Uncorked Ventures Blog
For wine retailers, the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is by far the busiest time of the year. For a winery, the equivalent time of year is harvest. It’s an interesting dichotomy given that October and the beginning of November is a time period when we’re really trying to gear up for the holidays, but wineries aren’t always available, or at least the people we want to spend time with and get to know, aren’t available.
Instead of not visiting wineries during October like we have in previous years, this year I decided to work a few days of harvest at a couple of different custom crush facilities in Sonoma.
A trip from a couple of weeks ago brought me to Vinify. I’ve mentioned Vinify in this space before, but I originally found Vinify through a neighbor and their introduction to Matt Duffy and his Vaughn Duffy wine label. Duffy also is the winemaker in charge at Vinify which helps approximately 30 wineries to make world class wine out of a warehouse space in Santa Rosa.
One picture I wish I had available happened as I was first pulling into the parking lot. The wine industry isn’t exactly known for having a group of early risers, so arriving before 9am as I did that day, sometimes would leave me some time for coffee (at least) before anyone else showed up. During harvest though, things are different.
I found multiple trucks carrying grapes (mostly Pinot Noir) to be dropped off at Vinify and a few of the other production facilities in this industrial park. Additionally, the picture I wish I had was the group of 10 winemakers sitting on the curb, much like little kids like my toddler and his friends at the park, although the winemakers were waiting for their grapes to come in. It’s the kind of image that consumers would enjoy seeing and I wish the industry would share more often. It’s easy to forget, but winemakers love their job and I think as a group, are incredibly thankful that they get to do something they’re so passionate about.
Ok, so I’ve worked enough around a winery at harvest to know a few things. First, winemakers love having new guys around, especially one’s that are willing to get their hands dirty. I’m guilty of that, I enjoy seeing the winemaking side of the business, that’s of course why we’re all here. Winemakers and other winery staff also more than willing to find a bad job for you to do. I knew going in that Pinot push downs were a really great job, for an intern.
Duffy in all his wisdom (and probably to get me out of his hair for as long as possible) got me hooked on with Jon Grant who makes wine at Vinify for both his Straight Line label, as well as for his Couloir Wines label.
A little background on Jon, first and foremost you’ll recognize one name above all others-he’s the assistant winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars. Turley won’t need an introduction for many of our readers, but I do think it makes sense to point out that if you were choosing a single winemaker and winery to learn from in California today, Turley would have to be at, or near the top of that list. I mention that simply to say that there is a pedigree here.
Jon’s Couloir Wines label is his Pinot Noir project and shows an interesting take on how a winemaker with a varied set of interests can break those wines apart to make the most sense for consumers. Couloir offers four different Pinot’s, each from a different vineyard around the state of California. It feels almost like cheapening the experience if I mention that all four were rated at 90+ points by Wine Enthusiast. Of note is the Monument Tree (the highest rated at 93pts) to me simply because I’ve become something of a fan of the vineyard after running into vineyard designate wines made from Monument Tree Pinot fruit at Copain and more recently an aged bottle from Drew Family Cellars. It’s a really interesting vineyard that’s well known for being among the coolest climate Pinot vineyard around, certainly among the coolest in the Anderson Valley. If you have a friend or wine lover who doesn’t believe that California Pinot can be restrained, refined and almost classy-find a wine from Monument Tree and change their mind forever about the vast possibilities.
Of more interest given my experience is the Straight Line label and specifically the Tempranillo. We actually shipped the Straight Line some time ago (2 vintages ago perhaps), but had never run into Jon personally before this day at Vinify. The fruit for the Straight Line Tempranillo that I encountered came from a vineyard in Lodi, while there are other grapes that come from Terra Alta (one of my favorite California vineyards based on experiences with Blair Fox down in Santa Barbara).
In any case, I learned a few things about Tempranillo that day:
First, the destemmer doesn’t really help that much. Evidently, an extraordinarily high percentage of jacks gets through because the berries cling more tightly to the jacks than do other varietals. Those clinging jacks aren’t a problem with the whole stem ferments that happen as part of Straight Line, but this batch was meant to be de-stemmed. It’s a testament to how much Jon cares about his finished product to see him bending over in a sort of back breaking labor, to get every possible jack and stem out of the half ton bins.
