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On the art of blending



The new book The Winemaker’s Hand, which contains interviews of winemakers, is a testament to the art of blending. “Blending is very intuitive…it’s neither linear nor logical,” Cathy Corison tells author Natalie Berkowitz, adding, “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B.” Her fellow Napan, Bill Dyer, refers to the “hunches and perceptions” involved in winemaking: “Dawnine [his wife] and I are quite competent at blending,” which he calls “an essential part” of making wine.

Just how essential and intuitive blending is, is rarely appreciated by the public, but winemakers know it’s at least as important as anything else they do, and in the long run, maybe more so. The entire yield of a vineyard never ends up in the final bottling, at least at a top winery. The winemaker must blend for consistency with house style and also to produce the best wine she can from the vintage, while remaining true to the terroir. That can entail tasting through an enormous range of individual lots, some as small as a single barrel. It’s tedious work, but necessary, and, if you’re of the right mindset, terrific fun.

So when Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek, invited me to blend Sauvignon Blanc with her, I jumped at the chance. She was looking to assemble the final blends on three of her wines: the Bennett Valley bottling, the Helena Bench wine from Knights Valley, and the top-tier Journey. So Gus and I drove up early last week from Oakland and spent the most delightful day playing with dozens of samples.



When I say “playing” I use the word intentionally. There is something of the kid playing with toys; although it’s serious business, personally it has its roots in the little girl trying different outfits on her doll or the little boy who’s plugging Legos together. (Blending also brings to mind the playful tinkering of a chef developing a new dish.) Try this, try that, what do you think, how does it taste, how about this and that, with a little more of that, a little less of this, let’s put in a drop of C and see what happens… There’s no way not to think of this behavior as play for adults. But there’s always intentionality behind it.

The idea, as Cathy Corison suggested with “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B,” is that the sum of A plus B can be more than either A alone or B alone; the mixture is greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, sometimes A plus B is less than A plus B. It’s difficult if not impossible to know, in advance, how the alchemy will work out, so almost every possibility has to be tried before you can know what works and what doesn’t. This means the process is arduous. But it’s the tedium of pleasure, of discovery, of the gold miner willing to plod through tons of ore because any moment now the big nugget might appear.



We—Marcia and I—put together what I think is a marvelous Helena Bench and Bennett Valley. We preserved the terroir of both—the latter being cooler than the former, it has a different fruit-acid profile. (Journey will have to wait for a later date.) Of course, our blends may not be the final ones, but I do think they will in large part constitute them. When we finally hit the nail on the head, after all that trial and error, it was like, “Yes!” Fist bumps, high fives all around—both Marcia and I glowed with pleasure. We had taken raw materials, some better than others, but no one of them anywhere near perfect—and through admixture, come up with something that never existed before, something Mother Nature by herself could not have accomplished, because it required hands, brains, experience, esthetic vision and hard work to achieve. But after all that work, you’re hungry! So we went down to the Jimtown Store.

* * *

Off to Southern California and Arizona for the week. I’ll be blogging from the road, so you never know what will turn up!

  1. Steve,

    Tim Mondavi famously observed in an interview once that it took him something like sampling 15 discrete blending components before his palate was ready to make critical judgments about crafting a Mondavi wine.

    How did you “warm up” your Sauvignon Blanc palate?

    Additionally: what brand/model of wine glasses did you use as a blending reference tool?


  2. Bob Henry says:

    A shout-out to Bill and Dawnine:

    What is your methodology for crafting a blend?

    How do you “warm up” your palate?

    What brand/model wine glass do you employ as a blending tool?

    (As reviewers, both Parker and Laube champion the French-made Impitoyable Taster wine judging glass — an almost 40 year old design.


  3. redmond barry says:

    THAT is a cool perk. Can’t wait to taste the Steve! selections.

  4. Bob Henry:

    Concerning the Impitoyable glass: I ran across it in the 80’s in Burgundy and brought back a few. What I found was it exaggerates aromas versus other glasses. I did not like it as a tool in evaluating components for blending as it really skewed the aromas in a direction that was not necessarily what would be available in the blend. It was an amplifier. I used it to find defects; e.g. borderline sulfide compounds that I might have missed became obvious with it, but iI would not use that glass to sip a wine and understand its totality and integration.

    Concerning warming up: I alway like to taste through the components before getting down to blending, but really, one has do that just to get oriented. For me, blending is best done first thing in the morning, after just a piece of toast. At the risk of too much information, I don’t even brush my teeth prior, as that is hugely disruptive.

    As to methodology for crafting, I might save that for another discourse, but certainly it has parallels to cooking: sometimes we look for mysterious synergies, sometimes dialing characters up or down, sometimes layering complexities. So far I am referring to what blending is in the best sense, but of course as a technique it can be used in a blunter sense: stretching something good, or diverting attention from something bad. Aesthetics 101 workshop…

  5. I just got back from a “listening party” for a friend who is finishing up an album. It reminded me of this blog post

  6. Bill Dyer:

    No, not “too much information” for me. I appreciate the granularity of your reply.

    I’ve read of M.S. and M.W. candidates using Sancerre (Blanc) instead of mouthwash or toothpaste in the morning just to “imprint” that memory.

    An excerpt from Michael Broadbent’s
    “Pocket Guide to Winetasting:
    How to Approach and Appreciate Wine”
    (Sixth Edition, copyright 1995):

    “When to Taste”

    “The best time for doing anything constructive and creative is when the mental and physical states are freshest. This, for most people (whether they appreciate it or not) is in the morning. It is said, incidentally, that the palate is sharpened by hunger, which would indicate the benefits of pre-luncheon tasting sessions.

    “In point of fact, the majority of wine trade tastings are held in the morning. The most quiet and business-like tastings may be held around 10 AM, possibly at noon. Tastings to which trade or private customers are invited usually begin around 11:30 and may end with a buffet or light luncheon, during the course of which selected wines are shown off against appropriate food. (It is not without significance that the simpler and more wholesome the repast, the better the wines show; there are fewer distractions of flavour. For example, simple cold roast beef and mild English cheeses provide the most perfect foil for good French reds.)”

  7. Bob Henry:

    I am totally persuaded to go with Sancerre as morning prep…

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