Blending With Bob & Jim Varner

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I have a friend who pretty much works out for a living. He’s very much into bodybuilding and over the course of his career has used his size and strength to become quite successful. With his 60th birthday on the horizon, I wanted to send him a nice bottle of wine for the occasion, but before doing so I asked him via text:

How do you feel about illicit performance enhancers when it comes to bodybuilding? Is it cheating? Or does the end justify the means?

Knowing the incredible amount of respect my friend has for both natural athletic ability and a hard day’s work at the gym, I wasn’t surprised by his response:

“Natural is always better,” he texted back.

Now apply the same analogy to wine. How do you feel about flavor enhancers? How do you feel about wine being changed and manipulated after it’s been fermented, using products like oak chips, toasted staves, chemical powders, or proprietary concentrates like Mega Purple? How do you feel about changing the alcohol level of a wine to make it fuller? How do you feel about micro-oxygenation (pumping in tiny bubbles) to make it softer? How do you feel about putting a wine through a reverse osmosis process in order to remove certain chemical flaws in the winemaking?

Is that cheating? Some people think so.

In the world of Scotch whisky, many of the genre’s most devout purists are fervently against the addition of sweeteners, coloring, or any other enhancement that artificially manipulates the inherent flavor of the malt. However, few if any serious whisky drinkers have a problem with blending whiskies together if the resulting liquid is sublime. In fact, when you buy just about any standard single malt expression in the store today, the odds are you’re drinking a marriage of whiskies matured in a number of different cask types. Ex-Bourbon barrels impart vanilla. Ex-Sherry barrels impart sweetness. You need a little more texture in your single malt? Blend in a little more sherry-aged whisky. You want it less sweet? Add in more whisky from a second-fill hogshead. Blending is a way to balance out a whisky’s flavor without resorting to chemical enhancements. It’s what Bob and Jim Varner, the twin brothers behind some of California’s best wines, refer to as “non-interventionist” methods.

Bob and Jim Varner at their winery

Bob and Jim Varner at their winery

“In Santa Barbara County, sometimes the acid in the Chardonnay is on the high side and, for the style, we don’t want it to go through malo,” Bob told me during our phone conversation this week; “So we blend in the Paso Robles Chardonnay, which is lower in acid and has more mid-palate texture. That’s our non-interventionist way of lowering the acidity: by blending in a wine with lower acid.” Malo is short for malolactic fermentation, often a natural process which turns the tart malic acid, like in a lemon, into the softer lactic acid, like in milk. It’s what transforms a Chardonnay from crisp and refreshing into creamy and sometimes buttery.

Bob was referring to his Foxglove Chardonnay, one of the best value wines I’ve ever tasted from the state of California. I say this without hyperbole: I personally hand-sold more than 300 cases of Foxglove during my decade of retail on the San Francisco Peninsula. It helped that Bob and Jim are just down the street in Menlo Park, are two of the nicest guys in the business, and are frequently buying wine from the store, but the wine is also crisp, clean, delicious, and 100% additive-free. At less than fifteen bucks a bottle, there’s really no comparison. Before asking what makes the wine so good, I thought it was important to ask Bob and Jim why they felt the need to make it in the first place. With the Varner portfolio already encompassing some of the best wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains (perennial contenders for best in the state), why bother going after the value market?

“For a couple of reasons,” Bob told me; “There is satisfaction in providing an everyday wine. It’s satisfying to provide people a wine they can afford at a high quality and we stuck to the idea of expressing the site first. We thought about where in the state we could get grapes that overdeliver for the price. That turned out to be the Central Coast.”

“One can challenge themself by making an expensive wine and saying money is no object,” Jim added; “But it’s equally as challenging to ask how can I make a good wine with character and personality on a restrained budget.”

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In bodybuilding or winemaking, it’s often the challenge that drives those in pursuit of integrity. For Bob and Jim, the challenge in making a great value wine started with sourcing the fruit. I asked why they decided to venture south, rather than somewhere in their own backyard. “We thought about where in the state we could get grapes that overdeliver for the price. That turned out to be the Central Coast,” Bob explained; “Along the Central Coast, the Chardonnay grapes are less phenolic driven, with less structure, In the Santa Cruz Mountains, you need oak to soften those tannins, if you want to be non-interventionist. But on the Central Coast you don’t need that oak, so stainless steel is the vessel, and that keeps the cost down. You have to pay attention not just to the flavors, but also to the structure of the grapes from the site that is given. The phenolic compounds are what give Chardonnay its depth.” 

“We got shut out of some grapes in Edna Valley,” Jim explained, “so we looked around and found a vineyard manager in that area who has been there since the seventies, and we convinced him that we were salt of the earth guys who knew viticulture. He said ‘I could sell you some grapes, but what you’re looking for is across the street from me.’ When we’re looking for site character, it’s better to talk with vineyard managers than landowners.”

In California, it’s not uncommon to find vineyard owners that do little more than hold a deed or a title. Many are unfamiliar with how their vineyards are being farmed, which can be a risk for winemakers that want to purchase grapes with character, free of pesticides and other chemicals. It’s why some winemakers will often offer to farm the vineyards themselves in order to ensure the quality they’re after, or select certain parcels based on their flavor.

“When sourcing from that vineyard, we took several blocks,” Jim added; “We tried to keep the blocks separate to understand what each could give. Then we started refining from there: when we would pick each block, how much you would use from each, etc. One had more tropical flavors, one would have more structure, one had more acid. Depending on the year, we might put more or less of one of these characteristics into the wine.”

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If you read the previous post about blending with distiller Todd Leopold, then you have an idea of how far Todd was willing to go to ensure the texture in his gin, creating dozens of individual distillates that could be blended as needed, rather than a single spirit. In the case of the Varner brothers, they were willing to create multiple wines from separate parcels, that could be blended to ensure the character of their everyday Chardonnay, rather than fermenting all the grapes together. I asked how they approached that monumental task on an annual basis. You know you’ve hit the perfect spot when there’s energy and tension,” Jim explained; “It’s not necessarily about flavor, it’s about those two elements working together. You look for the focal point. You go past it, then you’re out of focus. It’s trial and error, but you can taste it and feel it when it’s there.”

“With blending, have a sense of where you’re going, but be open minded about how you get there,” Bob continued: “Throw away your preconceptions and concentrate on what’s in the glass. You might have an idea about how the components will react, but you won’t know until you taste it.”

“All of us have tasted a wine that’s fooled us with our preconceptions,” Bob said; “There’s always an exception. You have to go to the glass first.”

“If you put aside the preconceptions and look only in the glass, it’s a challenge,” Jim added, talking both about the winemaking process and the analysis of quality itself. “When Bob and I do it, we’re challenging ourselves. It keeps the job interesting. You’re engaged and thrilled when you win, and there’s emotion when you succeed.”

-David Driscoll