Uncorked Ventures Blog
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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