Award-Winning Red Wine Blends Roundtable

Five top medal winners from the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition share the secrets of their red wine blending success.

Ron Dickens from Arizona started making wine at home in 2008 and started making red blends in 2010. His recent awards include a gold for his 2011 Chardonnay, silver for 2011 “Two Red Heads” blend, and a silver for Riesling at the 2014 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition.

Bob Joakimson of California started making and blending wine in 2008. He won a gold, three silver and two bronze medals at the 2014 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition, as well as several medals (including a Best of Class and double gold) at the California State Fair Home Wine Competition.

Byron Barnes from Texas started making wine in 2006 and made his first blend in 2009. This year he won the TV Munson Cup for Best of Show in the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association’s non-commercial wine competition with an estate blend of 5 varietals. He also won a gold and silver in the 2014 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition with two different vintages of Lenoir Port.

Dan Boykin of California began making wine in 2006. Since then he has made over 100 batches of wine and won numerous medals, including four gold, three silver and three bronze in the 2014 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition, which included a silver for his 2010 Meritage blend.

Bob Vogt from Ohio started making wine more than 20 years ago. In 2014 he won seven gold and two silver medals for his red wines at the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition. Last year, in the same competition, he won two golds, four silvers and two bronzes.

What kinds of red wines do you make and how? (Kit, fresh grapes, frozen must, etc.) What are your favorite blends?

Byron Barnes: I am a fresh grape winemaker and I make mostly red wines. I like to work with Syrahs and Cabernets, which I’m going to be doing again this year. I also always make a Lenoir Port.

Ron Dickens: I make my wines from both fresh grapes and frozen must. My favorite blends are Bordeaux style.

Bob Vogt: I make a lot of Bordeaux blends, but I also make some other non-traditional red blends.

Bob Joakimson: I have produced two Ports from kits, a Syrah Port from frozen must, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Barbera, Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Petit Verdot from fresh grapes.

Dan Boykin: I always use either fresh grapes or frozen must. Being in the heart of California wine country, I am a little spoiled as to supply sources. I usually make the five traditional Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot), as well as Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.

What varietals do you think make the best blends?

Byron Barnes: Syrahs and Cabs mostly. I like to work with blends of Cab/Merlot and want to make Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre in the near future.

Ron Dickens: Whatever tastes good to you is the best blend. For me it is almost anything with a Cabernet base.

Bob Vogt: I’m not a big Merlot single-varietal fan, but I’m a big fan when I blend it; I like to blend it 50/50 with Cabernet Sauvignon, although I also made some with 2-3% Petit Verdot. Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah really change things.

Some of my other most recent favorites were a 80% Petite Sirah, 20% Petit Verdot, and I also like blending Cab and Syrah together. I also made a wild blend this year: 20% Syrah, 8% Petite Sirah, 2–3% Petit Verdot and the rest Zinfandel. It certainly didn’t taste like a Zin! It was big and bold; nobody else could understand it but I liked it — I thought it was over the edge.

Bob Joakimson: The blends I like are: Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Zinfandel/ Syrah, Sangiovese/Barbera, Sangiovese/ Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot.

Dan Boykin: I like Bordeaux blends, but some of the best wines I have ever tasted crossed those boundaries, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Zin and Syrah, or Zin and Cab. I like Rhône blends. There is no limit.

How many blended red wines do you normally make in a year?

Byron Barnes: I make anywhere from seven to nine wines, of which two or three may end up in a blend. Right now I make 15–20-gallon (57–75-L) size batches. I have two 14-gallon (53-L) barrels — one for Port and one for dry reds, and I want to have enough topping up wine.

Ron Dickens: I always make at least one blend (Two Red Heads, I call it), but I’ve made as many as four blends in a year.

Bob Vogt: I probably do close to ten blends a year. Right now I have eight barrels of wine in the cellar.

Bob Joakimson: I am producing as much as 26 gallons (98 L) of each varietal. This will allow me to make five or six blends this year including my first Merlot/blackberry blend.

Dan Boykin: It really depends how much time I have to devote to it. I am very careful with trials and such, so sometimes one, sometimes three or four. I almost always make a Pomerol-style red blend (Merlot-based blend versus Cab-based). I have experimented with a five-grape Bordeaux blend, a Cab/Zin blend and a Cab/Syrah in one year. Another year all I could get to was the Pomerol style.

What is your approach to blending? Has it always been this way, or have you evolved as a blender?

