Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
June 12, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Wine at Disneyland’s California Adventure

wine vines grow at Disneyland's California AdventureA few weeks ago, I had the absolute joy of bringing my 4 year old son to Disneyland for the first time.  A little background, my wife and I both grew up about an hour south of the Disneyland in northern San Diego County, so we’ve both experienced the park on at least a dozen occasions.  Well, she might have been there hundreds of times, but no matter the number of visits, there is something about the original Disneyland to those of us that grew up around it, that seems like a right of passage. He’s still at the age where things are magical and seeing the whole thing through his eyes for the first time was a special experience.

My son was finally tall enough to ride the rides that wouldn’t scare the life out of him and some of the ones that might (more later), he was adventurous enough to enjoy them and he was completely, utterly, without a nap under any circumstances...so he’d be awake enough to not only enjoy the hotel, the hotel pool in the afternoon and of course, everything at the park.

A quick note on hotels near Disneyland, the Disney hotels (there are 3 of them, the original Disneyland Resort, the high end Grand California & the Paradise Pier) are still the nicest places to stay, in large part because of the added benefits.  You’re in walking distance of either the park itself, or a monorail station and you’re granted an extra hour in the park through their magic hour program.  I know an extra hour doesn’t sound like much when the park is open 13 hours as it is 9am-10pm during the off season, but when there’s so few people around that you can simply walk onto rides….that’s a great advantage.

Given pricing though and the fact we were planning on 2 days at the park, as well as 4 at the hotel, we stayed off site.  Our hotel choice had a few requirements, first we wanted a good pool.  Second, we wanted to be far enough away to have a shuttle instead of having to walk. That led us to the Marriott which sits just over a mile away from the park, but is a 4 star hotel and offers an awesome place to stay.  We definitely enjoy our trips, my son included and from room service to yes, the pool, the Marriott Anaheim Suites was a great place to stay.  The shuttle picks up downstairs and drops you off a short distance from the front of the park (closer than the parking lots to be sure) and was a real advantage for us. The staff was nice, the room was comfortable and exactly as advertised and finally, room service was great! Oh and the pool was at least 10 degrees warmer than it has to be.  All in all, we'd certainly stay at the Marriott again.

Disneyland is traditionally an alcohol free destination, which I appreciate, it’s a place where you really don’t have to worry about other adults behavior and usually, people despite the sometimes large crowds (that can border on 100,000 people on holidays and around Christmas and New Year’s like the last time we went a few years back) are on their best behavior.  The original park has one main exception, there is wine and beer at Club 33, which is a private, high end restaurant in the park.  I’ve never  eaten there, but they’ve carried a number of wines, including a high end Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon from Vellum Wine Craft that I absolutely love.

walkway to the winery at Disneyland's California AdventureA few years back, Disneyland took over their large parking lot, built parking structures elsewhere and erected California Adventure: a secondary theme park that gives space for another 30,000 people but also has regular alcohol sales.

California Adventure seems at least 10 degrees warmer than Disneyland, but that might be largely because the trees are still growing, the park is still new and that there is a decidedly 20’s and 30’s crowd. As I mentioned, alcohol is allowed and there is a pretty nice beer selection at a number of sites throughout the site, it’s pretty normal to see people walking around on a hot summer California day with a beer in hand.  Having spent plenty of summer days walking along the beach, it’s still a bit of strange sight to my eyes to see a full beer in someone’s hand, as they walk with a small replica of the Santa Monica boardwalk in the background.

Wine is sold largely through their “winery” which I was comped another day at the park (along with my wife) to talk about in this space.  Since I would have anyway, it was a nice addition to our trip.  As I mentioned before, my son doesn’t sleep a ton, so spending another 6 hours in the morning and early afternoon at Disney parks, before taking on the 8 hour drive home, gave us hope for a nap during the ride.  30 minutes was all we got.

In any case, you’ve seen a number of images from the winery at Disneyland’s California Adventure.  First, I absolutely loved that they had real, honest to goodness grape vines growing on the property. It looks like it’s about an acre, but so often people have absolutely no clue what a vine looks like (it’s a hell of a lot bigger than most people expect) any number of vines is a good start.  I’ve long thought that areas with an incredibly large number of tourists (and yes, 130,000 potential visitors per day at Disneyland parks in Southern California, certainly qualify) could sell a ton of wine, all the while educating people a little bit. After all the serious wine drinkers, might spend $100 on a bottle of wine, whereas the regular consumer is buying a $9 glass.

my glass of Oregon Pinot Noir at California AdventureDisneyland and California Adventure share a common trait, first that you’re allowed to basically bring in whatever food you want.  We took advantage of that, largely with snacks and most importantly, water bottles (which we refilled liberally, at free water fountains). Of course, you can’t bring in everything you might want to eat and drink throughout the day, so Disneyland is counting on another $100 or so per day, per guest. That’s my estimate, your spend will of course vary, but given the setup they really don’t gouge you too badly (nothing like movie theatres, sports stadiums or even airports for that matter).

