rhonda and Paul and Julie – who would be our blending partners. We discovered that they were in the process of developing their own winery and had already produced a few vintages.
The Law wines we would be blending were 2017 vintages of Tempranillo, Grenache and Graciano.
Interesting tidbit for wine geeks: Almost all Rhone blends include the variety Mourvèdre as a blending wine. For a number of years, many vineyard owners across the Central Coast of California purchased the “Monastrell clone” of Mourvèdre from a nearby nursery. The clone was identified as “Mourvèdre Clone #571” until 2016 when a sample was sent to UC Davis for DNA analysis and consequently changed to “Graciano Clone #8.” Graciano is grown in many parts of Spain but is best known as a blending complement to the Tempranillo wines of Rioja. One possibility for the goof is grammatical: the Spanish word for Mourvèdre is “Monastrell,” while the French word for Graciano is “Morrastel.” It’s probably more likely that the cause lies more in Old World practices, where multiple varieties are often interplanted. Some villages have different names for the same grapes and, more problematic, the same name for different grapes. At any rate, vineyard owners now love the Graciano grape and are beginning to plant it by the acre. Don’t be surprised to see Graciano wines on your market shelf over the next few years.
Once everyone had settled on a table and met their fellow blenders, we were introduced to winemaker Phil Pfunder who set the ground rules. Each table would have thirty minutes to produce their best blend. This would be an interesting challenge since (1) Tempranillo can be flabby with massive tannins, (2) Grenache has a very concentrated deep flavor with a floral nose, and (3) Graciano was, to me, an unknown wild card. In blending wines, even a five percent change of one varietal can make a significant difference in the bouquet and taste of the wine. We were charged to look for a balanced blend that would result in a pleasant surprise. The winemaker would be the final judge. The winning table would then receive a bottle of their blend for each team member with a label commemorating the day and everyone’s “hard” work.
Oh – we also had to come up with a name for our blend. I think we came up with the best name by far. Since we were essentially looking for a Spanish-style wine, we chose “Una Grand Sorpresa,” or “A Great Surprise!” Don’t hold me to this precise translation – we had consumed a bit of wine by this time.
Let the party begin! It was fairly chaotic as we each mixed, swirled, sniffed, tasted, spit (some people), and a good bit of wine was sloshed about. We frantically came up with a multitude of personal blends, passed glasses around to compare tastes (luckily no one had a cold), took notes and went on to the next version. Thirty minutes was not nearly enough time.
In the end, my friend Steve received the most votes from our table and he mixed a bottle full to send to the winemaker.
While winemaker Phil tasted and made his decision, Law provided a magnificent lunch of Paella, salad and crusty bread. The Paella was delicious. Oh, yes, there was some wine to go along with it.
As it turned out, our table did not win. Alan claimed that the winning formula was only a few percentage points away from one of his blends but the table did not vote for his. Sorry, Alan. Next time we will pay more attention to you.
If I were to offer suggestions to Law, I would ask for more time so that we could taste and discuss each other’s blends and add some bread or crackers to cleanse our palate between tasting different blends. Nevertheless, we all had a really great time sampling many great wines and discovering the intricacies of coming up with the perfect blend.