A Seat At The Table: A Day In Which I Am Invited To Participate In The 2010 Assemblage Tasting!

It was with great anticipation and an understandable degree of nervousness that I hoisted a full rack of Riedels into the back of my car, settled in behind the wheel, and commenced the drive up from the tasting room to the upper winery. I had been invited to join the Monte Bello First Assemblage Tasting, and was acutely aware of what this meant; this was to be history quite literally in the making, and I was to be an active participant.

Monte Bello Road never looked so beautiful. Most of the vines had already been pruned, and they stood in their erratic rows riding the undulant slopes like thin adolescents nervous in the company of others, yet somehow noble in their certainty of belonging in the world. Those that had not yet been pruned seemed so wild by comparison; frozen in a moment of windy delight, the delicate tendrils of their frames arching and twisting in the swelling morning sunlight.

I had never yet had the honor of attending an assemblage tasting, and knew nothing of what to expect, yet somehow, as I entered the room to find Eric Baugher hunched over a countertop’s worth of decanters, beakers, funnels, and an iPhone set on Calculator, it was as if I’d seen it all in a dream. I hadn’t of course, but it was that kind of familiar. Within me the ratio of fear to excitement began to shift; I was calming even as my heart began to beat a little faster.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the process by which Monte Bello is brought to fruition, or “assembled,” I’ll do my best to offer a brief description, but to do this requires a return to the vineyard, for it’s there where the process truly begins. Ridge Vineyards practices something called “Differential Harvesting,” or “Sub-Parcel Harvesting.” It’s a viticultural methodology deployed in the service of capturing every micro-climatic nuance that may exist even within the boundaries of a single vineyard designation. Imagine an artist’s palette, flush with a rich and ripe array of shades, hues, and colors. It is with this range of options that a painter builds their work, relying on each idiosyncratic variation available on a color by color basis. A masterwork couldn’t be possible without the singularity of these microtonal variations being on offer. If the colors were all swirled together, the artist would end up with one amorphous, indistinct, and characterless tone with which to try and make something special; a near impossibility given the circumstances. Such is the same for a vineyard. Take a property like Monte Bello, with all its near-endless variabilities: slopes and valleys, young vines and old; north-running rows and west-running rows; near-constant sunlight and covering shade; mineral shifts and crop cover changes. Harvest this all together? Why, you’d be insane to! The preservation of each individual micro-climatic singularity makes a masterwork possible; not easy, mind you, but possible!

Differential and/or Sub-Parcel harvesting essentially simply means that we sub-divide the entire vineyard up into much smaller parcels; we then harvest each “lot” (or “block’) separately, in order to preserve it as a potential “ingredient” in the final assemblage (or “blend”) of Monte Bello. It’s essentially a way of eking maximum complexity and consistent individuality out of a property in the service of creating a supremely complex wine, without having to rely on trickery or retroactive corrections to achieve a desired result. Each block is separately harvested, and separately fermented, preserving its fruit as a pure and authentic expression of that portion of the vineyard, and rendering it a unique, and uniquely natural, ingredient on offer to the final assemblage of Monte Bello.

Which brings us back to the winery, and to the assemblage tasting. The assemblage tasting is essentially the system by which fermented juice from each lot is first independently assessed, and then assessed again in the context of an assemblage, or blend. The First Assemblage Tasting is accordingly exactly as titled; it is the first time the tasting team generates and creates an assemblage. Will it end up becoming the final Monte Bello? Only time will tell …

The great wooden table is both practical and elegant, functional and beautiful. Looming through the windows are fermentors and all the other apparatuses of a working winery, and sounding in the background are the thumps of pumps and the cheerful whistles of the crew as they go about the nuts and bolts business of making wine. On the table itself, one of my favorite sights; a tasting about to happen. Clear and shimmering glassware in perfect synchronicity, baskets of fresh artisan bread warm in the low light, wedges of rich and moist cheeses, carafes of water and bottles of olive oil. Soon each empty chair will be filled with a taster, before whom will wait a lined yellow notebook and a pen; these begin clean, but by day’s end they’ll be stained a mosaic of vivid purples, garnets, and ruby, as will teeth and tongues, fingers and napkins.

