JULY 2010: Cass Wine Club Blending Party – We Are the Champions!
We had so much fun at this event last year, despite our blend not winning, that the minute Cass picked a date for their 3rd Annual Club Member Blending Party we marked it on our calendar. This is one of those wine experiences that delivers a perspective most wine drinkers never/rarely think about – how much time and effort goes into the final blend. While it's not exactly hard work – no one's going to cry for a winemaker having to drink wine all day to discern each barrels unique properties – it is a type of science, knowing how each wine will interact with the others to bring out the best in all of them. While not rocket science, it does involve math, precision and steady hands. And, in the real world, a lot of heavy lifting. To make it easy on us, we only had 4 wines to play with: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah all from their 2009 vintage.
This year we enlisted some friends and friends of friends to be at our table. Except for everyone's love of Cass wines, we really had no idea of their wine drinking histories or preferences. What mattered the most to me was their desire to win. Sure, it's petty and as long as the final blend is delicious we all come out winners, but I knew there was a good chance we could take the top spot. We had some competition in the room, a few others who had been there the previous year (including the winner), and believe me experience counts. We learned the hard way how time, i.e. oxygen, effects your blend in an open bottle while everyone in the room is waiting to taste it. Ours fell a bit flat on the finish, while the winning table, who added a bit more Petite Sirah to their blend, which gave it that needed weight, took home the honors. After tasting through all the wines with winemaker Lood Kotze, to see what each variety would/could bring to our blend, we set to work.
Having 8 people at our table, we made 4 initial attempts – two syrah-based and two mourvedre-based. We again were only allowed to use up to 10% Petite Sirah and their Grenache is so light, it would be overwhelmed if it was at the center of the blend. After the first round, it became clear that the Syrah, in it's current state, was a bit too tannic and was overwhleming the other varietals in those blends. Our blend which was 50% Mourvedre – we couldn't help it it was so good – 30% Syrah and 10% Grenache & Petite Sirah was too soft in the midpalate though it had a really great entry and lengthy finish. Ann and Brian's (40% Mourvedre) had a bit more heft, due to a good deal of Syrah (30%), but still had the bright, spiciness of the nose (Grenache at 20%) and a pretty good finish (10% PS). We thought we had a winner.
However, as time ticked by and the blend opened up in the glass the Syrah seemed to takeover yet again, causing it to fall out of balance and lose some of the complexity of the nose and the spiciness we all really liked. So for blend #5, we flipped the numbers for the Syrah and the Grenache, which brought back the nose and the fruit, but lost the weight of the wine on the mid-palate that gave the blend depth. So we split the difference made our bottle for the judging without even drinking it – we ran out of time and samples – and hoped for the best. We'd all been "blending" for over two hours, so the thought of drinking more wine was a bit challenging. But you gotta do what you gotta do.
Before we went up to taste the final entries – which were brown-bagged and randomly lettered – I warned all our tablemates to just pick the wine they liked the best. Even though there were only seven wines and we just spent 2 hours making our blend, (so you should be able to pick it out of the lineup) your palate is fatigued and the wine you think is yours probably isn't. Last year we were positive the winning bottle was our wine and we all voted for it. We were wrong. It WAS the best blend, so we did end up sort of winning. While we all knew certain bottles were not ours – way too much Syrah – there were three that I thought it could be: B, G and F. They were the most balanced and clearly had a good deal of Mourvedre, but B really stood out for me. I didn't think it was ours, but it was my favorite. Thought F was our blend. We chose to keep our choices secret from our table, so as to not swing the vote like we did last year.
After all the votes were tallied, Steve Cass revealed the wines from 3rd to 1st place. Bottle G came in 3rd place. Not us. Not surprised. Knew that wine wasn't ours. Bottle F came in 2nd Place. Not us again. Oh my God, we didn't even place. The shame. Bottle B was the winner by one vote. When it was revealed to be Table #1, we couldn't believe it. We won!!! We actually picked our own wine! We were so excited you'd think we were about to collect a giant check with a bunch of zeroes on it. It was a squeaker, just like last year with two of the wines splitting most of the votes, which really goes to show the broad spectrum of the palates in the room. Almost half voted for F, a Syrah-based blend, probably including a few of our tablemates. I think we're the only ones who used that much Mourvedre, which is why I liked it so much. The winning blend: 40% Mourvedre, 25% Syrah, 25% Grenache and 10% Petite Sirah. Adding percentages is not easy when you've been drinking and we wanted to keep it simple for Lood. He doesn't need the extra work.
It took us six tries to get the blend we really loved, so one can only imagine the many permutations a winemaker goes through to get it just right. A percent here or there really can/does change the complexity and flavor. We thought our 4th and 5th blends were quite delicious and would have pleased most wine drinkers, but by really concentrating on the wines we were able to figure out what was missing and plug in the holes, so to speak, to make the final blend even better. Clearly it wasn't everyone's favorite, but we all learned a lot creating it. At the end of the day, we got a chance to taste last year's wine and it's completely different from ours though both groups had the same four varieties to play with. Hope ours tastes as good as their's does once it gets into the bottle.
The crazy thing is Brian #1 (we had two Brians and two Daves at our table) wrote the winning formula down right after we finished tasting the separate varieties. It was going to be his first pass, but his wife wanted to try a Syrah-based blend. As my husband and I reflected on the day, we thought about all the effort we put in to get back around to Brian's initial instincts. It made us wonder if we would have liked that blend as much if we had started with it. Or would we have tweaked it into a completely different wine, but one we liked even better? Ruined it completely? I can't imagine that we would have left it alone, since the point of the day is to learn how to blend. Perhaps we would have arrived back at the same blend, because ultimately, we did. Weird, huh?
Much thanks to Steve, Ted, Lood and the rest of the Cass crew for making this such a fun and "educational" event. We can't wait to see how the wine ends up tasting after it's true final blending and time in the bottle. Thanks also to Brian & Jaime, Anne & Brian and Dave & Susan for joining us and helping bring home the victory. We had a great time blending with you guys and hope to do this again with you all next year.
Mark your calendars.
For more information: Cass Winery