When In Napa, Do This First

Before you hit the first winery, crack open a bottle, twirl and take a sip of cab, there is something you need to do first. Something that is going to completely change the way you experience Napa Valley, or possibly any wine region, for that matter. Something that will give you a new appreciation for wine, how it's made, and the insane brilliance of winemakers. Most of all, an experience that is sure to set the tone for the rest of your trip.

Conn Creek's Barrel Blending Experience is a one-of-a-kind interactive experience where you get to play winemaker for the day, selecting, blending, bottling and corking, and even designing a handmade label for your very own bottle of wine — which you can then take home or have shipped wherever you like. Besides the fact that the Bottle Blending Experience is super fun, creative, and tremendously informative, it's also one of the best general wine education courses you can get in under two hours — and Conn Creek Winery does it masterfully.

Here's how it works. Napa Valley AVA, an American Viticultural Area located in Napa County, California, is considered one of the premier wine regions in the world. Napa Valley AVA is divided into 16 sub-appellations representing the different wine-making regions in the valley. The Blending Experience allows the Napa visitor to taste the entire valley through a selection of prized single-vineyard cabernet sites from all 16 renowned sub-appellations. The process allows you to familiarize yourself with the winemaking regions and identify the styles of wine you like. With over 300 wineries and counting, knowing your wine preferences ahead of time helps you to easily pinpoint wineries you'd like to visit and takes the guesswork out of figuring out where to start. It's like visiting an art museum: If you know you like the Impressionists, you can go straight to the Impressionism exhibit.

Upon arriving at Conn Creek Winery, you are greeted by a Conn Creek concierge. Our group's concierge was a woman named Jessica Cope, a very knowledgeable, friendly, and patient woman — it wasn't easy trying to keep excited wine lovers focused. You are then escorted into the Blending Experience event room: a large rectangular room lined with wine barrels and with two large dining tables in the middle. At each place setting you have everything you need: tasting glasses, a spittoon, dump buckets, crackers, beakers, a mixing container, a notebook, and water.

Jessica takes you through a brief history of Napa Valley filled with interesting facts and news. There is an overview of the Valley's 16 sub-AVAs or -appellations — I found this to be extremely interesting and helpful in understanding the reasons behind the unique characteristics of the different wines.

Now comes the really fun part: tasting the wines from the barrels. To help with the tasting experience, Conn Creek categorized the cabernets by flavor and richness, starting with the softest and moving to the boldest. They also feature tastings of the other Bordeaux varietals grown in the region: cabernet franc, malbec, merlot, and petit verdot. As you taste from each barrel, you start to develop a sense of which sub-appellations you like, and the ones you don't.[pullquote:left] 

Once you have determined the style of wine you like and the sub-appellations you prefer, you are then cut loose to blend your own using different percentages of varietals. The goal is to create your own perfect wine. I wasn't too excited about my first attempt at blending. It had too many tannins and needed a little more fruit to balance it out. Writing down my formula, I went back and forth, making adjustments and experimenting with different blends and percentages of wines. It was fascinating and more difficult than I had imagined to get it right.

By the time I found my winning formula, as well as bottled, corked, and named my wine, I indeed felt as if I had walked in the shoes of a winemaker, if only for a few hours. As for the days following, I found myself seeing and tasting wines in a new light. This greater appreciation and understanding of the winemaking process enriched the rest of my Napa experience. I was no longer just a visitor, but an enthusiastic student.

As a restaurateur, food and wine expert, and correspondent, I am constantly on the lookout for ways in which I can inspire people to connect with food and wine. The Barrel Blending Experience will change how you approach your visit to Napa. You'll foster a new appreciation for the art and science of winemaking by being a winemaker for a day.

"The reward is drinking the fruits of your labor — literally," says Mike McGrath, a winemaker at Conn Creek.