So there’s some good and bad parts about the wine list at California Adventure.  First, the good.  There’s some care and concern going into the list here.  This isn’t a generic list that shows up at most chain restaurants. I’ve complimented Mondavi, Gallo and the big boys in this space before and there are times you should throw them up as part of your list to be sure, but they aren’t a fit everywhere.  For that reason alone, it’s nice they aren’t here-California Adventure is trying to have a bit of a more exclusive experience.

Here’s the rub though: everything on the list that I find interesting, comes from Southern Wine and Spirits. I want to be clear about a few things before I go on.  First, I have absolutely no issue with Southern.  None at all.  Of all the major distributors, I really do think they do the best job.  There’s plenty of interesting wines in their portfolio and anyone looking to really expand their business into the 100,000+ case land, wants and maybe even needs Southern to represent them at least in some states. Also from Disney’s perspective, having a singular invoice to deal with would both be nice and likely make me jealous!

California Adventure Red Wine SignThat being said, Southern keeps a separate Northern and Southern California book and the difference does not tend to be kind to the Southern California folks when it comes to smaller production wines.  That’s ok and I’ll make some suggestions about how the buyers at California Adventure might handle that, if you’ll read on.

Here’s some of the wines on the menu when I visited California Adventure that I thought deserved a specific mention:

Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon: Ok, so the menu wasn’t exactly clear about exactly what Cabernet Sauvignon this was, but I can make some inferences given price point.  They’re selling a glass for $9, which makes me certain that what’s here is the Sonoma Valley, Family Estate Series.  It’s a $25 bottle of wine.  Let’s be clear on this point, the average restaurant would be charging at least $14 by my count for a similarly priced wine.  They’re offering, what sounds like blasphemy for a captive audience, a good deal, on a nice wine that would be scored at 90+ points by many significant wine critics. Kunde’s a name that should probably be more recognizable than it is already, but the interesting parts include it’s 100+ year history and it’s size: about 1,000 acres in total.  On it’s 5th (or 6th by my count) generation of ownership Kunde Winery was the 202nd winery in existence in California’s history.

California Adventure White Wine SignArgyle, Oregon: Again, a good deal.  The cheapest Pinot Noir made by Argyle (if you are not familiar, Argyle is one of the classic producers in Oregon) is $40, give or take based on the vintage. If a restaurant has a bottle, they’re charging about $20 a glass, if they have it by the glass at all, not the $12 on the menu here.  If you’re interested, yes, this is what I drank as I sat and enjoyed a glass of wine, shaded by the trees, looking out into the distance and seeing what must be an exact replica of the background of Piston Springs for the Cars movie. Wine Spectator called Argyle the premiere winery in the state of Oregon in 2000 and in the ensuing years since its founding have purchased close to 300 acres of vineyards.

Justin Winery: Justin is a classic name in Paso Robles wine, but admittedly, seeing the Cabernet here instead of something that’s a bit more obscure is a bit of let down.  Justin’s one of the first names in Paso Robles wine to make a name for themselves with Bordeaux styled blends.  Heck, the website and the winery when you’re there in person are really, really clear on that point. One thing I’ve talked about ad nauseam in this space, wine can really run together, even for professionals.  Try and get people to recognize what makes one wine different from another and you run into issues pretty quickly, even esteemed wine critic Robert Parker has admitted as much which is why Wine Advocate is so heavy on tasting notes (they don’t believe people are picking these all out on their own).  One thing that is different and memorable about wine that people can remember and pick out, are the stories behind the vineyards and wineries on a restaurant wine list.  Why not tell the story of someone in 1981 taking a chance on a relatively unknown area of California for wine production and choosing to focus on Bordeaux varietals in that region, whereas everyone else around was focused on Rhone’s? Of course he also doubled down and purchased close to 200 acres to start, which to the locals in ‘81, must have seemed like a crazy endeavour indeed.

