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Mix It Up

Author: Virginie Boone
October, 2010 Issue

For everyone who’s dreamed of being a winemaker, we’ve found a way to make it a reality (kind of).

At Conn Creek Winery in Rutherford, wine educator Andrea Jackson, a former teacher, is leading five of us in a blending session. First, we get a glass of bubbly as a palate refresher to lead the day off in a fresh and festive direction. Then, after brief introductions—me and two couples visiting from Ohio—we head to the AVA Room for our barrel blending experience: two hours of tasting, blending and learning.

Conn Creek’s special experience is just one of many blending sessions and seminars that are starting to take off throughout Northern California Wine Country. The best of them serve as a way to give wine tasters a little something more than they get by just ponying up to the bar in most tasting rooms: the hands-on, purple-finger-stained chance to become part mad scientist, part discerning connoisseur in putting together their own wine, an experience that, along the way, helps them gain appreciation for how hard (and fun) a winemaker’s job can be.

Aside from the wine they get to actually take home on that very same day, these blending parties also leave most tasters with something else—insight into what they really like and dislike, which might help guide them for years to come in what to choose when buying wine.

Many of these sessions also do a good job of introducing new or not-so well-known varietals (hello, Carignane) and, most definitely, an understanding of how and why particular varietals vary in taste depending on where they’re grown. Conn Creek’s blending is such an example.

Conn Creek Winery

Barrel Blending Experience
Two-hour seminar, Thursday-Tuesday, 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
$95 per person, $65 for wine club members (by appointment only)
8711 Silverado Trail, Rutherford
(800) 793-7960  •

Conn Creek is, like many of its Napa Valley brethren, a Cabernet Sauvignon specialist, working with 15 of the valley’s subappellations to craft its own single-vineyard wines as well as its most famous wine, Anthology, a Bordeaux-style blend that typically incorporates several of those vineyards every year to make the best possible wine. 

In Conn Creek’s very comfortable AVA Room, blenders get the chance to taste Anthology and then play with 15 different barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon from 15 different Napa vineyards, separated into easy-to-understand groupings of three. So, for example, there’s the “soft” section, with the sub-headings of “red berry fruit, soft tannins and bright acidity.” This is where blenders start. The first barrel comes from the Garvey Vineyard in Oak Knoll, a moderate to cool climate vineyard with a lot of marine influence and silty-clay loam soils.

Next is the famous Volker Eisele Vineyard in Chiles Valley, a far-eastern-lying subappellation most people probably don’t know (see “The High Valley,” April 2010). Marked by warm days and cool nights and its own silty-clay loam soils, it stands out as one of my favorites, with fine perfumey notes on the nose and really vibrant red fruit. But it begs for something to help it have a longer finish. So I taste on. Next to it is the Stanton Vineyard in Oakville, the basis for one of Conn Creek’s single-vineyard wines in 2006 (a current release). With deeper, sedimentary soils, its acidity is definitely more noticeable. But in this section, I still like the Volker Eisele best.

The next section is marked “supple,” and its three most notable characteristics are “red and black fruit, mild tannins and silky texture.” Ahh. This should be good. The first barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon to taste comes from the Conn Creek Estate Vineyard itself, in Rutherford, a vineyard that gets moderately warm and enjoys volcanic as well as alluvial and gravelly soils.

Then there’s Spring Mountain Vineyard on Spring Mountain, probably the highest elevation vineyard we’ve tasted so far. I’m surprised it’s in the mild tannins section until I realize it gets a lot of rainfall and cool weather. It’s a crowd pleaser, and the husband of one of the visiting couples keeps coming back to it, intrigued. Also worthy of several tastes is the Collins Holystone Vineyard in St. Helena, another of Conn Creek’s 2006 single-vineyard wines.

We move on, all at our own pace, all with our own wine glasses and spit cups, crackers on the table to go back to should our mouths start to jumble all the flavors together too much. I move on to “complex,” with its characteristics of “toffee and spice, graceful and refined and velvety tannins.” To my mind, what all great Cabernet Sauvignon needs to have.

I find it all in fine form from Stagecoach Vineyard in Atlas Peak, another single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon for Conn Creek (and many others, too). The volcanic, high-elevation Stagecoach is most definitely producing mountain fruit, but it also gets cool, so instead of grippy, the tannins are indeed velvety and I want some of that for my finish, which I note in my handbook detailing all of the vineyards we’re tasting today.

