As Father’s Day approaches, I am reminded that Bee d’Vine honey wine would not have been possible without the figurative seed planted by my father, Solomon Tilahoun.
In 2005, he planted about 100 grape seedling in the Livermore viticulture area of California. The varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
As the vineyard is small and is dry farmed, the small berries make just one barrel a year, all for home consumption. All the varieties are harvested together and fermented together in what is known as a ‘field blend’ – under the home label ‘Sol Wines’.
Many believe this technique is akin to making a stew where all the flavors mingle together during the cooking process. When made well, field blend wines are prized for integration and balance.
Before the rise of commercial wineries this ancient technique of making wine was the norm for centuries, so field blends share similar pedigree with honey wine (as well as similar obscurity in modern times).
Today, essentially all commercial wineries ferment each grape variety separately, and if a blend is desired, they are blended after fermentation (later in the story we list a few commercial California wineries producing field blends today).
So why were field blends produced to begin with? The relatively small farm in family production is one factor, but these farms could have planted all one variety.
It was largely done as a form of risk mitigation before some risks could be managed with technological and agricultural advances.
On the agriculture side, diversifying with different varietals ensured disease or climate conditions would not wipeout an entire annual harvest when one susceptible varietal is compromised (modern synthetic and organic pesticides and fungicides help to mitigate this).
It also allowed the farmer to introduce different varietals to contribute various wine characteristics such as color, sugar, acid, tannin, etc.
However, when all varieties are harvested at the same time, as field blends are, some varieties will be at peak ripeness while some varieties will be less ripe and still others more ripe than optimal – since different grape varietals bloom and ripen in a non-uniform manner.
There are also wine production technologies that have rendered field blends largely obsolete: Varietal specific wine fermentation yeasts have been developed that are purportedly optimized for each grape variety.
With a field blend it would obviously not be possible to use yeasts’ technological advance. Other advances include refrigeration (for temperature-controlled fermentation) and laboratory tests (such as testing for natural nutrients in the grape, known as Yeast Assimable Nitrogen, or YAN, that aid yeast with fermentation).
Refrigeration allows a specific optimal temperature for a grape variety as does precise nutrient (nitrogen) addition – both custom tuned for each variety’s optimal fermentation protocol.
Furthermore, grape specific fermentation are encouraged by the economics of large scale farming and processing, and economies-of-scale in wine production.
In the highly competitive grape industry of today, these factors, along with the various risk mitigation benefits, have pushed field blends to the fringes – or the domain of hobbyists – such as our family vineyard.
Interestingly, some of the technological and scale factors that pushed field blends out of favor have contributed to the same demise of historically widespread, but small lot, honey wine production (Ethiopia is the singular exception to this and why honey wine is still widely consumed there).
For more on this phenomenon, see our book The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine sub-chapter entitled ‘The Great Honey Wine Recession’ under the chapter ‘An Ancient Libation.’ The ebook and audiobook are available for free with a one-click download, or to read online.
If you fancy some grape wine every now and then, why not try a California field blend today? We would sell you ours, but alas there is not enough!
Not to worry, here are a few fellow California commercial wineries still making field blends: Bedrock, Ravenswood, Ridge, Tom Gore, and Turley wineries.
If you’ve read this far, while still loving honey wine, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” (Btw, the quote is widely reductively attributed to Aristotle, but for the correct version from Nicomachean Ethics please read here).
Happy Father’s Day!
Ayele Solomon, winemaker