Make your own Meritage

At one Portland wine shop, the best bottle just might be your custom blend
Cynthia Nims

The last time I conducted experiments using beakers was in third-period high school chemistry class. A recent visit to Urban Wineworks in northwest Portland took me back to those vanished days - though this grown-up chemistry lesson yielded far more enjoyable results than anything I ever did for Mr. Campbell. Part wine appreciation and part science experiment, weekly workshops at this winery and tasting room make for tasty lab work indeed, as you use a kit to mix, measure, and sip your way to your own ideal blend.

The kits help to demystify wine too. "Historically, wine has been so inaccessible," says Reuel Fish, one of the owners of Wineworks and also a principal of Bishop Creek Cellars in Yamhill County, just south of Portland. "The blending kit idea is about education. It gives us a chance to offer something different while giving customers a firsthand experience with winemaking."

Becoming a master mixer

You can show up at Wineworks anytime and order a blending kit for a do-it-yourself experience, but you'll probably have the most fun at Tuesday-night workshops. These classes, which are usually led by assistant winemaker Michelle Franklin, offer step-by-step guidance, plus the chance to share notes and tastes with fellow classmates.

You start out with three short beakers, each with 100 ml. (about 3 1/2 oz.) of a different varietal. A tall, graduated measure serves as your blending vessel, and three glasses allow you to taste a few concoctions side by side. Franklin encourages you to begin by tasting the three blending wines separately, making note of their distinctive flavors - fruity, earthy, floral, spicy - as well as tannin levels, aftertaste, and so on. Next, you play the wines off each other in 50/50 blends.

From there, it's up to you. Mix the wines in various proportions to compare and contrast, playing winemaker to suit just one palate: yours. You can even share your private cuvée with family and friends by taking home a bottle.

Urban Wineworks is worth a visit for other reasons as well. The converted building, once home to Portland Tool & Supply, now sports flooring milled from salvaged barrel staves. And its walls are lined with barrels, many of which are capped with original artwork by local artists (special tastings on the first Thursday of every month feature the unveiling of a new painted barrel).

In addition, customers can purchase a diverse collection of boutique Oregon wines - from wineries such as Bishop Creek Cellars, Andrew Rich Winery, and Brooks Winery - seldom available in retail stores.

Where to try winemaking

WHERE: Urban Wineworks, 407 N.W. 16th Ave., Portland; (503) 226-9797.

WHEN: General hours are noon-8:30 p.m. Mon-Sat, noon-6 p.m. Sun. Blending classes start at 6:30 p.m. Tue (reservations recommended).

COST: Classes cost $25, which includes a bottle or carafe of your custom blend. Blending kits can be purchased separately for $7.