Each semester our Intro to Wine Business class schedules a fieldtrip to a local winery in order to see and hear about cost/quality issues with the various vineyard farming methods and cellar operations. It is always more useful to see actual equipment and trellising systems, and hear about their impact from vineyard/operations managers than just learn about it in class, from a book, and/or via video.
In order to be fair, we generally flip-flop back and forth between Napa and Sonoma wineries, as well as change winery size each semester. This Spring we were scheduled to visit a large winery on the Sonoma side, so we accepted Constellation’s offer to visit one of their facilities. They have 4 major wineries in Sonoma County: Ravenswood, Blackstone, Simi, and Clos de Bois. We decided on Blackstone, because it is relatively close to campus, and also because they make both a mass-market and higher-tier level of wine – which is interesting to explore from a cost/quality perspective.
The tour started at 2pm at the Barrica Vineyard on Highway 12 with around 40 millennials. It was a cloudy, cold day and threatening rain, but everyone enjoyed walking through the vineyards with the vineyard manager and other Constellation employees to hear about the different trellis systems. The Barrica vineyard is famous for old vine zinfandel that is head-pruned, but they also had some GDC (Geneva Double Curtain) and VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning) nearby. They use sustainable farming practices – meaning they try to be organic, but will employ non-organic products if necessary (The 3 E’s: Environmentally Friendly; Socially Equitable; and Economically Feasible). This vineyard is hand-harvested, but Constellation also has many other vineyards that use mechanization.
After about an hour in the vineyard, we headed to Blackstone Winery just a few miles north on Highway 12. We were greeted by the General Manager/Winemaker, hospitality staff, and winemakers from other Constellation properties. They provided an excellent tour of the cellar, starting at the point where the grapes are brought to the winery and weighed in truck, then transported to destemmer/crusher, press, tanks, barrels, etc. They had several different large presses and we spent an interesting amount of time listening to the economics of how much juice can be pressed from the grapes before quality is compromised.
Blackstone Winery is, of course, well known for its merlot, which is still the #1 best selling merlot in the USA, and retails for around $9.99 per bottle. They also make cabernet, syrah, chardonnay and other varietals in this basic California appellation line which is close to 1.4 million cases. However, none of this wine is made at the Blackstone Winery in Sonoma – instead it is made at a large industrial winery near Soledad from grapes which are sourced throughout California. Blackstone Winery in Sonoma County focuses on creating an ultra-premium wine from Sonoma County grapes with a total production of around 200,000 cases, and higher price points – most starting at $17 and up.
After the operations tour, they treated us to a wonderful tasting on the outside patio under heat-lamps. In addition to 6 wonderful wines from their different wineries, Constellation provided delicious trays of local cheese, crackers, and nuts. We started with the 2008 Clos de Bois Fume Blanc Russian River Reserve, which was both refreshing with citrus, but complex with smoky notes and a textured body. It paired well with the chevre cheese. Next was the 2008 Simi Chardonnay from Sonoma County which was had rich, luscious yellow apple/pear flavors and was made from 3 different vineyards. This was excellent with a local triple cream brie that melted in your mouth.
Next was the 2007 Barrica Vineyard Zinfandel. It was fascinating tasting a wine from the vineyard we had just visited, and the winemaker was there to explain the complete winemaking process. She said they added about 25% petite syrah, because it was planted as a field blend in the vineyard. Only 2000 cases were made of this special single vineyard designation, and I found it to be a more elegant zin with some intriguing cola and dark berry mingled with the subtle pepper and good acid structure. The zin paired better with some of the hard Italian cheeses.
Next we moved onto the reserve Blackstone line, starting with the 2007 Blackstone Merlot Reserve Sonoma County ($17) with soft tannins, plum fruit, herbs, and a hint of cab at 7%. From there we tried the 2007 Blackstone Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) which was big, complex with cassis, leather, cedar, and included some cab franc and petite verdot. Much of the fruit was from Alexander Valley and this seemed to be a great price for the quality. We concluded with the 2007 Blackstone Rubric ($24) which is their flagship wine made from all 5 Bordeaux grapes as well as a dash of tannat. It is a big, powerful wine with ripe plum/cassis made in a modern style with a high alcohol finish.
At the end of the 3 hour tour, Constellation was kind enough to give each student a gift bag with some great bumper stickers, pens, pencils, cork screw and other fun goodies. They also extended a nice discount for the tasting room.
Back in class the following week, we did our usual voting poll (though this time the wines were not blind), in order to find out which of the 6 wines were the favorites of the 40 Millennials who attended. Though all wines received votes, the clear #1 favorite was the 2007 Blackstone Reserve Merlot Sonoma County, followed very closely by the 2007 Ravenswood Barrica Vineyard Zinfandel. For more information on where to find these wines, visit www.blackstonewinery.com and www.ravenswoodwinery.com