Uncorked Ventures Blog
There’s been a ton of debate about Napa vs Bordeaux for well over a generation now. I’ve always been somewhat frustrated by the whole idea that as an industry we have to decide who makes better Cabernet Sauvignon, can’t we simply agree that it’s good for the world of wine and wine drinkers that two regions on two continents make outstanding Cabernet, in largely divergent styles.
Part of that divergence comes from the fact that Bordeaux tends (well, if you eliminate the first growth’s that let’s be honest, few of us can afford anyway) to source grapes from multiple vineyard locations in a contiguous location to craft their wines. Part of the reason for that difference, which is a rather large one when we’re talking about how wine is made, is how vineyard sites were drawn up in Bordeaux and truly across much of wine country in France. The French created their vineyard plots by looking at terroir or the natural geography of the land, before defining ownership. In California, even Napa Valley the ownership piece has always come first, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has lead to many more single vineyard offerings in Napa than you’ll often see in Bordeaux, if you compare similar price points.
At Blackbird Vineyards, there is a certain European and French sensibility to their wine, which comes from both ownership and their winemaker as well. The winemaker on site is Aaron Pott who comes with two unique experiences which likely make him uniquely qualified to make a French inspired Cabernet in Napa Valley. First, he tells the story about learning about wine for the first time in a Parisian Bistro at the age of 9. He ordered a glass of milk, only to be told that milk is for babies and being brought a watered down glass of red wine. I haven’t spent an inordinate amount of time in Paris, but anyone who has traveled there of late can probably both appreciate the story and believe that it probably happens more than we know. Secondly, Pott spent 6 vintages working in St. Emillion after meeting and befriending winemaker and winery consultant extraordinaire Michele Rolland while working at Newton. Newton itself is a hot bed of sorts of European influence within Napa, having employed several winemakers of European descent over the years. In any case, if you want a French inspired Cabernet, finding a winemaker with a UC Davis viticulture degree and experience making wine in both Napa and Bordeaux makes a lot of sense. We’ll talk about Aaron’s work here and elsewhere at a later date, but we hope it suffices to say that the winery is in exceedingly good hands here with Food & Wine’s Winemaker of the Year for 2012 at the helm.
Anyone running a business knows that good hires and smart planning takes someone to set up a business in such a way to allow those type of smart decisions to happen, so we should mention that here’s where I think Blackbird shines when compared to other wine projects. Founder Michael Polenske comes to the world of wine with a financial planning background and he has taken that focus and applied it to the wine industry.
Frankly, that isn’t something that we see all the time, too often winery projects get out of hand in terms of pricing vs quality as they serve only as an ego building exercises for the owner/founder and never end up being run like a real business. That’s why you end up seeing so much $100+ Napa Cabernet sitting on the secondary market. Polenske says that he is now in the business of leisure, which is just better stated than we ever could, but it’s important to note that he also owns a variety of sites around Napa devoted to food, art and furnishings. We don’t typically mention business arrangements in this space, but it’s refreshing to see simply because I’d love to see more of these targeted and focused projects around the valley. It frankly makes my job easier when a winery offers an interesting take on Napa Valley Cabernet, does it well and offers the wine at a fair price point given the quality.
These are wines that we can ship in any of our wine clubs and we think, they are wines that you, as a consumer should be aware of.
Specifically, their Arise red wine (which contains almost enough Merlot to be so named, not like any winery would make that choice given the current sales environment swirling around the varietal), priced at $50 is a wine that deserves notice by consumers for a few reasons. First, as you might expect, it is more European in style meaning you’ll find more acid and less fruit forwardness especially in the 2011 which was produced in a cooler Napa Valley vintage. Arise hits the mark in terms of great Merlot, which unfortunately many American wine drinkers wouldn’t recognize even if it were sitting on their dinner table. The wine is dry, yet brings a certain sweetness which is another of the trademarks of the grape, although it’s one usually only found in high end French versions of the grape.
It appears that when we named our company Uncorked Ventures, we set ourselves up to have plenty of company with that Uncorked term. The latest folks that we came across with a similar name have a special place in that group because they make some really good wine as well.
During a recent trip we walked into the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, only to be looking at “Uncorked at Oxbow”.
If you aren’t familiar with the Oxbow Market, it is set up in a similar fashion to other high end food emporiums which bring together a group of separate vendors within a single facility, the concept in many ways is similar to a Farmer’s Market in many ways, but with permanent stalls and typically with more prepared food. My wife and I have a peculiar affection for the Ferry Building in San Francisco and are anxiously awaiting the opening of something similar in Oakland’s Jack London Square, if that project can ever get off the ground. Given Oakland’s newly found center at the center of the food startup scene in the Bay Area, it makes you wonder why the developer can’t pull that one off-but back to Ahnfeldt and Uncorked at Oxbow.
