At Northstar, blending experience taken to a new level

Photo by Greg Lehman.

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The table setting at the Northstar Blending Experience is a cross between “Downton Abbey” and a chemistry lab.

No detail is spared at the immaculately dressed custom-made table for 14 that rests at the bottom of a multilevel staircase where temperatures are perfect for the wine under a

two-story high ceiling. Except that instead of properly placed forks and knives, the settings contain beakers and graduated cylinders. Where candelabras would illuminate as elegant centerpieces, rectangular glass vases hold sample soils from four American Viticultural Areas.

On a wall at one end of the table a video screen guides participants in Northstar Winery’s groundbreaking blending class through the geological properties of each AVA. Against the opposite wall is a row of six 59-gallon barrels containing unfiltered wines in neutral French oak to be tasted, analyzed and then blended as part of the new hour-and-a-half-long class.

Every aspect — from the transported dirt to the presentation on growing regions — is designed to help participants in Northstar Winery’s newly unveiled offering learn about blending world-class wine.

It is the only program of its kind in Washington state. Though blending classes are not new to wineries, this is the lone one where participants make their own wine, bottle it and take it home.

The goal is to be both educational and entertaining, said Ryan Pennington, spokesman for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns Northstar at 1736 J.B. George Road. It also adds further value to a winery already renowned for its merlots in a Valley gaining recognition for its wines.

“We constantly need to be raising the bar for ourselves,” Pennington said.

Permitting for the program was a considerable feat, including a whole different taxation system for the wines coming straight from the barrels, said Ryan Pennington, senior communication manager for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns Northstar. It also includes very specific guidelines for the most minute details of the physical layout, down to the federally approved location of the hand-corking station.

It may particularly seem like a lot of work for a winery that’s varietally-focused and renowned for its merlot. But you might be surprised at how much blending goes into a single varietal, said Northstar winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld.

“Even as a merlot specialist, everything we do at Northstar is about blending to some degree — blending vineyards, blending barrels and blending varietals,” he said in a statement. “The Northstar Blending Experience gives people a taste of what goes on behind the scenes here every day.”

Tested first with groups of local winemakers and industry pros, the program was officially announced Nov. 12. Two days later a trio of communications professionals from the Washington Wine Commission were the first to go through the official class.

“Whatever rules you know about Washington winemaking, throw them out the window,” Northstar guest services representative Lindsey Dean explained from her post near the head of the table.

In front of them, each guest started with a wineglass, a bottle of water, a pen, a blending booklet for notes, a container for spitting, a beaker, a cylinder and a glass funnel.

The directions: Taste through the six wines — merlots from Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain AVAs, a cabernet sauvignon and a petit verdot. Pour a half-ounce or so at a time. Take two or three sips. Write down notes on impressions. Rank them by preference.

“Walla Walla’s is really soft and supple. It’s voluptuous,” noted Chris Stone, vice president of marketing and communications for the Washington Wine Commission. But for his taste, it couldn’t top the Columbia Valley merlot, which served as the base for his personal blend.

Colleague Erica Waliser could taste the pepper of the Horse Heaven Hills merlot while Michaela Baltasar was drawn to the Red Mountain.

Using their rating systems, they measured out their own blends first with a beaker.

“Pour it into the glass, swirl it to oxygenate, maybe eat a cracker,” Dean suggested. “Take three sips and really let it soak into your palette and decide what you think. If you don’t like it, I highly recommend you don’t dump it. Instead, add something else.”

At the end of the session, each had a completely different blend and a new challenge: coming up with a name. Waliser knew she was going to save her bottle to toast the closing on the purchase of a new home. Among the names suggested: “30-year fixed,” “Finally Approved,” and a nod to “House Wine.”

The experience is designed to offer something for wine lovers of all scales, Pennington said. Sophisticated wine drinkers can explore the nuance of the wines, and novices can get the basics of pulling from the barrels and learning to taste in a setting known for its acclaimed wines, Pennington pointed out.

“We can be approachable, yet deadly serious about our wines, too,” Pennington said. “We wanted the entire experience to reflect that.”

At $85 per person ($65 for Northstar Wine Club members), the price to play may seem steep at first blush, he said. But after the time tasting, learning and hands-on blending, guests are walking away with a one-of-a-kind custom blend that would be roughly the equivalent of a $50 bottle of Northstar juice, he said.

For the time being the Northstar Blending Experience is offered at 1:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Winery operators suspect it won’t be long before more times are added to the rotation.

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