I enjoy writing about wine in part because I get to participate in the wine making process. I always find elements of beauty, discovery and ancient ritual in wine making. My story about Napa Valley wine touring appears in the March issue of Alaska Airlines Magazine, and includes a section on visiting Conn Creek Winery’s blending facility, which allows visitors to participate in the art of making wine. For those who haven’t already seen it I’ll include below:
WINEMAKER FOR A DAY
The last morning of my Napa visit, I stop in at Conn Creek Winery. After the advice I’ve heard from wine makers, I’m eager to craft my own blend, especially with cabernet, Napa Valley’s most highly regarded varietal. The winery’s AVA Room Barrel Blending Experience provides a rare opportunity to taste and blend wines from the many regions of Napa. Conn Creek’s winemaker Mike McGrath does the hard work of fermenting cabernet from all the regions of Napa including Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain, St. Helena, Stag’s Leap, Yountville and Carneros. Now I get to try my hand at blending them into a perfect bottle, a critical step in the wine-making process . I’ll play winemaker for a day and take home my own blend of cabernet.
“Today, we get to play with wine,” says Karen Trippe, the cheerful hostess at Conn Creek. “We’ll learn the blender’s craft.”
Trippe discusses the uniqueness of the Napa Valley: elevation, temperature variations, variety of soils, which together yield extremely balanced fruit. The blending room houses dozens of 60-gallon French oak barrels, each with a 2008 cabernet wine from a different district of the valley.
It’s simply too much to resist. I systematically sample every wine, from the softer, red berry fruited wines of Oakville, to the bold, ripe, tannic wines of Calistoga. The problem is I like all of them. Where to start?
“Some people want to use all of them,” advises Trippe. “But it’s like using all the crayons to draw a picture; it turns out brown.”
She advises choosing one and building from there. I love the Rutherford wine’s spicy nose, and deep, rich complex fruit, but the wine is very tannic. Trippe advises adding the Oakville sample to round out the blend.
I take out the 100 milliliter graduated cylinder and pour in half Rutherford and half Oakville. I smell and taste it. Rather than enhancing the Rutherford, the Oakville has obscured it.
I change the proportion to 80 percent Rutherford, 15 percent Oakville. Now, the Oakville sample enhances the blend. I taste and sniff. Almost there. I add a dash cabernet franc for aromatics. The blend comes alive as if someone has passed a wand over it.
“A good blend is greater than the sum of its parts,” she says. “That’s the magical part of wine making.”
I sniff the blend, savoring its intoxicating perfume. As much as I enjoy the castles, cathedrals and traditions of Europe, I’ve come under the spell of Napa. I love its friendliness and informality and the conviction that there are new wines to make and new ways to make them. After bottling my blend, I store it carefully in my luggage. I’m already thinking about when to open it and what to serve with it so I might recapture the magic of Napa I’ve enjoyed on this trip.