The subject of field blends tends to come up with some degree of frequency in conversations about wine, and it rather oddly seems to be doing so with a somewhat greater rate just lately. I suspect it has something to do with the seemingly ever-present (and perhaps increasing?) tension between what are oft considered to be competing schools of thought as regards the production of wine, with one side being perceived as (or self-identifying as) “traditionalists” engaging in the practice of “natural” winemaking, and the other side being “modernists” who have embraced technology and its associated contemporary methodologies in pursuit of their winemaking goals, and who have accordingly often abandoned certain other approaches as being outmoded. Numerous practices become subject to judgments of a sort when the debates are framed thusly, and this seems a likely cause for the controversy surrounding field blends.
Put simply, a field blend is a wine comprised of the juice of more than one type of grape (i.e. a “blend”), in which said blended grapes are actually planted together in the same vineyard. In short, they are blended in “the field,” as opposed to being blended in the winery. Many of the older-vine properties in Northern California are planted in this fashion; an archetypal old-vine California vineyard might be planted primarily to zinfandel, with small plantings of carignane and petite sirah inter-planted amongst the zinfandel vines.
I had recent cause to assemble some thoughts on the subject of field blends, courtesy of a very fascinating article that was posted on Tom Wark’s very excellent “Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog.” Initially, I had planned only to offer a written response to the article (and the ensuing comments) by posting a comment myself, which I did, but in the weeks since, as the question of field blends has continued to come across my radar, it occurred to me to put up a post of my own, based on what I wrote on Tom’s site (if you’re not already reading his blog, I encourage you to do so. In addition to the consistently fine articles, the comment sections are truly a wonder. The article I responded to featured, among others, comments from the likes of Steve Heimoff, Charlie Olken, and Joel Peterson!). What follows is essentially a mini-manifesto of sorts, attempting to explain Ridge’s devotion to, and continued production of, field-blended wines, and offering up our Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines as key examples of type.
The reasons for our dedication to a field-blend model are numerous, and run the gamut from rather more abstract philosophical stances to more tangible factors related to taste and quality. But in the end, I think it’s safest to say that the field-blend model is part-and-parcel with Ridge’s fundamental commitment to honoring the true character of any given vineyard to the best of our ability. Ridge is (save for one exception) a single-vineyard producer, fundamentally dedicated to practicing a (choose your term) non-interventionist/minimum-impact set of methodologies in both the vineyard and the winery, in hopes of capturing all the singularities that make up the full expression of a particular vineyard; the field-blend concept being but one component in an over-arching spread of decisions made to reflect this commitment. Integrated Pest Management, Beneficial Crop Cover, Irrigation Management, Reduced Tillage, Compositing and Recyling, etc. are all examples of this fundamental philosophy in action. The point being is that every vineyard we work with has its own unique set of characteristics — microclimate, soil types, vine age and history, topography, etc. — and by trying to “intervene” as little as possible, we hope to accordingly ultimately craft a wine that is unique to its vineyard. So, by this reasoning, if the vineyard is planted as a field blend, then the wine we make will be a field blend.
There is of course tremendous market pressure out there demanding vintage-to-vintage consistency, but for our purposes, this kind of consistency cannot possibly be honest to the vineyards; Mother Nature does not repeat herself, so neither should her wines. Via the single-vineyard methodology, however, I think a wonderful kind of consistency is more than achievable. For example, Ridge’s Geyserville (a field blend) may change year to year, but it always tastes like Geyserville, and accordingly, unlike any other wine out there. This is, to my way of thinking, a sort of holy grail intersection of terroir and the marketplace; integrity as regards representing the vineyard, integrity as regards representing the brand.
All the concerns raised about field blends (uneven ripening being the most common) are certainly at least arguably valid, but just because something is difficult to manage shouldn’t mean it isn’t pursued, and to suggest that field blends can’t possibly attain greatness would seem to fly in the face of the long-term and fairly legendary success of a great many Californian wines; I like to think of both Geyserville and Lytton Springs being in that category, and it would seem there is at least some degree of support for that faith. Not that the critical intelligentsia working in the world of wine should be seen as be-all/end-all barometers of quality, but if we can take it as a safe assumption that Parker/Laube/Tanzer/Dias Blue/Robinson et al have achieved their prominence via some sort of reputable skill sets, then I think it’s safe to say that the Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines have earned their fair share of accolades from all corners of the critical world, and they’ve done so as field-blends. In addition, I spend every weekend of my life sharing these wines with guests at our Monte Bello Tasting Room, and I know first-hand the pleasure these wines bring to their palates.
In the end, to each their own, of course, but we as a producer believe in field-blends, and I like to think our wines prove the concept; I love the Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines; I love them year after year after year, and I think their singular array of complexities and multi-tiered aromatics and flavors are due in no small part to the performance of those field-blended varietals.