By David Wilson
Nearly two decades ago, I had a life-changing wine experience.
I was on the Island of St. Martin in the Caribbean with a group travelers who were enjoying an incentive trip hosted by an LA radio station. Several members of our group were partying around the pool on a picture-perfect night. Most of us were drinking wine and, because it was a middle-of-the-road resort, the wines were marginal at best. After all, we were on an island where Pina Coladas were the preferred drink.
A RECKLESS REVELATION
One member of our group had consumed a little bit too much and decided he was going to show off his diving skills. He approached the diving board (in his skivvies) with wine glass in hand and then abruptly reversed direction. Apparently, he had realized that his glass was less than half full, so he snatched a glass from another member of our group and poured it into his own. They were completely different wines and the rest of us cringed at his crass act.
As he headed back to the diving board, I muttered something about how disgusting arbitrarily mixing two wines together was. He took a sip, smiled and said, “It’s a big improvement.” He brought the glass over to me and insisted I give it a try. After much protest, I gave his concoction the smallest of sips. It was surprisingly good. In fact, it was better than what I had in my glass, which was what he had been drinking before he added the other guest’s wine. That evening was a game changer for me.
When I got home, I was overcome with the temptation to tinker with my wine. I became an amateur chemist pretty quickly; blending all kinds of different wines.
BORROWING A CHAPTER FROM THE CULINARY WORLD
I started thinking of wine from the perspective of a chef. You know… you season to taste. I started thinking carefully about the characteristics of the wines I had in my stockpile and I actually got really good at creating concoctions that were better than any of the original parts. Now, you have to remember; there wasn’t a lot of blending going on at that time. In fact, blends only represented a tiny portion of the wines available at local retailers. The whole idea of what I was doing actually made me feel a little dirty. Nonetheless, I would blend wines for dinner parties, serve them from a decanter and never disclose what my
As years passed, my confidence grew. I loved being able to blend wines from all around the globe. I don’t think any winemaker would disagree with the notion that much of the blending we do today stems from weaknesses in a particular wine. Blending can often fix those deficiencies. And the lion’s share of wine-drinking consumers don’t realize that the Cab or Syrah or Zinfandel they are drinking may contain up to 25% of other wines. If you live in wine country or are a hardcore wine enthusiast, you probably already know that little factoid. Most consumers do not.
NO NEED TO COVER UP FLAWS
So, imagine what fun you can have blending single varietal wines from around the world that are not terribly flawed. The objective here is not to improve the wines, but rather to create something new and unique.
On the other hand, if the wine you purchased is less-than-pleasurable, why not doctor it? It seems totally unnecessary to suffer through a bottle that can be improved right in your own home.
Several years ago, I was at an intimate Bordeaux blending event conducted by the head winemaker from a large volume winery in Napa. At that event, I disclosed to the winemaker that I often blend my own wines. It was the first time that I had ever admitted my indiscretion to someone from the winemaking world. His reaction was unpleasant but not unexpected. He severely chastised me and said he was appalled that I would dare blend 2 or 3 different wines without parental, (make that, expert) assistance. The truth is, I would never drink his mediocre wines, so his opinion only made me more defiant.
In my travels, I have found that most of the outstanding winemakers that I have met actually approve of, if not encourage home blending. Of course, they’re likely to be way better at it then me, but there is no right or wrong and everyone’s taste is different.
A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE FROM MICHAEL MONDAVI
The ultimate confidence builder came last year when I was invited to spend a day with Michael Mondavi. His ad agency in New York had contacted me and indicated that he listens to my radio show, Grape Encounters, which airs on a prominent news station in Santa Rosa, KSRO. I was thrilled by the opportunity and headed north a week later.
After a few hours of getting to know each other, Michael and I drifted into the topic of wine blending. I was hesitant to tell him that I regularly blend wines at home, but eventually confessed my sin and asked him whether or not I should be sent to prison. His response squelched years of guilt. He said emphatically that I should not be put in prison but rather should be put on a pedestal.
Sometimes, tinkering with wine may include adding other household ingredients. I told Michael about a bottle of Petit Verdot given to me by a winemaker friend. The wine was truly undrinkable—flabby and on its death bed—so in a last-ditch effort, I added a tiny bit of sugar to the glass. Before I could continue, Michael jumped in. “Magic happened, right? If the wine doesn’t taste good to you, adjust.” He continued, “Adding the sugar changes the whole chemical evaluation, if you will, of all those components and will take a harsh bitter wine and make it soft but not sweet. Conversely, if a wine is a little too sweet, take a few drops of lemon juice and put it in.”
I asked Michael if he really does that. With a gleam in his eye, he said, “I do that on a regular basis. Fortunately, they’re never my wines because my wines wou
ld not be in the bottle if they weren’t perfect.” He went on to tell me that he periodically asks for lemon wedges in restaurants to add acid to wines that are not acidic enough for his taste.
Michael and I also talked about an article I had read in the New York Times. The author offered up a very interesting idea: If a wine is high in alcohol, add a touch of water… less than a teaspoon per glass. According to the author, whose name escapes me, the touch of water lowers the alcohol slightly, allowing masked characteristics of the wine to come to the forefront. Generally, if you are careful not to add too much water, the wine will not taste diluted AND its best qualities will shine.
A FAMOUS FRENCH RULE-BREAKER
One winery owner who really gets it is the very flamboyant Jean-Charles Boisset, who is married to Gina Gallo. Five or six years ago, I visited Jean-Charles at his Raymond Winery in Napa; a historic winery he had recently taken over and infused with a great deal of vision. Part of that vision is very consistent with my own
Jean-Charles and his team at Raymond have a keen appreciation of the fact that no two palates are alike. Accordingly, they have created a very special and almost other-worldly facility where wine drinkers can blend different varietals in proportions that suit their taste perfectly.
It was fun to observe the intensity with which participants went about the task of creating their perfect wine. Once they had settled on a most satisfying formula, they created their own label and even bottled the wine themselves. Their recipe is stored at the winery and they can order more of their custom blend anytime they want.
Look, it’s your wine… you paid for it… and playing with it can be very liberating! Certainly, you may suffer some guilt over tinkering with a bottle of wine that was the result of so much hard work but, the truth is, everyone’s taste is different. Some people add salt and pepper to their food, while others enjoy it thoroughly just the way it is served.
I’ll leave you with this. If you feel a little daring, follow this suggested approach:
- First step… look on bottles of blended wines and see what proportions of various varietals are being blended by the pros.
- Start with wines you have already opened or purchase some inexpensive but decent wines to experiment with.
- Blend in small, carefully measure amounts and keep good notes.
- Purchase a preservation device so you don’t waste unconsumed wine.
- Serve your creation from a decanter then, if your guests rave, tell them what you did with pride.
If it doesn’t suit you perfectly, perfect it!