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Dunne on Wine: Peirano Estate Vineyards knows blending

Published: November 7th, 2012 12:00 AM

Whether it be science, craft or art, winemaking at its most ambitious and precise is when the winemaker gets to blending.

As customarily practiced, blending involves adding a bit of one varietal to a bunch more of another varietal – merlot into cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah into zinfandel, viognier into syrah – in hopes that the final wine will be more aromatic, more solid, softer, longer or the like.

It's an almost mystical endeavor, relying on the acuity of the winemaker's palate and his or her ability to conjure up a sense of what the wine will be like now and in several years.

Blending nowadays is more complicated than ever, thanks to enhanced grape-growing and winemaking knowledge, and a wider array of tools with which farmers and vintners can toil and play. When winemakers talk of blending today, they could be talking of different strains of one variety of grape, or different blocks of the same variety within a single vineyard, or different kinds of wood in their barrel room; and on it goes.

"I love blending," said Lance Randolph. "A blended wine is a more intriguing wine."

Randolph, a fourth-generation Lodi grape grower and winemaker, owns and runs Peirano Estate Vineyards, which he established in 1992, though for several years he suspended production because he calculated that he could make a decent living just farming and selling to other vintners increasingly popular zinfandel grapes from his family's vineyard, now 118 years old.

With the harvest of 2008, however, Randolph revived his label and has been ramping up production and diversifying his portfolio ever since. Today, his lineup includes around a dozen wines, including a muscular yet approachable old-vine zinfandel called "The Immortal Zin," a congenial everyday red called "Red Shorts Red" and a series of proprietary blends with names such as "The Unknown" and "The Other."

He also grows and makes cabernet sauvignon. His brilliantly colored and unusually frisky Peirano Estate Vineyards 2010 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon consists solely of cabernet sauvignon, but nevertheless reflects Randolph's energetic interest in blending.

All the grapes for the wine came from 30-year-old vines on Randolph's estate. In contrast to the customary practice of fermenting grapes of a kind one way, Randolph divided the crop and processed it with three different fermentation techniques – cold soak, rotary and static.

Each method, explained Randolph, yields different characteristics in the wine. Cold soak, for example, an approach favored by many producers of pinot noir, tends to give wine more color via extended contact between skins and juice at a cool temperature – as low as 45 degrees – at the beginning of fermentation. Cold soak also lends itself to working the fruit in small batches, though it takes longer for fermentation to finish.

Static fermentation is basically the industry standard, whereby juice is fermented in vertical stainless-steel tanks whose temperature can be closely monitored and controlled. With static fermentation, color and maturation are determined by controlling the temperature and by the pumping over of the juice, which breaks up the cap that forms atop the mass.

Rotary fermentation is similar to static fermentation, though the tank is horizontal rather than vertical, and rotates like a concrete mixer, the agitation facilitating more contact between skins and juice. With rotary fermentation, the winemaker can control the agitation, the extraction of color and more by regulating temperature and by determining the number of rotations per hour, explained Randolph.

He keeps the lots separate, and by tasting the juice during the various fermentations begins to map out his blend.

"You're assembling the wine as you taste. You are figuring out how much of each particular characteristic you want," Randolph said.

The percentage of wine from each fermentation is likely to vary by vintage. For the 2010 cabernet sauvignon, static and rotary fermentations accounted for 45 percent each of the final wine, while cold soak accounted for 10 percent.

The result is a dry, light- to medium-bodied cabernet sauvignon that is unusually sunny and spirited, not only for Lodi but for Northern California generally.

It is a lean wine, but no lightweight, though in a wine competition its finesse could be overlooked, especially if it were sandwiched between warmer and richer California interpretations of the varietal.

With its bright cherry fruit, reserved tannins and sharp finish it put me in mind of the style of cabernet sauvignons made by Martini, Mondavi and Clos du Val in the 1970s and 1980s more than many of its more blustery contemporaries.

Randolph notes that more than his diverse fermentation practices account for the wine's character. For one, in the vineyard he uses a trellis system that divides the leafy canopy of the vines both horizontally and vertically, exposing grapes to more sunlight, a method he believes helps enhance the wine's fruit flavors while avoiding vegetative notes.

And once he finished blending the wine, he aged it in barrels for a year. That's where he stopped blending; all the barrels were of French oak.

2012 Peirano Estate Vineyards

2010 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($14)

By the numbers: 13.8 percent alcohol, 8,500 cases

Context: Lance Randolph suggests that the wine be poured with swordfish or other rich seafood, especially if it is finished with a glaze based on cabernet sauvignon. He also has found it compatible with pork and beef, but with more conservative cuts such as filet mignon or a New York steak rather than a rich rib-eye steak.

Availability: In the Sacramento and Lodi areas, the wine is stocked at Compton's Holiday Market, Select Wine and Spirits and some Raley's, Bel Air, Save Mart and Safeway stores. The wine also can be ordered online through the winery's website,

More information: Peirano's tasting room, 21831 North Highway 99, Acampo, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.