The warehouse at Eden Rift Vineyards is a little daunting at first. It’s very cold and the fans helping to control the temperature are noisy. There is wine everywhere, cases of it arranged chronologically and around 200 barrels of it waiting to be blended and bottled. The idea that anyone could master the contents of each barrel seems absurd. But that is master winemaker Cory Waller’s job.
It’s a short journey from vine to barrel, interrupted only by the crush and fermentation. The barrels are stored in lots, depending on the type of grape and what part of the vineyard they come from. And once they are sorted, the work of blending begins.
“We do a composite of a lot to get an idea as to where we are going,” Waller said. “And then we talk about the pros and cons of the wine—is it more aromatic, more mid-palate, is there a stronger finish? And then I start going through and grading each barrel.”
Every barrel gets a letter grade as Waller catalogs its attributes. Though each lot will be from a single grape varietal, there can be wild differences in the flavor and characteristics of each barrel.
We sampled a barrel from a recent planting of a pinot noir grape called the Dijon 115 clone.
“The 115, for me, is a blending tool,” he said. “It is usually not a standalone wine. I know that 115 on our property generally has a good mid-palate, good density, a good finish, and just a little bit of structure.”
The first barrel we tried, according to Waller’s taste buds, had an acceptable silky-chalky texture, but he judged it as a little too lean and linear with not a lot of fruit up front.
“I will look at that and try to match it with a barrel that has a better finish and more aromatics,” he said. “I am looking at assets and liabilities. It might be a little dead in the finish, but I know if I need something as stuffing in the mid-palate, 115 will work.”
This barrel will be used more for its positive characteristics, bolstering a different barrel that might need a little help in rounding out its flavor and tone. Thinking of it another way, Waller is like a composer, figuring out how to use each instrument in the orchestra to get the musical tone he wants.
“I am trying to find out what I like about each lot,” he said. “And I am trying to find specific barrels of what I like more in each lot, so I know if I am doing a reserve or estate wine and I need six barrels from this lot, I know which ones to pick. You want barrels that will age together with no one characteristic sticking out too far.”
A second barrel of the 115 clone, planted 10 years earlier, offers a totally different experience. There is a bit less aroma, but it is more refined.
“It takes 12 to 15 years for a vine to get a personality,” Waller said. “You start getting different characteristics—this one has more structure to it, and the mid-palate is better. I write everything down—structure, tannins, acidity—and you are trying to get all of those in harmony, and not overpowering in any way, shape or form.”
Waller has already designed three barrels of another Dijon clone, 667, as good enough for their reserve wine.
“This one, for me, is a huge addition to the estate,” he said. “I have to come up with 13 of the barrels for the reserve wine. We start with the reserve and work down from there. Then I have to figure out how much oak to add and how many barrels are going to contribute to the finished wines.”
It’s still too early for Waller to know which other barrels will be blended to make each finished wine, but he is getting closer. He will be spot-checking barrels daily and reviewing all of them again in another month, looking for the right combinations that will lead to winemaking perfection.
“We have rated everything and know what barrels to choose for composite samples,” he said. “We are going to start doing the trials and basically throwing it against the wall and seeing where it will stick.”
Almost as if to underscore his unbroken string of successes, Waller opened a bottle of the first wine he created for Eden Rift, a 2016 Estate Pinot Noir. Waller said for this first wine, he took a conservative approach with fewer assets to work with.
“It is encouraging that the fruit is still there in the glass,” Waller said. “I totally went with my instincts for this one. We only had three blocks of vines to work with at that time, and now we have 10—that diversity in the vines adds more nuance, so our wines get better and better. It is our first wine, and it is our standard.”
As the wine opens up in the glass, all of the elements begin to come together—the aromatic fruits, the full mouthfeel and smooth texture, the complex flavors, and the soft finish, all vying for your attention without upsetting the balance between them. Waller has expanded his palette of grape varietals since then, including barrels of recently planted grenache.
“For me, what you smell in the glass should carry through to the taste,” Waller said. “We want the vineyards to speak for themselves. That is what I am trying to achieve when I am blending.”
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