The Tasting Panel magazine

April 2011

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CALIFORNIA From Jeans to Juice AT BLANKIET ESTATE IN NAPA VALLEY, INNOVATOR CLAUDE BLANKIET TALKS DENIM AND DETERMINATION by Daedalus Howell / photos by Ryan Lely P ublicists get naturally wary when pitching clients who have distinguished themselves in one industry while positioning them in another. Some career moves have obvi- ous relationships (drill sergeant to gym coach, for example), whereas others might appear disparate on the surface but share subtle relationships upon meditation. Deep meditation. Like, say, the relationship between winemaking and acid wash jeans. Such is the career legacy of Claude Blankiet. Once known as the man who introduced stonewashed jeans to the American market (among other techniques of artificially distressing and aging denim—from sandblast- ing to hand-tooling), he and his wife Katherine have enjoyed continuing success in wine since establishing Blankiet Estate in 1996. They’ve received scores of 95 points or more from such luminaries as Robert Parker, who has lauded their wine as “world- class, combining the extraordinary power of the site with unbelievable elegance and definition.” In other words, Blankiet has gone from faking vintage jeans to making vintage wines. On the surface, this might seem like casual word play, but the notion actually bears out in Blankiet’s critically-lauded work, then and now. Essentially, he’s seeing what natural materials can do, be they tex- tiles or 16 acres of vineyard in the western foothills of the Mayacamas mountain range overlooking Yountville 108 / the tasting panel / april 201 1 in Napa Valley. The change from jeans to juice, however, did require some adjustments. “I had to kind of slow down. I really enjoy that. All my life before this, the pace of business was always my decision,” says Blankiet, a contempla- tive man whose native French accent (his name is pronounced blahn-kyay) adds a certain worldly panache to his observations. “Here, we have to work with the pace of the season. Working with nature at this point in our lives is an improvement.” For a man who had perfected the art of accelerating aging techniques in textiles, ceding control to nature and its often time-intensive processes was initially an adjustment for Blankiet. “It’s challenging, but it’s what I like in life. I enjoy asking a question and not necessarily getting the answer that you expect,” he says wryly. “From the very beginning, our idea was to satisfy personal interest and curiosity. The idea was to plant just a small vineyard to make wine for our friends and ourselves, and perhaps sell wine to few restaurants. The commercial aspect was not at all in the picture.” Indeed, as one might glean from Blankiet’s wife and business partner Katherine, the winery represented something of a partial retirement. “The romantic notion of a having a simple ‘country life’ has long disappeared,” says Katherine with a laugh. “We’re very busy.” Given Blankiet’s proclivity for excel- An imposing bottle from Blankiet Estate. In the background is the Blankiet residence, which is designed to look naturally aged. lence in whatever passion presently drives him, he wanted to create wine at a “high level.” This meant conducting a three-year search for the right piece of land and sourcing the best talent available to realize his vision. “I wanted to get the best talent right as I could away because I knew my limitations. I knew about wine inasmuch as I was a good consumer and a good taster, but I didn’t know how to make wine,” recalls

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