Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
May 19, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Hawk and Horse Vineyards

Hawk and Horse VineyardsBiodynamic and sustainable are perhaps the two words carrying around the biggest misconceptions within the wine industry these days, but at Hawk and Horse Vineyards in Lake County, they are principles that the winery was made to adhere to. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail in this space today about the benefits of being both biodynamic and organic at the same time, but organic farming is certainly the wave of the future in the wine industry.  Biodynamics is a tougher sell still, but these are principles that wineries are going to increasingly adhere to in the coming years and that's a good thing. Have you ever tried an organic peach from the Farmer's Market and compared to what's on sale at your average neighborhood grocery store?  It seems that difference in quality would make for better wine don't you agree?

At Hawk and Horse Vineyards owners Mitch and Tracey Hawkins combine with Tracey’s step dad David and his family to produce the wines at Hawk and Horse, while running the entire winery operation.  Given that my business partner is my brother in law, that’s something I can appreciate.

There is one thing I do want to point out about the property, these days we often see families and vineyard owners planting as many acres as allowable by law on their parcels, depending on location that percentage is often highly controlled by a select few variables.  Hawk and Horse Vineyards is clearly taking a different approach going completely biodynamic and sustainable, which also shines through when you consider that they have planted only 18 acres of the 1,300 or so that are found on the estate.  I’ve seen other land holdings of this size and they usually have at least 250 acres planted, if not more.

Of course, you can have all the classifications you want, but if the wine isn’t good, I’m simply not interested.  The focus at Hawk and Horse Vineyards is Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes perfect sense when we look at both the past and future of Lake County. What makes the Cabernet Sauvignon program unique at Hawk and Horse Vineyards though is that they feature both a table wine, as well as a late harvest dessert wine.  I think one of the things that continues to hold down dessert wine sales in America is the continued focus of winemakers on late harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and other white wine grapes.  Speaking from my experience talking to customers, they simply don’t understand why California can’t focus on a sweet red wine, like Port, instead of the litany of sweet white wine choices that abound in the marketplace.

If you’re wondering what type of Cabernet is being produced on the property, the consulting winemaker on the project is Richard Grant Peterson.  Dr Peterson isn’t a household name in the wine industry like Michele Rolland or even Philippe Melka is these days, but he probably should be based on one of the most noble and varied careers that anyone has ever had in the world of California wine.  A midwesterner by birth Peterson has constantly helped bring new wines, wineries and innovations to market.  From his design of the steel barrel pallet, to making the first Botrytis Sauvignon Blanc (and Pinot Noir, for good measure) he’s been an innovator for a generation.  For a winery in Lake County to bring him aboard, it shows they’re willing to be innovative with their plantings and winemaking style, in addition to their new age vineyard practices.

I bring up all of this to simply say that yes, Hawk and Horse Vineyards is at the forefront of two important changes in California.  First, the rise of organic and perhaps over the longer term, biodynamic farming.  Secondly, they showcase the ability of wineries in lesser known regions to produce world class Cabernet Sauvignon.

Mark Aselstine
May 9, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Brassfield Estate Winery

Brassfield Estate WineryWe begin our features of Lake County wineries with Brassfield Estate.

In many ways this was an easy winery to choose to feature because the wines are made with the esteemed David Ramey as consulting winemaker.  Ramey has made a name for himself in the world of California many times over, but the winery that bears his name is among the standard bearers when it comes to both Chardonnay as well as Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. In fact, ask my wife what Chardonnay she’d gladly drink for the rest of her life and her answer would come pretty quickly, the Ritchie Vineyard version from Ramey.

Ramey has also done outstanding work in research since he left UC Davis, as well as helping to make Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill and Rudd Estate into the household names that they are today in places where people drink any amount of wine.  I think it’s fair to say that hiring a consulting winemaker of the ilk of David Ramey, when you already have a strong winemaker staff in place shows that Brassfield Estate is willing to spend the money necessary to bring their wines into the conversation about some of the best values in California wine.

Here’s where Brassfield shows some difference between itself and the litany of Napa names that liter Ramey’s resume, my wife’s favorite Chardonnay sells for about $50 (no, we’re not opening it on a random Tuesday) but Brassfield’s white wines sell for between $15 and $22 per bottle. That’s part of the allure to Lake County when compared to more established names in the wine trade, grapes and land are cheaper here, so what ends up in your glass begins at a much more reasonable price point.  The quality of these wines is quite good and borderline spectatular when you consider the price points involved.

