When Willamette Valley winemaker Julia Bailey Gulstine came across an opportunity to purchase grapes from the Columbia Gorge’s Acadia Vineyard in 2017, she didn’t immediately have a plan for what to make. Located at the peak of Underwood Mountain, an old volcano at the elevation of 1,500 feet, the 80-acre no-till, organically farmed parcel is planted to multiple varieties of both pears and grapes. “It’s a block of Anjou pear, and then the next block over will be Grüner Veltliner, then the next block over will be a Bosc pear. Then the next block will be Riesling,” she says. “It doesn’t have that standard monoculture setup that you typically see in vineyards, and I love that about it.”
The grapes had previously been sold to sparkling-wine makers, but when a majority of the grapes happened to ripen around the same time that year, Bailey Gulstine and her viticulturist husband, Scott Gulstine—who make wine together under the Loop de Loop label—gravitated toward a style she loved: a field blend, a category typically made from multiple grapes planted in a single vineyard that are then picked and co-fermented together.
“[When you blend finished wines] you can pick them out in the wines when you’re tasting them, but I feel like when you do a field blend, and you ferment it together, it becomes a whole, almost like an orchestra.”—Bailey Gulstine of Loop de Loop Wines
The move seemed risky at first. “I was told consistently by retail buyers that people don’t spend money on white field blends, or white blends. White blends are generally perceived, perhaps, as being inexpensive, not very serious wines,” she says, pointing out exceptions to this rule from Austria and France that she admired. But she loved the result, the first vintage made from a mix of Grüner Veltliner, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and a little bit of Pinot Noir. “[When you blend finished wines] you can pick them out in the wines when you’re tasting them, but I feel like when you do a field blend, and you ferment it together, it becomes a whole, almost like an orchestra,” she says.
Their bottling quickly found a warm welcome in Portland restaurants, selling out entirely. The next year, they made more, trying a slightly different mix of grapes. Even though COVID hit, shutting down restaurants and with that, their main source of wine sales for this bottling, the Gulstines were able to eventually find solid interest in retail and direct-to-consumer sales. “People have caught on, and I feel like it’s got its own little following now in the Portland market,” she says.
The Gulstines are one of a number of U.S. winemakers, retailers, and restauranteurs who are adding domestic field blends to their roster of wines. At first glance, field blends are a simple concept: wine made from different varieties of grapes that have been grown on the same plot, harvested, and then co-fermented together. But the conversations surrounding it are anything but, striking at the heart of some of the noisiest discussions in wine, from typicity to terroir, the role of a winemaker, biodiversity, how wine should be labeled, even climate change.
The concept isn’t exactly the typical what’s-old-is-new-again wine story, either—field blends are common across Europe, particularly in Portugal, Austria, Germany, and parts of France and Italy, and have flirted around the outskirts of mainstream wine in the U.S. for some time. Many of the original California vineyards planted by European immigrants before Prohibition, for example, were planted to a blend of grapes instead of the mono-varietal plots common now, and wines were made with whatever mix of grapes came in.
Tegan Passalaqua—who makes wine under his own Sandlands label as well as at Napa Valley’s Turley, which makes a number of field-blend old-vine Zinfandel and Petite Syrah—says that understanding wine labeling regulations can help explain how old California vineyards came to be planted with multiple varieties, and how that changed over time.
In 1933, Prohibition’s repeal brought the first American laws in varietal labeling, requiring that a wine that carried a grape name must be made from at least 51 percent of juice from that grape. In 1978, the federal government upped that number to 75 percent, which sent winemakers scrambling to find greater amounts of single variety plots. “If you look at the wine from the 1960s and ’70s that were varietally labeled, you have to keep in mind the possibility that they were 49 percent other varieties,” says Passalaqua. He notes that Petite Syrah was the most planted variety in Napa Valley in the 1970s, but it was rarely bottled in a single variety cuvée—instead, it likely ended up in many Cabernet and red blends.
And while we like to think of labeling as something definitive, Passalaqua says that until University of California–Davis grape geneticist Carol Meredith used DNA sequencing to identify grapes, the composition of many vineyards was often unclear, even to the growers. “A lot of growers, I’m the one telling them what they have in their vineyards,” he says—for example, a grower saying they have five clones of Alicante Bouschet, when it’s anything but. “Whenever there’s a coin toss [on identifying a grape] we’ll send it in to be tested.”
Today, many of the big names in California Zinfandel, including Bedrock, Carlisle, Turley, and Ridge, continue to champion field-blend wines; it’s likely that one might have had a field-blend Zinfandel without ever knowing it. But with the American reliance on grape variety as a selling point, it’s one thing to bottle a field-blend wine under a Zinfandel label, but another to entirely opt out of labeling with a grape variety.
Take Hiyu Wine Farm, for example. When Nate Ready, a Hood River Valley farmer and master sommelier, decided to buy a vineyard in the Hood River, Oregon, region more than 10 years ago, he did not want to only make the (what is now classic) Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that Oregon has become known for. “I imagined if I was to stumble upon a vineyard, I would probably be most excited about one that was really a mix of different things, similar to a pre-Prohibition Zinfandel vineyard in California.”
“If you’re a wine region, you’re trying to cultivate this interest in your local city population, and having a bunch of wines that all taste more or less the same isn’t really the best way to cultivate that.”—Nate Ready, Hiyu Wine Farm
With dual interests in increasing biodiversity on the 30-acre property he bought, and the diversity of locally grown wines available in Oregon, he decided to graft 112 lesser-known grape varieties to the existing vines of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer, to make 16 different field blends. “Drinking Pinot Noir every single night is not really the most sensible [thing],” he says. “If you’re a wine region, you’re trying to cultivate this interest in your local city population, and having a bunch of wines that all taste more or less the same isn’t really the best way to cultivate that.”