I also learned at least two things about making wine at a custom crush facility like Vinify. First, it's damn hard to find a good towel. Secondly I learned that there is a real sense of community at these custom crush facilities. Over the course of a couple of hours you could hear a winemaker or two complaining or mentioing how this vintage is different, worse or better. Almost universally you'd have another winemaker offering some type of encouragement. It was striking to me since wine retailers generally hate each other. When I run into other retailers at tasting events they act as if we have nothing to talk about. A couple of weeks ago a wine club competitor of ours launched a redesigned website, I told them congrats and that it looked great....only to be told to leave them alone. Winemakers are a different bunch to be sure because even though they are competiing with each other, there was a lot of discussion about how to deal with the challenges that kepy coming up during these early days of harvest. There's a real sense of community and a large amount of community knowledge available for winemakers that probably isn't available or discussed in other industries.
In any case, Jon makes some good wine and any winemaker willing and able to sing along to a 50 Cent song is someone we plan on seenig more of in the future.
Lastly, thank you to everyone at Vinify for putting up with me.
In my continued efforts to introduce our readers to wineries which took part in the recent Family Winemakers tasting at Ft Mason, I present Canihan Family Wine Cellars.
The Canihan wine story is an interesting one, which dates well back to the early 20th century in pre WWI Europe. August Siegrist came to America (and San Francisco specifically) from Switzerland where he had seen his mother work with vines and their resulting wine, as well as the locally driven Swiss food culture. Luckily for August San Francisco has long been home to something similar and he found a home in the city as a baker and eventually as a restaurateur.
For many families the story might stop there, or someone working at a social media startup might tell his friends that his dad used to want to make wine, instead the dream continued through the work of Siegrist’s son in law, Bill Canihan Sr.
Canihan Sr purchased a 60 acre piece in Sonoma and farmed it organically for over 20 years before planting vines, the idea was to give the earth enough time to make the ground suitable for grapes again. Given some of the issues I’ve had with my own backyard garden after the previous residents of our home let it basically go to it’s wild roots, I have a better appreciation for this type of patience than I might have only a year ago.
Finally, 1998 saw the plantings of the biodynamic and organic Canihan Family Vineyard.
More recently, I’ve run into a few quotes and some information on Bill Canihan which makes him seem like someone who is going to end up being an asset to the Sonoma wine industry. First, we was a commercial mortgage banker in San Francisco for some time. While it isn’t often talked about outside the wine industry, more and more winemakers that I talk to regularly have spoken about the need for financing and how difficult that financing is to receive after the economic collapse. I’m seeing truly memorable wines being made using kickstarter campaigns and having more and more wineries simply struggling to have any type of financing in place. While I understand from a banker’s perspective that wine doesn’t always seem like a good bet, I do think it is a good bet that some of these estate’s turn a tidy profit on a yearly basis, don’t you think?
Canihan helped to explain the situation faced by a small vineyard in an interview with Sonoma News:
"In 2008," Canihan reveals, "vineyard management alone cost us $30 a bottle. The lowest we've done is $19 a bottle. That's just vineyard management costs. It doesn't include bottles, labels or foil."
To put that price point in perspective, most average consumers won’t pay more than $30 for a bottle of Pinot Noir, no matter who makes it and no matter where it comes from. It should help to explain the difficulty that high end wine estate’s like Canihan face when trying to enter into a market dominated by larger scale operations, capable of producing drinkable, but certainly not memorable $10 Pinot Noir from generic California vineyards.
Ok, so Canihan is likely to be a resource for other growers, vintners, winemakers and vineyard owners in regard to both financing new projects, as well as turning those projects profitable. There’s certainly more though.
We hear consistently, ad nauseum really about how great wine is made in the vineyard. We often hear wineries and winemakers talk at length about how their vineyard is affected by small changes in location compared to their neighbors as well as any number of other important points about their location and how that affects the grapes that end up in your glass. What I don’t often see are all of these wineries completely willing to buy into the concept and farm their land both organically as well as biodynamically.
One aspect of conventional farming that I think many of us can appreciate after spending any amount of time trying to grow food in our backyard is that after you use fertilizer or some other type of intervention, it seemingly becomes more important to use others. In essence there is a constant and uphill fight between fertilizer makers, or simply put the chemical industry and pests or nature itself. Frankly, I don’t believe it is a fight that we can win forever, which is why we’re seeing regular farms employ crop rotation among other more natural ways of helping the soil retain vital nutrients like nitrogen.
In any case, before I get going too far along a philosophical journey here about organic and biodynamic farming helping to preserve these outstanding vineyards for future generations, I should talk a bit about Canihan’s wine since that’s truly why everyone is here.
