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May 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

Barrel Tasting and Blending

Winery tasting rooms elevate tasting experience with blending

by Andrew Adams
Northstar Blending
After completing the process, participants keep a sealed and labeled bottle of their own blends.

One of the least publicized jobs of the winemaker is on display at two wineries owned by the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates group.

At Northstar winery in Walla Walla, Wash., visitors can taste through the differences in Merlot from separate AVAs and then craft a blend, while guests of Conn Creek winery in Napa Valley can explore the nuances of that region’s AVAs while making their own Cabernet blend.

Blending Washington
Northstar winery has placed four barrels of Merlot, one barrel of Petit Verdot and one of Cabernet Sauvignon in a special tasting area to provide wine for the blending experience.

Visitors receive a short presentation about the appellations from which the grapes were sourced as well as the principles of tasting and blending wine before sampling each of the wines by drawing on a spigot on the barrelhead.

The barrels are filled with Merlot from Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain AVA. The Cabernet Sauvignon is from Walla Walla Valley, and the Petit Verdot is from the Wahluke Slope AVA in Columbia Valley.

Bladder system keeps wine fresh
Both Northstar and Conn Creek use a bladder system to preserve the wine in each barrel. After a barrel is filled, a staff member inserts a plastic bladder through the bunghole. The bladder is connected with a glass tube fixture containing a mixture of citric acid, sulfur dioxide and water. As wine is removed from the barrel, the sanitary solution flows into the bladder, making it expand and keeping the barrel “filled.”

During the first four months, guests drew 5 gallons of wine from each of the six barrels at Northstar winery. Once the glass tube is empty, winery staff remove the bladder and add more wine to the barrel and solution to the cylinder to maintain proper fill levels.


  • Two properties owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates offer a wine-blending experience for visitors.
  • Guests use graduated cylinders and barrel samples to develop their blends.
  • The recipes they create are then used to fill 750ml bottles, so that each visitor takes home his/her wine blend.

The blending experience helps Northstar and Conn Creek provide guests with a memorable experience while also teaching them about the craft of blending. “Even as a Merlot specialist, everything we do at Northstar is about blending to some degree: blending vineyards, blending barrels and blending varietals,” said David “Merf” Merfeld, the winemaker at Northstar.

Single bottle of a souvenir blend
Once they’ve picked the wines they prefer, guests then dial in the specific blend by using graduated cylinders and pipettes. After a guest has settled on a blend composition, he or she measures out a 750ml bottle, seals it with a manual corker and affixes a special label. The experience costs $85 per person or $65 for wine club members at Northstar.

Northstar winery produces 30,000 cases of wine per year according to the Wines Vines Analytics database, and two-thirds of that production is Merlot. The winery belongs to the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates group, which includes several other wineries and brands in Washington state as well as Napa Valley, Calif.

Conn Creek winery in St. Helena, Calif., also makes around 30,000 cases per year; it specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery offers a similar experience using several barrels of wine, all sourced from different AVAs in Napa Valley. The experience also costs $65 for club members but is priced slightly higher than Northstar at $95 for the general public.

After blending, visitors take home a bottle of their own blend but also have the option to share their blend through the Conn Creek website “blend gallery.”

The gallery lists several different wines such as one named “Smokin Sam’s Good Time Wine,” created by a visitor from North Richland Hills, Texas, that was comprised of 5% to 10% portions of various Napa AVAs such as Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain and Rutherford as well as small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

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