Part of the reason for the spectacular quality from Brassfield is that the estate itself is about 2,500 acres in size.  The family has continued the tradition of this land which was once and continues to be a wildlife preserve, while allowing wild life corridors to stretch throughout the entire length of the estate.  Sitting between 1,800 and 3,000 of elevation in largely volcanic soil, Brassfield offers a vineyard manager and winemaker both challenges, but some of the biggest advantages imaginable in order to craft world class wines.  Having driven the area myself, I can attest to the massive diurnal temperature differences as well as a crisp and cleaness to the entire environment that might remind one, of Rutherford, but without the tour buses.

There’s both a necessity as well as a perspective in reward to their environmentally friendly approach.  The rugged terrain that leads to the winery also means that there isn’t a municipal water supply.  If Brassfield wants to grow grapes or anything else for that matter, they’ve got to earn it and Jerry Brassfield might be the perfect man for the job based on his own background.  Having grown up on a farm (alfalfa and almonds) as well as having owned a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains some years ago, Brassfield has an understanding of solid environmental principles, while allowing space for innovation and yes, profits.  Of course, if you’re wondering about the long term plan here, this is the first business that Brassfiled has put his name on, his family is here for the long haul. In the changing wine landscape that we all live in, I don't view that fact as a trviail one.  Quality continued to improve over the past thirty years in California wine, partially because a generation of winemakers and vineyard owners wanted to pass a successful property and business to their descendants.  I hope that sales, mergers and other news stories that seem more fit for New York, don't become even more commonplace within the California wine industry.

Ok, so there’s a good story and a good consulting winemaker on hand as well as a beautiful estate.  None of it matters if what’s in your glass doesn’t hold up, does it?

While I found the wines to be enjoyable and more fruit forward than I expected from Lake County, don’t take my word for it alone.  I mean, please do, these are good wines, really good and really reasonably priced for the quality.  In case you need a bit more assurance, listen to what some of the best known wine critics in the world are saying:

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate: “This is a fabulous wine for the money” Talking about their 2011 Eruption which is an estate (every wine they produce is 100% estate grown grapes) bottled blend of Syrah, Malbec, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre.

Antonio Galloni and Parker might not be the best of friends anymore, but he agrees about the high quality of Elevation.  This time talking about the winery itself: “Brassfield excels with big, fruit-driven wines that overdeliver considering their reasonable price points.” Of course, he had nice things to say about the 2012 as well: “Another juicy, intense wine, the appropriately named

2012 Eruption bursts from the glass with dark red cherry, plum, spice and licorice.”

The long and short of it is pretty simple, we’re looking forward to featuring a Brassfield Estate wine or two in the coming months with our wine club members.

As per usual, yes this was written by Mark Aselstine.


Mark Aselstine
May 7, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Lake County, California

When it comes to California wine, cool climate vineyards are the new “hot” sources for grapes and wine. In many ways, Lake County might be leading the charge in terms of new, interesting and unique names in California wine.

Part of the reason behind that is the skyrocketing prices for grapes from other more established growing regions like the Sonoma Coast.  If you remove your preconceptions about the relative quality of wine from Lake County and Sonoma, you’ll walk away incredibly impressed with what ends up in your glass.  For most people, these wines are going to be difficult to access.  Lake County wineries are only now beginning to pierce the tightly held distribution network across the county, but improvement in quality and distribution are both likely to continue unabated in the next few years.

When I talk about a region that’s relatively new for me, I always find it helpful to start at the beginning, in California wine that means the years before Prohibition chose winners and losers among wine regions up and down the state.  There’s a real and almost palatable history in Lake County, where Prohibition was perhaps more unkind anywhere outside of Livermore. Unlike it’s more famous neighbor to the south (Napa Valley) Lake County got a later start after Prohibition was overturned, it took until the 1960’s for Lake County to begin planting grapes and cultivating them into wine on a large scale.  By means of comparison Napa was able to keep production up during Prohibition and then replanted many of its famous vineyards immediately after Repeal Day.

Really though, when you talk about Lake County and its wine, you aren’t looking to the past, but to the future.  Lake County has two things going for it that have set the region up for a string of long term success.  First, there’s the Mayacamas Mountain range which runs directly through the region and helps to create many of the same conditions as it does further south in helping to produce high quality Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that seems to respond well to both growing at altitude, but also to growing on the valley floor.  Put it in a huge flat plain though and you won’t be as excited about the results.  Secondly and in my opinion, more importantly, Lake County benefits from the Lake which gives the region its name.  Clear Lake is a defining feature of almost all the wineries in Lake County, the vast, vast majority of which are grouped around its borders.  The Lake, like all large bodies of water offers a cooling influence on the grapes during warmer summer days, while also acting as a warming influence when cold nights strike.

Over the past few months, we’ve been finding an increasing number of Lake County wines to be both interesting as well as unique takes on the varietals in question.  These wines and wineries deserve more notice and we’ll cover a handful of them in the coming days in this space.


Time Posted: May 7, 2014 at 9:53 AM