Thursday, November 5, 2009


Your SavvyTaste wine blog somehow managed to squeeze into the Crushpad Fusebox Wine Blogger Blendoff Contest that pitted ten wine bloggers against one another to see who could come up with the best blend of five Bordeaux-style wines.

The gimmick was dreamed up by the people at Crushpad of San Francisco, a custom-crush facility that, in addition to renting its equipment and space out to small winemakers, offers regular Joes the chance to play winemaker. For a price between five and ten thousand dollars (depending on the grapes you choose), you get to choose your grapes (such as Cab and Merlot and Zin), produced by top growers in Napa and Sonoma, watch them come into the facility in the fall, help out with the crush (with your friends, a dirty and reputedly fun job), choose the yeast clone, pick the oak type, and a number of other choices, then design your own label. (They advise you at every step, send you email so you can keep track of things, and even let you skip steps if you're busy and just let them do it.) The following year you get 25 cases of your own "cult" wine, as they put it, which you "made" from grape to bottle, with your own label personal on it. The
cost works out to $20 to $35 a bottle -- not a bad price, especially if you are the kind of person who likes to give wine gifts to friends--now you can give them your own wine!

Junior Winemaker Me

Not everyone is up for that elaborate an experience, of course--I've dreamed of doing it, along with the members of one of my wine groups, BAWDY (Bay Area Wine Drinkers-and-a-Y), but we have never quite gotten around to it. So the clever boots at Crushpad came up with "Fusebox," a nifty low-rent variant. And then they came up with the equally clever idea of throwing this competition to generate publicity.

We had so much fun with the thing that I am glad to get coopted into helping generate that publicity!

Open the Box, Mac, and Let's Get Started!

Fusebox costs $80. You get a box full of half-bottles of Napa-sourced wine -- two Cabernet Sauvignons, one Merlot, one Cab Franc, and one Petit Verdot -- the five main blending grapes used to make Bordeaux (lacking only Malbec, for some reason). You also get a nice corkpull, and some chem-lab-style plastic measuring devices for accurate (heh!) measurements as you test various blends.

I of course have never *blended* a wine, except when I've accidentally taken a sip from the spit bucket. (Not bad, you'd be surprised...) But heck, worst case me and my friends taste some wine, how bad can it be?

Well, not bad at all - in fact, even more fun than I expected. Except for the tiny panic attack when I realized we were going to have to come up with a label design, and for some reason we weren't going to be able to use Crushpad's easy-designer service (they weren't able to get it set up to let us do it for free -- by the way, FCC regs suggest that I mention that we got this $80
Fusebox set for free in order to perform in this competition. So draw your own conclusions about conflicts of interest that might arise when somebody gives me a box of good Napa red wines...)

Borrow Two Friends and Blend

Now I don't know anything about design and have no design tools. So I talked to my buddies at Bawdy and it turns out that Bonnie Black was willing to give the label design a go, and she and her beau Gordon Coslow were willing to come over my house and help me figure out how to do a wine blending. Which they don't know how to do either, but for wine, they'll try.

So we popped open the bottles, dug out glasses, set out the marking sheets and informational materials, and set to work tasting the wines provided. The Cab was very good. The Merlot I liked but Gordon thought it was kind of flat. The Cab Franc was very tasty. (Tasty: That's a technical term used mainly by experienced wine reviewers.) The Petit Verdot was a surprise -- a nice perky acidic tang that we really liked.

I tried to talk through the notion that wine blending is a matter of figuring out what each wine can add to the other wine tastes: If the Cab has a good opening and a good finish but seems a little flat in the middle (which I thought it did), then maybe one of the other wines will have a bigger middle that complements that. Bonnie and Gordon weren't buying it.

So we took the "recipe" cards provided, which gave the blend percentages of some famous French Bordeaux such as the 1996 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, which it says here is 83% Cab S., 7% Cab F, 7% Merlot, and 3% Petit Verdot, and 2000 Chateau Margaux, which is a simple 80% Cab S and 20% Merlot, and we made those blends to see what they tasted like.