I begin by shadowing Eric for nearly 45 minutes; an intricate dance to say the least, as he barely leaves his place the entire time. By shadowing, I mean I follow each movement of a finger, each splash into a bottle, each tap upon a key, each mark of a pencil, all the while peppering him with questions. I have joined the second day’s tasting, so I have much to catch up on. How many blocks have “made the cut” so far? How many will comprise our core, and how many will be tested for potential inclusion? How large was each block, and where is it planted? I go dizzy a bit trying to keep it all straight, but the gist emerges to be this; 24 lots are still in the running, the smallest of which is about 2 barrels worth of juice, the largest about 14 barrels. All are solo varietal lots, save for one co-fermented cabernet sauvignon-cabernet franc option. Of these 24, 9 have been selected as the “core” assemblage for the tasting to come (this is the “control” we will commence the tasting with; please see below), and 4 have been held out completely for the time being, leaving 11 additional lots to be cycled in and tasted.

One by one, the other attendees enter the room. In the end, we will be Davis-trained Shun Ishikubo (Assistant Production Manager), Shinji Kurosawa (assisting at Crush and Assemblage each year), David Gates (Vice President of Vineyard Operations), Caleb Mosley (Monte Bello Vineyard Manager), myself, Karen Schmidt (Director of Quality Control/Chemist), John Olney (Vice President of Winemaking, Lytton Springs), Eric Baugher (Vice President of Winemaking, Monte Bello), and Paul Draper. This is how we’re seated, and I am grateful for the order, as it means 4 other participants will have to voice their tasting notes before it’s my turn! It’s a remarkable group of individuals, and I am struck, not for the first time, at the illustrious company I’ve somehow found myself with. My ratio starts to go a tad haywire; the fear level rises…

I take my seat. Eric is directly behind me, still methodically pouring, measuring, and labeling. There are four wine glasses before me, plus a bread plate, olive oil dish, water glass, and spit cup. I have achieved nirvana! No, this is to be my bodhisattva moment; I will discover enlightenment, yet remain amongst the world and all its sensorial complexities. In short, I am happy. To be a fly on the wall, a gift. To have a seat at the table, an honor. To lift a glass to the mouth, an awakening.

I must pause and insist it’s not hagiography I’m after in penning these thoughts in such fashion, nor do I wish to suggest that all was solemn, portentous, and reverent. Rather, the proceedings were often comical, loose, even ribald, with laughter regularly gracing our shared airwaves. But when the silence returned, and noses returned to glasses, heads bent over notebooks, and pens began to scratch, it was as meditative, focused, and inspiring as any zendo in the world.

The tasting begins. Two of my four glasses are filled. One glass holds the 9-lot “control”, the other contains the “Control + 1”; it has had a lot added. The tasting is “blind,” no one knows which glass contains which. The tasting begins.

Retroactively deciphering tasting notes from an affair such as this can be daunting to say the least. I am an oenophilic Dead Sea scholar today, trying to reach my fingers through the seams of history to unearth a language long forgotten.

At a certain unspoken point, you feel the air change in the room. Is it so simple as Paul’s head coming up from the page, or Eric softly sighing as he stretches out his back in the confines of his chair? Was that the sound of pens being laid down? Or did some hidden and inaudible dog-whistle-high clock sound an important tone, such that we all somehow know it’s time to speak again?

It’s time to speak again. We’ve committed to our preferences — A or B — and translated them in secret to Eric. He has collated our commitments, and now we must go public. Directly to Paul’s left, Shun begins … As he speaks, I pour over my scribbles. He notes notes of cedar, yes! I got that too. And absolutely the black cherry! But then, wow! Yogurt? And pepper? Oh god, I’m out of my league, what am I doing here, I have the palate of a baseball bat … No, I’m ok, I got the plum too.

Eventually it’s my turn. I begin on the “A” glass. I note the range of cherry, from Michigan Sour to deep black. I find both black and white pepper, and a slightly sweet wood character. I declare tremendously vibrant acidity, a touch of the piquant, a slightly granular rendition of tannins … In the end, it’s a very, very close vote. “A” gets 5 votes, “B” gets four. I have a quick and silent giggle to note that I am on “The A Team.” But which is the control, and which had the addition? “A,” it turns out, had the addition, 18% from Black Hill. But will the majority rule? It does, “A” (with the addition) will be the new control for the second flight.

