Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
June 20, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

New Sonoma AVA's, It's Still Confusing Though

Hey again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. 

One of the neat things that came across the last few days . . . Sonoma's has the one of the most confusing and complex sets of AVAs, really in the world. There's little, if nothing that you can tell about a wine just based on the AVA in Sonoma. To that end, we've been trying to create a clickable map with some information on each AVA. 

As an example, the Sonoma Coast AVA is massive and you can't really tell is this a cool climate vineyard or is this a warmer climate vineyard just by saying "Sonoma Coast." We have some assumptions based on that, but those aren't necessarily always true. The Russian River Valley also kind of in the same kind of thing, if you're right next to the river, kind of by Copain or Artessa, Mark David, some of those wineries, it's a pretty cool climate growing region. If you move out into the hills above Sebastopol, it still counts as Russian River. You find Lennox Vineyards, which we've done a couple wines from lately. That's pretty warm. 

So Sonoma is working to at least divvy up the Russian River Valley into what sounds like between four and eight smaller AVAs that actually tell you a little bit more about the wine. Of course, the problem with that is that makes it even more confusing for consumers.

Personally, I wish they would just scrap the whole system in Sonoma and just start over. I think there are some logical ways to divide stuff up that just can't happen based on how it's set up right now.

Sonoma is a really large area in and of itself, so you have stuff like the Sangiacomo Vineyard, which is technically Sonoma, but it's actually in three or four different locations throughout Sonoma. So just hearing "Sangiacomo," then you have to ask, "Hey, which one actually is this?" 

So its complex, we're trying to figure out a way to make it a little bit less complex for consumers. Sonoma is trying to figure it out. I don't know if they're there yet, but they're working on it. And I think that's a good thing. I think there's some pressure on them too, because Napa is pretty easy to understand. And that's the elephant in the room.

In any case, Mark Aselstine from Uncorked Ventures, and I hope everyone is having a good week.

Mark Aselstine
January 28, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Kismet-Papa’s All Blacks Old Vine

About Kismet and All Black’s: The Kismet project is a recent addition to the Sonoma wine scene, founded by Morgan Peterson whose father Joel, started and still owns Ravenswood.  A wine like this wouldn’t be possible without those long standing grower and vintner relationships.  The All Blacks (as you’ll also see in Parker’s tasting notes below) is a nod to winemaking in the 19th century in California.  While many people realize that Zinfandel is basically a California native, they don’t realize that other grape vines like Petite Sirah and Carignane also grew wild in the foothills as long ago as the time when the first settlers came to California looking for their fortunes in the Gold Rush. In fact, that diversity was always considered a good thing as vintners (or more realistically anyone who wanted a cheap drink and was smart enough to pick the grapes and then throw them in a bin to ferment) could simply harvest all the grapes in their field and allow them to ferment together.  The beauty was that every vineyard would produce a different blend and showed some unique characteristics.  We’ve heard from the Napa Valley Historical Society that some of these blends did carry some additional value and the wine could be traded for other necessities. We thought our Reserve Selections members would enjoy this wine, partially because yes, it’s good, but also because it conjurs an interesting and unique time in the history of both California and the United States.  All the grapes in your glass were grown from vines that were planted before Prohibition, in some cases well before.

Tasting Notes: 90pts Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate: The 2011 Papa’s All-Blacks Old Vine is a field blend of assorted red grapes that pays tribute to the growers who planted some of  California’s most historic vineyard sites back in the late 1800s. Sweet floral notes meld into dark red fruit, asphalt, sweet spices and licorice as the 2011 opens up in the glass. Juicy and seductive, the 2011 is an excellent choice for drinking over the next few years.

Old Vine Heritage Sites: In California, we typically think of an old vine heritage site as only containing Zinfandel, since that grape can grow for hundreds of years on the same vine. The Monte Rosso Vineyard is a great example of a mixed black vineyard in that the owners aren’t even sure exactly what’s in most of their 40 acres-it’s a mix of Zin, Petite and Carignane among others.  There is also a section of old Cabernet vines which helps to make this Sonoma property among the defining vineyards in the state of California.


Time Posted: Jan 28, 2014 at 10:40 AM
Mark Aselstine
January 22, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Changes in Sonoma’s Wine Landscape

Over the years, the wine industry in northern California has gone through any number of significant changes.  Napa of course modernized and stepped onto the international stage after the tasting of Paris in the 1970’s.  Sonoma hasn’t had a similar coming out party so to speak, but I wanted to spend a couple of moments in this space talking about what’s happening in Sonoma-a real start up winery movement centered in warehouse spaces in and around Santa Rosa.

Over the past few years, I have found myself increasingly moving away from fruit forward wines that have helped make California famous and increasingly searching out cooler climate and higher acidity versions of common varietals.  I’d count Grenache as my favorite grape today, that’s something I would have scoffed at a couple of years ago.

More and more, I find interesting, unique and noteworthy wineries nestled in warehouses in and around Santa Rosa.

While I wouldn’t say that Adam Lee and the people at Siduri created the movement by themselves, for some number of years Siduri has offered the best example of what is possible using this type of winery setup.  Lee crafts a large number of wines, sourced from grapes from Oregon all the way to Santa Barbara.  If you’re counting at home, they’re probably the only winery in the world that offers a chance to taste Pinot Noir from every famous growing region in America, next to each other.  That’s incredibly valuable as a wine drinker and Siduri has earned every bit of acclaim they’ve garnered over the years.

More recently, I’ve run into a number of other wineries with compelling stories and similar setups.  At Vinify (a custom crush facility) there’s at least a dozen wineries making notable wine.  Matt Duffy is the winemaker in charge of the day to day operations of the facility, he also crafts his own personal label (Vaughn Duffy) and has had his Rose, priced under $20, fall into the San Francisco Chronicle’s top 100 wines of the year.  Sojourn and our old friend Eric Bradley make their multiple, award winning and increasingly allocated wines there (if you are able to buy $50 wines consistently, Sojourn is probably the first Sonoma wine club I’d suggest you join). Jon Grant has one of the best looking resume’s in wine that you’ve never heard of, being listed as Turley’s assistant winemaker will do that for you.  His projects (Couloir and Straight Line) offer a combination of great Pinot Noir and my favorite American Tempranillo, both at price points that are impressive in their brevity.

Elswewhere in Sonoma, I’ve talked about 2 Shepherds ad nauseam I think in this space and elsewhere, but I hope it suffices to say, if you want to know who’s next in wine…..2 Shepherds would be my pick.  The winery is only a handful of vintages in and I’m already having to beg for wine.  2 Shepherds is, without a doubt, the most unique and significant new wine project I’ve come across in the past four years.  Cool climate and small production sizes make for good bedfellows and they come together nicely here.

Lastly, there are any number of small wine projects cropping up in the larger Russian River Valley players.  A great example is the Cabernet Franc project Mark David, which is a personal project of Mark McWilliams, whose family owns the highly respected Arista winery situated in the center of the Russian River Valley. Sure, some of the fruit comes from Napa, but if you want something unique and utterly California, look here.


Mark Aselstine
November 5, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Sorting Tempranillo in Sonoma at Vinify

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.

Mark Aselstine
August 26, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Canihan Family Wine Cellars

Canihan Family Vineyards Welcome SignIn 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.

Canihan Family Vineyards Pinot NoirOk, 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.

Pinot NoirIt’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.