They were pretty good.

Time To Get Crazy

Then at Gordon's suggestion, we took a dollop of our Cab S and added a splash of Cab Franc, and well, it actually did taste better than either alone! Imagine our surprise!

So we threw in some of that interesting Petit Verdot and Lord! It perked up very nicely, filling in a blank spot in the taste profile that we hadn't even know was there!

We were giddy with surprise that we could actually tell the differences as we mixed the wines! Hey, maybe there's really something to this blending thing!

Next we opened the sixth bottle in the package: The Mystery Wine, it was labeled. This is a preblended combo that we're supposed to taste and see if we can identify the blend. (Yeah, right!) We popped it open and tasted: No idea, but it tasted very good, so we had some more.

Then we went back and retasted our blend. Gordon pointed out that the mystery wine was smooooother than ours, where that Petit Verdot was maybe a little too perky. He suggested we calm it down with some of that Merlot that he thought was bland.

We added just a bit of Merlot and -- Jaysus! Our blend just settled right down and purred like a kitten! The perk was still there, but now it was like a piccolo in a chamber orchestra!

Miracles Can Happen

We couldn't believe it! We had made a blend that tasted better than the starting components! Us! Who don't know anything! Woo hoo!

Now the hard part: We had to calculate the percentages of each component. We had been keeping track, but every time we added another wine to the brew, the ratios of course shifted. Fortunately, Gordon has an engineer's knack for numbers, and we managed to wrestle the ratios into shape.

Our final blend turned out to be 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot, and a mere 4% Merlot (that's all it needed to do the job!).

Gleeful, we whipped up some more of the blend and split it between ourselves and corked the results for our future enjoyment. (Sorry, I drank mine share all up the next day.)

Art for Wine

Now all we had to do was knock out a label work of art and we're home free! Bonnie went on my computer and called up her graphics program from the Cloud, and saved it to my desktop as a PDF file. Bonnie and Gordon went home happy.

But I discovered that the graphic didn't fit the specs we had gotten from Crushpad. And I don't have a PDF editor. Oh nooo Mr Bill! I ended up using Microsoft Powerpoint, believe it or not, to gin up a not-awful image in the right size -- Powerpoint can save as PDF, as it turns out.

I can't imagine that we'll win this competition, given our level of ignorance of the process, but I can tell you that we had a really good time, far more fun than I had expected. And we learned a surprising amount, considering that we weren't trying to learn anything at all.

What I'd Really Like is a Mixed Case of My Competitors!

If by some chance we do win -- say, all the other nine wine bloggers abruptly drop out on the grounds that they're just too good -- we get a free case of the blend we dreamed up. With out label on it. When that miracle doesn't occur, we can buy a case for $300 instead. That in fact is what regular customers of Fusebox do - you come up with a blend, email the blend in and a label design (using their graphics program instead of Powerpoint!), and then you can order wine to your custom blend at about $300 a case. Instant Christmas present that will impress your friends and baffle your enemies! And if the blend really turns out well, you can keep ordering more cases of your special blend.

Crushpad is at and its Fusebox system can be found, with all details, at .

If your blending experience inspires you to step up to the full Crushpad winemaking experience, you might find yourself on the way to becoming a real winemaker, even selling your wine (Crushpad offers commercial sales services). Apparently several customers have made the move to making a living making wine! And some are said to have gotten 90-plus points on their wines from the leading raters such as Wine Spectator and R. Parker. Phew!

I Feel a Blending Party Comin' On!

Or, if you're more like me and fun is fun but let's not get crazy here, you can still keep the party going by ordering Fuseboxes for your winetasting group. How's that for a party? Instead of just bringing wine, you bring wine blending! Each Fusebox is good for four or so people, or about $20 each, a decent price for this much fun.

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