Blend. Sounds enchanting, doesn’t it? One of those lush concatenations
of sounds and syllables, an evocation of moods, a package of basic, essential
things. All kinds of wonderful stuff. Makes me think of mown grass on a sunny
August afternoon, that moist, chewy smell. Sleeping dogs, and the smell of them,
too. Corn on the cob. Flags. The ocean at dawn. Rain falling sweetly down through
the leaves of a familiar tree. Field blend. An honest idea. An appealing notion.
An enchanting sound.
A shame, as far as I’m
concerned. Ever since I began seriously drinking wine, I’ve been a big
fan of what are now commonly referred to as proprietary blends. These are inexpensive
combinations of various red-wine grapes, grapes ignobly (but honorably) grown
all over California (or Australia, or South Africa or France, the original Land
of the Rotgut Blend), rather than cultivated in the vineyards of a single estate.
Pay more than $15 for one of these and you’ve paid too much. I like the
eight-to-12-dollar range, although some Aussie blends retail for as little as
six dollars. Proprietary blends and field blends are not exactly the same thing.
Field blends, purely defined, are pretty rare–you almost have to go tooling
around Sonoma County in search of wineries that still produce them, mainly for
local consumption. Proprietary blends, by contrast, exhibit the ethos of field
blends, but they are produced from grapes that hail from geographically more
diverse regions. A field blend was usually just that–a blend composed of
grapes from a single vineyard’s collection of parcels. Proprietary blends
go out under the label of the winery that produced the wine (hence the term
"proprietary"), but the grapes that contributed to the blend were,
in all likelihood, picked elsewhere–perhaps far, far away. These blends
are a vital aspect of the U.S. wine industry; they keep plenty of growers in
So, anyway–I dig field
blends, or wines that aspire to the field-blend style. It’s interesting
how, in the winemaker’s craft, blending can cut in such precisely opposite
directions, in terms of quality, yet still deliver wonderful results. I’m
talking here about the legendary–and extremely risky–blending practices
employed for centuries now in Bordeaux. As a colleague of mine once pointed
out, in Bordeaux, it’s all about the chateau–the name on the label.
Since in Bordeaux several different varietals are cultivated, winemakers have
the advantage of choosing, for each vintage, the grapes that they believe can
be blended into the best wine. There are patterns: in some regions, merlot is
favored as the base grape; in others, cabernet sauvignon. Some stick to cabernet-and-merlot
combinations, others introduce a little cabernet franc, a little petit verdot.
Depends. Blending decisions are made at various stages of the winemaking process,
and for a first-growth chateau, the choice of percentages is possibly the most
important of the entire vintage. Choose wisely, after a good harvest, and you
will have a potentially great–and valuable–wine on your hands.
Obviously, proprietary blends
are a different story. But not so different. One of my favorite, Bonny Doon’s
Ca’del Solo Big House Red ($9)–a blend of more than six varietals–has
been hit or miss in the case of my last few bottles. Sometimes, so big-bodied
and exuberant and peppery that I have thought about investing in a case. Other
times, fizzy and harsh, far too tannic, unpleasant, provoking me to vow never
to buy another bottle. A sturdier performer has been Marietta’s California
Old Vine Red Lot Number Twenty Three ($11), a wine that proprietor Chris Bilbro
explicitly compares to a classic California field blend. I love this wine and
have for several bottles’ worth. The alcohol level, like that of the Big
House, is fairly high–13.5 percent–but the wine, despite the inclusion
of a quantity of zinfandel, doesn’t taste "hot"–certainly
not as hot as the Ca’del Solo. Additionally, the Marietta Old Vine is a
rich and complex red, dense with blackberries up front that give way to layers
of secondary flavors and spicy highlights. It’s all you could want in a
cheap red blend. And I’m not saying the Big House sucks or anything, just
that the bottlings have been inconsistent. But that’s something you must
deal with where blends are concerned. Neither of these wines is, to my palate,
a California techno-blend, either. Examples of this style of blend include Francis
Coppola’s "Rosso," or numerous Aussie red blends, both of which
exhibit two main movements: fruit up front, followed by a smooth texture devoid
of tannic roughness. Tannin usually indicates, in a great wine, a "tightness"
that implies the vintage was built to age; in lesser bottlings, crudeness of
technique. Rusticity. Sounds bad, right? Wrong. Rusticity, at least in my case,
appeals. It’s like leaving the skins on your mashed potatoes. Techno-blends
strive to eliminate excessive tannin, smoothing the wine out, if you will.
So take my advice here and
start looking around for some field blends. The summer is waning and all those
fresh, clean and refreshing whites are, once autumn appears, going to seem thin,
a bit light, with hearty harvest fare.