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Thinking outside the wine barrel: 1000 Stories creator Bob Blue talks bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel

Published:  16 November, 2018

From his upbringing in the Church of Christian Science to bourbon barrel aged Zinfandel range 1000 Stories, Bonterra head winemaker Bob Blue has led and continues to lead a colourful life.

Harpers caught up with the man himself to find out how he’s managed to bottle ‘something a bit different’, and how he went from a teetotal upbringing to working with coopers from Heaven Hill and Elijah Craig for his latest vinous project.

So Bob, bourbon–aged Zinfandel. How did that come about?

When I first started out as a winemaker, wine barrels were not widely available and American oak barrels were for whisky, not wine. So we ended up purchasing used bourbon barrels, which we then neutralized.

Then, around the time I started 1000 Stories in 2013, I was really intrigued by the experimentation and openness that came from cross-breeding between spirits, craft beer and the food world. So we stopped neutralizing the barrels and use the bourbon nuances to enhance the complexity of the wine. When it comes to this kind of innovation, wine has really been the last industry last to move. I thought whisky is being aged in wine barrels, why not the other way round?

Did you run into any difficulties with legislation?

Thanks to our legal team, we’re the first to be able to say ‘Bourbon’ on a front wine label in the US. There’s less protection around spirits and beer. I suppose they want to protect wine because it’s more of a nascent industry, but we were able to push the legals through.

How much contact does the wine have with the bourbon barrel?

About two months on average. The wine has a year in either French or American oak, then it goes into a bourbon barrel for two months. They’re all American bourbon barrels – Heaven Hill and Elijah Craig are some of the coopers we use. But not all the wine that ends up in the bottle has been bourbon-aged.

Any other similar approaches taken from the whisky world?

We’re currently still making the wines in batches rather than vintages, which is a bit like Scotch. We taste the single malt then turn it into a blend. It’s hands-on work – not a recipe that can be massed-produced.

Is it true you once wanted to be a dentist?

Yes, but then I signed for the army as a GI. It’s not like I was conscripted – they want to keep you happy when you volunteer. So they asked ‘where do you want to go?’ and I said ‘Europe’.

I ended up in Germany, which is why I have a fondness for Riesling.

Then when I got back to the US, I started working for Fetzer, which was one of the first negociant businesses in California. We simplified the industry. People didn’t understand the complicated French nomenclature, but they understood Chardonnay. That was it. I never thought about dentistry again.

Sounds like an exciting time for you personally and for wine.

I moved to Fetzer at a time when young people were taking over, kind of like what happened in the tech world.

One of the things I got into was organic agriculture. It came left of field, which fit me and my upbringing with the Church of Christ the Scientist.

The church was founded in Boston in the 1870s by a women called Mary Baker Eddy. It meant I had quite an austere upbringing, but the philosophy has some really interesting ideas. I grew up not immediately reaching for the medicine cabinet if I had a cold or the flu.

Did that austere background find its way into your winemaking?

I know what it’s like to be a bit of an outsider, and that has served me well when it comes to taking risks. As I said, when I first started, wine barrels were not widely available. We had to be creative. But I do envy young winemakers now who have so much choice. There are so many yeasts to choose from, and that’s just one example.

I also think the hardest thing sometimes is restraint. Like with this project, I didn’t want to go overboard. I wanted the bourbon to enhance the wine, not overshadow it. Restraint can be difficult, especially when there’s a lot of pressure to do something different.

1000 Stories hit UK shelves earlier this year via Concha y Toro UK and comes with a RRP of £17.