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Wine Blending @ El Gaucho


Monday night I participated in a new type of event being offered at El Gaucho in Seattle.  In my quest to learn more about wine I attended a "Wine Components" class.  As we arrived we were presented with a glass of sparkling wine and had access to light appetizers.  Most people moved directly to a place at a table, some taking time to mingle first.  After 15 or 20 minutes of settling in the program began. 
The program was produced by team of players: El Gaucho, of course; Spring Valley Vineyard, which is actually managed and owned by Ste. Michelle; Ste. Michelle; and Esquin Wine Merchants
The winemaker from Spring Valley Winery, Serge Laville, brought in four single varietal wines (the components) that are used in some of their blends. He gave us some background on what a winemaker thinks about and looks for when blending wines, we tasted through the components, and then we started producing our own blends.  Each place setting had four varietals:  Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.  All were Spring Valley’s 2007 wines.  We also had a plastic pipette, marked in 1 mm increments, to use for measuring and blending the wines. 
I was sitting with a great group of people.  Across from me were two principals from a new winery, Watermark Cellar (not yet on the market); next to me was Arnie Millan from Esquin; and next to Arnie was the Spring Valley winemaker, Serge.  So besides the formal presentation there was a lot of interesting table talk. 

We all began sniffing and tasting, measuring and mixing, working to get the flavor, structure and complexity we preferred.  It was interesting to see what different people came up with.  I can’t say that I created anything extraordinary but I sure had fun trying!  And it was informative to see what other people did and how they approached the exercise.  My feeling that wine-making is much like cooking was reinforced.  With experience you can imagine how different foods will taste when blended or presented together.  When you cook you make slight adjustments based on the specific properties of the foods being used that day.  For instance, herbs vary in intensity based on what time of year they were picked, how much rain there has been and maybe even the place they were grown.  So you need to take that into account and balance the actual flavor with the sort of flavor profile that is in your head. 
Wine blending follows similar principals.  If you use grapes from the same vineyards each year I think the winemaker will end up with a basic understanding about each varietal from specific vineyards but, as we all know, there can be wide swings in what you actually end up with based on weather and other factors.  I think many people think that wine-making is a challenge but really wine blending is where the skill of a winemaker becomes known as they balance the wines each year based on the nuances that are indicative of that growing season. 

At other points during the evening Serge talked about topics such as the challenge of using the components to get the desired taste profile, yet having to balance that with the amounts of each wine available for blending.  For instance of the varietals we were working with the winery had different amounts to draw from when blending, there were 100 barrels of Merlot available but only 6 or 7 barrels of the Petit Verdot and Malbec. He talked about how wine-making really begins in the vineyard with the setup and location of the vineyard, how you treat the grapes, and when you pick them. I believe Serge’s view was that 80% of wine-making actually takes place in the vineyard. He also talked about their blending process, the timeline and the players involved in Spring Valley’s process.  
After we had the chance to create a few different blends, Serge asked the group some questions and talked to the different tables.  We finished the evening by enjoying two of Spring Valley’s wines, Frederick and Uriah and had a chance to order (at a discount) Spring Valley Vineyard wines from Esquin.
It was a very enjoyable and informative evening.  I’ve signed up for the next event on September 18th. That night, Northstar, another Ste. Michelle property will be presenting.  I’ll see if I can apply what I learned on Monday along with whatever new nuggets I learn that night.  Maybe my blending skills will improve! Or not.  

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