DRINK – Play Winemaker for a Day

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Conn Creek Winey in Napa Valley has a cool program where you get hands-on experience blending wine. It takes place it their AVA Room (American Viticulture Areas), where you step into the role of winemaker as you sample 15 single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines straight from the barrel. These 15 wines are all from the 15 appellations, or wine growing regions, that are in the Napa Valley. Conn Creek uses many of them for its signature Cab blend, Anthology. Blending is a critical tool in the winemaker’s toolbox, because often a blend will turn out to be way better than a single vineyard wine.
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These barrels are grouped according to flavor and body, going from soft and light to big and bold. As I taste and make notes, a few favorites pop out. Once I’d decided on the Cab components, I still had more decisions to make. One is choosing a blending wine to add spice. The “spice rack” wines are Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. I decide to use Merlot and Cab Franc. I asked why wouldn’t you use all 15 base wines, and the answer was that it would be like using all 64 crayons in the big box — you would end up with black. I certainly don’t want a black, muddy wine. What I chose instead:

Conn Creek Rutherford estate: Love the big nose, juicy finish and silky texture [Supple]
Volker Estate Chiles Valley: So good! Floral nose, well-balanced, excellent [Complex]
Stagecoach Vineyard Atlas Peak: Nice complex nose, soft tannins [Complex]
Frediani Vineyard Calistoga: Ohh the nose is wonderful, brambles, cassis, black fruits, chocolate [Bold]
Merlot: Velvety
Cabernet Franc: Lovely floral nose

The next decision is how much of each wine to put into the blend. This is trial and error time. I went with the wines I liked the most in bigger percentages.

30% – Chiles Valley
30% – Stagecoach
15% – Conn Creek Estate
15% – Frediani
5% – Merlot
5% – Cab Franc

You add wines to a graduated cylinder, and then once you have 100% you dump the wine into a glass, then swirl, sniff and sip. Well, my blend wasn’t as good as I thought it would be. It was a little too fruity and that made it seem sweet.  While there is a wine educator on hand for the blending experience, the idea is really for you to do it on your own.  But I was happy that Conn Creek’s winemaker, Mike McGrath, dropped by.  He tasted my wine and immediately knew what was missing. Richness, in the form of earthy. He suggested adding some of the Newton Vineyard Mt. Veeder [Rich]. So I reworked my blend. Still not there. Now it was missing acid. I added a very small amount of Truchard Vineyard from Carneros [Soft] and it was amazing to me that it instantly made my blend taste really good. It’s like a light bulb went on. This blending is an art, and much harder than I expected. Here’s the “recipe” for my final blend:

20% – Chiles Valley
20% – Stagecoach
10% -Conn Creek Estate
15% – Frediani
5% – Merlot
5% – Cab Franc

Plus new additions:
5% – Truchard
15% – Mt. Veeder
5% – Petit Verdot

Now that I had my blend down, it was time to design the label. I’m no artist, so I went very simple — rolling hills and a sun. Once that’s done, you fill the bottle, cork it and slap on the label. That’s it — a bottle of wine you can take home to enjoy with friends and family.
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Last, but not least, you get to taste Conn Creek’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon blend, Anthology and you can compare your results to the pro winemakers. Turns out the blend for the current Anthology is 76% Cab, 10% Merlot, 8% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Cab Franc. I didn’t get the breakdown of the Cabs blended — after all that’s their “secret sauce.”
Anthology is powerful yet smooth and rich.

When I got home, my husband wanted to taste the wine immediately, but we had to wait at least 40 days to let the wine settle and go through bottle shock. So he tracked it on his calendar. On day 41 he wanted to open it, but the dinner I had made wouldn’t be a good match. A few weeks later I was ready; we popped the cork. I was a little worried the wine wouldn’t be any good, so I was pleasantly surprised by the floral nose with a hint of vanilla. There was lots of dark red fruit, a little tobacco and mint. The tannins were there, but they were soft. I was happy with my wine.  And I want to do it all again!
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Taking part in the blending experience at Conn Creek really shows that there is an art and a skill to blending wine. It also shows the diversity of Cabernet grown in Napa Valley — there is not a uniform taste or character. That in turn shows the influence of terroir on the grape. Being a winemaker for a day is a lot of fun, and its an activity you can share with friends or family.

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