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John On Wine ­
Blends: The sum should be greater than the parts

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on September 19, 2013 by John Cesano
John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

Recently, I had a chance to judge and help pick a winning blend at the Third Annual Testa Barn Blend BBQ in Calpella.

Each table blended 2012 vintages of four wines, Testa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. Together with Rosemary Eddy and Sarah Bailey, a winning blend was selected from among the 22 created.

Maria Testa Martinson shared something that John Buchenstein told her, when he was dropping off graduated cylinders for the blending party; he said, “Blends brings people together.”

Fans of different varietal wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon lover and a Zinfandel lover as an example, can come together in their enjoyment of a wine that has some of both of these grapes in the blend. Also, at a blending party, the act of blending, creating a new wine through trial and error, mixing and tasting, with table mates, brings people together.

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Most of the wine you buy and enjoy is a blend. That Cabernet Sauvignon you just picked up likely has some Merlot blended in, just as many Merlot bottles have some Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.

To carry a varietal name on the label, a wine must be made up of at least 75 percent of that named grape, but can have up to 25 percent of non-named grapes blended in.

A reason for the blending is that Cabernet Sauvignon without Merlot is often too firm and harsh, and Merlot without Cabernet can be flabby and insipid; but a little Merlot makes a Cabernet Sauvignon a little softer and a little Merlot in a Cabernet Sauvignon in Merlot provides a little structure.

Throughout Europe, wines are most often blends. Buy a white Bordeaux, and you are likely tasting a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion; a Châteauneuf-du-Pape can include any of 13 varietals but typically includes Grenche, Syrah, and Mourvèdre; while Chianti usually includes Sangiovese and Canaiolo. Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah may be added in a Super Tuscan. These classic, traditional blends do not have grape varietal names on their labels, but instead carry the place name where the wine was born.

One reason these traditional European wine blends for each geographical area exist is simple: the wines being made taste good.

Taking a cue from the old world, California wines, which carry varietal names, allow the blending of complimentary varietals, to also make good tasting wines, and without losing the main grape varietal identification.

Many years ago, at a barrel tasting weekend in the Dry Creek Valley, long before it picked up the reputation of being a drunk fest event, I tasted the best Zinfandel I had ever tasted. The barrel sample at Preston was amazing and I called and called about the wine, as it moved from barrel to bottle, and then through bottle aging, before release. At last, I got to taste the wine, and my disappointment was huge. Almost every Zinfandel I had tasted growing up blended a little Carignane with the Zinfandel, but this wine had blended the full allowable 25 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon into the Zinfandel, a blend I had never tasted before, making the wine taste nothing like any Zinfandel I had ever tasted. The blend yielded a wine that had lost all varietal correctness for me.

Because I loved Preston, I ended up tasting the wine again and again, and with each tasting I came to be upset less and less. Although the wine didn’t really taste like Zinfandel, letting go of the influence of remembering what had been the best barrel sample ever, and asking myself, not as a Zinfandel, but simply as a wine, was it good? Did I like it? The answer surprised me, as in time it became yes. This was, when not judged for varietal correctness, a delicious wine and incredibly food friendly.

Sparkling wines are often blends; any time you see the word Cuvee on a label, that sparkling wine is a blend, usually a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

Every local Coro Mendocino wine ever made is a blend, with Zinfandel comprising 40-70 percent of the wine, and the balance largely grapes that have historically grown alongside Zinfandel in the county going back 100 years.

Winemakers using only Bordeaux varietal grapes in a blend where no varietal meets the 75 percent or higher threshold can label that wine Meritage, if that winery joins the Meritage association and sends one of each case they make to the person who coined the portmanteau, joining the words marriage and heritage, at the program’s inception.

Saracina has their Atrea Old Soul Red, Greg Graziano has his Saint Gregory Pinotrois; local proprietary blends abound.

I find blends exciting because they free a winemaker of the need to hew to varietal correctness, and allow for greater artistry. With no burden of expectation, the wines often surprise and delight.

I frequently serve blends with a dinner and revel in the way the different foods on my plate pull different aroma and flavor notes from the component wines of the blend, allowing the wine to pair brilliantly, but differently, with each dish.

Blend wines are often natural food chameleons, going with a wide variety of flavors, and, as such, should be sought out when enjoying a meal at one of inland Mendocino county’s wine friendly restaurants.

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John Cesano writes about wine and has more than two hundred posts online at JohnOnWine.com

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John On Wine

Join me for two wine events on September 7th

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on August 29, 2013 By John Cesano
John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

Saturday, Sept. 7 is going to be a spectacularly full and fun day for me, with wine flowing from early in the day into the night, as I will help celebrate Mendocino County’s wine industry at two events. I hope you can join me at one, or both, of the day’s events.

