Don't Underestimate Blending, by Cameron Cohn
Now that I’ve been eased into the weekly routine and introduced to ins and outs of the wine industry, it was time for me to learn about blending. Brian Carter Cellars is the first winery in Washington fully dedicated to making blends. Luckily for me over the past few weeks, I got to both witness and partake in the blending process that has brought them so much success. Just a warning – a fair amount of what I’ve seen so far from Brian and Robert makes almost no sense at all, so bear with me.
First, I got to visually learn and begin to understand what exactly blending is. This past weekend, Brian and staff set up a blending seminar for their exclusive Club Savant. For this, I was only tech support, but that meant that I had a front row view of Brian presenting his blending techniques. For this seminar, he was demonstrating how to blend the wines Tuttorosso, Solesce, and Byzance. Prior to the call, he sent out samples of Cabernet, Sangiovese, and Syrah to each of the club members. Listening to him explain the process of blending and how to make a successful blend was in a way poetic. The topic of blending just rolls of his tongue, and it shows that Brian really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to this difficult artform.
Then, he would experiment with pouring different proportions of each grape into a glass. For example, Brian would combine three tablespoons of Sangiovese with 2 tablespoons and Cabernet and taste test. He wanted to see how much Cabernet could be used in the blend without overwhelming the fruity Sangiovese flavor. By comparing his sample with an all Sangiovese glass, he was able to achieve an accurate balance of the two grapes in order to create the right taste. When most would stop there, Brian went a step further and compared his sample to previous vintages to assess how close he is to recreating the beauty of an older wine, while at the same time creating a better version of it.
At the end, he opened a bottle of 2005 Tuttorosso to share with the staff and to show off the final product of a great blend. Now…I’m new to wine; my palate is not as experienced or knowledgeable as a regular wine enthusiast. But I can confidently say that is the first time I have truly been amazed by a bottle of wine. The smell of fresh fruit and the many different notes that grace your lips was beautiful, a perfect example of a brilliantly aged wine, and a testament to Brian’s knowledge of blending. The ceiling is endless for blends, but the process is very scientific and takes a lot of practice.
My second exposure to blending was a much more hands-on experience when I helped blend wine in the winery with Brian and Robert. For the majority of the time I was working, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. There were so many different types of grapes in various barrels, it made it difficult to keep track of what they were doing. On this day, we were racking and filling barrels of Solesce, Trentenaire and Le Coursier. Each barrel had a label with the type of grape and the vineyard it was sourced from. The barrels would be racked into various tanks, then filled back up again.
In both a funny and frightening way, Brian told me that “for filling a barrel, all interns get one screw up.” Not surprisingly, I spilled three times, which honestly made me more mad than it did Brian. Initially, it seemed impossible to time the shut off exactly so no wine spilled over, even when I was giving 100% effort. Of course, then I look over at Robert filling the barrel perfectly every time while half asleep and talking about what’s for lunch. Things got even more complicated, we began racking some barrels for an exact amount of time, and some until they were empty. Partially racked barrels were used to achieve the exact ratio that Brian needs in his blend. I could go on and on, but the point is blending is such a complex process, and it's so crucial to be organized and understand the grapes and the measurements needed for each.
Let’s not forget about cleaning the barrels!! Given that this was my third time around, one would think that the splashing of hoses would dim down just a little bit. No, quite the opposite actually. I was splashed twice as much and came home soaked and feeling like a soggy prune.
Of the many lessons I’ve learned since my blending education began, the most prevalent is to not underestimate how intricate the process is, or how difficult it is to create an amazing final product. Blending takes practice, patience, and precision and takes a lot of time to master. Brian and Robert have been doing this for years and they have absolutely perfected their craft. They know the exact science behind combining grapes together in different proportions, and continue to set the bar for wine blends.