In nearly two decades as a winemaker within the California wine industry, I have sought to discover wines of pleasure and distinction, and in the process, learned that — contrary to popular belief — blending is an essential process to the discovery of terroir.
One might be rightfully puzzled to hear “blending” and “uncovering terroir” in the same sentence. It’s understandable. In Burgundy for example, the notion of blending terroirs is relegated to the bucket of unused tools. (Suggesting Volnay and Nuit-St.-Georges might produce a better wine in some years would simply invoke bewilderment).
However, I work in a new and very young wine world. When it comes to our vineyards, we have not had the benefit of institutional knowledge that has been passed down for generations. Our industry — and especially Santa Barbara County where I work — is barely through its second generation of wine growers.
Is it possible that the practices now employed in Burgundy are a result of employing different practices generations ago, which contributed to their understanding of why they do what they do now?
And if we can agree that is plausible, wouldn’t we expect those of us in new terroirs to employ practices that help us understand what that terroir is and not just utilize practices done by those with generational context on a different continent?
In other words, we are still working to decipher what the terroir is.
This process of discovery is part of what embodies the energy in Santa Barbara County. I believe in the potential of the area to produce inimitable wine, and have been working to understand exactly what it is, as well as to improve my understanding of how to maximize the wine’s uniqueness and its deliciousness.
What is the Definition of Terroir?
Many people oversimplify terroir to be “unadulterated wine from a single site.” There is a kernel of truth within that statement, but no, deciphering terroir is, in my opinion, not nearly so simple. Many assume we have more answers about not only our sites in California but also about the entire notion of terroir. I believe this is largely a result of the over emphasis on the maker of the wine — if they say they’ve made a wine of terroir, then they must have done it!
Terroir, like many words coopted for marketing purposes in the wine business, tends to be used in such a manner that we assume we all understand it the same way. Because of this, we get complacent, and undergo little pursuit in actually understanding it at all.
I had the good fortune of being mentored by Aubert de Villaine — Co-Director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and his eponymous Domaine A & P de Villaine. Aubert inspired a love for understanding “place” — its soil, climate and people — through wine. Aubert once said:
“…the talent of the winemaker will not consist in printing in wine the mark of their enological knowledge or taste, but in putting themselves at the service of an expression of nature that goes beyond them … we must find ways to express in the wine something much more mysterious and rich than the result of the winemaker’s enological talent.”
This is terroir. It is deciphering, then consistently experiencing (i.e. enjoying!) the mysterious and delicious qualities that are a result of a specific place. Characteristics we learn are not a result of our enological talents.
But here is the issue: In young winegrowing places such as California, where do we begin? I believe one way is to study and separate flavors likely derived from our enological choices versus flavors that seem common in a wine from a specific place independent of those choices. I’ve always believed the greatest wines were discovered, not made. Aubert told me “it is up to the man to dream first and then work, discovering terroirs by adapting his approach to cultivate wines that have a dimension with unique and non-reproducible characters of the site” (emphasis mine).
How Can Terroir Be Deciphered?
So how do we learn what characters are reproducible, and those that are not? Working at Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyard has provided me with the opportunity to pursue the answer. We simultaneously have diversity within our vineyards, as well as substantial similarities across them.
For example, with two Pinot Noir vineyards we can examine the difference between vineyard sites within the same clone, and examine the difference between two clones within the same site. Which creates the larger difference?
Answer: the vineyard.
With that answer we can begin to anchor certain flavor profiles specific to each site as they occur across various choices. We can then test how certain decisions impact the expression of those anchored, site-specific flavors.
Of the many variables we can control, some of the most influential are harvest timing, stem inclusion (or not), maceration time, new oak and blending choices. Our goal has been both to capture variation within the vineyard (due to soil type, clone, etc.) and create some variation in the cellar (stem inclusion or not, different pick dates, varying new oak, skin-contact on white wines, etc.). The latter helps us determine what might be a reproducible character from our choices — for instance, 50% stem inclusion — versus non-reproducible characters from the vineyard, such as a nervy energy that only shows up in the loamier sandstone section of our Sta. Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir.