Growing seasons for wine, shown at California Adventure and DisneylandOk, so about that Cars Radiator Springs ride. We were all tall enough.  It wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.  Much like Splash Mountain, the ride spends its first moments, lazily almost moving through scenes of the movie.  Then things start to change and there’s a moment in the ride when your “car” pulls up alongside a mirror with drapes, the drapes are pulled back and you “see” your tires being changed. I had some idea what was coming, my son was busy smiling at himself in the mirror.

Then the damn thing takes off like a race car, it’s a really, really fun ride….if you like race cars and roller coasters.  The couple in the seats in front of us and yes, my little guy, didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did. Probably a better ride for a 6 year old in total, but Disneyland brings the Cars movie to life in a way that, dare I say it, only Disney seems able to do.  For at least a five minute walk in any direction you’re literally immersed in the movie.  From the Hollywood style backdrop in the sky looking like the mountains in the movie, to the fact that every building comes from the movie itself, it’s wonderfully put together.

Ok, so last thing about the wine and wider alcohol in Disneyland’s California Adventure. They’re doing a good job, actually quite a good job considering the circumstances that they are afforded, captive audience, limited sales spots etc.  Tasting menu’s look good and there’s plenty of national restaurant chains not taking as much care with their list as Disneyland does at California Adventure.

That being said, I do wish they would give us some more information on the menu.  What vintage is this from? Exactly which wine is this?

Maybe, some people don’t care.  Hell, maybe most people don’t care.  But, if you’re willing to create a list at an amusement park, geared to little kids, but complete with a selection of wines priced at $40 or more retail, then some of your customers care.  In fact, I’m guessing that given the $100 per day ticket price most of us paid, a higher percentage of their guests, than the general public for sure, might be interested in an even more upgraded wine list-or at least some better information about the wines being served.

wine list at Disney's California AdventureIf I could humbly offer some advice to the winery at California Adventure, it would be this.  Give people more information: they want it and in the age of the internet, they’ve come to expect it.  

Adding vintages to the wine list is an obvious start, it’s the sort of thing that’s common everywhere, including the most casual of casual restaurants.

Secondly, California Adventure already has quite a few wines on their list, with absolutely great stories.  Try and tell them.  People at Disneyland are willing to play along, we spend most of the time there telling our kids about movies that we try to remember as kids, stuff like my attempted explanation of why Dumbo flies…..wait, I don’t actually remember but my wife did remember, of course, that Dumbo flies because of the size of his ears, not because of magic (let’s be clear, magic is a clearly understood preschool topic these days after Frozen).

Lastly, there’s plenty of great information out there on wines and wineries.  Disney and its parks take their food more seriously than most people expect and the beer list at many spots can be both extensive and well thought out.  It wouldn’t take a full time employee to help create something of a workable list of small production wines at California Adventure and adding a bit of interest and change, even seasonally, would likely help keep annual passholders engaged with the alcohol program (if you aren't familiar, Disneyland offers an annual pass for locals that runs almost $800 and covers admission to the park, year around)

California Adventure is doing a good job thus far and they’ve created a virtual winery that can really educate people about a significant part of California’s past and its future.

Adding more information about what’s on the list, as well as some more interesting information on the wineries providing it would be a start. During September and October, it’d be fun to see some grapes fermenting on site as well, if you’re growing them, minus well make something out of them right?

Overall I hope no one takes this as overly critical, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found at Disneyland’s California Adventure in terms of wine choices and quality.  They could do better given the clout behind the Disney brand, but it isn’t like they’re dropping the ball here, not at all.

I do wish they’d lead a little bit in terms of quality and storytelling, much like they do for the rest of their business.


Mark Aselstine
June 9, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Trentatre Rosso Wine Review: Trader Joe's

Our second review of a wine from Trader Joe's, as well as a few places on the web to find more information about Trader Joe's wine selections:

Hi, guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures.

First a happy Tuesday for everyone. I'm joined today by something that has not shown up in a wine club shipment and will not because this is a Trentatre Rosso from Trader Joe's.

I talked a few weeks ago, and I talked about the desert wine guy and his blog and some of the other spots around the web that talk about good cheap wine. Trader Joe's is definitely a place that does a good job.

I was quoted in a grandparents.com article a few weeks ago and talking about how Trader Joe's does a really good job on the bulk market. Sometimes big Napa wineries have a little bit of extra juice that they would like to have go away quietly, and Trader Joe's had bought a Sauvignon Blanc that sold for $25 or $30 bucks at a name winery, and they had in the store for $4.99 under a different label. That's a good example of what they do, and one of the ways that Trader Joe's can deliver value.

