Wine-blending seminars: Where guests get to blend the rules

Third-place finisher Chris Oltmann, center, works on his blend at a wine-blending seminar at Opolo.
Third-place finisher Chris Oltmann, center, works on his blend at a wine-blending seminar at Opolo.

Sports camps teach you how to hit like a major leaguer. Culinary vacations offer access to professional kitchens. So what if your dream is to step into the shoes of a winemaker?

Several wineries are providing just that opportunity with blending events that are equal parts social occasion and serious hands-on winemaking seminar.

The basic concept is this: Guests, under the tutelage of an experienced winemaker, create blends using predetermined varietals.

There are myriad variations on this basic premise. For example, San Luis Obispo’s Claiborne & Churchill offers participants the chance to achieve a measure of fame. Teams concoct blends that participants judge in a blind tasting. After a few tweaks by the winemaker, the winning blend is bottled under the winery’s Clueless label.

Blending parties at Paso Robles’ Opolo Vineyards have their own competitive twist. “Guests winemakers” work independently, and a panel of industry professionals tastes the 50 (yes, 50) resulting blends. Award ribbons go to the top three, and the winner scores an etched double magnum of his or her blend, but nobody goes away empty-handed.

Every participant takes home a magnum of his or her own blend — but only after going through an abbreviated version of the winemaking process. This includes doing the math to convert a 100 ml sample blend into a 1,500 ml magnum. Guests then fill their own bottles, cork them, seal them by dipping them in hot wax, and select the names that are printed on their custom-created labels. For many, claiming that bottle is the best prize.

“I like light and sweet wines, so I’m never going to win,” said repeat participant Gabrielle Owens of Simi Valley, “but I know I’m going to get a bottle of wine that I like.”

Although blending event participants range from novices to serious connoisseurs, almost all come with a desire to expand their wine proficiency. Most events begin with a talk by the winemaker that includes information on each varietal, tips on achieving the optimal blend, as well as more esoteric facts such as brix and varietal origins. Science certainly plays a role, but the art of blending is mostly a matter of taste.

“At these events, you don’t need to know a lot about wine,” said Claiborne & Churchill winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia. “You just have to enjoy it and know what you like and don’t like.”

To cut the classroom atmosphere, many blending events mix in a dose of humor. Opolo keeps things light by awarding honorable mentions for dubious honors such as the most wine-splattered garb. Claiborne & Churchill asks each team to choose a name. Recent teams dubbed themselves everything from “Summer of Sixty Wine” to “The Terroirists.”

Food helps to facilitate the fun. Opolo sets up a table of gourmet appetizers and a wine bar so guests can graze and sip at their leisure. Claiborne & Churchill’s seminar breaks for lunch (and more wine) to allow Parker-Garcia to prepare each blend for the final tasting. A gourmet picnic on the patio, encircled by vineyards, offers a chance for participants to mingle in a more relaxed environment.

For many guests, social interaction is just as important as the wine. Bethany Filter of San Luis Obispo, who teamed up with several viticulture students at a recent Claiborne & Churchill event, considers herself a casual wine drinker.

“The social aspect was an important factor for me,” she said. “It’s easier to learn when you’re having fun.”

Group seating means you’re likely to make new acquaintances. Seating at Opolo is assigned. Guests at Claiborne & Churchill seat themselves, but the team structure provides a quick way to break the ice.

Some groups arrive already intact. The Opolo event included a boisterous group of a dozen neighbors who ventured over from Simi Valley — a kind of traveling block party.

A team at Claiborne & Churchill consisted of four former college buddies, two from Southern California and two from the Bay Area, who regularly meet up in San Luis Obispo County for wine tasting.

“We’d been following the Clueless label for awhile, but this is the first time we’ve been able to come to this event,” said team member Sara Randazzo, who noted that the seminars sell out quickly.

Wine blending naturally takes up the bulk of the event. Participants work with barrel samples and tools of the trade such as beakers, pipettes and graduated cylinders. At Opolo, guests even don lab coats.

Guests are left to tinker, taste and work at their own pace. Some are content to wrap up their blending quickly and spend more time sipping and chatting. Others take things more seriously.

One Claiborne & Churchill team, deadlocked over the last few percentages of their blend, needed a winery representative to act as tiebreaker so they could head to lunch.

Not surprisingly, it was this team, “The Nose Knows,” that came away victorious that day. Among them was San Luis Obispo’s Brittany Blalock, a first-time participant.

“I can’t wait until the wine is released and know that I helped create that blend,” she said. “I think I ended up telling everyone I know about my victory. I truly enjoyed the experience.”

Although there is only one first-prize winner at Opolo, everyone gains something, including a better grasp of how winemakers use blends to create a better product.

“It’s been interesting learning how small variations in a blend can make a huge difference in taste,” noted first-time participant Gena Thomas of Atascadero.

Simi Valley resident Greg Owens, who has placed second at Opolo three times and third once, received such a confidence boost in his winemaking abilities that he planted his own backyard vineyard. Perhaps even more valuable is how he now fearlessly navigates the wine aisle at his local grocery store.

“I used to have to buy a lot of wines to find one that I liked,” he said. “Now I know the direction to go because I have a better idea of my own tastes.”