“Hi. I’m Anna Matzinger, the winemaker for Archery Summit Winery. Today we’re holding one of our annual wine blending seminars but I’m going to make it tough for you today. Instead of having wine from three different vineyards to blend, I’ve gathered wine from three different blocks of the Arcus Vineyard. Hopefully, you’ll be able to tell the difference between each sample of wine. We wanted to introduce you to the subtleties of blending this year.”
Seated in the caves which cellar the Archery Summit 35 gallon French Oak barrels for their luscious Pinot Noirs, 36 of us were eagerly awaiting guidance on how to blend wine. On either side of me were my 23 year old daughter, Maggie, and my 21 year old son, John. We’d chatted before hand with wine club members from Corvalis, OR, Vancouver, WA, and Portland, OR. We’d played the small world game and found some acquaintances in common. But we were ready to go now. In front of us were the basics for wine blending. We each had three 750 ml carafes of the three different wines from the Arcus Estate 40 acre bowl shaped vineyard. A 100ml graduated mixing column with funnel stood sharply next to the empty bottle we would fill with our blend of wine. A one page wine maker’s note was placed in front of us along with blank labels for our wine bottle.
All of my senses were in play as we got ready to blend. The smells from the aging wine continued to drift past, the faint lighting of the mined cellars provided a cool environment. Ground water dripped slowly on the one piece of exposed volcanic rock that surrounded us in the cave. Our taste buds were eager to encounter the fresh from the barrel wines having already been stimulated by a taste of the 2002 Red Hills estate wine. How sensory rich this experience was compared to the energy sapping seminar and workshop I’d just gotten back from.
Fleetingly, I reflected on the difference a hands on seminar was from an abstract, academic workshop that was talking about engineering, design and design education. I was at the fifth annual Harvey Mudd Design and Education seminar the three days prior to the wine blending seminar. I’d gotten up at 3:00am on Thursday morning to fly from Seattle to Claremont, CA. I stumbled into the Olin Science building and walked down steep steps into the auditorium. For three long days we sat in the elevated auditorium looking down on the speaker of the moment. Once the seminar got going and I had a chance to figure out the patterns of the presentations and questions, it felt like the audience was both the Romans and the Lions as one speaker after another was fed onto the coliseum floor to have their research and ideas chewed up. There was no easy way to carry on a conversation, even with one’s neighbor. There would be no break out sessions. There was no place to even put flip chart paper onto the walls and start the flow of connecting ideas and thoughts and brainstorms to create new designs. For a conference about design and design education, there was no design going on. Just a bunch of very bright people broadcasting at each other. Even the meal times were structured with yet more talks. The saddest energy sapper was the last speaker getting up to make a presentation to us telling us what we’d learned in the three days.
As my mind quickly came back to the wine blending, I realized that here was a great way to run a design seminar. Anna started describing how she goes about tasting a given block of wine before thinking about how to blend them. “What I want you to do is taste each of the three wines. While it’s not socially couth, here’s the method that a winemaker uses to taste. First pour just a little bit of wine in the specially designed Riedel Pinot Noir Vinum Extreme glass. Swirl it around to really let loose the aromatics. Then pour the wine into your mouth and swish it all around your palette. Suck in some air with a low gurgling sound to let the wine get even more air across it as it passes over your palette.”
“Now notice how each of the three wines affects different parts of your palette. The Arcus 667 affects the front part of your palette and you might taste blue fruit like blue berries. The Arcus 777 affects the back and sides of your palette. The WARC is woody so you will taste more tannins with it.”
We tried each of the wines and realized that indeed each of them were quite distinct. And then as I stared at the chemistry class equipment in front of me, I realized that I was about to enter a “design of experiment” without any strategy. Do I systematically start mixing? How do I vary the percentages? Do I get the three of us to take very different strategies? Or do I let nature take its course and see what strategy each of us takes? How much time do we have? This could take hours trying to find a winning strategy to blend each of them. Oh my. This task is enormously complicated and we only have three wines to blend. I asked Anna how many components she used for the blending the 2004 Arcus Estate. She laughed and replied that this year she used 15 different components. And I thought three was a tough job. I got yet another glimpse of the complexity and the number of variables that a winemaker has to balance to get a great tasting wine.
Knowing that even with a couple of hours to do the blending, we would only scratch the surface of how many wines we could test, I dove into it. Anna suggested that a good blend would affect all parts of palette. “You noticed how each of the wines affected a different part of the palette. However, you are going to be surprised that just by blending an equal amount, it won’t necessarily taste the same on all parts of the palette. The blend changes what is tasted.” She then went on to describe her own method “As I’m tasting I’m always thinking in terms of shapes. Tasting is also a visual experience for me. Thinking of the palette in three dimensions, how is the blend creating a shape in my mind? I will usually sketch the shape of the blend so that I can remember the smell and taste that I want to achieve. The sketches also help me compare blends across different years.”
It’s been years since I was in a chemistry lab so trying to pour the wines into the measuring column was an unnatural and messy act. My first attempt was simply to mix 1/3 of each of the three wines. Nice try. Didn’t smell very good and didn’t taste very good. So then I took a strategy of using mostly the one of the three varieties that I liked the most (667) for 60% and then 20% of the other two. I really liked the nose and aroma of that blend, but it didn’t taste very good. On it went until finally it was time to pick one of the blends and bottle it (time to ship, Skip). I landed on a 75% 667 and 12.5% of the other two components. Meanwhile, Maggie decided that she really didn’t like the taste of the 777, so she blended just two of the components. John really liked what he ended up with and Maggie and I agreed that it was the best blend from the three of us. One of the couples at our table asked to try John’s wine and he agreed that it was much better than what he had blended. Maybe we have a budding expert in our family.
So off we went to a family style three course dinner while Anna tasted our wines to see what the winemaker thought of our blends. It was a delight to have three of the Archery Summit wines with our three course dinner. As we finished up, Anna “awarded” the best in the class of the blends. There was a last place award for the worst of the bunch which was a pair of Archery Summit labeled boots. She smiled sweetly and said that this blend should be poured out and started over. We all got a great laugh out of that. Then the runners up and winner were announced. All of us really wanted to know what the winning blend was. The “designer” quickly shared that he blended 53% of the 777, 28% of the 667, and 19% of the WARC. I rolled my eyes as I couldn’t even begin to make out the markings on my measuring equipment to get that precise.
We gathered up our private labeled wine bottles and had one last design to accomplish. They had fresh flowers of all varieties so Maggie was kind enough to design a bouquet to take back to Mom.
In the course of the blending, the side bar discussions with Anna were very informative along with her vineyard manager, Leigh Bartholomew. In talking about their strategy for picking the grapes and deciding which blocks of the vineyard will go together in the different fermentation tanks, they further revealed how many more variables went into designing each vineyard designate wine. I was so impressed with Anna’s using a visual vocabulary to describe the blends I asked if I could come down and interview her for our book. She eagerly agreed and also agreed to show me several years of the sketches in her notebook.
On the way home I continued to marvel at the energy creating format of the wine blending and the energy sapping format of the Harvey Mudd workshop. There is a message here. At its heart, designing is about designing. Teaching design is about designing. You can’t separate the abstract from the doing. While the wine seminar was only a couple of hours, I learned a ton and I walked away with a product of my learning. John Heskett’s “Design is to design a design to produce a design” which we’d used as the structure of our paper at the Mudd conference was echoing in my mind. During the course of the blending seminar we got to experience each of the meanings of design. Each of us is our own winemaker. Each of us is our own designer. And best of all we produced a great tasting Pinot Noir “design” to take away with us.