Blending. The Dark Art. I think you could go your whole life and not really master it. Which makes sense since art is like that; perfection is unattainable.
During blending trials you’re always worried: Am I capturing the best of this vintage? Or am I covering up distinctiveness? Am I using enough of my juice to make this financially viable? Would this clone have been better with another barrel? Can I beef this one up with some press fractions? Can I lean this one out with some early pick free run?
The options and combinations, assuming you have more than a few lots and more than a few barrels, can be nearly endless. It’s fun – but daunting.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to head over to Freeman Winery and taste some sample blends with Keefer Ranch winemaker Craig Strehlow.
Keefer Ranch has, in the past 25 years, become known as one of the very best vineyards for Russian River Pinot and Chard. Marcy Keefer, Craig’s mom, sells her 30 acres of pinot and 20 acres of Chard to folks like Siduri, Kosta Browne, Freeman and Failla. You know, decent brands.
A few years back in 2006 they unveiled their own Keefer Ranch label. You can read a Wine Spectator article profiling them (and scoring the wine 90 points) on their site here.
The blends I tasted were from juice barreled down in ’08. Craig’s style as winemaker is restrained and elegant. On the nose and palate the fruit is red and pure but, unlike a lot of Russian River pinot, it is picked a little earlier and acid and freshness is a huge part of its appeal.
Clones include Swan, Dijon 115 and Pommard 4 barreled down mostly in Cadus, Remond and D&J. Total production for ’08 will be around 300 cases.
We tasted each wine in barrel separately, noting the differences that each clone and barrel gave. The Swan clone was savory, and the Pom 4 was packed with fruit and surprisingly floral. The 115 was picked later than the rest. Craig thought it was a little flabby, but I thought it was delicious. Keep in mind that he keeps his pH around 3.45 whereas most CA pinots live in the 3.6 – 3.7 range. So his definition of “flabby” may be different from yours or mine.
When we finished with the barrel samples, we dove into the blends.
We started with a blend of equal parts of all the free run barrels. It was really good stuff. Laser-like, precise aromas and flavors with a good long finish. But Craig didn’t have any doubt about that. He knows he’s got some awesome wine.
The challenge was that he had three barrels of press fractions to work with and wanted some feedback on which blend we preferred from the following:
A. Free run with just the first press fraction barrel added
B. The above with the second press fraction barrel added.
C. The above with the third press fraction barrel added.
Each barrel you reject costs about 25 cases in production, plus the oak you’ve extracted over the elevage which depreciates the not inexpensive barrels. Sometimes better can be the enemy of good. At least in terms of the bottom line.
We tasted through each of the blends and gave our opinions. By far blend A, the one with just the first press fraction, hewed closest to Craig’s style. Alan (Craig’s and my mutual friend, and the photog responsible for the iPhone shots you see here) and I both agreed that blends B and C were both delicious as well, and might even get better with some age on them. What the blends lost in terms of the floral nose would eventually come back, we reasoned, with time in bottle.
Still neither of us could argue with blend A which was amazingly pure, elegant and, as I mentioned, a perfect example of the Keefer Ranch style. Since Craig is a pretty uncompromising bugger when it comes to quality, he wasn’t at all concerned with the lost 50 cases like I might have been.
All in all, very good times. I’m looking forward to tasting the final blend soon at our monthly tasting group, The Order of Meat and Wine. If you want to try the ’07 vintage you can order a bottle or three here.
Thanks to Craig for the hospitality and the opportunity to help, and thanks also to Alan for snapping the shots for the post.