Imagine you're building a pyramid, he said. Pour a little from each of the bottles, and that's your base. Taste it. Then add more from one or other, until you've got the port you want. Build your own port? It's a heady experience!
It helps to have a master builder at your elbow, somebody like Russ Woodbury, producer of vintage port in California's Sonoma Valley. We were tasting barrel samples of the four grape varieties to be used in his 1980 blend: pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and petite syrah.
"These four varieties give me the different qualities I need. If I wanted a monster port, I'd just use petite syrah. But I want balance and elegance. For that reason, I'm aiming to use about 50 percent pinot noir in the 1981 blend."
The pinot noir vines are 20 years old, and they're the youngest Woodbury uses. Some of the zinfandel vines are 85 years old. The label states that the port is made from old vines, and, as far as Russ is concerned, this is the first step toward a quality product. He buys expensive Alexander Valley grapes, grapes that are in demand for premium table wines.
Next, he fortifies the must with his own pot-still brandy, instead of a cheaper neutral spirit. His brandy is made from the St.-Emilion (ugni blanc) grape of Cognac.
Aging, in 50-gallon barrels for up to 22 months, is followed by six months of bottle age before release. Woodbury's port is neither fined nor filtered, so it starts to throw a crust, the respectable and desirable sediment of any vintage port, a couple of months after bottling. He's found that it takes another year to develop a bouquet, and 10 years more to gain complexity.
Be patient. That's a decade less than one would wait for most vintage ports from Oporto. But Woodbury, the man who's first great wine experience was a '55 port, is not trying to imitate Portugal. "My wine is not made to be laid down for 30 years, he said.
When he started his winery in 1977, he knew that the idea of a quality vintage port from California might be a little hard for traditionalists to swallow. "In image, American ports are on the wrong side of the tracks, but I felt that a small demand for a quality port would emerge." He was right. Production has quadrupled.
At $10 for the '79 and $13 for the '77, the Woodbury is well-priced for laying down. However, there's a consumer education job to be done, and the distributors are encouraging restaurants and hotels to serve the port by the glass. How does Russ Woodbury suggest the impatient imbiber cope with an immature port? "Decant it the night before."