Here’s the first thing you’re going to notice when you open either a Pinot Noir or Syrah from the Canihan Family Vineyard: Spice. Like a lot of spice on the nose. Really, a lot and some of the most interesting and complex set of flavors you’ll ever smell from either of those two varietals. This is where I think you see the meticulous farming practices truly coming into play, while so many people talk about how Pinot and Syrah both can have spicy notes on the nose, we lose those sensations with too many wines. They’re present here in abundance and if you drink a lot of Pinot Noir, you’ll realize that you’ve been missing something along the way.
In the mouth the spice, interestingly, fades more into the background and I’m left with a simple yet straightforward assessment. This is a rounder version of Pinot Noir, consistent with what you’d expect from a warm California vineyard. That being said, while it isn’t austere, it doesn’t reach a level of feeling over extracted either. This is a true Pinot Noir producer and when it comes to their Exuberance Pinot Noir-a true reminder of what Sonoma County is capable of when treated with enough care.
It’s also a winery you’re likely to hear about more in the future, this type of care and concern for a vineyard doesn’t allow for giant leaps in production or the sourcing of inferior product for greater profit. In short Canihan Family Vineyards is likely just beginning its journey to being a Sonoma Pinot producer that we can count on to produce a world class wine in every vintage.
Ancient Oak Cellars is an interesting, high end winery located on 4th Street in downtown Santa Rosa. We originally found Ancient Oak while doing some research about an outstanding bottle of Pinot Noir that we received from La Crema which included a percentage of grapes from Siebert Vineyard, a vineyard in the Russian River Valley that we hadn’t previously heard of.
Of course, whenever we taste grapes from a new vineyard in Sonoma especially, we want to know more and frankly want to find out if those same grapes end up as part of a wine program, suitable for our limited production wine clubs. La Crema makes some great wine to be sure, but they’re probably too well known for us to include in any of our monthly wine club options.
In any case, when we looked into the Siebert Vineyard we immediately noticed that it was owned by Ken and Melissa Siebert, who happen to also own Ancient Oak Cellars. The first thing that struck us about Ancient Oak is that their pricing seems more than reasonable given the quality, background of their winemaker (more to come in a moment) and the location of their vineyard. With their own single vineyard bottlings priced under $40 for Pinot Noir and more generic Russian River labeled wines for only $25, these are fair prices, if not prices which leave at least a few dollars on the table. Ken and Melisa’s story isn’t highly unusual for the Bay Area, having made their fortune’s elsewhere (Ken was an architect, Melissa having worked in a variety of high tech lab’s) there is a pull of sorts in regard to the wine industry. Ken’s grandfather also owned and planted the Siebert Vineyard which carries his last name, so perhaps joining the wine industry in one way or another was bound to happen at some point. Plus, living in the east bay myself, it’s hard not to enjoy seeing a winery owned by a Berkeley native.
Kent Barthman is the winemaker for Ancient Oak and brings an interesting pedigree to the job, having spent many years making wine at Rutherford Hill. Rutherford Hill is an interesting name in my home, simply because their Napa Valley Merlot is the first specific wine that I remember truly enjoying with my wife in our early 20’s. For years, those Rutherford Hill Merlot’s were required purchases from Costco in our house. Barthman’s background also fits something we often look for, quality winemakers taking on smaller projects. I think it’s an easy explanation, but when a winemaker is tasked with making a few hundred thousand cases per year, that’s a lot of work and a lot of delegating to others. Often times we find winemakers from these larger producers, enjoy having a more hands on approach at smaller vintners. Barthman’s skills as a winemaker aren’t at question, even before mentioning his job as assistant winemaker at Far Niente and the fruit coming from the Russian River Valley is at least as highly respected. Putting the two together is exactly what most consumers would love to be able to drink every time they open a bottle of wine.
Additionally, I found the information about the growers on Siebert Vineyard rather touching. Almost every winery owner and winemaker that I’ve ever talked to tells me that the wine starts in the vineyard. There is often a disconnect though because winery website’s often tell you little about the people putting those long hours into cultivating the grapes in the vineyard. That sense of place and an understanding that everyone involved in the journey of making wine is important is one of the reasons that we will continue to support organizations like Stolpman Vineyards on the central coast and will continue looking for other socially conscious like minded companies.
At Ancient Oaks Amulfo Becerra is largely responsible for their grape cultivation. Amulfo is a native of Michoacan Mexico (about 100 miles east of the coastal resort town of Puerto Vallarta) and deserves a mention in this space given that he’s pruning these vines by hand. When the French talk about having a sense of place and history in their wine, Amulfo is someone helping to create that in this small Russian River Valley vineyard.
