Winemakers & the Mother Bear Syndrome

It’s the ultimate tasting-among-winemakers "No No". And I committed it.

Actually I’ve committed this particular sin on a number of occasions. It’s just that I’ve become accustomed to the evil looks and dismissive head-shaking, so I keep doing it…Because it’s fun.

Winemakers are protective, very protective, of not just their own concoctions, but of their colleagues’ wines too. I think it’s akin to being a Motherhood thing. The wines are their spawn. They’ve worked hard to bring them into the world. You don’t mess with them. And when they see someone mess with a wine, whether it’s their baby or not, winemakers get a little irked.

The winemaker across from me got irked the other day. I could see it in her eyes the way they became saucer-like, the way her lips pursed, and the way she remained silent  then turned her back and swiftly left he tasting. I think she was particularly upset with the obvious child-like look of playfulness on my face as I completely obliterated three of her colleagues’ wines.

What had I done? I blended together parts of three different, finished wines into one glass to make, essentially, a different wine. The varietal was Chardonnay. the appellation was Russian River Valley. The final product: All my own.

I was at a tasting where 10 RRV chards were being evaluated by winemakers and other trade types. It was a typical tasting of this sort: taste through them all blind, take notes, then talk about them. It was an interesting tasting. As always, winemakers can be brutal when tasting wines, even if their own wine is in the tasting.

But there were these three wines: one was pretty darn acidic and carried an intense citrus core. Another was one of those big, over the top, oaky buttery numbers. And the final one was one of the new unoaked, tropical-fruit driven wines. They were begging to be blended. And If I do say so, the final wine I blended into one glass was pretty good.

I do this sort of thing a lot towards the end of a tasting. Call it childish. Some have identified it as the "control freak" in me. But winemakers just don’t like. They don’t like he idea of someone adulterating their product they have worked so hard to create. I don’t know if this kind of protectiveness extends to other professions. I don’t know if chefs get upset if I create forkful of their lamb shank with the garlic mashed potatoes on the plate. I don’t know if the makers of Pepsi and Schweppes get upset when I combine their two products in glass.

I suppose I should be more considerate when the winemaker who produced the wine that I diluted with another is sitting across from me. It’s not as though I’m telling them that their wine is no good. I’m not even telling them that I made their wine a little better. I’m just playing.

The lesson is this: winemakers are a combination mother, artist and technician. The mother in them is protective and their artistic side makes them somewhat ego driven. Be prepared for an an ugly look if you choose to harm their baby or adulterate their creation.

Posted In: Culture and Wine


11 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - January 26, 2006

    You’re right about the touchiness of wineries and winemakers, Tom. There used to be a winery that bottled separately chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from the same vintage and then the next year released a blend of those grapes, I guess as a “reserve” proprietary wine with additional bottle age. So once, in the mid 90s, when I was tasting samples of the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc the winery had sent, in a fit of waggishness I went ahead and blended my own version, approximating the percentages that the winery typically used, and wrote about the result in my print column. And that was the last I heard from that winery. Later I heard from their local distributor that they were not amused.

  2. Elaine - January 26, 2006

    I thought I was the only sensitive one. I work for my family winery, and my dad used to be the winemaker until I cam home with my degree 6 years ago. We have butted heads ever since. About a month ago I brought him two samples of wines I had made. He criticized both. Then he poured the two samples into one glass, tasted it, and called it Perfect. I was livid.
    Your post makes me feel like I wasn’t out of line, he was.
    I think you’re ok to blend if the winemaker isn’t there, and also if you don’t say your blend is automatically better. Winemakers love to experiment, and sounds like you have a flare for that too. Probably one of the reasons you are drawn to wine in the first place.

  3. tom - January 26, 2006

    I understand the implulse on the part of the winemaker to disdain this kind of act. You finally get something in the bottle that you’ve probably worked very hard on, something that, i somecases, is more than a season’s work. Then someone like me or you come along and just messes it all up. On the other hand, it really is fun to do.

  4. Dave - January 26, 2006

    Winemaking seems to involve as much art as it does science and no artist likes their product corrupted. But then if they don’t know….

  5. Bradley - January 26, 2006

    Go ahead and blend it in front of me. I won’t care. Much.
    Number one rule: Drink what you like. Blending a winner starts to resemble a dog chasing its tail after awhile; the combinations are endless. At some point you’ve got to stop and say, “This is a good effort. I’ve made a quality product. A large number of people will agree.”
    If I worried about what happens to the wine when it goes to their homes and restaurants I’d go nuts over food combos, storage practices and table-top blending exercises.
    If you’re a wine maker that sees each creation as some sort of inalterable extension of self then I would suggest maybe another field, Rembrandt.

  6. David - January 26, 2006

    Amateur blending sounds interesting to me. I have very little experience in this, besides blending Chards like Tom did above.
    Anyone know where to find some tips or tricks on blending at home? Or does anyone have a blend they’d be willing to share?
    Thank You

  7. Iris - January 26, 2006

    I quite agree with Elaine – it’s probably better, when the winemaker isn’t there – except when he takes part in the game.
    I do it from time to time with my wines – when nobody is looking. You’re right, our wines are a bit like our children and I always worry, whether they are treated right out there in the foreign world…
    But I understand you’re playing attitude, so go on – and if it’s a better result – well, we always can learn something

  8. mommy-salame - January 26, 2006

    I love the perfect wine. But being an artist, I have horrible trouble mixing any wine, even though, it may possibly make it better for my palette. The artist (winemaker) has chosen to release the wine this way. This is their work of art. When I see a painting that just isn’t quite right, I will not decide to add a few strokes to make it better so that I will like it better. It just doesn’t make sense. It is not my piece, even if it is in my home. I just enjoy their creation however they chose it to be.

  9. David - January 26, 2006

    Mommy, what about when people put a frame on a certain piece of art? Should they consult the artist before doing so? It does change the artists creation.

  10. Needz - January 26, 2006

    As a home wine-maker, I always found blending to be the most fun, and I often do what Tom describes with a wine I’ve purchased that comes across as lacking something that I know another wine in my cellar has more than enough of — I call the results “kitchen blends”.

  11. keef - January 26, 2006

    You might as well have spat in their faces. Go try and make your own wine and leave the winemakers alone for awhile.

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