First up is Winesong, a benefit for the Mendocino Coast Hospital Foundation, in Fort Bragg. This year marks the 29th Winesong Auction & Tasting, and the previous 28 annual Winesong wine events have led directly to lives saved as the next closest hospital is at least an hour away.

“The generosity of past guests, donors and volunteers have allowed the Hospital to purchase new equipment such as an ambulance, echocardiography system, Nuclear Medicine Camera and provided essential funding for our Elwin Cox Memorial Cancer Care Fund,” explains this year’s auction catalog, allowing the hospital to provide “many specialty practices including oncology, cardiology, obstetrics, general surgery, orthopedic surgery and wellness” for “everyone who lives, works, or vacations on the Mendocino Coast.”

Saturday starts with Mendocino County’s best wineries (plus some stars from outside the county) and food purveyors providing a wonderful tasting with tables set up throughout the breathtakingly beautiful Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. A $100 donation allows guests to wander through the gardens from 11 a.m. -2 p.m., tasting the wines of over 100 premium producers and the taste treats from more than 50 top food purveyors, while bidding on a dazzling array of silent auctions.

A $200 donation adds a reserved seat under the tent for the live auction with a three course lunch by James Beard award winning celebrity chef Bradley Ogden, and a Winesong tote bag, all following the three hour wine and food tasting through the gardens. Narsai David, KCBS radio’s food and wine luminary, will be the event’s Master of Ceremonies.

The live auction items are a collection of 75 jealousy inducing wine, restaurant, hotel, event, and vacation packages, while the silent auction lots include stays at vineyard guest houses, art, library wines, and more.

The auction items are truly awesome, and I hope if you attend Winesong that you will bid and wish you luck, hoping you win. That said, I am a simple man, and the opportunity to choose from among so many highly rated and award winning wines paired with bites of the most delicious foods, while surrounded by the verdantly lush Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, and then a Bradley Ogden meal with wine, well, that is what I imagine Heaven must be like.

I will be pouring a variety of Gold Medal, Double Gold Medal, and Best of Class awarded wines for McFadden Vineyard, wearing my figurative McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room manager hat, while sporting a literal broad brimmed straw hat. Tasters will have fun as I try to impart a little story with each wine poured, definitely more fun than the folks pouring for whatever winery shares my table as they hear a non-stop three hour live commercial for all things McFadden.

To get your tickets to this Heaven on Earth charity event, visit http://www.winesong.org

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After Saturday’s early pouring on the coast, I will drive back over the hill to attend the 3rd annual BBQ and Blending Barn Party at Testa Ranch and Vineyards in Calpella, just north of Ukiah on North State street, from 5 ­ 10 p.m. that same day, Saturday, Sept. 7.

I attended the first Testa BBQ and Blending Barn Party and found it virtually impossible to blend the component wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, and Petite Sirah, and not have the result taste great.

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John Cesano at the first Testa Barn Blend BBQ

Each table will get to create, through trial and tasting, their favorite blend which will help Maria Testa find the perfect blend percentages for her fifth flagship red wine, the Testa Black “Cinque.” To help lubricate the blending work, there will be wine poured to inspire your creativity. This year, for the first time, each table’s blend will be entered in a blind tasting by judges who will select a winner!

The three judges are John Buchenstein, Rosemary Eddy, and John Cesano, which explains why I am happily driving back to Testa instead of staying overnight on the coast.

As I would be impressed by a blend that wasn’t delicious, I’m predisposed to award gold medals to all entrants with one wine chosen Best of Class by John, Rosemary, and me.

Appetizers served at your table, then a barbecue dinner with Italian pasta and salad and bread to follow, before the desert and dancing begins. Additional wine will be sold by the glass or bottle.

Rusty Martinson works the grill like a master, and I have enjoyed oysters to chicken in the past. I’m looking forward to this year’s food off the grill, and of course the pasta and salad.

Local music sensation and Nashville recording artist, McKenna Faith will perform this year.

Individual tickets are $70, or $55 for Testa wine club members. Reserved tables for eight are $560, or just $440 for Testa wine club members.

Here’s the deal. I love Testa wines, and this event is a blast! To get your tickets before they sell out, call Maria Testa Martinson at (707) 391-7273.

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Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. Save the date on your calendar for at least one or, even better, two local wine events, and if you see me that day say hello.

