RAYMOND WINERY – A Blending Session Like No Other

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This guest-post comes to us from Mira Advani Honeycutt, author of California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. She frequently contributes wine and travel pieces to the Good Food Blog.

Birthday girl Danae extracts some of the final blend from her bottle in the bottling room. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Here’s a way to treat yourself this holiday season. Head to Napa Valley and make a reservation at Raymond Winery’s Wine Blending Studio.

I prefer to call the blending room a studio, because that what’s it looks like – sort of like the 1970s club, Studio 54. This is a blending experience like no other. And take it from me – who’s been to a few such sessions.

Upon entering the room decorated with a disco ball (not to mention the rockin’ music) and neon lights bouncing off shimmery curtains and platinum walls, we were handed futuristic looking silver lamé lab coats. “For future winemakers.” greeted our blender-meister Gary Schwartz. Passing the matching berets and hats to complete the fashionista look, he added, “This is 70 percent fun and 30% education.” Once dressed we were photographed by his associate Tyson, who exhibited his skills in creating computer-designed individual labels of these funky photos.

Gary Schwartz helps as I measure the Cabernet Sauvignon into a beaker. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I was joined by a Bakersfield family of five celebrating their daughter’s 21st birthday. We took our places at the lab counter – each station equipped with the usual beakers, pipettes and cylinders plus four glasses on the left (for tasting the varietals) and three on the right (for our three different final blends). The 2010 varietals for our blends came from Raymond’s Reserve Portfolio and included two Cabernet Sauvignons (one aged in neutral oak and the other in new French oak), Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

“Part of the art of wine blending is to determine the end result you like,” said Gary. He explained the effects of oak on the wine. If you don’t want too much of oak influence use the neutral oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon. Toasting levels of oak barrels dictate characteristics such as heavy toast imparts chocolatey flavor and cedar notes come from lighter toasting. While thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon gives the wine its tannin structure, Merlot (the skin or the body of wine) adds roundness, and a touch of Cabernet Franc imparts the floral silkier notes to the wine.

Taking his advice of starting with a 50% Cabernet Sauvignon as the base of the blend, we got busy creating our masterpieces. But when I started with the 50% of new French oak Cab mixed with 10% of neutral oak, the blend seemed to be too tannic. So I tweaked it to 35% new oak and 25% neutral oak , then added 25% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. Schwartz was quite pleased with my end result, a blend that was redolent of black currants and dark cherries with hints of violet (from the Cabernet Franc).

We then proceeded to the bottling room where we were given tall beakers to make up 1000 ml of our blend – 750 ml for the bottle to take home and the 250 ml for to share with the group. After gassing each bottle to clean and displace any oxygen, Gary helped us bottle, cork and add the foil on our individual blends and Tyson assisted with labeling. A good thing about this blending experience is that you can order a whole case of your blend – uncork some over the holidays and cellar the balance and watch it age gracefully over time.

Cheers…and a Happy 2012!