Blend: A New Kind of Wine Event
September 3, 2010 by Doug Haugen
Jamie Peha is doing it again. Or, rather, she’s doing something that she hasn’t done before. Or, more precisely, she’s doing something that no one has done before. But, doing what nobody has ever done is what Jamie Peha always does, and we’ve come to expect nothing less from her. I mean, if I were to tell you that Stephen Hawking just made a new discovery and published a theory about how all the tiny bits of matter in the universe play together at recess, you’d rush, I’m sure, to read the details of his groundbreaking (spacebreaking?) idea, but not before an initial, natural shrug of the shoulders mumbling, “Well, of course he did.” So we’ll stick with our original thesis statement and suffice it to say that Jamie Peha is doing it again. Capisce?
This may sound like a wholehearted endorsement of Jamie Peha as if she were a candidate in a local or national election. (“Peha for Prez!” does have a nice ring to it.) Maybe it is, but it’s not unqualified. I’m reminded of the Hair Club for Men commercials, “I’m not just the president of Hair Club for Men, I’m also a client.” Well, we’re not just big fans of the magnificent food and wine events that Peha dreams up and cobbles together; as a matter of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that our enthusiasm has led us to take up our post as media sponsors for damn-near every event she’s done since we met her last year, such as the Seattle Food & Wine Experience, Merlot Gone Mad and Wine Rocks. And “Blend,” on September 12, is no exception.
I sat down with Jamie Peha recently to shoot the breeze and drink some vino. We met at Sixth Avenue Wine Seller in downtown Seattle, and shared a bottle of Sparkman Cellars 2007 Wilderness Red Blend, a delicious and smooth blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon–a kitchen-sink wine, if the kitchen is in Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace.
That’s when she started telling me all about Blend.
It’s been said that a winemaker’s talent is proven with blends. As easy as it is for us to pop into our local wine shop and pick up a single-varietal bottle of juice to go with dinner that night, it’s just as simple (comparatively) for a winemaker to produce them. That’s not to say it’s easy; there’s still much brow-furrowing, sleepless nights and unrelenting anxiety that a vintage will live through adolescence and find a well-balanced maturity in the glass. But, blending takes it a step further. To perhaps take the parenting metaphor a bit past its usefulness, it’s not just making sure the kids get their homework done before putting them on a bus to public school; it’s volunteering at the school, going to PTA meetings, writing the curriculum and weighing in on the little yard-apes that your kids associate with at recess.
The art of blending is like genetic engineering in that winemakers try to Frankenstein together one gorgeous wine out of the best parts of others. We’ll add this one for structure, this one for acidity, this one for color, this one for mouthfeel, this one for the fun of it…the possibilities are endless. By selecting the wines that will pony up at the table with the biggest ante, winemakers hope to build a wine with the biggest payoff.
I asked some winemakers once–innocently, I maintain–if they blended wines to compensate for flaws in any of the components. The immediate answer was a predictable collective gasp of shock and indignation. The short answer is “no.” The philosophy behind blending wines is to add greatness, not mitigate deficiencies–to build a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Fair enough.
If blends are superior wines, then why aren’t all wines blended? Well, actually, they are. It’s harder than you might think to find a wine that is made from 100% of a single varietal. A bottle has to contain only 75% of a varietal to bear that grapes name on the label, which leaves winemakers to play around with the other 25% in order to achieve all the characteristics they’re looking for in a wine (for example, Syrah is typically co-fermented with Viognier).
To venture much beyond that 25% is, in my estimation, a pretty ballsy move, because unless it’s a classic “Bordeaux blend,” it loses recognizability on the shelf. For shoppers, picking a “Syrah” that’s only 75% Syrah is still pretty safe–it’s going to taste like a really good Syrah (or a bad one if you’re unlucky). The ability to label a wine as “Merlot,” even if there’s a little Cabernet Sauvignon in the mix, makes the wine easier to sell to those who are looking for a Merlot, and the wine, for the most part, is going to taste like Merlot. But, picking up a bottle of “Madrona” by Camaraderie Cellars, for example (a quirky and tasty blend of Dolcetto, Syrah and Merlot), is riskier, because you really don’t know what to expect or if it’s what you’re in the mood for.
So, how do you find the blends that you’re going to love if you’re not the adventurous type that’s willing to drop thirty bucks every other day to try out a new one? That’s where Jamie Peha’s Blend event comes in.
Wine events tend to be themed, mostly by place, time or the crowd it’s marketing to. Those that focus on themed wines tend to showcase a certain varietal, such as Merlot Gone Mad, The Riesling Rendezvous and others. Blend, however, is the first event I’m aware of that sings the praises exclusively of wine blends.
On September 12, you’ll have the opportunity to sip and sup for three and a half hours at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center, enjoying “the world’s best wine blends” from over forty top producers alongside tantalizing, signature nosh from the menus of Columbia Hospitality’s hotels, inns and conference centers. But, of course, there’s more.
“Whenever I do an event,” Jamie Peha told me, “I like to have some kind of educational component. I think the wineries, too, want to impart education on people. That’s what they’re doing in the tasting rooms, and this is another way to do it.” The educational component comes in the form of two seminars prior to the blend-binge.
The first, hosted by Chateau Ste. Michelle, will take you through juice from the winery’s small wine lots and different wine tiers (Artist, Ethos, Single Vineyard, Vintage Reserve, and Columbia Valley). Then, you’ll participate in “American Idol” rounds where you’ll taste through the wine lots, then blends from each tier to get to the final blend masterpieces.
The second seminar is a hands-on blending session, where you can take the five Bordeaux varietals (Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec) into your own hands, and concoct wine blends to suit your own palate, while the pros guide you through some of the secrets of blending.
As the idea for Blend was fermenting, Jamie Peha interviewed Hillary Sjolund from DiStefano Winery on her radio show Table Talk, and asked her about blends. Hillary’s response was how much winemakers love to blend. It’s their creative outlet, allowing them to artistically express themselves. As she began to canvas others in the industry about blending, responses were much the same from the likes of Annette Bergevin of Bergevin Lane, Chris Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars (“everything’s a blend one way or another”), Brian Carter of Brian Carter Cellars and others, and all of them said in their own way what Peha paraphrased as, “it’s like taking your paint brush out and being able to paint the picture that you want to paint, and to try all these different levels and tastes and mix them and match them.” There was a consensus that it’s the most fun part of being a winemaker.
With the product of that much artistic enthusiasm concentrated in one room, Blend is sure to be a highlight of the season, if not the year. And, net proceeds will benefit the Washington Wine Industry Foundation. Be sure to get your tickets right away. We’ll see you there.