If, as it does, stem inclusion tastes similar — not only across specific blocks within a vineyard, but also between two vineyards — then we can make the case that the “stemmy” flavor is a reproducible enological element and — while helpful for added complexity and structure — should be treated with caution so as not to minimize expression of more subtle, non-reproducible elements.
So Why Would You Blend?
Blending, some may assume and not entirely incorrectly, means blending things away as much as adding components. If you’re trying to make site-specific wines with non-reproducible characters, wouldn’t blending different sites (even within a vineyard) diminish the non-reproducible character from that site?
These are fair questions.
Allow me to suggest that the questions come from a place that presumes we know more about our terroirs than I believe we — in California — really know about our terroirs. If you are handling fruit with centuries of institutional and generational understanding for the site, you may see blending one place into another as, quite possibly, anathema. I see our situation differently.
Blending, for us, confirms which characteristics are reproducible flavors and which are not. Furthermore, it teaches us about future possibilities.
Let’s revisit the 50% stem-inclusion example: if we blend this with a fully destemmed wine from a similar parcel and find a ratio that drifts the stems into a background component while elevating the entire deliciousness of the wine, we’ve accomplished a couple of things. First, we now have an estimate of a desired stem percentage (“enological talent” or choice) that no longer masks the non-reproducible characteristics, but enhances them. This helps future vintage choices.
Secondly, doing this repeatedly at the blending table helps you understand exactly what those non-reproducible characteristics are because you see them go from masked, to lightly veiled, to laid bare before you in a fashion that gives you confidence what it actually is.
Getting there requires some measure of humility, because you are saying to yourself “I’m not actually sure what is here, but I have a dream that something here could be great, and I want to learn what it is.” This approach requires patience. If you truly want to decipher terroir, humility and time are required. Or, to paraphrase my mentors, one must put themselves at the service of nature and with time you might discover something great.
The Distance We Still Have to Run
Blending, at its heart, is a final step in creating contrast and working to understand which contrasting elements drive your pleasure and the wine’s uniqueness. (And make no mistake, deliciousness must be a driver of the wine. Has anyone ever desired to visit a place after having an unpalatable wine from there?).
We can all pretend, and promote to the wine consumer, the notion that we always know exactly what our choices do and why we are making them. However, that’s simply not the whole truth. Creating obvious contrast through blending — even on traditionally unblended varieties like Pinot Noir — accelerates the learning process.
I’ve been with Star Lane and Dierberg Estate Vineyards for seven vintages. An eternity in the modern professional world, but a mere flash in the world of understanding a place through wine. While we do produce only single-vineyard wines, those wines are blends on various portions of the vineyard itself. By taking this approach, I do believe we have gained so much understanding in what our sites offer — faster, in fact, than if we had avoided creating contrast.
This approach works for us strictly because our goals are to share an artisanal product that is distinct because it came from our properties. Others may have an entirely different goal and thus would take an entirely different approach. We’re seeking out the inimitable characters from the sites because it will — over the long haul — be our most differentiating proposition and will fulfill the dream our founders, Jim and Mary Dierberg, had when they first visited Star Lane Vineyard.
In the end, the cellar is here to serve the vineyard. It’s ironic: we are trying to use our enological talents in such a way that those talents drift into the background. Appreciated, perhaps, only with time and consistency.
About Tyler Thomas
Tyler Thomas is President and Winemaker for Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards based in Santa Barbara County, California. He loves winegrowing because it is a nexus where the environment, plants, science, craftsmanship, artisans, family, and culture meet to give rise to simple if also profound pleasure. In his spare time he can be found fermenting other things (such as wheat and cabbage). He is married with three kids and on a quest to find that which is true.
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