We'd gathered at the Union de Guyenne, where Cazaux is directeur general. It's a wine cooperative with some 100 members who bring their grapes to be crushed and fermented into wine for either their own brand or someone else's. California vintner Francis Ford Coppola, for one, is having some wine made at the cooperative, said Cazaux. Outside, a dozen tractor-pulled wagons full of grapes lined up to dump their loads.
Inside, Cazaux lined up a six bottles of wine samples. A couple were mostly merlot, a couple mostly cabernet sauvignon, others a mix of both as well as other Bordeaux varieties. A couple of the samples also differed in their exposure to oak. Our assignment was to taste through them all, then blend one wine we thought would be superior to any of the individual samples.
I used three of the wines, basing my blend largely on the sample that struck me as possessing the liveliest expression of sweet fruit; it was solely merlot, something I hadn't realized at the outset, and perhaps an indication of my growing affection for the varietal, at least as it is made in Bordeaux. I added in a fair amount of a sample that was largely cabernet sauvignon for its warmth and herbal overtone, and a dash of another cabernet sauvignon that packed more backbone and tannin than the others. The breakdown of my blend was 65 percent of the merlot, 25 percent of the first cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent of the latter. When I tasted it I wished I'd added more of the cabernet sauvignon with the firm spine and less of the merlot, but there it was, ready for Francis Ford Coppola to pass judgment and offer me a job; wouldn't matter if it was at his estate in Napa Valley or the one in Sonoma County.
Coppola, however, wasn't on hand, so it was left to Cazaux to hand out the imaginative medals. Of my blend, he said it was "well balanced, round, soft, concentrated, accessible." Sounded like gold to me. The second wine in the lineup, however, was "more concentrated, a wine to keep in the cellar" (that, of course, could be taken a couple of ways). The third had "more oak," which he apparently liked, also calling the wine "a good blend." Another was "complete, rich, with big tannins, not ready to be drunk, but with good potential." Another was "well done, round, with well-integrated tannins." I felt my wine slipping into bronze-medal territory, maybe even the dreaded honorable mention. Coppola wasn't going to be calling, I suspected more and more.
The exercise demonstrated a couple of things. For one, it showed how seven people could come up with seven very different interpretations of the base material, reminding us just how challenging the winemaker craft can be. Secondly, the winemaker as critic, at least as far as Cazaux is concerned, generally avoided the fruit and other flavor associations common to so much wine criticism and instead concentrated on structure, balance and whether the wine simply tasted good. He avoided technical jargon, and didn't talk price or value. Mostly, we appreciated how kind he was.