After a moment, we realized that Uncorked at Oxbow was in effect a tasting room for Ahnfeldt Wines.
That brings us to the important part of the story, Uncorked is more than a standard tasting room where there is wine and frankly not much else. It features open mic night’s, barrel tastings, blending sessions and generally aims to open the side door to the wineries that we all love and let the general public have a look at how things really get done in Napa. It’s a really cool idea and a project that deserves our support.
Another reason that the project deserves our support is that Ahnfeldt makes some damn good wine. Routinely scored at 90 points and above by major wine critics, the winery offers in many ways the essential grapes of Napa Valley: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. When it comes to wine tasting in Napa Valley, people can sometimes be overwhelmed by the number of available choices and winery options. Ahnfeldt makes itself an interesting and unique place to taste based on both the environment as well as the way they’ve set up their wine program. It’s always fun to learn a little something when you visit Napa, Ahnfeldt helps there by offering an interesting mix of wines. As an example, they offer a Napa Valley Merlot, but also a Reserve Merlot from their Hardman Vineyard. It might be challenge for your palate, but the chance to see the differences inherent to a single vineyard in Napa Valley is a fun thing to taste and try. Their Cabernet Sauvignon program offers something similar while it additionally offers two single vineyard choices, one from the Mountain District-which is unique because it is one of the highest vineyard sites in Napa, more than 2,000 feet above sea level.
I also appreciate the winery having a couple of other labels available in order to offer a Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and what I think might be the next big thing in Napa, Sangiovese.
In this space we typically talk a bit about the winemaker in question, at Ahnfeldt he really needs little to no introduction for most of our readers-Paul Hobbs who quite simply makes some of the most memorable Cabernet Sauvignon in both North and South America in any given vintage. Hobbs has produced a running number of 95+ point wines, which fits well with Ahnfeldt and what they are trying to accomplish. Let’s just say I’m sure Hobbs’ services aren’t cheap these days, so it says a lot about the commitment of owners Celeste and Bruce and their commitment to the labels to bring him on board. The couple although married in 2005 have both been part of Napa’s wine scene since the mid 1980’s. Bruce has grown and sold grapes for years as a side project to his law practice and Celeste opened and operated one of the nicest, smallest and most exclusive bed and breakfast’s in the region.
The next time you find yourself in downtown Napa, Uncorked at Oxbow is a great place to check out and enjoy a unique and memorable wine tasting experience.
Every once in a while you end up running into a bottle of wine that you really like, even when it comes from an unexpected place. I’ve already talked about the chagrin that often overtakes me when I have a friend, or a neighbor who suggests a friend’s wine, or a wine that they really like. I mean, if I had a couple of bucks for every time someone suggested that we purchase some wine from their friend who was making it in their garage, or this great wine from a 1M+ case winery, well my wife and I would be choosing better restaurants.
Enter a bottle from Lang & Reed Wine Company.
I was blown away.
Lang & Reed fits the mold of a winery which would open, make some good wine and then rapidly scale up production before being sold. But it hasn’t. I thought that would be the model for Lang & Reed based on the founders having a long stretch of experience in the wine industry, which in this case seems to have made them sure that building a brand for themselves and theoretically their children, makes more sense.
A husband and wife team of Tracey and John Skupny own Lang & Reed Wine Company. John’s resume in Napa Valley and beyond is longer than virtually any others than you could possibly find, but stops in the marketing departments of Caymus (in the 80’s no less!) and Coppola certainly would open the entire world of Napa to him in terms of grower relationships and the opportunities that help to create a world class wine. His wife and business partner Tracey spent over a decade in the marketing & sales departments at Spotswoode (I warned you, good connections abound) before taking time off to raise their two sons (something I can greatly appreciate in terms of the amount of work, stress and the lack of genuine road map given I have my son a couple of afternoons a week) and as the kids have grown closer to adulthood, has focused more attention on the winery. She’s also the director of the Napa Valley Vintners Board of Directors, so it’s pretty clear that Lang & Reed are every bit of a partnership.
What really interested me about Lang & Reed was the fact that despite a St. Helena address, they have chosen to focus their winery project on Cabernet Franc. There are a number of issues with Cabernet Franc, not the least of which is that the average consumer isn’t necessarily going to choose a bottle of it when a more familiar Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir is present.
The winery offers two versions of the Cabernet Franc, an entry level more approachable bottle (the one I was able to taste) priced at $24 retail and a more structured and dense, single vineyard offering priced at $48. While the number of available varietal specific Cabernet Franc’s isn’t wide even here in the Bay Area, I’d have to say this was among my favorite versions of the varietal that I’ve tasted over the past three years (well right up there with Mark David).
Oh and as you’ll look around their website, you’ll notice their love for animals, especially a set of Saluki dogs. We’re lucky to have neighbors who have a couple of them a few doors down and I can attest that the dogs really are intelligent and incredibly gentle with the variety of little kids trying to do everything short of ride them around the block.
