A few years ago, when we had a single child, instead of two, my husband and I swirled our way around Napa and Sonoma Valley, staying in wine cottages nestled next to vineyards and eating freshly baked French loaves from Bouchon for breakfast.
With special access to private tours and vineyard cottages (!) we got a behind-the-scenes, private look at some of the most prominent wineries in California. My husband is in the wine industry, and his business card is better than a black American Express in wine country. We experienced wine country in a way most travelers do not know exists: Private tours of wine caves. Opening the reserve bottles of wine. Staying vineyard-side with a temperature-controlled wine room (next to the pool table) filled with the best wine the vineyard has to offer.
In a word? Spectacular.
One of those experiences – the best, in my opinion – and one that Napa vacationers can experience for themselves – is the Conn Creek Barrel Blending Experience, in which wine-vacationers test, taste, and blend Cabernets into a bottle of wine to take home.
When we are asked for recommendations, this is always the one thing we say you must do when visiting Napa Valley.
Terroir, vintage, varietal, climate, appellation, AVA, oak barrels… all terms you’ll hear at any Wine Country tasting or tour. For the first several tours, I politely followed around, perfecting my “oh that’s so interesting!” face, not understanding 90% of the conversation, while my husband, who works in the wine industry, was able to communicate back to the wine experts in their own language.
Standing in the soil, staring at the green grapes, watching the sun’s direct light on the vines, and listening to our host describe the brix, or sugar content, of the grapes. In California, the grapes can remain on the vines longer than they can in Europe, giving the wines a completely different style.
That was my moment of clarity for understanding the many influences that impact wine.
I can’t tell you if it was that particular wine-making lesson or a culmination of all of the tours and tastings that finally converged together in that moment, but the Conn Creek Barrel Blending Experience in Napa Valley was the event that propelled my interest of wine into a love of wine.
Conn Creek’s Anthology is a Cabernet Sauvignon blend, and the website describes it “is made from a collection of Napa Valley’s finest vineyards and diverse AVAs for growing Bordeaux varieties. The AVAs are like a gourmet pantry of spices, each contributes distinct characteristics to the blend, resulting in a wine of generous flavor, with layers of depth and complexity.”
That description would have sounded like gobbledygook to me prior to our visit, but makes perfect sense to me now.
So what is the Barrel Blending Experience? Participants learn what it takes to blend an exceptional (or at least drinkable!) bottle of wine by experimenting in a winemaker’s lab.
The experience begins with a quick introduction to the vineyard, and all of the various factors which can affect the taste of the grapes, a mile-long list that will make any wine newbie’s head swirl.
A wine educator leads your small group of soon-to-be winemakers through the vineyard and into the barrel room, which features long tables set up like a chemistry lab with beakers and measuring tools. The walls are lined with oak barrels filled with single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley AVAs (wine-growing regions) with facts about each area. The barrels are divided into five categories: soft, supple, complex, rich and bold and each category features three Cabernets from a different AVA.
Next comes the tasting part. Students are encouraged to explore and sip their way around the barrel room while scribbling tasting notes like “lush with a hint of cherry cola” and “smooth, tasted olive oil, and incredible” to help shape a basic understanding of the regions and determine their flavor preferences. The Cabernets are then mixed like a list of ingredients to create a bespoke bottle of wine: a bold Cab to compliment a savory pork chop, a medium-bodied blend to pair with a grilled steak or a smooth, easy-drinking bottle of red to open with friends.
Mine was named “Decade” for our ten-year wedding anniversary the following year. My husband, Will, named his the “W Blend.”
So, the big question: did we try our bottles of wine?
Yes. We decided to open the bottles after two years of debating whether the W Blend or Decade would be better.
My husband reasoned, “It’s a blend of high-end Napa Cabs, I don’t think it could be bad,” but we were both tentative to uncork the bottles. Both bottles had been stored properly on their side for two years, so if they were terrible, it was our inexperienced wine blending skills. Plus, we were both competitive which bottle would be the best, anytime one of us suggested that it was time to open one up.
We uncorked our wine bottles, with two kids both sound asleep, and sampled both.
The first wine, Decade, was astonishingly good at the first taste. The second wine, the W Blend, was completely different, but equally as good. We agreed Decade was a smooth, drinkable bottle of wine and the W Blend was a little more complex and was better with food, particularly the perfectly grilled steak we enjoyed during this tasting.
Will was correct: apparently, blending a bunch of high-end Napa Cabs does produce a fantastic bottle. While it does not compare to Conn Creek’s master blend, Anthology, ours were certainly approachable, drinkable, and enjoyable.
And we both agreed we’ll be back to blend another bottle the next time we visit Napa.