With a blank slate for building his field blends, Ready says choosing the varieties that go into the plots requires some consideration and a lot of imagination. First, he’s looking for grapes that ripen at around the same time, which rules out things like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo together. But after that, it becomes something of a puzzle of genetics (grapes from the same family), regionality (grapes typically grown together in the same region), or flavor profile (grapes that taste similar). “You could plant Chardonnay, Xarel-Lo, Garganega, or Ribolla, right?” Ready says. “If you did something like that, that’s more just pure flavor profile. Whereas if you plant Chardonnay with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, Munier, Melon, Aligote, that’s more kind of in this genetic box.”
For the most part, Ready has stuck with plots dedicated to grape families or regional mixes (think a Chateauneuf-du-Pape–type blend with more whites), but he’s not afraid to experiment: At a new vineyard, he’s considering adopting more of the flavor profile mixes.
“Everybody wants to try new flavors and have new experiences. And it’s weird, the industry is furthest behind on this—we’ve experienced way more hang-ups from people within the industry than we do from the general public.”—Nate Ready
So far, the response has been gratifying. The on-site tasting room and restaurant has become a buzzy destination, and with distributors across the country, his wines are in high demand in restaurants and retail shops. “The hardest part about it is breaking the cycle [of talking about grapes], but it also allows you to talk about the identity of the wine in a different way. You can talk more about the characteristic of the parcel, and how it’s vinified, and other things about its vibe and mood and what foods it goes well with, and what it allows,” he says. This is a shift away from the manner a lot of wine is categorized, discussed, and sold in the U.S.—by variety, and how well the wine represents that variety. But Ready says it’s the people who are more entrenched in the wine business who are sometimes the hardest to convert. “Everybody wants to try new flavors and have new experiences. And it’s weird, the industry is furthest behind on this—we’ve experienced way more hang-ups from people within the industry than we do from the general public.”
One of the reasons these wines seem to be popping up on wine lists with more frequency is that customers are already primed to engage in a discussion about the way new wave Zinfandel or Cabernet Franc might not taste like textbook examples of the grape. Our notion of typicity is expanding rapidly.
At Portland’s OK Omens, for example, sommelier Brent Braun currently lists two field-blend wines in the “wild side” section of his wine list, which to Braun doesn’t necessarily mean that the wines are funky or strange—they just need a little explanation. For the Hiyu “Tzum Oisín” Columbia Gorge 2018, Braun begins that discussion by listing the grapes as a Chateauneuf-du-Pape–style blend. The Ruth Lewandowski “Boaz” 2018, a field blend from Mendocino, is listed as a Carignan/Grenache/Etc. blend.
“I list Grenache and Carignan because, A: I think the wine shows those grapes more, and B: I think it gets more people interested in ordering one. And then you can tell them after, ‘Oh there’s also Cabernet and there’s also this and that.’ Where if you write Cabernet, you’re going to get some confused people that are like, ‘I’ll take the Cabernet Sauvignon.’ And that’s not really what you’re getting into, you know? I think you’ve misread what you think this is.”
Given the wide range of styles encompassed by the modern-day American field-blend trend, it’s perhaps not surprising that people aren’t deliberately searching for the style. “I don’t remember the last time someone has come in and asked for a field blend,” says Orenda Hale of Maine & Loire, a natural wine store in Portland, Maine. At the moment, the store only carries one North American field blend, a white from natural winemaker Brianne Day, though in the past they’ve had picks from Matthew Rorick’s Forlorn Hope, Joe Swick, and the Teutonic Wine Company, as well as selections from Europe.
“People come in talking about wine use areas more than anything else. ‘I tend to like Sancerre or Chardonnay or Bordeaux,’ and so on,” she says. “We find our customers are quite open-minded about the wine selection, and the focal point is actually on pairing with a meal or matching the general vibe of the day.”
A wine like Brianne Day’s “Twinkle Twinkle”—a white blend of Chardonnay, Vermentino, and Muscat from Layne Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley—usually will sell because a customer might be familiar with Day’s reputation in the natural-wine world. “Winemakers in Brianne Day’s position, because they’ve been more celebrated in the natural-wine community, they might have a little more traction, or people have come to trust them because of their varietal wines. People are more open than they have been in the past.”
For Ed Szymanski of Dame, a buzzy new restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village, overcoming the challenges of selling less commercially oriented wines—North American field blends included—is part of his goal. “There’s no point in writing a nerdy somm-centric wine list and not being able to sell it to the customers,” he says.
“The person who’s going to eat the wackiest stuff on the food menu is probably going to have the wackiest wines, too—they’re more interested in esoteric experiences.”—Ed Szymanski, Dame NYC
Szymanski divides his wine list into two sections, a “What Austin Powers is drinking” side, which skews more experimental and playful, and “What James Bond is drinking,” for more serious and expensive wines. Liten Buffel’s “On the Shoulders of Giants,” a field blend of Blaufrankish and Sauvignon Blanc made in New York’s Niagara region, slots right into the Austin Powers side. “Within that realm, one in 10 are asking for the funkiest thing we’ve got. That Liten Buffel is experimental and pretty crazy and difficult to pair with a full meal unless you’re looking for a funky wild wine,” he says. “The person who’s going to eat the wackiest stuff on the food menu is probably going to have the wackiest wines, too—they’re more interested in esoteric experiences.”
But that adventurous spirit is attractive to Szymanski, who says the winemakers on his list tend to approach wine more as a passion project than a commercial venture. And that, perhaps, is the current key to selling these new wave American field blends: having someone champion their existence. “It’s cool when winemakers feel free to experiment a little more,” he says. “And we’ll do everything to support them—for example, purchasing their wine.