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Art in a bottle

A little sipping and blending and voilà: your own California vintage.

August 19, 2007|Jenn Garbee | Special to The Times

NAPA, CALIF. — The teacher instructed us to measure 15 milliliters of wine by sucking on our glass pipettes and transferring the liquid to our waiting beakers. For the next half-hour, we tinkered on our own, adding a generous pour from B, a few drops of C until the formula was just right.

On a recent weekend excursion to Napa and Sonoma, my husband, Kevin, and I rediscovered pipettes and other lab apparatus we hadn't seen since high school chemistry class. Only here, we weren't back in school; we were on vacation.

Many wineries recently have added hands-on winemaking seminars and blending sessions. They range from hourlong, single or multiple-bottle blending classes to more involved, full-barrel winemaking programs over several weekends.

At first, we were skeptical. We're neither sommeliers nor oenologists. But we were keen on the idea of swirling up our own house blend and learning a little about winemaking.

First stop, COPIA: the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in downtown Napa, where we took an afternoon blending seminar.

"Winemaking is subjective, which means no one can tell you what you're tasting, or what kind of wine to make," said Mikaela Sullivan, a COPIA wine educator.

Armed with a pipette, 100-milliliter beaker and five single varietal wines -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot -- we started blending.

Kevin experimented with his own mix. I made a wine in the style of Joseph Phelps' Insignia, using one of the formula blends listed on our class handout. The 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot, 3% Malbec and 10% Petit Verdot blend was nicely balanced.

A COPIA staff member mixed a full bottle of my formula and placed it in a hand-crank corking device. I gave the lever a firm pull, and voilà! In less time than it takes to cook dinner, I had made a bottle of wine.

With the basics down, we drove to Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, known for its Zinfandels, to focus on a single varietal.

Jake Watson, Ravenswood's wine educator, instructed us to taste a Carignan, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. Next, we blended a control wine and spent the next half-hour mixing Zinfandel with varying amounts of Carignan and Petite Sirah.

After we settled on our favorite blend, Watson mixed our wines, handed us the bottles to cork and finished them off with a wax seal.

To learn more about professional winemaking, the next morning we drove to Owl Ridge Wine Services, a custom-crush facility in the Russian River Valley that produces Pinot Noir for local vineyards. In May, Owl Ridge launched Sonoma Grapemasters, a custom-crush program for amateurs. Wine enthusiasts participate in crush, blending and bottling sessions under the guidance of the facility's winemaker.

"It's home winemaking meets the wine industry," said John Tracy, owner of Owl Ridge Wine Services, as we toured the industrial facility, clanking with technicians riding forklifts, 5-ton stainless-steel fermenting vats, a chemistry lab and wine barrels crammed into every corner.

The price at custom-crush facilities that cater to amateur winemakers varies greatly, depending on the price of the grapes. Sonoma Grapemasters charges $7,500 to $9,500 per barrel of wine, with a one-barrel (24 cases) minimum. Not exactly in our pocketbook range.

Making a decent bottle of wine was starting to sound more like a pipe dream than reality, so we hit a couple of our favorite wineries to drown our disappointment in tastings. At one, a local tipped us off to Kings Hill Cellars in Santa Rosa and the Blending Cellar at Mayo winery in Glen Ellen, both affordable, we were told.

A couple of phone calls later, we were enjoying wine and appetizers with Richard Mansfield, winemaker for Kings Hill Cellars, and his wife, Leslie, at their home in St. Helena. Richard explained the history of Kings Hill.

Last year, owners Lindsay and Kirsten Austin built a small, private winemaking facility on their Santa Rosa ranch. Their program attracts amateur winemakers seeking their own label but who aren't looking for an industrial experience.

"When we moved here, I wanted to make wine like a pro but wasn't interested in the sell side. . . . I came up with the [membership] club idea as a way to justify buying great equipment so I could do the job right," Lindsay Austin says.

Members pay $2,700 to $5,500 to make a half or full barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Syrah. During crush, press, barrel tasting and bottling, members participate as much, or as little, in the winemaking process as they desire.

Even at less than half the price of Sonoma Grapemasters, Kings Hill was well beyond our reach. But we still had a hankering for serious winemaking. We wanted to make a wine blended from barrel juice we could cellar for a few months, only not at barrel prices. The wines we had been blending were from mature, bottled wines, so they would oxidize in a few days.

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