On the Bench

True confession time: It has happened that I have sat down to a dinner at home, taken a sip of whatever we're drinking that night, and found it not worth drinking. And it has happened that I have opened a second bottle and had the same experience. (When you shop around the low end of the market, forever searching for bargains...) And it has happened that I have taken the two bottles, poured them into my big decanter, and found the result downright potable. I believe in blending.

So I was delighted when Ed Moore, owner of the 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro in Ocean Beach, offered to let me join in on a genuine blending session up at Fallbrook Winery. Fallbrook's estate vineyards are still coming online, and much of their wine is made with grapes from all over California. The occasion this time, says Fallbrook owner Ira Gourvitz, is that "we're ready to switch from the '03 to the '04 Merlot. Everything's been in barrel for about 18 months."

We meet in the winery lab — Gourvitz, Moore, winemaker Duncan Williams, and I. You could tell it was the lab from the off-white color scheme, the pieces of electronic equipment, and the occasional graduated cylinder. But the samples set up for tasting and blending — two Cabernets, two Merlots, a Syrah, and a Petite Verdot — sat in decidedly unscientific-looking wine glasses. "Why don't you guys get a set of nice glass beakers instead of messing around with these glasses?" needles Moore.

"We've been doing this for 12 years," retorts Gourvitz.

"I know, but it's time to move forward. I'm going to have to get you some for Christmas."

Step one was going through and evaluating the components. Much use of the five Ss: swirling, sniffing, sipping, sucking air over the palate to increase flavor perception, and spitting. "It doesn't matter what we say today," Moore says. "Duncan's going to go back in the winery and make his own blend. He'll make the wine that he knows is going to work." I think Moore is maybe half-joking. But he's serious when he continues: "Another thing is that by the time you blend these wines and let them sit for another two or three months, they'll change." It's a lesson we're learning on a small scale even as we taste. "You put this stuff out on the bench," says Williams, gesturing at the lineup of sample glasses, "and it's changing the whole time. You've got five moving targets."

The Syrah is the first to show motion. "I wouldn't want to use much of that Syrah in the blend," says Moore, "if any at all. It's tasting a little green right now."

"I don't anticipate it," replies Williams. "It's a little weird. After two years in the barrel, that's not what Syrah should be tasting like."

So we turn our attention to the Merlots. Merlot 1 "seemed to have a little more stuffing in it when we first brought it in," says Williams.

"Merlot 2 is not as deep as I thought it would be," says Gourvitz.

"It wasn't really ever that deep," replies Williams. "It was just kind of pretty fruit." Now, however, "I think it's just too acidic."

"It's so acidic, it's hard," I agree. "There's a sting on your tongue after you spit. And it's not like Merlot 1 is particularly soft."

"It's funny," says Williams. "For being Merlots and having been in the barrel that long, it's surprising how youthful they're tasting."

"His wines tend to round out," says Gourvitz hopefully.

Williams takes another sip of the Syrah and declares, "I really kind of like it now. Both Merlots seem a little bit too high-strung by themselves. That's why I'm thinking, maybe just a little Syrah." We all take sips, and we all agree that things have changed for the better.

"Especially after the Merlot," I say. "You lose the green, and it's plush." I mix a little Syrah with Merlot 1 and like the way they cover each other's weak spots. Merlot 1's cherries still show through, but the acid has been toned down. "You guys are going to taste through all my samples before I even start blending," chides Williams.

"How much of the Syrah can you put in?" asks Ira, thinking of the label.

"Oh, we can go 25 percent," replies Williams. (A wine needs 75 percent of one varietal in order to have that varietal's name alone on the label.) But Williams starts at a little over 10 percent, pouring together a blend that represents 800 gallons of Merlot 1, 500 gallons of Merlot 2, and 200 gallons of Syrah -- 600 cases' worth.

It's a hit. "His first blend is always the best one," observes Moore. "It still smells like Merlot, it's got a middle, and it finishes clean," says Ira, pleased.

"There's still a little prickle up front," I notice. "Can you sand that down further?" Williams tries another blend, upping the proportion of Syrah to 300 gallons. Nobody thinks it's better than the first. "It does seem a little flat," agrees Williams. "The first one is a little tight, but it'll tone down once it gets a little bottle age." And so we have the '04 Merlot.

Moore thinks he knows the origin of that acidic prickle. "It's because the wine you have the most of is Merlot 1. It has the most tartness."

That wasn't the case half an hour ago. "Merlot 2 burned at the back of the throat," I argue. But no more — once again, the target has moved. "I get a much richer depth out of Merlot 2," says Moore. "It's more integrated, with a really nice core of rounded fruit. Merlot 1 finishes lean, it's almost kind of a little malic, like green apple." I try both Merlots, and he's right.

"I'm just curious," says Moore. "Let's try some of Cabernet 1 with Merlot 2."

"We've got 260 gallons of Cabernet 1 and only 100 gallons left of Merlot 2," notes Williams. "What are we doing? That's not even varietal."

"Isn't red table wine hot right now?" I ask.

"It is if you can charge enough for it," answers Williams, thinking of name-dropper wines like Ornellaia. That won't be the case here, but he makes the blend anyway -- two parts Cab to one Merlot.

"That I like," marvels Moore. "It makes a huge difference for both of them. Good acidity, great fruit, nice finish." Like the Syrah, the Cab worked to tone down the Merlot's acid, but it also lent a certain amount of tannin and structure and showed an intriguing note of mint.

"We can make 125 cases if you want to buy it," says Williams.

"What's the price?"

"One-twenty a case," says Gourvitz.

A moment later, the price is $96 a case — $8 a bottle — another 60 gallons of Cab have found their way into the blend, and the wine has a name: Fallbrook Winery's 3rd Corner Cuvée. Moore has a new house wine in the offing. After retail markup, "It'll be $9.95," says Moore. "It's a good drink." He turns to Williams. "You're a winemaker; you've got that crystal ball. Do the acids start toning down a little bit in six months?"

"I like where they are right now," says Williams. "But then, I like Chiantis. It'll soften up a little bit."

"Okay, that's done," says Gourvitz. "We're out of the Merlots."

Williams and Gourvitz start discussing what to do with the remaining Cab and Syrah and Petite Verdot. Moore takes a whiff of the Petite Verdot, which smells great (violets and maybe strawberries) but doesn't do much on the palate. "I wonder what a little bit of this would do," he says. "Let me see what it tastes like."

In go 50 gallons of Petite Verdot. "Wow," says Moore. "I like the front of it. That's a total Popsicle fruit bar; it's got dynamic fruit. It's very fleshy, almost Australian. It's even more quaffable. Just a simple drinking red. Can you somehow get me a sample bottle so I can taste my employees on it?"

"I'll bring it down next week sometime," says Gourvitz, and he and Williams turn back to the remaining wines.

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