Lastly, I wanted to mention that the Siebert Vineyard is part of the Santa Rosa and Russian River Valley greenbelt. Here in the east bay the greenbelt means a small strip of pavement and grass below the BART path, that carries a dibious safety record in some parts, but further north that means a strip of connected farm land and vineyards which allow a continual space for wildlife to pass through in a more natural progression. The wine industry, perhaps more so than most others, benefits from being good stewards of the environment by being able to produce better wine from the same land, so we can appreciate any winery willing to take concrete and long term.
Overall, Ancient Oaks is a winery that wine drinkers, especially those on the continual search for cooler climate Pinot Noir should be aware of. They're also a supporter of the Family Winemakers organization, which does an incredible amount of quality work so their sense of place doesn't only extend to their vineyard or to Sonoma County.
Since we’ve already professed that level of enjoyment of their wines, we thought a longer feature in this space would be a good fit as well.
Let’s start where all great wines start: the vineyard.
The Bugay Vineyard is located on the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma County, an area we’ve traveled to in order to find a couple of other wines over the years as well. It’s one of the most rugged regions for wine grapes left in Sonoma to be sure and it’s not always an easy visit, but it rewards those wine drinkers willing to venture slightly off the beaten path in much the same way it rewards vintners willing to take some added risk and avoid the valley floor.
Bugay sits at approximately 1200 feet of elevation, above the cooling elements of the fog which floats up from both the Pacific Ocean to the west, but more importantly the San Francisco Bay directly to the south. We know a few neighboring properties have views of the Golden Gate Bridge, which we think speaks to the level of wind and exposure that is faced by these vines. While the vineyard avoids the fog which robs sunlight during the morning and late evening hours, the cooling help from those bodies of water still exists to be sure. That helps the grapes ripen evenly. One thing you’ll notice about Bugay Vineyard wines, they are full bodied and supple, but they aren’t lacking in acidity.
Lastly, we’ve been on hand to experience what a double or triple pass through the vineyard can mean at harvest time, something Bugay talks about on their website. Most vintners and wineries wouldn’t dream of it because it literally adds double the extra time, or more and there are no guarantees that what they find during the second or third pass will end up being significantly better than the first run. Of course, adding extra passes might make your wines that small bit better, so for a farm like Bugay that’s all the reason they need to employ the practice no matter how much extra work it adds.
Ok, so about the wines and what we find interesting. As you might expect, Bugay is able to grow and produce some world class Cabernet Sauvignon from their mountain vineyard. I’m sure I could bore you all into submission talking about their mirco vineyard sites and how each Cabernet block is picked at different times etc. Frankly, I’ll let sell you on that, instead I wanted to focus on something more eclectic.
A 100% varietal Cabernet Franc. We haven’t seen many of them and even when we’ve had a few requests for it, too view winemakers are given the required grapes and even further still find those grapes planted in an area which is condusive to growing the grape. As you might expect, Cabernet Sauvignon needs similar sites, so Cab Franc is largely out of luck. The results here are splendid though and the wine carries most of the memorable Cab Franc traits, which again as you might expect are similar to what you probably think of when you consider Cabernet Sauvignon-with some important differences. The first difference you’ll notice is that Cabernet Franc is lighter in color than its more famous relative. We also find it more expressive on average on the nose than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also less dense with less significant tannins, which is interesting because the grape is one of the latest to be picked and in some areas of Napa, the last grape to come off the vine.
Of course, for any winery to truly make a name for itself, it needs a high quality winemaker. Bugay has exactly that in Randall Watkins. We’ve gotten a bit leery when we read a long list of previous stops for winemaker that typically include a bunch of larger production facilities that we’ve all heard of a million times, but a stint at Hartford Family & Moon Mountain will still get our attention. He also crafts some wine under his own label, Watkins Family Winery, which has been well received in its own right. Having grown up in Sonoma, Watkins is one winemaker who really does seemed destined for what he does for a living.
Of course, we couldn’t write anything about Bugay Vineyards without mentioning the man whom the project is named after: John Bugay. It’s interesting, most winery websites talk at length about their founder, leaving little room for conversation and background about anyone else. Bugay is a different animal to be sure, there is little to no information about John’s background on the site. For now, he’ll happily continue as something of the mystery man of Sonoma winery owners.