Byron Barnes: I started out as a single varietal guy and started blending later. In the beginning, my first blend was a field blend with five varietals from my vineyard. This was done mostly out of necessity because I didn’t have enough of each individual grape to make enough wine for a barrel.
As far as my preferred method for deciding what to blend — other than the co-ferment as I just mentioned — I like to ferment a single varietal and wait at least three months after malolactic fermentation (MLF) before I think about tasting and blending.

Ron Dickens: My approach is simple: I want to take two or more already good wines and create a great wine. I think at first I wanted to make good single-varietal wines, but once I discovered what blending could produce, for me I felt that blending was a great tool for producing wines that I enjoy.

Bob Vogt: I started out as a single-varietal winemaker and evolved into a blender. For years I was making Zinfandel and I was always trying to make that big bold California Zin. Finally I went to Amador County, which is known for their Zin, and found out from the winemakers there that the secret to big bold Zin is Petite Sirah — they recommend using about 2–3%, and it totally changes the Zin. I tried that method and I got an award this year for my Zin that blended with a bit of Petite Sirah. The more blending I do, the more I realize that a little of something goes a long way.

Bob Joakimson: My approach to blending is to produce a wine that is more flavorful and more pleasing to the palate than the wine that went into the blend. One of my earlier attempts at blending was to correct a perceived shortfall in my 2008 Livermore Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was light bodied, needed a little deeper color and lacked a good mouthfeel. I had a 15.9% Dry Creek Petit Verdot with deep color, rich cherry flavor and intense mouthfeel. After bench trials I ended up adding 7.5% of the Petit Verdot to the Cabernet Sauvignon. The result was a greatly improved wine.

Dan Boykin: Blending is complex, time consuming and quite honestly a bit challenging. You really need to take a patience pill before you start. First I think you have to decide what you are talking about with blending. For this discussion I think we are talking about blends that would be labeled as such in a judging, generally less than 75% of any one varietal. But in reality I “blend” almost all of my wines. For example, every Zin can usually be improved with a little of a number of varietals such as Carignane, Petite Sirah, Malbec, even Petit Verdot. Each impacts different flavors and subtle changes.

I have heard of a famous, rather costly, blend from the Napa Valley that takes four months to assemble the final blend — patience is key!

How do you calculate the proportions of your blends? Describe what you do, and why.

Byron Barnes: My method is to start with four broad-stroke wines to taste. So for example, I’ll have a Cab/Merlot. I’ll start with a taste of 100% Cab and 100% Merlot, then go 60% Cab/40% Merlot, then 80/20. If it’s pretty clear from there where the blend is going to go, the next day I’ll come back and narrow that gap; so if I liked the 80/20, I’ll blend a 70/30 and a 90/10 to fine-tune the ratio.

Ron Dickens: Most of my blends are Cabernet Sauvignon based so I will always start with 50% of that, and depending on the wines I have for blending that year I will do a couple different percentages of the remaining 50%. I do perform bench trials. I typically do trials to get down to two wines that I like and will put those in 1-L bottles for two weeks then come back to them and taste to make a final decision. This gives them a little time to put themselves together.

Bob Vogt: I do bench trials. I will experiment with a gallon (3.8 L) batch at time. Often times I know what I liked from the last vintage and I will increase or decrease the proportions a little bit each way. I’ll do, for example, three or four different batches of blends, then get some feedback on them. When I blend the wine for sampling and bench trials, I don’t taste it right then; I wait a few days because the wine is going to change. The flavors become one after some time has passed and you can know if you want to make any more adjustments at that point.

Bob Joakimson: I calculate portions through blending trials. All measurements are in milliliters, starting with a reference sample of each wine and then measured out into 25-mL, 50-mL, and 75-mL samples. This gives me 5- to 100-mL samples. After I review the results of the first bench trial I narrow the range around the most promising blend. The second bench trial may be 20-mL, 25-mL and 30-mL of wine A, mixed with 80-mL, 75-mL and 70-mL of wine B. If needed I may continue narrowing the range until that moment when the percentages are just right. The final test is to blend a half bottle (375-mL), wait a week or two, and taste it again. If it is still right I bottle it.

Dan Boykin: I always do the following: Set up numerous identical glasses (I have lots of WineMaker Magazine Conference glasses just for this). Then I make a trial of 100-mL in each. The first is the control, say a Zin. Then I make up a trial of 100-mL each at the rate of 1, 3, 5, 7, 10 and 15% of the blender. If I am using multiple blenders, I start with just a row of each with the base (yes, I have had 30–40 glasses all lined up). For example, a row of Zin with Petite Sirah and a row with Malbec, etc. Then taste.