But there’s more. I move on to the “rich” section in search of tannins and indeed see as its descriptors the words, “black fruit, intense yet elegant” and “earthy notes.” This is going to be a good section for me. My fellow tasters already like the Clos du Val Vineyard in nearby Stags Leap District, but I hone in on the Hozhoni Vineyard closer to Rutherford.

I find it to have, as I note, “very serious tannins but nice balance and earthiness.” Right next to it is a barrel from Mt. Veeder’s Newton Vineyard, a very cool, mountaintop climate that straddles the Mayacamas just west of the town of Napa. A sandy, former seabed, the Newton Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has amazing acidity, and I definitely want some of it in my final blend.

I feel ready to get to work with my beaker and wine thiefs, but my work here really isn’t done. I still need to taste through the “bold” section, three barrels marked by their “ultra ripe and concentrated” fruit, with “big tannins” and “dark chocolate and espresso notes.” I don’t think this will be my thing, but you never know, and Jackson is good at encouraging all of us to forget what we think we like and just taste—she says people are always surprised at what they end up liking once they put aside their preconceived notions.

But she’s also good at mentioning that “you always get the in-law with the spouse,” meaning you might like the dark chocolate and espresso notes, say, but if you don’t like big tannins, you’re going to have to find a way to balance them out somewhere along the line. She also reminds us to “remember it’s like painting, color is going to go far,” so that if it’s dark color we want, don’t go crazy. You won’t need as much as you think.

After tasting from the barrel of Frediani Vineyard in Calistoga, a very hot climate vineyard indeed—I taste chewy, rocky dirt—I forgo the next two “bold” vineyards and move to the modest barrels of other Bordeaux varietals to blend: Merlot (soft, elegant), Cabernet Franc (floral, spice, structure), Malbec (berry pie, rich) and Petit Verdot (intense color, chewy tannins). I don’t like the Malbec but do want a touch of Cabernet Franc, for more spice, and an even smaller percentage of Petit Verdot, again for the spice.

My Ohio friends are still tasting, discussing among themselves what they like and don’t like and asking questions of Jackson, who’s an expert on each of the vineyards and the blending secrets of Conn Creek’s winemaker, Mike McGrath, who’s been making wine in the Napa Valley since 1982.

For the Anthology Bordeaux blend, McGrath pulls from 31 distinct vineyard blocks, making what we’re attempting to do today look like child’s play. Which it is—the entire point of the whole thing is to have fun.

But in the moment, Jackson’s of most assistance to us in helping figure out how many milliliters we need of each of our components to make one 750mL bottle of wine, the standard amount in the bottles we typically buy. I’ve decided to go for a—to my mind—super spicy Cabernet Sauvignon blend, and Jackson counsels that whatever barrel I liked best should form the majority of the blend.

I settle on Volker Eisele as that basis, deciding I’ll make it 40 percent of the blend. Then, after more discussion with Jackson, who knows these vineyards so well, I figure on 20 percent Stagecoach, 15 percent Hozhoni (for its exquisite finish) and 10 percent Newton.

That’ll all make for a very rich Cabernet Sauvignon. Then to accentuate the spicy notes, I’ll incorporate 10 percent Cabernet Franc and just a touch, 5 percent, of Petit Verdot, which at higher levels, I’m reminded, can overpower.

With a beaker and measuring cup, it’s time to assemble, a task that definitely requires a steady hand and attention to detail. But despite my nerves, I do it and—low and behold—the blend is done. Into the bottle it goes, the bottle is corked and all that’s left to do is playfully design the Conn Creek-provided label, the easy part for sure.

I call the end product my “Spicy Six” for the six distinct components, four of them Cabernet Sauvignon, one Cabernet Franc and one Petit Verdot, that have made it possible. That night with dinner, its spicy signature really stands out, and I think to myself, “How often does one get to enjoy one’s own enological experiments?”

Fontanella Family Winery

Take-Home Blending Kit, $120
1721 Partrick Road, Napa
(707) 252-1017  •

Jeff and Karen Fontanella were enjoying a perfectly normal life when Jeff, already assistant winemaker for Saddleback Cellars, got the itch to own his own place and build his own brand. A former pre-med student who switched to winemaking, Fontanella met his future wife, attorney Karen, at a Jimmy Buffett concert, where he wooed her with a magnum of ZD Chardonnay. They married in 2003.