Lastly, I hate to mention it but it does seem like there are some changes afoot at Bugay. The good news is that John who planted and then managed the vines will continue his daily ritual at the vineyard and the winemaking team continues to be in place, so we don’t expect to see any change in quality or style from the estate.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Alan Baker and Serena Lourie who are the husband and wife team behind Cartograph wines. Their story is an interesting one in itself, Alan came to California’s wine country via public radio in Minnesota, bitten by the wine bug like so many others, myself included. He met Serena during his time at a custom crush facility in San Francisco, where after a few vintages he was tasked with helping first time winemakers who were making wine as a fun side project. One of his projects was being the assistant winemaker for Serena who remembered the days of fresh locally grown food and wine from her family home outside of Prentrez France, a small town on the northwestern edge of the country. They came together to craft a single barrel of Pinot Noir for that vintage and reportedly, the idea behind Cartograph was planted.
Cartograph was a personal recommendation from William Allen at Two Shepherds and has come highly recommended from a handful of other sources as well. I was excited to get the chance to meet the people behind the wine and of course, to see if anything they make would be a fit in one of our wine clubs.
Cartograph is in the process of moving their tasting room from a shared facility to their own space, only a few blocks off the main square in Healdsburg. While we haven’t talked about Healdsburg much in this space before, it’s clearly the crown jewel of tourist sites in Sonoma County and offers a range of interesting and unique restaurants and shops. Additionally Alan mentioned that there are a number of other high end Pinot Noir producers opening tasting room’s in the area, making a sort of Pinot Noir alley in the middle of Healdsburg. We’re excited for it.
When I saw their tasting room, it was in essence a large empty space. The floor was marked for where the walls would be placed to create a wine club only tasting area as well as space to sell some additionally products in accordance with the city’s specifications. Seeing the marks on floor made me remember when I was a kid and my parents had found a space to open a Dairy Queen, the space they opened in had previously been occupied by a scrapbook store which had added an additional set of walls. Taking those extra walls down via sledgehammer is still one of the best times that any 9 year old could possibly have.
In any case, I had the opportunity to taste two of Cartograph’s wines: their Gewurztaminer which was shipped in our Exploration Wine Club this month as well as one of their Pinot Noir offerings.
Cartograph has an interesting and perhaps even an eclectic winemaking style at play. The Gewurztaminer is a dry version of the varietal, which isn’t often seen outside of the Alsace France. Alsace is located in the far eastern corner of the country, so the focus in this cooler climate are white wine’s, especially Gewurztaminer and Riesling. Unlike their nearby German neighbors though, Alsace crafts dry white wine’s while Germany’s are typically sweet. We mention all this to simply say that finding a dry Gewurztaminer isn’t exactly an easy proposition even in the old world, let alone in California where it is virtually unheard of.
The Pinot Noir had a similar old world style. It was among the most Burgundian I have tasted in California. As you probably realize, crafting a true Burgundian Pinot in Sonoma isn’t exactly the easiest task in the world. While vines in Burgundy consistently struggle to reach full ripeness, which is never an issue in our California sun.
There are some ways and choices of course, that a winemaker can make in order to get as close to Burgundian growing conditions as possible even on California’s coast. One of those choices means finding vineyards which are both close to the cooling influences of the Pacific Ocean, but when we’re talking about Sonoma, finding a vineyard in close proximity to the Russian River itself as well. The best example here is Cartograph’s Floogate Vineyard Pinot Noir, which comes from a vineyard which sits at the southern end of the river’s flood plane. Being situated in the flood plane means that the soil is incredible from centuries of natural irrigation, has an accessible water table, but more than anything else, is cooler than many vineyards in and around Sonoma. The vineyard also sits almost directly east of the famed Petaluma Gap which is one of the few breaks in the coastal mountains of Sonoma and allows fog and other maritime influences to help cool the vineyard even further. The end result from the coastal and river influences is a vineyard site, among the coolest in inland Sonoma. Unlike some coastal vineyards, ripeness is achieved, but without a higher than wanted acidity.
Other than the wine and the story behind Cartograph, we wanted to feature the winery both in this space as well as with our wine club members because they’re both willing and seem to enjoy interacting with people, both in the trade and outside of it in person and via social media. Alan was quoted in a USA Today article having said
"Good wine is simply the starting point," Baker says. "If you make good wine, you've got a shot. But this is about creating a relationship with people."
It’s the type of attitude that consumers wish was more prevalent in the wine industry. I can feel comfortable sending my friends who enjoy studying wine to Cartograph because there are plenty of interesting wine geeky things happening here, but my friends who are also more likely to have a beer at Russian River Brewing Company than to pay for corkage at Bistro Ralph, would also feel welcome in this tasting room. Creating a space and a winery which works for both sets of people isn’t easily done and I can applaude Cartograph for pulling it off.
Oh and a sense of humor is a good thing:
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