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More Wine Blending: One step forward, one back

23-Sep-2008
 
 
 

 
 
Last week I had my second opportunity to try my hand at wine blending.  This event was also held at El Gaucho in Seattle.  The first event featured the wines of Spring Valley Vineyard, this one the Merlots of Northstar Winery.   
 
The event was led by Joel Butler, Ste Michelle’s Director of Education.  As with Spring Valley, Northstar is owned by Ste Michelle but acts as an independent winery.  Joel had a really interesting and informative presentation about the Washington wine industry in general.  Part of the presentation was a video by meteorologist, Rich Marriott explaining how Washington’s location and weather influences are perfect for growing wine.  I sort of laughed to myself when I watched this (although I have no doubt of its accuracy) because growing up in Oregon I often heard the same sorts of information and comparisons to Old World wine regions when talking about the Willamette Valley.  Of course very different wines are made in the Columbia Valley than in the Willamette Valley so the logic still follows. 
 
There were similarities and differences in this event when compared to the first.  Some were improvements, some were not and some were just interesting variables. 
 
The first difference was that Northstar produces only Merlot and a second label called Stella Maris, which is a Bordeaux blend.  So five of our six component wines on this night were Merlots, but each was from a different vineyard and/or region.   The sixth component was Cabernet Sauvignon. 
 
Northstar actually uses up to fourteen or fifteen different components for their blends, so we were working with just a portion of their wines.  It was really interesting to taste through the components since all were from the same year and had been treated similarly (length of time on oak, etc) so you really got to see the impact of different locations on the resulting wine.  And it was interesting to see which wines others in the room preferred compared to my tastes.  No right or wrong answers, of course, just different preferences. 
 
The wines we worked with were Northstar 2005 Merlot:
      • Beverly Vineyard, Wahluke Slope
      • Andrews, Horse Heaven Hills
      • Olson Brothers, Yakima Valley
      • Northstar Estate, Walla Walla
      • Shaw Vineyard, Red Mountain

and Northstar 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Kiona Vineyard, Red Mountain.

As last time, after tasting through the wines and discussing them a bit we were left to our own devices to blend and taste and blend some more.  I actually did a much better job of blending this time and came up with two blends that I thought were pretty good – you can see my little notes in the photo above.  The 1 – 6 represents the wines as listed above and the following numbers were the number of millilitres I used for each blend.  As you can see towards the end I wasn’t quite so precise and resorted to using "splashes".  While that might work great while mixing one glass of wine, I’m not sure it would be a recommended measurement when you are responsible for blending hundreds or thousands of cases! Nevertheless, on this night it worked very well for me.   

Again towards the end of the evening we were presented with two glasses of "real" wine from Northstar.  In this case it was their 2005 Columbia Valley Merlot and their 2005 Walla Walla Merlot.

So if my wine blending skills improved from the first time, why is this post subtitled "One step forward, one back"?  Well that has to do with the event itself.  So here’s a bit of information about that. 

The room was set up differently this time, I believe that was to accomodate Joel since he had an actual presentation slide deck he was projecting.  So we were in long, rows, classroom style facing the front of the room.  While this was nice for the presentation many of the things I liked about the first event were hampered by this set up.  Joel pretty much stood in the front of the room the entire time and then left at the end.  I arrived a bit late so perhaps I missed my opportunity to speak with him prior but I had really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Serge throughout the first event.  I was lucky in that I was at his table but he spent time at every table interacting with all attendees.  The room set up for this event did not facilitate that.

Also, at the first event, while blending I had the opportunity to interact with people across from me and on either side.  For this event there was no one across from us and I missed that free flowing group conversation and comparison of our blending.  I was still able to talk with people on either side of me but when talking to one you have your back to the other which is exclusive not inclusive, unfortunately.

I really liked Joel’s more formal presentation and would like to see both a formal and informal part in future events.  Start off with the formal and then move to Serge’s type of walking around and talking style for the remainder.  

There are two things that happened both times that I wish were different.  I didn’t mention this the first time as I really thought it was a fluke but apparently not.  While a meal is not provided for the event a few appetizers are part of the offering.  The menu has been the same both times and it has seemed odd to me.  I guess you’re supposed to grab a quick bite before the blending piece actually starts but most folks carry food to their table and nibble while sipping.  Both events have featured red wines yet the appetizers have been chicken skewers, crab cakes, cheese and fruit.  The first event some of the food looked a little sad (like they’d been sitting for a while) and because of that I actually ate at the bar before the event this time.  The food looked to be in better shape but the selection just seems odd, especially since El gaucho is a steak house!

And the other thing is that at the end there doesn’t seem to be any lingering.  I don’t mean hours but just sort of a chance to finish the last "real" wines, maybe have an opportunity to speak with the presenter and then move out. I thought it was odd the first time but when it happened again this second event I tried to figure what caused it.  It might just be the people have been anxious to go but perhaps there’s something that makes them feel they need to.  I don’t know the answer to that.  

El Gaucho’s plan is to try to do more of these, although nothing is on the calendar yet.  Maybe in November, they said.  If there’s another I’d probably go again.  As I mentioned in that first post, I think wine blending is probably a lot like cooking and I still need more work to get my "ingredient" memory and internal taste database more completely populated.   

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