Give a group of wine lovers half a chance, and soon they’ll be acting like the greatest wine makers on earth. You can see them in action at the AVA Barrel Room at Conn Creek in the Napa Valley, where anyone can have a go at blending wine. Not just any wine samples, either – fine Napa Valley Bordeaux blend components.

What Conn Creek has done is to present wine samples in barrel from across Napa Valley sub-regions and then let visitors loose with a beaker and a notebook, to start tasting and rating for themselves. Even in a place as full of good wine tourism and education ideas as Napa Valley, the Conn Creek AVA Barrel Room stands out as a wine education highlight — and something that other regions, interested in developing their own wine tourism, might consider developing.

Explaining terroir

On a cold morning in late October, Terry Hall addresses a European media group. Hall, from Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association that promotes the Napa Valley appellation, swings briskly into his speech: The Valley is 60 miles north of San Francisco. While 90% of US wine production comes from California, only 4% comes from the Napa Valley, but that represents 34% of the value, and so on. He gives a potted summary of Prohibition, of rebirth, of passionate wine lovers who came into the valley to recreate the great wines they’d known in their home country. He re-tells the tale of the Judgement of Paris, the 1976 taste-off against the French, which changed the fortunes of US wines.

Napa Valley is rich in history and colour and spinning great yarns is easy, because there’s so much material to choose from. But the most important story any wine region needs to tell is about its terroir; customers need to understand what’s unique about the wines themselves, and why they should buy those wines in particular, rather than wines in general.

“We’re in a Mediterranean climate – which is only two percent of the earth’s surface,” says Hall. “But we’ve also got volcanic activity. We’ve got a huge array of microclimates – what we call ‘amplified terroir’, which means you get big differences over small variations in soil.”

He goes on to explain how the fog rolling in from San Francisco helps make the climate unique. The Europeans take notes, because to wine experts, this is interesting stuff. But to ordinary wine tourists, even committed wine lovers, this type of information can be arcane or overwhelming, and it doesn’t necessarily bring the wine itself to life. And that’s where the AVA Barrel Room comes in.

Napa Valley is divided into 16 American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, each one possessing its own microclimate and soil types, from alluvial to volcanic. This geological patchwork allows grapes in one area to be develop high acidity; in another, deep, sweet fruit. But this same level of diversity can make the Valley difficult to understand, even for a professional. The Conn Creek AVA Barrel Room goes a long way towards solving the problem.

A retired naval officer named Bill Collins, a Bordeaux lover, founded Conn Creek in 1973 on 46 acres of land. Today, Conn Creek makes 25,000 cases a year, of which their pinnacle is a wine called Anthology, a Bordeaux blend. One of Conn Creek’s earlier winemakers, Jeff McBride, decided that if he was going to get the best from Napa, he needed to know more about the region itself. His idea? To source Cabernet fruit from the major viticultural areas and vinify it separately, so he could examine it from all angles and learn more about it.

The result

“We started this room as a homage to Napa,” says Paul Asikainen, Conn Creek’s director of hospitality. “It’s dedicated to the sourcing of fruit.”

The room has tables running down the middle, and barrels along the walls. Next to each barrel is a picture of the AVA the fruit came from, along with a tube showing soil samples, collected by bucket and dried in an oven. Everyone is told to pick up their pipette and beaker and start sampling the wines in the barrels. Everyone has a tasting booklet in which to write their notes and soon the audience is busy, drawing samples, sipping and rating. It rapidly becomes clear how different the wines are: this one is tannic, this one acidic, this one soft and chocolatey.

“The room is organised in a progressive manner,” says Asikainen. “It starts at one end with softer wines from volcanic soils, with lower tannins.”

According to Steven Burns, principal of O’donnell lane, which handles Conn Creek’s communications, McBride set up an early version of the room. “People would come in, whether they were a Master of Wine or a customer, and they were like, ‘this is why Napa Valley is special – I get it’.” After it became clear that ConnCreek had hit upon a popular idea, they decided to create a serious experience. “We spent a couple of years working on the logistics,” says Burns. “How to keep the wine in barrels good and how to pay tax on a barrel, not a bottle. Then we remodelled the room with maps and photographs.”

The AVA Barrel Room opened in June 2009. Today, groups of up to 10 people pay $125.00 each to experience a guided tasting and blending session. At the end of the experience, participants can fill and cork a bottle with their own wine. So has Conn Creek learned anything about consumers’ tastes from watching people come in and blend? “It’s so person specific,” says Burns. “People will either gravitate to the soft end of the scale or the bold end. One person fell in love with Malbec and blended it with a Cabernet backbone. So I think it’s driven by people’s individual palates.” And giving people a chance to blend their own wine means they’re focusing only on discovering what they like, rather than what they should like. “They’re so focused on their bottle that they’re not worrying about the crowds,” says Burns, adding he’s seen some ‘crazy’ combinations, “like people who taste Petit Verdot for the first time and decide they want that.”

But it’s not just tourists who come – the growers like to come and taste the wines made from their grapes. “Most of them are our long term growers,” says Burns. “Often we have a grower party and it’s like they’re seeing their kids graduate.”

A wider use

Conn Creek, situated in St Helena, is somewhat off the beaten Napa track, so the tasting experience is helping to draw people in. It’s also used as a resource by groups like the Napa Valley Vintners and the Culinary Institute of America. “We invite trade and media in on a complimentary basis, because we think it’s such a special place,” says Burns.

In this, it’s a manifestation of the Napa Valley itself, which is a tight-knit, supportive community. “We’re a very collaborative company and very supportive of the Napa Valley Vintners and wine education in general,” says Burns. “If someone stopped in here and then asked us where to go next, someone might call and get you an appointment next door. The room is a unifier.”

It’s also the kind of project that is perfect for complex or far-flung regions, who perhaps struggle to explain why their wines are special to consumers. Setting up such a project is neither easy nor cheap, and is probably more suited to an association than to an individual winery: apart from the tax issues, there are also issues of keeping the barrels topped up and having staff on hand to guide participants. And it may not be a very good way to sell wine; it’s possible participants aren’t even thinking about buying any more wine, since they’re clutching a bottle of something they made themselves.

But as a way of communicating the joy of wine and why terroir is important, it’s a brilliant idea, because it directly engages people with terroir. “This room benefits everybody,” says Burns. “It’s such a simple premise. There are appellations all over the world being carved up into smaller and smaller pieces. I’m surprised other people aren’t doing this.”

Even the wine experts love it. A journalist proffers his beaker to anyone who is interested. A quick sniff suggests he’s chosen to build his wines from the very tannic samples, because the nose is quite closed. He takes his beaker back. “My wine is made to age,” he says with pride. “It’s not a soft drink-now type. It’s a cellaring wine.”

Of course it is.

Felicity Carter

A version of this article appeared in a 2010 issue of Meininger’s Wine Business International magazine.

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