A short two years later, they found 26 acres on Mount Veeder, and that was that. Fontanella Family Winery was born, as was first son, John, exactly one week after they’d secured the use permit to build a winery.

About a year later came Andrew, born just as they broke ground on construction of their facility. In July 2008, the winery was done, the brand launched and the Fontanellas off and running. They currently make about 1,400 cases per year of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Chardonnay, as well as make wine for a handful of clients for whom Jeff consults.

The intimate feel of their family winery allows for informative barrel tastings in the cellar, accessed through a door behind the tasting room bar, behind which Karen is most often found. Discovering how much people enjoyed tasting from the barrel, the Fontanellas decided to move things up a notch and do their part to educate wine lovers on the finer aspects of Mount Veeder, a subappellation many don’t really know (see “Rebirth of the Cool,” Sept. 2009).

So today, they have people taste from two barrels housing two different Mount Veeder vineyards. The only variable is soil type—one barrel’s wine is made from a vineyard of volcanic ash, the other from shale—the barrels are the same, the winemaker is the same, everything else is the same.

“We want to teach people how soil affects aromatics,” says Karen.

From there, consumers are invited in to blend their own cases of Cabernet Sauvignon using both types of barrels as well as other Bordeaux varietals. Once they’ve settled on the blend, Fontanella will then make one case of the wine, label it and ship it, or as the Fontanellas put it, “blend a little, spill a bit, taste a lot, enjoy immensely.”

“It’s the most fun part of winemaking,” they say, “the blending.”

Now they’re making it possible for anyone to try their hand at it by offering a Fontanella blending kit, a unique set of four half-bottles—three 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons (volcanic ash, shale and granite) and one 2008 Mt. Veeder Merlot (also volcanic)—for people to do their own blending session at home.

Fontanella provides all the vineyard descriptions, the notes on soil types and instructions. It’s a party in a very smart-looking, take-home box.

From there, blenders can send the recipe to Fontanella to make more, specifying what percentage of each wine is to go into the blend. Regular 750mL bottles cost $75 (12-bottle minimum), or a magnum can be made for $150 (six-bottle minimum). Blenders also need to send in the name of their wine, which will go onto an official Fontanella label.

Judd’s Hill
Bottle Blending Day Camp
Three-hour sessions (by appointment)
2332 Silverado Trail, Napa
(707) 255-2332   •

Judd’s Hill is a fun-loving family-run operation off the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, which also runs its own MicroCrush, where small producers can have their wines made and bottled for them, making Judd’s Hill winemaker Judd Finkelstein a very good host for the winery’s popular blending day camp, a chance for anyone who’s interested to learn all about blending. Participants can take home three ($195), six ($370) or 12 bottles ($690) that day, or a full barrel (24 cases) can be bottled later.

On the day I go, Finkelstein, who’s done his share of blends, tells the five of us there for the camp—me, plus honeymooners visiting from Arkansas and a couple in Napa Valley for the first time from Seattle—that no doubt, “blending is one of the most exciting parts of the process.”

We sit down in front of five glasses of wine (one of them empty, it’ll be for tasting our blends as we go along), a pipette, beakers and big measuring cups, one set up for each of us. Finkelstein gives us a gentle introduction to his winery and to the art of the blend, with stories from his years of learning alongside his dad, Art, who recently passed.

“It’s your last chance,” Finkelstein details, “it’s almost like magic, the alchemy of it, where the sum is more than its parts.”

With that, we get to tasting what’s in front of us, beginning with a 2008 Merlot from Coombsville, a region where Napa meets American Canyon. Judd’s Hill makes a varietal Merlot from there, a wine known for its bright and intense plum and black fruit and herbal, sweet tobacco notes.

Then there’s a 2008 Cabernet Franc from Pope Valley, which has some serious spice. Some of my coparticipants recoil at its taste, but I find it interesting, though most definitely not on its own. “Sum of its parts, sum of its parts,” I tell myself.

Then a most interesting exercise. We have two glasses of 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. The first is from Oakville, which I find to have strong tannins and not a lot of fruit. The second is from the nearby Weir Vineyard (it belongs to Ernie Weir of Hagafen Winery, two miles up the road), with nice structure and briary fruit.

Finkelstein, who’s pretty quiet as we taste, offers bon mots of encouragement along the way, advising us to, from the four options, “figure out what you like best and then figure out the blends.” He just wants everyone to have fun and to challenge their own palates.

