Meet wine blending
Putting more than one grape varietal in a bottle is a hallowed tradition in the wine-making world, but civilian drinkers are increasingly being given the chance to devise their own signature blends.
Learn its backstory
In the 1940s, when California winemakers feared their product lacked gravitas, travel writer Frank Schoonmaker had an idea: If they labeled their wines according to grape type, instead of naming them after the West Coast estates on which they were grown, they’d get more respect. And so for decades, California issued Cabernets and Chardonnays, even if the main varietal accounted for just 51 percent of the mix.
But in the 1970s, Californians realized that centuries-old French and Italian blending practices could produce better-tasting wines, especially when a particular vintage needed mellowing or spicing up. Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1974 released Insignia, the state’s first Bordeaux blend with a fancy-sounding name. A few years later, Robert Mondavi developed Opus One.
Wine blending may have originated in Europe, but in recent years, it’s been practiced in a uniquely American way: By amateurs. Blending is the most personal and predictable stage of the wine-making process, so the activity is popular with wine lovers who don’t want to invest in a vineyard or defer to other people’s tastes.
At the high end, wine fans are paying $25,000 to fly to France and customize wines with guidance from Bordeaux growers; as the New York Times last summer reported, “It sounds a bit like Build-a-Bear for oenophiles.”
Toward the more affordable end of the travel spectrum, Holland America last year installed a dedicated blending workroom on one of its cruise ships. People are also whipping up wine recipes in restaurants, bars and classrooms.
Since the personal blending boom began, significance of varietal names has waned so dramatically that Cambridge Consultants in November introduced a device designed to “enable non-specialists to create their own bespoke wine blends ‘on the fly.’” Drinkers, or the bartenders assisting them, are supposed to manipulate three touch-screen sliders that run from light to full-bodied, mellow to fiery and sweet to dry. The machine then determines how much Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz and Muscat to put in customer’s glass.
And order it here
At press time, there were tickets remaining to The Wine Foundry’s wine blending seminar at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. The two-hour class costs $125; it begins Thursday at noon. For more information, visit charlestonwineandfood.com.
And if you’re shut out of the session, Grand Bohemian Hotel Charleston offers a 90-minute wine blending class at 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday. The fee is $75. For more information, visit grandbohemiancharleston.com.
— Hanna Raskin