Written by Sam Dearden, Jack of All Trades
“Oh, so you guys are actually putting things into your wines? Wow, how interesting!” Yeah, that’s usually the response we get when we explain what makes our wines unique. The cat’s out of the bag, we infuse unique ingredients into a bevy of our wines. In Napa Valley. We’ve been doing this for about six months now, and contrary to popular belief, we haven’t had an apocalypse, the rapture hasn’t come, the world hasn’t ended (okay we are kind of in a pandemic but that’s off topic). At Erosion our focus is to make flavor driven wines, which affords us a great deal of creativity when it comes time to brainstorm a new blend. Oftentimes this creativity includes non-grape ingredients, which seems normal to us coming from a beer brewing background. Now, some people might hear this and assume that we put different non-grape ingredients in all of our wines, but that is not true. We infuse fun and interesting ingredients in about half of our wines, while the other half of our available wines are just made from high quality grapes.
We have a system where we create trials of wines and test ingredients with different wines or blends; what I’m trying to get at is that we aren’t just going around willy-nilly throwing different ingredients into our wines. However, we do have a ton of enological creative freedom when it comes to brainstorming different blends to put together with different non-grape ingredients. Our fearless leader Patrick ultimately has the last call on whether a blend or a trial will be put together, but he is exceptionally open-minded on what we decide to create. We want to highlight what wine can be, without compromising some of the great characteristics of the wine.
What ingredients do we deem acceptable to infuse into our wines? What a fantastic question, thanks for asking! Like I mentioned beforehand, we are focused on creating flavor driven wines,a road not typically taken by conventionalists in the valley. We only include said non-grape ingredients into our wine if we feel that they will contribute to the overall deliciousness of the wine. I'll walk you through our process of crafting one of our wines that has made its way into the tasting room and into your hearts: our infamous Secret Handshake Vanilla. The Secret Handshake Vanilla blend we created was one of the first trial blends with a non-grape ingredient that we did, and really set a benchmark for how we now conduct trials today.
Our trial began with seven different types of vanilla beans. Personally, I didn’t even know there were seven different types of vanilla beans, but let me tell you, they are so different from each other it’s nuts. Why did we choose the Secret Handshake wine to blend vanilla into? Wow, another great question! Merlot is the primary varietal behind our Secret Handshake collection (there's a splash of malbec in there as well). We determined that this merlot would be the perfect varietal to infuse to vanilla because many merlots already have big vanilla notes. However, we ultimately set out on this journey looking for the best vanilla to compliment the merlot, not to overpower it and compromise the integrity of the wine. Side bar: Merlot is famously rich and chocolatey, so with it we also created Secret Handshake Vanilla’s alter ego, Secret Handshake Cacao. Okay I’ll try not to make this sound like a scientific paper. So, we started with six vanilla origins: Tahitian, Madagascar, Ecuadorian, Indonesian, Ugandan, and Papua New Guinea. We measured out 3 grams of each vanilla, cut them open, and put them each in their own 64oz. glass bottle, which resembles a beer growler. We purged the bottles with nitrogen, filled them to the top with our Secret Handshake blend (a lot of delicious merlot with a scoosh of interesting malbec), and then…...we waited. We let those beans get nice and familiar with their surroundings, giving them plenty of time to infuse their oils into the wine.
Our Cellar Master, Enrique, smelling through the vanilla trials.
After about a week, we cracked open all of the growlers of wine, and got ready to set out on the experience of a lifetime. The Erosion crew (at the time Patrick, Rachel, myself and our cellar master Enrique) set out a fold up table and seven glasses each, awaiting a trial that had never been done before in the history of winemaking (I think). We started with smells, writing down all of the sensory notes our olfactory systems could muster up, then moved to tasting the trials from what we assumed would be lightest to heaviest in terms of vanilla flavor.
Now, I’ll kind of give all of you an abbreviated version of our smelling and tasting notes so that I don’t bore everyone too much. So I believe we started with the Tahitian vanilla, which gave off a delicate floral aroma with a hint of stone fruit. The taste of the Tahitian with the red wine was fairly subtle, and actually paired well with the wine; it was definitely a contender to use for the time being. After that came the Ecuadorian vanilla, which mirrored the Tahitian vanilla with subtle floral notes. The Ecuadorian vanilla is the same species as the Tahitian vanilla (Tahitenis), so no wonder they are quite similar, even though they are grown 5,000 miles from each other. When we tasted the wine it just tasted like, ehh, as in it didn’t really do anything for the wine. No improvements, no real vanilla flavor, like I said, just ehh, so we crossed that one off the list. Vanilla from Papua New Guinea, and right off the bat the pungent familiar mild vanilla aroma was super inviting. The taste was amazing: a vanilla caviar with light cream soda taste paired perfectly with the merlot, and the little backend hint of oak didn’t hurt either. Definitely the front runner so far.
Then came the heavy hitters, the three vanillas we smelled and expected to pack that vanilla ice cream flavor punch. We started with the Ugandan vanilla, which smelled of warm butter and earthy tones. However, the taste of the Ugandan vanilla in the wine was just too strong, and completely took away from the original characteristic of the wine itself. Well, cross that one off the list. Next up was the prodigal son, the fan favorite, it was Madagascar vanilla. Oh man, the smell was amazing: sweet and buttery, we could still smell the original merlot in the glass. We thought we had found our winner. But then we tasted it. It was so sad. The deep and creamy taste of the vanilla was so overpowering that it just tasted like we were guzzling a vanilla drink. And to make matters worse, it was a little plastic-y, which may or may not have just been my fault for letting the beans over extract. But hey, I’m not one to point fingers. Anyways, the Madagascar beans were a no-go. Finally, we tried the wine with Indonesian vanilla. Right away, there was a pungent and sweet smell that was almost exotic. There was a unique smokiness to the taste, but it lacked a certain quality we were looking for and ultimately did not have a huge flavor. Unfortunately, we had to pass.
That left us with a showdown between the Tahitian vanilla and the Papua New Guinea vanilla, a battle that would infamously go down in history. Well, I guess, to make a long story short, we ended up going with the Papua New Guinea vanilla not only because of the way it complimented our base wine, but also how it improved the deliciousness and uniqueness of the wine as well. The light and sweet flavor that resulted from a short extraction period made our taste buds dance, and our minds wander. We ended up putting together a 60 gallon blend of the merlot/malbec base wine, and added a corresponding proportion of Papua New Guinea vanilla beans (cut open of course) to the base blend in a mesh bag to extract for a week. Then,voila, we put that bad boy in some crowlers and in some kegs for your pleasurable consumption.
We cut up vanilla beans prior to putting them into the wine to maximize the flavor impact of the beans. It's also a good idea to split them down the middle first to expose the wine to the "caviar" inside the bean.
This humble 60 gallon blend was served on its own. But that’s not all! What is vanilla’s best friend? That’s right, chocolate! We blended the same wine that we infused with cacao, and the flavors exploded. We’ll be releasing this wine soon in a 3 pack of 250mL cans. Look out for Secret Handshakes!
If I had to be humble and give a final closing statement, I’d have to say that this blending trial that we did is historic and will always be remembered as a benchmark for enological innovation. We were the first people to ever do this: take a perfectly good wine and add vanilla to it. But guess what, it worked, and it’s f*cking delicious. You can rest assured that we will be creating more experimental blends like this in the future. Some of our new wines we create will be more familiar, and some will be out of this world ridiculous. But remember one thing: once these blends are gone, they are gone forever. We have a few crowlers of delicious Secret Handshake Vanilla remaining so get it while it lasts, or forever wish you had ventured into parts unknown.