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John on Wine – Flotsam and Jetsam

By John Cesano

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on July 25, 2013

Flotsam and Jetsam refers to a ship’s wreckage and parts thrown overboard, and as today’s column deals with some instances where I have run aground or left pieces out of past columns, the title seems apt.

First, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Guinness McFadden planted the first grapes in Potter Valley at his McFadden Farm, about 43 years ago.

Iceberg ahead, and…crash! The day the piece ran, Guinness called me to tell me I was incorrect and that a couple of folks had planted grapevines in Potter Valley before he showed up on the scene.

I had read about McFadden Farm when I came on board as Guinness’ tasting room manager in Hopland and a wine writer with decades of experience wrote about Guinness planting the first grapes in Potter Valley, even adding that others thought he would fail because Potter Valley was too cold for grape vines.

At a wine event later that evening, Barra winemaker Owen Smith, after I shared my chagrin at having perpetuated an inaccuracy, told me that “when faced with fact and legend, print the legend,” paraphrasing the movie quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Turns out I did, but I really try to get it right each week.

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Last week, I wrote about Seebass Family Wines, “Seebass is open by appointment, please call (707) 467-9463 to arrange a visit,” but since my visit they have changed things a bit and, at least through July, the Seebass tasting room and organic produce stand is now open daily from 11 a.m. 5 p.m., no appointment needed.

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I wrote about the first Chef’s Wine Dinner Club event at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah held back in May. More recently, the second Chef’s Brewmaster Dinner Club event, pairing food with brew was held last week and next on the list is a Chef’s Wine Dinner Club featuring Italian varietals produced by some local wineries. So many possibilities come to mind: Barra, Testa, Chiarito, Graziano, and more; I’ve got to get my ticket. To get on the Chef’s Wine Dinner Club list with Crush, call (707) 463-0700.

EDITED TO ADD: A change since I first wrote the preceding bit, the next Chef’s Winemaster Dinner Club event will be August 21 and feature the Wines of Barra of Mendocino. I’ll be buying my ticket as soon as they become available. – JC 7/25

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I’m going to my second Testa Wine Club Dinner this year, missing last year’s only because of a calendar conflict. Like more than half of the attendees, I am going because I adore Maria; that Maria’s wines are so good makes the night all the better. Officially called the 3rd annual Barn Blending BBQ, it will take place on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 from 5 to 10 p.m.

From TestaWines.com: “This is a fun event! Your table works together, blending our three varietal components of our Black “Cinque” ­ To find your tables favorite blend percentages. Then, for the first time, we will then offer for your table to enter your blend in a blind tasting by our wine judges to have a winner!”

Last year, while blending the Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carignane that goes into the Black blend, a few folks took some of the Zinfandel provided to drink while blending ­- blending is hard work ­- and used it as a fourth component in their blends. Maria was so impressed with the result of some of the blends using Zinfandel that she may add it as a blending component at this year’s event.

Two years ago, when I last blended, at Maria’s first barn party, I was at a table with Kelly Lentz and we found it impossible to make a bad blend with Maria’s wines.

Maria is also talking about letting folks choose whether they want to blend a Black (red) or White wine. Grapes available for white wine blending would include Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat Canelli, and Viognier.

Maria got two great judges, John Buechsenstein and Rosemary Eddy, and one okay judge, me. We’ll taste the blends each table decides upon and choose our favorites. Maria will use the winning blends for guidance as to what people like when making her next Black and White wines.

Appetizers will be served -­ my fingers are crossed for some of Rusty’s barbecued oysters, then a barbecue dinner with Italian pasta, followed by dessert and dancing. Ukiah’s own Nashville recording artist McKenna Faith will be performing.

Tickets are $55 for Testa wine club members, $70 for the public, and you can call (707) 391-7273 to get yours.

Gold medals are rare, and are rarely repeated in back to back wine competitions. Double Golds, unanimous agreement for Gold by a competition’s judges is rarer still. Maria’s 2010 Testa Carignane has taken Consecutive Double Gold Medals! You might like this wine. Visit Testa at 6400 North State Street in Calpella.

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Martha Barra dropped off a couple of bottles for me to taste, including the 2010 Girasole Vineyards Hybrid Red Wine, Mendocino, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot blend that just took a Gold Medal after the previous vintage took back to back Gold Medals. Two vintages of the same wine, rolling up three consecutive Gold Medals suggests this just might please your palate as well. Visit Barra/Girasole at 7051 North State Street in Redwood Valley.

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John Cesano writes about wine and reposts his weekly wine column at JohnOnWine.com

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