Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
April 30, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

Wine at Costco

I should start by saying I have a Costco membership. I’ve enjoyed it since it was called Price Club in Southern California.

Anyone who has ever been in a Costco on a Saturday or Sunday knows how busy the warehouse chain really is these days, everything from a first rate butcher to the cheapest toilet paper on the planet really brings in the crowds.

Heck, my 15 month old really loves Costco for the samples. Where else can we go that random people will give him food to try?

All that being said, I was somewhat sickened when I saw the CNBC show on the Costco Craze last week. Specifically the part about wine and how Costco’s lead wine buyer doesn’t view wine any differently than toilet paper.

If we’re really going to compare an agricultural product like wine to an inadament one like toilet paper, I think we’re in trouble at Costco when it comes to quality.

I could honestly see a parallel if they promoted someone from the beer or hard liquor department to take over the wine department when the previous buyer left, but I think the standardization of wine isn’t going to be a good thing for Costco long term.

Believe it or not, plenty of consumers like supporting local vintners. Plenty of consumers like supporting smaller vintners. Not everyone is buying wine simply on price. Plenty of people are choosing to buy wine based on quality. Yes, story matter for wine. There is romance. Vintage even matters. Unlike beer and other hard liquor, some years are better than others in certain regions.

If a wine buyer who is responsible for over 1B in yearly sales understands none of that, I have to seriously ask what might happen to the quality of wine being sold at Costco over the long term.

As an example, my local Costco here in San Francisco carries a much higher end sample from Bordeaux than does the Costco in San Diego where my in laws and parents live. Does that change? Will there be any thought in regard to local tastes? Sensibilities? Will it all be a price game? Should I expect other products like coffee to go down this same path?

Mark Aselstine
April 19, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

Stonestreet Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Every once in a while we can’t pass up a huge score and simply one of the top wines of the year. Let’s start with what Robert Parker had to say about Stonestreet’s latest vintage:

These are far and away the most impressive group of Stonestreet Alexander Mountain estate wines I have ever tasted. Kudos to proprietor Jess Jackson and winemakers Graham Weerts and Marcia Monahan for exploiting this high elevation terroir. This has been a work-in-progress for Jackson, and he has finally hit paydirt with the following wines. Readers need to pay close attention as there are some amazing Chardonnays as well as red wines emerging from Stonestreet. There are seven distinctive cuvees of Chardonnay, ranging in production from 185 cases of Red Point, to 660 cases of Lower Rim. All of these super-impressive efforts come from elevations of 900 to 1,800 feet. I tasted one Merlot and seven Cabernet Sauvignons, and as readers can tell, these are also impressive wines. Production ranges from approximately 250 cases of the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons (the only exception being the 5,000-case cuvee of Cabernet Sauvignon Monument Ridge)."

At 5,000 cases of production this is one of the largest production wines we’ve ever featured at any of our club levels, but while we know that our customers love our focus on smaller wineries, more than anything else they expect us to deliver incredible wine.

This Stonestreet is an incredible wine.

Rated at 96 points by Wine Enthusiast, 94 points by Robert Parker and ranked as the 11th best wine of 2011 by Wine Spectator-the critics universally agreed that this was a transcendent vintage for Stonestreet.

What stuck out to me and in the end made me want to feature this wine was its unusual combination of mountain fruit and a sense of balance or even finesse in its young age. A small hint at a coming attraction, but we’re featuring a wine from Audelssa next month that is cut from much the same cloth, but never submitted for scores because of its small production levels.

Time Posted: Apr 19, 2012 at 8:37 PM
Mark Aselstine
April 6, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

Easter Wine

Ok, so it’s always a topic of conversation, what type of wine should I serve with my holiday dinner. Let’s start by stating the obvious-serve what you and your guests like. Pairings are important, but wine is meant to be enjoyed. As an example, yes white wine’s probably pair better with the average ham that most of us serve, but if you don’t enjoy white wine, what’s the point? Drink what you like.

Ham: I think it is the most common Easter dinner. It isn’t necessarily the ham that we’re trying to pair here as much as the sugary glaze which most of us end up with. Think of the last hone baked ham you had for an example. The challenge with pairing wines with ham is that the meat is usually pretty salty, while the glazes are often sugar based.

Two easy choices are Riesling and Gewurztaminer. Both wines when made well offer enough fruit to balance the salty meat, while having high acidity levels which seem to literally cut through the sweet glazes.

Personally, I enjoy Pinot Noir with ham. I find that more people who I eat with around the holidays, drink red wine, so I try and avoid serving a white whenever possible. We’re shipping a couple of good choices in that regard this month in our Special Selections club. The Roar Pinot Noir is an especially good choice as it has enough fruit and texture to stand up to the ham.

Lamb: I’ve heard more and more customers telling me that they were serving a rack of lamb for Easter this year. In this case, finding a bigger styled red wine that you might otherwise pair with a New York steak would work. Think a Cabernet Sauvignon in most houses, although Syrah might work better while being a more traditional choice.

