Is a field blend the ultimate expression of terroir?

April 2, 2019

Field blends may very well represent the ultimate expression of terroir. Modern winemaking seeks to maximize uniformity and carefully craft a blend to be precise and well-rounded. Field blends are basically the opposite of this measured and sensible approach.

Historically, vineyard owners planted whatever vines they could get their hands on. That meant taking whatever cuttings they could get from a neighbor, rooting them, and sticking them in the ground.  Vineyards were planted haphazardly to whatever varieties one could get their hands on.  Zinfandel was planted next to Mission with a couple of Sauvignon Blancs intermingled. Vines died, some vines struggled and were pulled out, and they were replanted with other varieties that seemed to perform better. When the entire vineyard was ripe the entire lot was picked together into the same bin, and made into one wine.  The problem with this approach is that grape varieties ripen at very different times, so while one variety is very ripe, others are just beginning to mature past astringency.

Today we plant monoculture blocks of a single variety, drop grape clusters that are under-ripe and over-ripe, and aim for uniformity of that variety at harvest.  We can then blend different lots, different varieties, and different sites to produce a beautifully crafted wine that is balanced and what we believe is the best representation of that vintage.

Field blends are a different beast all together.  Multiple varieties with varying stages of ripeness are embraced. You aim for an average ripeness level that seems to make sense for a style of wine and pick the whole thing at once. White grapes,raisined grapes, and those that are still full of acidity are all harvested together and crushed.  

What you get it what you get. There are no levers to pull and no magical winemaking tricks. The wine is just what mother nature gives you in that vintage.  It is rebellious and unreliable. It also turns out to reward with some stunning, one of a kind wines..

We experimented with doing a field blend for the first time in 2016 with the first harvest of Rancho Baila Sol. We had planted the vineyard to multiple varieties to experiment with what would work best on this new site. Instead of sensibly completing the experiment we just decided to pick all the Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah,Sangiovese, and Primitivo into the same bin, de-stem it, and co-ferment it all together.  We targeted an average ripeness of 24.5 Brix and picked.  After crushing quite a few grapes that were just barely into veraison we ended up with the bin at 23 Brix. I was totally afraid that the wine would be harsh, thin, and astringent. Instead the wine was beautifully structured with complex notes of smoke, eucalyptus, and cherry. It was eye opening and liberating.  

In 2017 we decided to repeat the process, but aimed to build a bit more mouthfeel, more refined tannins, and  a slightly riper style. We harvested the vineyard when our sampling showed an average ripeness of 25.5 brix. The resulting wine was aged for a year in neutral oak before bottling and aging for an additional 9 months before release.  The Cabernet Sauvignon shines through the blend, with the Syrah adding power, and the Sangiovese and Primitivo adding spice and cherry.  

This wine shows this site and vintage loud and clear. It is unadorned, unrepentant, and might just represent the terroir of Santa Rosa Valley better than anything we could craft by design.