Thursday, December 18, 2014

Uncork Your Inner Wine Geek at Wente’s Winemakers Studio

Blending Wine in Beakers at Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Wine geekery at its best, blending wines in beakers.
Livermore has been a wine region for well over 100 years.  But what really made Livermore establish itself as a city was not its wine, but the opening of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1952, which brought an influx of scientists and engineers into the area.  Livermore’s population actually quadrupled from 4,364 in 1950 to 16,058 in 1960.  With so many left-brainers running around the city who have a love of both wine and science, it should come as no surprise that Wente Vineyards, one of Livermore's wineries and the country's oldest continuously run family-owned winery, has found a way to mix Livermore’s wine culture with the love of all things scientific and geeky with their winemakers blending experience at Wente’s Winemakers Studio.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from our winemakers blending experience.  While The Winemakers Studio website does allude to entertainment, I kind of wondered if I would flunk the class with my inability to properly ferret out the wines’ subtle aromas of green beans, plum, and cat urine.  Would my fellow students look down upon me for disliking the acidity burning the back of my tongue?  How would this whole hands-on seminar work?

Wente's Winemakers Studio Workspace Livermore California
Tell me you wouldn't be giddy about blending wine at this winemakers work space.
I walked into the small “classroom,” glass of white wine in hand, and squealed with joy.  The first thing that grabbed my attention was the individual work stations complete with both wine and laboratory glassware.  Each person would be working with their very own Erlenmeyer flask, graduated cylinder, and funnel in addition to the three wine glasses, one filled with red wine, another with water, and the third waiting empty.  Upon closer inspection I also found learning materials, a notepad, and a mechanical pencil for note taking.  My inner-nerd came rushing out for all to see.  On the back wall were seven wine barrels built into the wall, each with a shining stainless steel tap handle because Wente uses taps for wine pouring to make the wine last longer.  You’ve got to love engineers.

So many toys to play with, levers to pull, and wines to taste.
The Winemakers Studio classroom is small and the 90 to 120 minute wine blending classes usually have less than 10 students, so it is a very individualized and personal experience.  While the class is educational, it isn’t serious at all, but rather incredibly fun.  Since we were visiting Tri-Valley during the Christmas season and the Holidays in the Vineyards weekend, it was made that much more fun by the holiday decorations.  It also didn't hurt that our instructor Myrl, who previously held positions like Vice President, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Information Officer in health and technology companies before retirement, was wearing his rendition of an ugly Christmas sweater.  You just can’t feel too serious if your instructor is wearing ribbon bows all over his shirt.  (Speaking of Christmas, a gift certificate for a winemakers blending experience would make an excellent gift for your wine-loving loved one.)

Examining the Meniscus Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Examining the color, clarity and meniscus.
Our wine blending class started with a wine tasting lesson, which was great because, while I love drinking wine and know what I like and what I don’t like, a sommelier I am not.  Everybody got their own wine tasting card with hints of what to look for to help the wine tasting experience.  First we held our wine glasses over white paper to examine the color and the ring, called the meniscus, to get a hint of the concentration and maturation.  Next we smelled the wine.  Myrl suggested sniffing twice, first to clear out the other smells from your nose, and the second to really take in the aroma of the wine.  Our cheat sheet had a number of different aromas to look for, like apple, jasmine, tobacco, mushroom, and the aforementioned cat urine (there was no Sauvignon Blanc in our class, so cat urine averted).  Next we tasted.  The trick is to sip, swish, and hold the wine in your mouth for over five seconds.  How long it takes for your mouth to water indicates the level of acidity.  A dry, chalky feeling indicates the level of tannins (a higher level of tannins will allow the wine to age and keep well).  We also tasted for the level of sweetness.  The mouth feel, likened to varying fat levels of milk, indicate if the wine is light, medium, or full bodied.  Then we swirled the wine for 30 seconds to open it up and tasted again to see how the wine changed with the second sip.  The last step was to answer the question, “do I like it?”

Wine Aroma Testers Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Testers to help tasters recognize specific wine aromas.
After learning the intricacies of wine tasting, the next step was to taste the seven different wines we would be blending.  Learning sure is hard!  Myrl talked to us about each of the wines as we tasted, where the grapes were grown, what the soil was like, and what the weather conditions were.  As we tasted we wrote notes about the aromas, flavors, acidity, and tannins.  We had the choice between four Cabernet Sauvignons, all from 2012 but different areas of the Livermore Valley, a Petite Syrah, a Petit Verdot, and a Malbec.  We needed to pick out the flavors we enjoyed as well as what the wines could do to help with flavor, aroma, or shelf life. 

Measuring Wine at Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Carefully measuring wine for my proprietary Passports & Cocktails blend.
Next came the blending.  This is where all the beakers came into play.  We came up with formulas of what would make our perfect wine.  Once we had our percentages, we filled our graduated cylinders with the appropriate levels of wine, enough to create a glass.  Then we tasted, trying to think of what would make our personal wine even better.  Once we had our formulas down pat, we adjusted our formulas to fill a full bottle and started measuring again.  Once our beakers were full, we carefully poured our creations through funnels into our bottles.  Then came the opportunity to play with even more toys.  We each got to cork and foil wrap our bottles with fancy machinery, and then labeled our bottles, listing out our percentages and doodling all over the bottles to our hearts’ content. 

Corking Wine Bottle Wente's Winemaker's Studio Livermore California
Testing out the wine corking equipment.
Since you get to take home your bottle of wine, make sure you bring a bag to check if traveling by air.  Livermore’s wine country is easy to reach from the Oakland and San Jose airports.  We flew into Oakland with Southwest Airlines and I brought wine diapers to safely transport our wine bottles home.

I have to say participating in Wente’s winemakers blending experience far exceeded my expectations.  It sounded like a fun way to spend an afternoon, but I really had no idea what geeky wine nerdom lay in store.  I’m pretty sure the only time smiles left our faces was when we were intently concentrating on pouring the correct amounts of wine into our beakers.  There are many wineries to visit in Livermore’s wine country creating fabulous wine, but only one lets you play mad scientist with wine.

Thank you to Visit Tri-Valley for hosting our visit to Tri-Valley, including our Wente’s Winemakers Studio blending experience, and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Katherine Belarmino has been traveling for over ten years on a quest to see as much of the world as possible, experience new cultures, and sample other cuisines and libations. She also writes the travel blog Travel the World, which journals her world travels with her husband Romeo and seeks to encourage others to take the time to travel.