I ran into my wine maker friend Chris Keller the other night at the restaurant I work at. Chris was in a good mood and celebrating over a great meal with an even better bottle of wine. Chris is the wine maker of Paige 23, and, in general is one of the happiest guys I know. In any given exchange, Chris has been known to quote Buddhist philosophers, Bruce Springsteen, Monty Python and well-known LA chefs. Maybe Chris’ perma-grin is from being married to a beautiful and sweet woman named Hahn. Or maybe it’s because he’s producing some undeniably gorgeous and elegant wines out of a garage in Santa Ynez.
Whatever it is that makes Chris Keller tick is a good thing. Because his wines rock.
It was a busy night at the restaurant. On my way past Chris, he stopped me. “How’d you like to come up north and help me come up with some killer blends of my wine?”
When a wine maker friend asks if you want to come and taste his wine straight from the barrel and weigh in Bordeaux blend, you just can’t say no. Especially not if you call yourself a student of food and wine. One must say yes and prepare for a wonderful education in grape varietals.
And so I did.
Chris Keller’s wine is Paige 23. Respected by wine makers and restaurants around the world, this small winery operating out of a garage, creates beautiful wines from French varietals such as Grenache, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Paige 23 is a labor of love for Chris and his business partner, Joe Kalina.
When Chris isn’t making wine, he works as a wine consultant selling wine and creating wine lists for several LA restaurants—which is where I first met Chris. It was at the tail end of my work as General Manager of a busy Culver City restaurant. There were so many difficult things about my 16-hour a day job that made me want to hang up the suit and quit the business all together, but my weekly meetings with Chris made me want to stick it out a little bit longer so that I could have thoughtful discussions of food and wine and taste wines with him and other incredible wine makers he represented for his consulting business. I eventually quit my job in Culver City and luckily, Chris and I have remained friends ever since.
Hans and I wake up early enough to get a cup of coffee and a tank full of gas and still be on the road before 9am. The usual 2-hour drive up to Santa Ynez is easy and relatively free of traffic. We make it up to Buellton before 10:30. Enough time to get some eggs at the local greasy spoon.
11 am. Meet Chris outside his wine garage. Inside it’s cold. There is a line of half bottles labeled and filled with wine just pulled from the barrel.
After we grab a few glasses and a plastic jug for a makeshift spit bucked, we’re ready to go. It’s time to start tasting.
ROUSSANE ’07. Practically fresh off the vine, it’s a surprise tasting something that has wine flavors, even after being picked just two months ago. Still in that early, juicy stage. The wine tastes sweet like apple pie with butter, nutmeg, Christmas seasonings and apricot.
SAUVIGNON BLANC ’07 Santa Barbara Highlands. Aged in Stainless. Floral, green, pineapple and kiwi. Juicy and balanced with a grapefruit finish.
VIOGNIER 07. Here is where my mind gets blown. The wine is aged in stainless steel and, unlike other wine makers Chris skips the 2ndary fermentation stage. The result, a wine that tastes of honey, lemon blossom and nuts and has a real viscosity that makes me realize that Viognier doesn’t have to taste like perfume and white flowers.
**This wine is amazing as it is. Chris decides to bottle this as is.
GRENACHE BLANC ’07 Tank fermented. This wine tastes like red licorice surrounded by a layer of spicy tannin. Still very much alive and working towards becoming what it will be, the wine feels alive and jumpy.
**Chris decides this wine is great as it is and decides to bottle it without blending it.
CABERNET FRANC ’07. From the Westerly Vineyard. More Red licorice dried plum and apricot, clove, rosemary and mulling spices. This will be one of the blending grapes for the Bordeaux blend.
Santa Barbara Highlands 06 MERLOT: Violets, cinnamon, blue notes on the mid palate with a spicy finish. This will be one of the blending grapes for the Bordeaux blend.
CABERNET ’06. Westerly vineyard. Plum, cranberry, chocolate. Beautiful acidity with nice aromatics. This will also be one of the blending grapes for the Bordeaux blend.
After tasting through the wines, we begin concocting our plan for blending. Here’s where things start to get interesting.
We blend equal parts of each varietal (Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet) and taste. What we discover is that this 1/3 blending isn’t cohesive at all. There’s the red fruit of the Cab Franc up front (and all over the place), the acidity of the Cabernet tries to make it through but the whole things ends too quickly. The finish is almost dusty. Something is clearly not right.
We re-group and decide on a blend of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet and 20% Cabernet Franc. We hope reducing the percentage of it in the blend will lessen the aggressive flavors of the Cab Franc. The result is significantly different. The wine is balanced from beginning to end. There are blue notes of violets and other fruit, acidity and balanced tannin. The blending is a success!
I think the most incredible thing about tasting wines straight from the barrel, was realizing that it really doesn’t take all that long for wine to become wine. It takes years, however, for the wine to become what it truly should be.
There’s an art to blending. Once you know the characteristics of a varietal (What flavors a Cabernet has to offer vs. Cabernet Franc), you can start to understand t
he process of blending. By blending, you can take the best qualities of two or more wine varietals, and use them to create another, more nuanced wine. How one blends the wines together and in what proportion becomes just as much an art form as growing and making the wine.