And on it goes, round after round, flight after flight, taste after taste, addition after addition. Not all decisions are so close. Flight 2 was a 7-to-2 vote; again, the addition won. Flight 3 was another 5/4; it instigated a thorough discussion about sweet and savory characteristics; the umami factor. The word “brooding” comes up for the first time in Flight 3, though not for the last time. By flight 7, we were up to a 15-lot assemblage. But we were worried. John Olney had to leave, leaving us with only 8 tasters; we had no tie-breaker. Sure enough, Flight 7 proved a dead-on tie; 4 for, 4 against. In the end, we stayed with the control. Probably more so than any other factor, the question of tannin exposure reigned supreme; a particularly fascinating discussion, to say the least. Tasting with the production team is a very different experience than tasting with, say, sommeliers, or distributor reps, or with our Tasting Room staff. The semantics change, the palate calibration differs, the process is unique. When tannin is discussed, the question of “coating” is omnipresent; to what extent are the tannins coated or exposed? Meaning, does the fruit “cover” the tannin effectively? I think of it like this; tannin and acidity, these are the beams and girders, fruit is the walls that fill the building in. If I can “see” the tannins, then the house is either not finished, or inappropriately built (certain modernist excesses notwithstanding!).

Flight 8 saw us in the trenches again; another nail-biter. A Herculean effort would be required; for flight 9, we would carry over 2 controls, with two additions. A four-wine flight in the 11th hour. The boxer arises from his stool for the final round, legs a little shaky, gloves seeming so much heavier than they were in Round 1. This is fatigue. Palate fatigue however, was not the primary challenge; the true difficulty lay in the fact that all four wines were outstanding! How to differentiate? And by what standards? This is when the Sangha goes quiet, and the Roshi speaks. As with any koan, the answer, once spoken, is so obvious. What is “classic” Monte Bello?

After 6 ½ hours of uninterrupted tasting, we were purple of teeth and purple of tongue; fingers coated with a strange slurry of wine and olive oil; spit cups emptied ten times over. Our once pristine glasses were Pollockian in character; wild streaks marking the passions of a moment. But we were there. A First Assemblage! 16 individually excellent lots coming together to make an assemblage of astonishing concentration, power, and depth. One final hurdle, however, remained; we needed to test our creation against other recent vintages, to make sure our internal calibrations hadn’t strayed too far into insularity. Again in blind fashion, Eric disappeared this new 2010 somewhere amidst a roster comprised of 2007, 2008, and 2009. Four glasses. The Final Countdown. Ignition Sequence Initiated. T Minus 4 vintages and counting. We have lift off. The 2010 is a classic.

Driving back down the mountain, I was exhausted in a way I’ve rarely experienced; sort of a glazed-over daze that leaves one both enervated and drained. A 7 hour wine tasting. Even Paul, he having presided over so many of these events, so many of them now the stuff of legend, looked a bit winded when I left him. Yet he also looked happy. That simple word; happy. All these years, the accolades and awards, the canonizations and deifications, the decades of work, reward and work, and here was a man who was happy. As were we all.

Eric Baugher, the marionette to all our limbs throughout the tasting, our guide through the valley of taste and possibility, perhaps played us as a wistful Fur Elise, placing each note as if it had been written for the first clock at the beginning of time, letting us bask in the sounds of our own bittersweet elegance.

To my fellow Assemblagers,

Shun, it’s a joy to hear you express your observations; it’s not the singularity of your perceptions per se, but how they penetrate. And you Shinji, are the embodiment of wine as joy and thoughtfulness. David, you are the cowboy king on the great viticultural plains; the craggy gravitas of a Marlboro Man cloaking the heart of a Buddhist farmer. Caleb, you were old and wise before you were born, I collect your thoughts like psalms. Karen, never before have the words “Quality” and “Control” been more appropriately hung on someone; your palate is precision and stability, your observations are consistency and clarity. John, may the fates grant me more opportunities to taste wine through your eyes. Eric, you’re my teacher, may I have the chance to shadow you again and again and again. And of you Paul, what new could I say that’s not been said before? So I thank you, and offer you, the great wine philosopher that you are, these beautiful lines from the great poet Li Po:

To wash and rinse our souls of their age-old sorrows,
We drained a hundred jugs of wine.
A splendid night it was . . . .



Categories: Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Events & Photographs, History, Merlot, Monte Bello, Paul Draper, Petit Verdot, Tasting Notes, Varietals & Blends, Vineyards and Oenology, Viticultural Salmagundi, Wine Tales, Winemaking

6 replies

  1. You are one lucky son of a gun!!

  2. Mr Watkins, this post is biblically impressive! Its a joy to read what goes on in these sorts of tastings behind the scenes. Hopefully I shall be doing the very same on my own vineyard someday!
    If you fancy sending us a bottle here at Averys in the UK that would be great ;)

    Keep up the magnificent blog

    Cheers
    Bryn Stephens
    UK

  3. Great post! So looking forward to drinking the 2010!

  4. And you, Mr. Watkins, are a poet! Your eloquence is matched only by the wines for which you spill your prose! Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed that.

  5. W O W ! ! !

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