Lastly, I can’t help but say that we need more wineries like this in Napa Valley, but elsewhere as well. Focusing on a more obscure varietal like Cabernet Franc should be something that those of us in the industry respect and average consumers try to support when possible. More choices in terms of wineries and types of wines is a good thing for consumers and Lang & Reed is a great example of a winery taking a chance of sorts, but crafting a really high quality wine at the same time.
Dos Lagos Vineyards, in my estimation is going to one of the most talked about names in Napa Valley within 5 years: Here's Why:
I’ve talked about Atlas Peak before in this space, but it is truly one of the more interesting and unique places in Napa Valley these days. I’ve heard it described by a few folks who have been the Valley for some time (certainly longer than I have) that Atlas Peak is much like walking back in time, to a simpler time in Napa. That’s a time before the tasting of Paris, before the $30M+ sales of wineries and before the pretentious nature of some wineries which have gained famous names more for real estate than for wine.
When we start to look at wineries and wines to include in our wine clubs, we tend to look at two things. Vineyards and winemakers. Sure a great story is a bonus and makes writing these blog entries and newsletters easier, but at the end of the day the most important aspect of a winery is what ends up in the glass.
The vineyards on Atlas Peak aren’t at issue any more. The wide ranging and dramatic success of Stagecoach Vineyard among others has truly put the AVA on the map when it comes out outstanding growing areas for Cabernet, among other grapes. In fact, when we’ve done informal taste tests with some of our best customers, they tend to enjoy Atlas Peak wines at least as much as their more famous relatives on Howell Mountain and other mountain AVA’s within Napa Valley.
The second aspect of a winery is their winemaker. Here’s where everyone should truly be sold on Dos Lagos-their winemaker is Robert Foley. Foley isn’t one of the new generation of winemaker superstars who doubles on the San Francisco celebrity circuit, but you’ll recognize a few of his winemaking projects immediately: Pride, Switchback Ridge and School House. If you were to ask a number of wine critics which Napa Valley winery made mountain fruit a household attraction, I’m betting more than half would tell you that Pride is the biggest thing in mountain wineries within Napa. All that is to say that Foley’s credentials are as strong as any winemaker, anywhere.
If you were wondering how Foley came to this project, a short guess has to be centered around the fact that the grapes from Dos Lagos are in his own wineries’ Claret. If you feel strongly enough about a vineyard to include them in a wine whcih carries your own name you're probably going to feel comfortable making an esate wine for the fruit as welll. Foley hasn’t taken on a new project, by our count at least, for at least a decade. For an industry veteran, I think that speaks volumes about what he thinks of the Dos Lagos fruit.
Lastly, no article about a winery is complete without talking about the folks behind the idea and the brand. Dos Lagos is owned by Tom & Marcie Dinkel. The Dinkel’s, unlike so many winery owners (or even wine club owners, present company included) have chosen to not clutter their own website with personal information-so suffice to say that the couple seems to have a diverse set of interests, such as a day job in solar power, loving the America’s Cup which has finally come to San Francisco and of course some art along the way as well.
If you’re looking for a new, interesting Napa Valley Cabernet then Dos Lagos should be at the top of your list. With their first vintage under a decade ago, Dos Lagos is still a new venture and stands to continue gaining market share and attention as time goes on.
I’ve been told that I’ve been writing a bit too much about Sonoma in this space and not enough about Napa Valley.
I do know that Napa can be expensive and no matter your budget for a trip into Napa Valley, it’s fun to get something at a discount isn’t it?
Here’s a few places you can score some interesting discounts for your next trip into Napa:
Napa Valley Register: It’s really the only true home town newspaper for Napa Valley and the Register undoubtedly offers more local content than does the San Francisco Chronicle. Almost every locally based hotel and business of note does some sort of advertising with the Register and most offer a discount or two along the way, even if those discounts aren’t always easy to find. From the Napa Valley Register’s home page, click their “Visit Napa Valley” link on the header and then search for the deals link on the right. Looking through their current choices you’ll find everything from discounted hotel stays to free wine tastings at over 50 wineries
Wine Country This Week: The magazine does an outstanding job keeping current with exactly what’s happening in the Valley and offers 2 for 1 on basically anything you’d ever want to do on a visit. It’s also worth a read because they really do a good job at featuring lesser known and smaller wineries in their monthly issues.
Email Someone Like Us: Seriously. If you’re visiting a wine region that we work with, really anywhere in California, Oregon or the state of Washington please email us first. We’ll happily make reservations with you with wineries for tastings, most of the time you won’t be sitting in the tasting room with everyone else but being given a complete tour of the property, often by a member of the winemaking team. It’s really the only way I’d ever want to see wine country and your first barrel tasting experience is usually one to remember.
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