I hope you have a nice holiday.  If I could offer only one pieec of advice, don't take the whole pairing wine to food thing as seriously as most tend to make it.  Drink what you and your guests are going to like and enjoy each others company.

Mark Aselstine
April 3, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

Rhone Rangers SF Tasting

The Rhone Rangers are a trade group created with a simple premise, to advance and promote American Rhone wines.

Let’s start with the most basic, a Rhone wine is any of the twenty two traditional wines which the French government allows to be grown in the Rhone Valley of France. Yes, the French do love their archaic wine laws.

The Rhone Rangers have existed since the 1980’s, largely based on the California Central Coast since their inception. Looking back it is pretty clear that the 80’s were in many ways the height of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay focus in California wine. At that time, you could literally count on one hand the number of growers who were focused on the Rhone varietals. Given the wide spread adoption of Syrah in both warm and cool vineyard locations, it seems almost impossible to believe.

While the history of the organization isn’t exactly straight forward, I think it can generally be divided into two parts. The loose knit group of vintners which existed in the 1980’s saved the Rhone wines within California. Since the reforming of the group in the late 1990’s which included the creation of an organizational structure, the Rhone Rangers have generally worked to further expand the number of Rhone focused wineries while attempting to have a higher percentage of wineries plant at least one Rhone varietal.

All this comes to mind because I attended the Rhone Rangers 2012 tasting in San Francisco over the weekend. Always the event of the year for Rhone varietals, I was excited to be able to taste wines from a number of new vintners, while also seeing some old friends.

About those old friends:

Stolpman Vineyards: Let’s start by saying their La-Avion white wine blend is among my favorite white wine’s grown anywhere. I think their Hilltops Syrah is outstanding and their La Croce Sangiovese-Syrah blend is as innovative as any wine you’ll find on the Central Coast. When combined with a responsive and helpful GM in Peter Stolpman-there is a lot to like here. Stolpman is and will continue to be one of our go-to wineries for Rhone varietals at Uncorked Ventures. With a tasting room based in Los Olivos, Stolpman makes for a great break from Pinot Noir focused Santa Barbara county.

Alta Colina: Much like Stolpman, but probably five years younger as a winery, Alta Colina is now working on expanding their tasting room which currently fits only a small family. For those of us that love great wine from smaller producers-wineries like Alta Colina are incredibly exciting. World class wines, without the prices and the ability to support a new business which we can feel good about. Started by the Tillman family, daughter Maggie has helped us immensely in our exploration of wine in the Paso Robles region. We’ve been lucky enough to be granted access to some of their most exclusive Syrah blocks in the past, but everything made here is 90+ point quality.

Cornerstone Cellars: When I think about the influence of the Rhone Rangers and the entire movement that the trade organization has represented, Cornerstone is a great example. A decade or two ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a Napa Valley Cabernet house who was also making a great Syrah.

It’s an interesting time for the organization. Syrah has gained wide spread plantings and within many ciricles in the wine industry is thought of as the third most important red wine grape in California, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir-notably having passed Merlot. Syrah though, despite great success and offering better value for the money at the 90 point level and above, is still struggling for wide spread consumer acceptance. I’ll put it this way, hardly anyone will have Syrah for their first wine, plenty will have either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

With that in mind I am always excited to see new vintners and wineries focusing on Syrah. The quality to price point ratio is still pretty incredible.

Some of the new wineries that we found at Rhone Rangers:

Stark Wine: These guys were right in our wheelhouse so to speak. Small production, artesian and producing really high quality wine. Unlike so many others Christian Stark didn’t cut his teeth in the industry by graduating from UC Davis (yes his bio says he took some winemaking classes there) but instead he learned by trial and error and by having a mentor. I thought the Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah had a nice acidity structure and was one of the more balanced efforts I tasted throughout the day.

Renaissance Winery: I have to admit, I don’t usually associate the Sierra Foothills with Syrah and other Rhone varietals, but I know it makes sense that they grow well in those conditions. Renaissance has been around slight longer than I have been walking the earth, although I think they lose some critical acclaim by being a Sierra Foothills winery not focused on Zinfandel. While this is a mature winery, it seems they are doing an excellent job at working to learn how their vineyard functions. Given the way a vineyard can change over 30+ years, I think that is an admirable and desirable quality in a winery with a large estate fruit program.

Davis Family Vineyards: I have to admit, I’m usually not a Rose fan, but their Cote Rose from the Russian River Valley was a nice offering. Maybe it was a warmer than usual Ft. Mason-but it was a refreshing choice in a sea of Syrah. Of course, I always like seeing a winery which is both managed and founded by the winemaker, in this case Guy Davis. I originally stopped at the table because Davis is my son’s middle name-but I came away impressed with another winery that I wasn’t aware of before the Rhone Rangers tasting.