Daily Chronicle

Uncorked: Blending wine is more art than science

A walk through the supermarket caused Tim Jones to take notice of the products lining the shelves.

The Acrobat winemaker speculated that every aspect of every one of those items had spent time being examined by a focus group. Sales and marketing professionals want to give their product every edge possible to keep from being white noise. Packaging, color, lettering and every other nuance has to be considered.

But with wines, Jones said a winemaker is usually alone on an island or with a few trusted companions in a cellar when it comes to making a final blend. The maker of a pinot noir and pinot gris from Oregon that check in at $20, Jones knows well that there’s more art to blending than science.

“When I am tasting or blending these wines, I am thinking about what I like, and hope other people feel the same way,” Jones said. “Any other product, you jump through hoops and focus groups. We just go, ‘I like that, come along with me on this journey.’ I’m shooting for an acid and sugar balance, and usually go a little drier. Once you start with texture and build that, the aromatics come out a little easier.”

The production of a tasty, affordable blend probably won’t yield massive accolades in the wine industry. A point Jones drove home when he compared a solid wine blend to the Academy Award winners who don’t get their names called in front of an audience for a heartfelt acceptance speech clutching their Oscar.

“It’s like the Academy Awards,” Jones said. “There’s no red carpet walk for the winners in the sound production category. But you need their skills to make a movie. Just to make a blend from Oregon is a challenge.”

It’s an intricate process that starts with harvest, and extends well into the cellar. He wants to have an acid and sugar balance at the start. But even that can be swayed by harvest-time rains, which are not an anomaly in Oregon. Sometimes the decision to harvest is made for Jones by Mother Nature.

Even the most steadfast Oregon winemaker determined to wait out the rain has a breaking point. That’s when he goes deep and works as many blending possibilities as possible in the cellar.

“I wormhole a lot,” Jones said. “When I am working on blends, it starts from the beginning and goes all the way to the picking decisions. I try to get a sense of the ripeness. In some ways with Oregon rains coming, you try to avoid catastrophe.”

In the Sta. Rita Hills, The Hilt winemaker Matt Dees knows about rough and tumble weather. Miles from the ocean and in the southwest corner of the appellation, he said the nights in winter are “cold as ice.” The spring and summer don’t seem to warm up much either, as it would be hard to ever put away a heavy coat in the area’s famous refrigerated sunshine.

While The Hilt makes single-vineyard bottlings, it’s the estate chardonnay that is a masterful representation of the varietal and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

“Estate chardonnay is the beauty of blending,” Dees said. “While I love site-specific wines and zooming in with the microscope on a certain part of the vineyard, for me the joy and ultimate beauty of the estate wine is north, south, west and east slopes blended with tiny heritage clones and Dijon clones. We take intensity, nuance, load and soft voice, and mix them together. Nothing dominates, but everything is in harmony.”

For Dees, there’s an art form to blending. Like a classic jazz ensemble, everyone has to know their part to complete the sound. If the joy in jazz is the pauses between the notes, then Dees has a tedious task when it comes to gathering his thoughts on how the wine should taste.

“Blending is one of the great joys in the world – the great jazz odyssey,” Dees said. “The physical act is one of the most miserable things in the world. We do it on a barrel-by-barrel basis. That’s 200 barrels all screeching, just vibrant and squeaky and focused and pure.

“It’s like blending base wine in Champagne. It’s so difficult because the wine attacks your teeth, gums and head. You get a blending headache, but the glory as you pull back the curtain is it’s all shades of chardonnay. There’s no defining color and you can add nuance.”

He stuck with music to further the analogy.

“It’s like an orchestra that has all the extra violins in the strings section,” Dees said. “The tune doesn’t change, but amplification, vibration and sensation change.”

To get the proper blend, Aperture Cellars winemaker Jesse Katz labors as well.

Aperture Cellars Red Blend 2019 ($55) is 40% malbec, 32% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon, 10% cabernet franc and 4% petite verdot. There’s concentrated black fruit, dark chocolate, cinnamon stick and anise flavors with smooth, velvety tannins.

Katz has been a stalwart champion of malbec, but turned to some of its Bordeaux varietal mates to dial up a New World classic blend.

“Sometimes, it can take over 40 different iterations of the blend from start to finish before we make our final blend with the one goal of making the best wine from the vintage,” Katz said. “We do not pigeonhole ourselves with what has been done in the past, and like showing vintage variation.”

As growing seasons continue to see temperatures increase and last longer than before, Katz said Sonoma is primed to showcase Bordeaux blends.

“I think making New World Bordeaux wines also requires being forward-thinking,” Katz said. “As rising temperatures and drier seasons have continued to shift the climate and grape ripeness in Northern California, I believe, more than ever, that parts of Sonoma have the opportunity to make some of the best Bordeaux-style wines in the world.

“There’s exquisite balance and restraint that Sonoma’s slightly cooler-climate regions for Bordeaux varietals can provide, and it’s my mission to seek out the best soils to pair with this very attractive climate to unlock their ultimate potential,” Katz said. “We look at each vineyard and block individually, and adapt our aggressive farming style to match each site, trying to retain balance, texture and natural acidity in each site. This gives us a lot of different textures, aromatics and array of flavors to blend from.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.