Kenny Kahn and Graduated Cylinders, in Baby Blue, of Course
The Blue Rock Chronicles is my year-long journey, in residence, with Blue Rock Vineyard in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley. Recently, I had the great privilege of sitting in, and joining, the blending of Blue Rock's most popular wine, Baby Blue. My favorite part of being a wine merchant, for many years, was the opportunity to taste so many finished wines upon their releases. Now, after the many thousands of prêt à boire products I have tried, for which I believed many could have been better with my professional input, I was getting my chance to put my money where my mouth is.
Well, let's just say, not only was I bad, I would have likely ruined Baby Blue, and the winery's reputation had I been given the final say in the blend. Gut instincts, guesses, and my long-held beliefs as to which varieties of grapes contribute which characteristics to a wine, were summarily dismissed for real chemistry, mastery of phenolics, and years of blending practice. What do I mean by this? It takes experience, knowledge, and the ability to thin-slice where a wine comes from, in order to know where it will finish (pun intended). In other words, blending wine is a job for professionals.
Great wines are made in the vineyard, is one of the most commonly heard adages in the wine biz. I think this statement, while true in the sense that poor grapes never make great wine, is mostly marketing. It is promulgated to the public via Sommeliers, retailers, and the media in part to cultivate a pervasive ideology of farm to table. The notion that the farmer is the gatekeeper to great wines has attained almost myth status in the industry. I believe great wine is "made" in great wineries. A vineyard can produce grapes sent Fedex from heaven, but if the associated winery is unclean, the winemaker is reckless, and the fermenting conditions are less than ideal, these grapes will yield a crap wine. Great wine is a symbiosis of farm, and skill. A hardy vineyard must deliver its yield to an equally healthy winery. After the harvest, and even after the fruit becomes wine, this is where a new game becomes afoot. How a wine is finished is very similar to a chef plating food. A professional cook uses finishing salts, careful garnishes, and sauces to deliver something visually appealing, and with complex flavors. A great winemaker makes incremental decisions, during blending, in order to determine balance, acidity levels, richness, and mouthfeel. It is this stage, that I experienced blending Baby Blue. This is a final hurdle that either makes or breaks a wine.
Meet Miro Tchalokov, Blue Rock's consulting winemaker. Miro hails from Bulgaria, and learned winemaking and viticulture at one of Eastern Europe's most important universities for agriculture. Under the radar, which is how he appears to like it, he quietly makes excellent wines at Trentadue winery, and consults on several others, including Blue Rock. In one evening, sitting and tasting with Miro, I learned more about the craft of winemaking than in all of the winery visits, research, and personal experiences I have had. Kenny and Miro are a wonderful juxtaposition of dreamer to pragmatist, yet they are both artistically inclined. Miro would add a little of the merlot, I would expect one outcome, it would be another, a better one. Kenny would suggest some of the vineyard cab, I would be sure it would be too much, it would be perfect. I would offer a suggestion here and there, Miro would humor me, and watch my face sink as the suggestion proved to be fruitless. We were, after all, blending Baby Blue. Blue Rock's most successful wine may have come about from a happy accident, after a challenging vintage for the reserve wines, but now it has a life of its own. It is a fan favorite, a great value in California wine of this ilk, and made by the deft hands of dedicated artisans. Sixteen years I spent tasting wines for a living. I can tell you very quickly where a wine is from, its relative makeup, and its age. However, I have no idea how to blend an unfinished wine. I am so glad these guys do, and that they paid me no real mind, other than to show me so many things I did not know, and likely never will know, at least not like they do. The 2013 vintage of Baby Blue will be outstanding, because Blue Rock is an excellent winery, that happens to grow beautiful fruit, and they have some serious winemaking firepower. Luckily for them, and for Blue Rock clients, they kept my blending input on the periphery. This certainly must have given Miro and Kenny a modicum of self-satisfaction, and a little touch of, "take that wine Mr Wine Professional."
Stay tuned, as next time, as I experience southern hospitality, at a Northern California wine lunch.