As with most things in life, collaboration is the key to success. In the world of wine, collaboration is evident between winemakers and growers, winemakers and coopers and so forth. Yet when the critical stage of blending a wine happens, many winemakers go it alone. Blending various wines means that different clones, different toast levels of barrels, and grapes from different vineyards, must be taken into account in order to produce a stand-out wine.

For Summerland Winery’s winemaker, Etienne Terlinden, this is part and parcel of the job. Along with his duties at Summerland Winery, based in Santa Barbara, Terlinden also has his own label, Cordon, and makes wine for other private labels. Recently, I was invited by Terlinden to join him for a blending session at his Central Coast facility.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Summerland has 450 barrels of wine, including Syrah and Pinot Noir, among others. For Terlinden, and Summerland’s owner Bilo Zarif who started the blending practice when he owned Barnwood and Letitia Wineries, it’s important to know each barrel intimately. To begin the blending process, samples are taken from each barrel and placed in small 10 ML bottles, all labeled and numbered. Everything is consistent.

One of the keys to blending wines is the consensus of palettes, including a female palette. Enter Michele Pignarre le Danios, a stocky French woman who, in addition to consulting for Summerland Winery in the U.S., has also worked for over 30 years consulting for many top Bordeaux Chateau and teaching oenology in her native France. Le Danois was also a student of the legendary French oenoligist, Emile Peynaud, so she knows a thing or two.

In a vast warehouse setting, surrounded by barrels stacked ten high, Le Danois and Terlinden sit across from each other, making notes and moving sample bottles around the table like a game of chess. All samples are sorted by grape and clonal selection. In front of us are Pinot Noir samples, clone 115, from Solomon Hills in Santa Maria. “Every year it’s a different recipe,” Le Danois tells me, “you have to know the climate, the maturation of the grapes.” Each sample is swirled, smelled and tasted, then, depending on the reaction, Terlinden blends several samples into a master sample. “It’s like the artist’s palette,” he says. “Two barrels out of a hundred can ruin the lot. Tasting every barrel in a structured environment can get us from a good wine to a great wine.” Le Danois agrees, referring to creating blends as, “making a stew.” The Pinot from one barrel may have a light toast, whereas the Pinot from another may have a heavy toast.

The first master sample is complete. “Too acidic,” they agree. Another sample blend receives a favorable response. Terlinden opens a bottle of 2005 Summerland Pinot Noir to compare with the current blend, which will spend two more months in barrel. The blend is softer in the mouth with more pronounced red berry fruit, whereas the bottle of the 2005 is more masculine, less fruit but with more mineral qualities. “Sometimes blending is a nightmare,” Le Danois confides,” but occasionally you get it right the first time.” It’s a tedious, time consuming process. “Last year we spent five days blending, ten hours a day,” Terlinden confesses. He grabs other sample bottles, they taste and smell and make another master sample blend. Then they move to the next group of bottles. But it’s worth it. Summerland’s wines are receiving high praise, proving that a focused approach to blending can produce outstanding results.