It will usually be obvious which of each single blender I like, then I move across rows randomly. For example, one year I was blending Zin with both Petite Sirah and Malbec. I liked the one with 15% Malbec, but also liked the Petite Sirah, then I made a trial of 10% Malbec and 5% Petite Sirah; I liked that too, so I ended up making two blends — one 15% Malbec, one 10% Malbec/5% Petite Sirah. If I end up uncertain of, say, 5% and 7% I mix equal portions of each to see if 6% does it. Sometimes it does. Over time you start to get a feel for what the blender wine does and can get direction based on taste. For example one year I was blending Syrah with Merlot and Petite Sirah. The Merlot tended to tone it down, which it needed, so I progressively added more to the blend. That Syrah got Gold in the 2011 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition.

How important is it to keep blending notes? What kind of notes should a winemaker keep in order to be a better blender?

Byron Barnes: You want to take notes on everything: The varietal, the age of the wines and if they are compatible, the pH and TA of each of the wines. You certainly want to know how long they sit blended together, and of course the proportions and tasting notes of the wines throughout the blending process.

Ron Dickens: On the subject of blending I’m only concerned with a couple things: 1: What varietal and vintages are you blending. 2: What percentages are you using of each wine for the final blend.

Bob Vogt: I keep accurate notes and then go back to them each year, taste the vintage from the year before, then I go back and forth to see what they have done over the past year. I then put all the notes on the bottles as well as the case.

Bob Joakimson: Unless you are going to blend wine one time and never attempt to blend wine again, notes are crucial. Every wine I make I keep notes on every step, every addition and subtraction, Brix, pH, TA, yeast used, Malolactic bacteria used. I leave nothing to memory. Every barrel and carboy has a sticker on it so I can record data and dates of actions taken immediately. Later I record my actions on my computer. Not only will notes help you replicate a great wine, but notes will also help you not make the same mistake more than once.

Dan Boykin: My palate is not that good, but I know when I get what I want, so I keep records of the final blend and sometimes something interesting that occurs.

What are some blends you don’t like? What blends would you like to try?

Byron Barnes: I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like. Initially, with my co-fermented blend of Syrah/Viognier (which was about 7–8% Viognier) I was getting a bitter finish that I was attributing to the Viognier but after eight months that has softened. As for things I want to try, I want to make a Zin/Petite Sirah. Also I would like to make my own GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre). This year I’m going to make a Cab/Merlot and I’d like to add some Petit Verdot to it.

Ron Dickens: I don’t think I have made a final blend that I have not liked, but that is why I take my time trying different blends prior to bottling. As far as blends I’d like to try, I would like to start doing some white blends.

Bob Vogt: I’m always looking for something new, and I always make blends that I’m not happy with. For example, I made a 50/50 Petite Sirah/Petit Verdot blend last year that I didn’t like. I did it again this year and I’m still not quite happy with it. I think 80% Petite Sirah, 20% Petit Verdot is better.

Bob Joakimson: My attempt at blending Sangiovese and Barbera, and Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon just did not work out. During the bench trials the results always came back to preferring the control wines. I suspect the wines were too much alike to complement each other. This year I am blending three or more wines for the first time, including at least one blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Dan Boykin: I have never tried anything that was thoroughly disgusting — each blend has had some unique characteristic. I would like to try Rhône blends and some white blends someday.

How long do you usually allow your blends to sit before you taste them and deem them “ready”?

Byron Barnes: Once I come up with the blend ratio and blend the batch, I like to let the wines sit for six months before I bottle them.

Ron Dickens: Our reds sit in oak barrels for 18 to 24 months prior to being put in the blending rotation. Once I do a blend it is placed in 15.5-gallon (59-L) stainless steel kegs or 30-gallon (114-L) Flextanks for two months or less.

Bob Vogt: I like to let them go for a couple of years before I open the bottles. I like that big, bold, heavy style of wine that’s made for aging.

Bob Joakimson: With all of my wines I age them in the bottle for a minimum of two months before tasting them again. I would prefer to wait six months to a year in the bottle before sharing with friends, but to date have never been able to wait that long.

Dan Boykin: I have found the best method (for me) is to blend about halfway through barrel aging and then put it back into a barrel or other con-tainer. I think a good six weeks, at minimum, is needed to allow the blend to get thoroughly integrated.

Who tastes your blends, aside from yourself and how else do you evaluate your finished blends?