After tasting and some discussion, we each offer up our first blend, with enough blended for everybody to try. My first effort is an 85 percent Weir Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon with 10 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. Everyone seems to like it out of the gate, but I’m toying with the idea of a similar blend with just a touch less of the Cabernet Franc.

The Seattle couple has gone in an entirely different direction, making a 75 percent Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon with 25 percent Merlot. It has nice, fruity overtones and grippy tannins that, Finkelstein counsels, should mellow with time. “When do you plan to drink the wine?” he asks, an important element of deciding what to make.

We move on. The honeymooners, who seem to really know and appreciate California wine, have concocted a blend similar to mine, using 80 percent Weir, 15 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc.

They’re not sure they like it, and Finkelstein mentions they might bump up the Merlot and remove the Cabernet Franc. They think about it and make their second blend 80 percent Weir Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Merlot. Still not there. Finkelstein advises them to switch to the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and see what happens.

They might have preferred the Weir on its own, he explains, but that’s precisely the magic of blending—strange things happen when different wines meet, and the Oakville in the right blend might taste even better than it did on its own. That advice actually spurs me to go counterintuitive, concocting my final blend of 80 percent Cabernet Franc, 10 percent Weir Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. I tell my Seattle neighbor, “You’re going to hate this.” And he does.

Finkelstein reiterates his notion of sometimes going against your first instincts later, after each us has probably blended about four or five different tries, just before we move into the Judd’s Hill cellar to siphon, bottle, cork, foil and label our final creations.

“More often than not, people end up switching to the varietal they thought they didn’t like,” he says. “I love it when that happens.”

Ravenswood Winery

Blend Your Own “No Wimpy Wine”
Two-hour sessions (or by appointment)
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.
$50 per person (reservations required)
18701 Gehricke Rd., Sonoma
(888) 669-4679  •

Of course Ravenswood has always been known for doing things differently and, yes, for its no wimpy wines—particularly its suite of astounding single-vineyard Zinfandels. So it’s no surprise that a blending session at the Sonoma winery would feel like something completely different.

The main difference is that here, you can forget about those all-important Bordeaux varietals, the Cabernet Sauvignons, the Merlots, the Petit Verdots. Instead, when you sit down at a big round table laid out in the winery’s cellar just below master winemaker Joel Peterson’s office, it’s all about the unusual.

Wine educator Peter Griffith will put together these blending sessions for anywhere from two to 50 people, many of them corporate groups looking to bond over something other than ropes courses (Contact him at Griffith makes for a good host, casual but knowledgeable, skilled at gently goading participants to try new things.

At each place setting are four glasses, three with wine and one awaiting each blend. Griffith also provides a worksheet where he describes blending as “using the strengths of each varietal to create a balanced mouthfeel.”

Under “goal,” he writes (quite characteristically as you get to know him), “to create a wine that you really like.” How hard can that be?

We all start with Zinfandel, not surprisingly, pulled from the 2007 vintage. The group reflects on its bright, red raspberry and ripe strawberry notes, as well as its bits of spice, vanilla and olives. It has good tannins, but really it’s the fruit that we like, and the wine’s not too heavy.

Next is Carignane, which Griffith has even spelled out for us in the worksheet as “pronounced Karen-yawn.” An old-world grape grown in large quantities in places like Spain and parts of the Rhone Valley, it’s often used as a complement to Zinfandel but is rarely found, at least around here, on its own. Few people around the table know it; many aren’t sure they like it.

Griffith advises us to use the Carignane, which he describes as having a slightly spritzy quality about it on the tongue, to increase acidity which, he also notes, gives us a bright, lively sensation, adding that a wine lacking in acid may be weak and watery—and who wants that? Last, there’s Petite Sirah, another usual suspect in the Zinfandel blending world, a mouth-puckering wine that most definitely adds color, structure and tannins—and not everybody’s a fan.

Griffith’s guiding force encourages us all to vary the amounts of each wine to suit our personal taste, and reminds that this is our wine (we’ll each get to take home a 375mL bottle), to have fun and to try as many blends as we like.

My final? Mostly Zinfandel with a healthy 15 percent Carignane and 5 percent Petite Sirah. The half bottle is then assembled, corked, dipped in hot black wax and labeled, ready to take home.

“There’s no test,” Griffith adds, “have fun.”



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