Sunday, March 15, 2009

Barrel Surfing should be an Olympic Sport

One of the most enjoyable times for me is the opportunity I get to work with our barrels. At any given time we might have 300-400 barrels of wine (of various vintages) aging in the cellar.

The barrels are segregated by wine lot, and I am usually focused enough to pick a lot or two to taste through at one time. The tools of my trade: a tape recorder, a glass, a thief, chalk, and a big bucket.

Generally, each oak growing region has its own set of characteristics of aroma and flavor; the amount of wood tannin it will contribute to the wine, and how quickly it will impart it. Toast levels, toasted heads/non-toasted heads, older oak, heads from one country and staves from another...all add a further level of complexity to the evaluation of wines and to the finished product.

What tasting through barrels teaches you rapidly is that each barrel is so unique that it is its own wine. So if there are 10 barrels of wine in a lot of Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet, I am actually trying to make sense of 10 different wines and how each might go together, which wines might work in the final blend, and which one(s) might be singularly great enough for the Premier Cabernet Collection, for example.

After recording the date, barrel grouping, and barrel number in my recorder, I will thief a little wine into the glass and record my impressions of the wine's aromas; then I'll take a sip, spit in my big bucket then talk about the flavors, and structure. I take the recordings and transcribe the details into an excel file so that I can "see" the wine again down the road when it comes time to put the blends together.

I repeat anywhere from 6-50 times depending on the size of the wine lots. There's usually a lot of used wine in the bucket and a fair amount on my clothes too. But I generally come away with a pretty good understanding of the progress the specific lots of wine are making, which barrels are the most outstanding, and what the blends will taste like when they are released.

More specifically, though, I come away with a greater understanding of my blending strengths and weaknesses, the style of wines I like, and I how I can be as easily influenced as any novice wine drinker by preconceptions and assumptions.

Not only is there a practical purpose for surfing barrels, but it is the best education a wine lover can get. It is exciting and humbling at the same time.

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