Byron Barnes: My wife is my regular taster. We often do the big-picture tastings together. Also, my son and his wife help out (he’s in the wine industry), so there are at least four of us who have input on the final blend. It’s important to taste the wine several times. I can go out to my wine building and taste something one day and it will taste different another day. I’m a big proponent of regularly tasting your wine. Some people will not want to even open containers to prevent infection, but I think you should taste regularly, even if you’re not doing blends and assuming you are paying attention to topping and sulfite levels. Also, taste the final blends more than once. Do your bench trials, find your favorite blend and then a week or so later do it again — make sure you’re still happy with it before you blend the big batch.

Ron Dickens: My wife Tina has a much better palate than I do, so I rely on her opinion most of the time.

Bob Vogt: I am friends with some wine experts in Cincinnati who help me choose. When it comes to what I enter in competition it’s not so much what I like, it’s what the judges like. We get together and have a tasting party, and the ones that get the highest scores are what I submit. Often times I am surprised by what they choose — some that I really liked had flaws, others didn’t come out the way I tried to make them, but the judges liked them. For example, a Syrah that I thought was just good, but that the judges really liked, got a gold medal in competition.

Bob Joakimson: A “panel” of wine tasting friends is invited to taste the blends during the bench trials. Each panel member ranks them without discussion and records the ranking on a piece of paper. I ask the panel members not to discuss their preferences until after they record them because I noticed early in the going if one panel member was perceived to be really knowledgeable on wines, he or she can influence the ranking of every other panel member. Usually there is one blend that receives 4 of 5 or 5 of 6 first place votes. That is the blend I use. If there is no clear winner I narrow the range and start the bench trials again with the narrower range until I have a clear winner.

Dan Boykin: My great friend (and fellow winemaking award winner) Bob Joakimson usually tastes some of them and even helps me decide. I have neighbors and friends who help, too. The final judge is my wife, Marianne. We confirmed at a workshop at the WineMaker Conference in Ithaca, New York that she is a hypertaster (my secret is out).

What blending mistakes have you made? What advice can you give to avoid mistakes or pitfalls?

Byron Barnes: Probably rushing through the process. Early on I was guilty of being too impatient, sometimes trying to correct something that was a perceived issue rather than giving the wine time
to evolve.

Ron Dickens: I remember tasting a blend a couple of years back that we had thought was one of the two options for entering in competitions that year, and when I tasted it I remember thinking, “What was I thinking? This is not how I remember it tasting,” so I looked over my notes and discovered we had not blended the correct percentages for our 1-L sample. I learned to check my notes, take my time and don’t do math when I’m tired or drinking too many samples.

Bob Vogt: The biggest mistake I see other people make with blending is trying to fix a wine that’s not very good — maybe even not drinkable — by blending it with a wine that’s really good. All they get from that is twice as much bad wine.

Bob Joakimson: I did not keep accurate notes, did not perform bench trials, did not measure accurately, and blended too early in the life of the wines when I first started out. I know now that wines for blending should each be ready to bottle before you start blending. I also once made a field blend of 40 lbs. (18 kg) of Malbec and 200 lbs. (90 kg) of Cabernet Sauvignon. That was a costly mistake.

Dan Boykin: Lack of patience. If the blend is not what you want, keep doing trials. It will get there; if not, don’t blend.

What other advice could you give for making wine that we haven’t covered?

Byron Barnes: Do not rush to bottle once you have your wine the way you want it. Once you’ve gone through primary fermentation, sit back and let things evolve.

Ron Dickens: 1: Make more wine than you think you need. 2: Don’t rush your reds into the bottle, give them time to evolve. People starting out are in such a big hurry to drink their wine they have it in bottles by February or March and drink it all up by May (refer back to #1).

Bob Vogt: Read the labels for the blend percentages wherever you taste — even for the single varietals as they sometimes have a small amount of another varietal. I get a lot of my ideas in the wine store, in fact that’s when I started using Petit Verdot and now I’m hooked on it. Same with Petite Sirah.

Bob Joakimson: Seek people out that have more winemaking experience and knowledge than you. When I am out at commercial wineries I introduce myself as a home winemaker and ask winemaking questions of the winemaker. Also, I am lucky as my close friend Dan Boykin is a home winemaker extraordinaire, and Shea A. J. Comfort, the Yeast Whisperer and Wine Consultant, have both contributed greatly to my growth and ability as a home winemaker.

Dan Boykin: Make way more wine than you think you want. You will lose a lot of wine during trials and having friends over for barrel tastings. It is amazing how much my neighbors like me now, — and I am really popular in the office too!