I thought I would take a couple minutes and talk about some of the stuff that I've come across at Trader Joe's, and this is a good example of that. The Trentatre Rosso, it's Italian, and my Italian is not that great, but it's good enough to be able to read the back of the bottle, which is in English, and it says that it's ... Trentatre is 33, and the reason for the name of 33 is quite simply that it's a blend of 3 grapes in equal portions, Cabernet, Merlot and then Montepulciano, which in essence is Sera. You have a Cab, Merlot, Sera blend. If it was made in a different section of Italy, this is made in southern Italy, so you wouldn't call it a super Tuscan because it's not from Tuscany, but it's the same general setup. This is something that I found, and we look for easy drinkers in our house just like everybody else does. There's a couple good spots on the web if you're interested in learning a little bit about what Trader Joe's has, how it gets there and what's something that's good to buy versus something that you might be a little more disappointed with.

Jason's Wine Blog (although he isn't updating any longer, it's a great historical resource into Trader Joe's wine) is one of those spots that I've been reading for a while. If you're looking for bottles of wine under $20 bucks, Reverse Wine Snob does about a good job as you could possibly do. I think John is a nice enough guy over there to help people out along the way too.

Anyway, Trentatre Rosso, I think it's a good example of what they're doing in Italy and how Italy has become relevant again in the wine industry. It's thought of as this old world producer but in essence, everything in Italy has changed in the last 25 or 30 years. They came up with some new standards for quality to improve the quality of what they're offering. They've also planted a range of international grapes. Italy has a huge challenge, and it's a challenge you see in Spain and Portugal and a few other places as well. Americans don't traditionally order wine that they don't think they can pronounce. It's one of the reasons why Riesling is not as popular as Chardonnay even if it's the same equivalent. Restaurateurs that I talk to here in San Francisco will tell you that if it's a cheaper Riesling for the same score, if they are putting scores on their menu, which I hate if they do that, but a lot of folks do, more people will still order a Chardonnay because it sounds more familiar, they're more used to drinking it and quite honestly, they know they can pronounce correctly. The Italian grapes really suffer from that whole setup so Trentatre, I don't even know if I'm saying it 100 percent correctly. That's another reason why Prosecco is not as popular a champagne. The Italians have to fight that and one of the reasons they've been able to fight that a little bit is by creating these super Tuscans where they plant international grapes, and then they blend the international grapes with a native grape that grows in the area. You see it most often in Cabernet and Sangiovese, but this is Cab, Merlot, Montepulciano, so you'll see it across the board. Then when they do that, they're able to create a trade name. Trentatre is a trade name, not an actual name of a grape or a region or whatever. I think that's helping them along the lines.

If you're somebody who is looking for a good, easy drinking bottle of wine for $15 bucks or so that hits the Cabernet, Merlot spot, quite honestly, vineyard space in California is expensive, and it's the entry level price point for Cab and especially for Pinot in California, it starts to hit into the $20 range. It becomes a little less enticing. You've see Washington step into the void a little bit there with that slower price point in the $10 to $15 range, and I think you're going to continue to see Italy, Spain and some of the other warmer weather producers in Europe try to nudge into that market as well. I think for the wider wine industry, that's fine, that's a good thing, and it'll continue to create pressure for California to keep prices in reasonable levels, which is sometimes easier said that done. In any case, hope you enjoy a bottle of wine every once in a while. Trader Joe's is definitely on our list. I should be on your list too. If you have a few minutes, Jason's Wine Blog, Reverse Wine Snob, they do a good job talking about what's going on at Trader Joe's, what's new and what's worth it to buy and what might not be.

In any case, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures, hope everybody is having a good week.

Mark Aselstine
June 2, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Beringer Vineyard: Corner of 121 & 29

Highway 29 and Highway 121 in Napa ValleyThis is the corner of highway 121 and highway 29 in Napa Valley.  If you've never been to Napa the 29 is the only real complete north/south transit road through the entire valley (further up valley, you can take the Silverado Trail). The 121 is one of the main turnoffs for those heading to Sonoma and offers what I consider the most beautiful 10 miles of vineyards I've run into anywhere.  Pictured is part of a Beringer Vineyard on the corner in the Carneros AVA, which is unique in this section of California because it exists in both Napa Valley as well as Sonoma's AVA's.

If you're wondering why the trip, I was picking up some wine for a upcoming wine of the month club shipment from a small scale storage facility that sits about a mile from the turn off.

Mark Aselstine
June 1, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

PWR Newsletter

A couple of strange aspects to this shipment.  First, you’ll notice both bottles of wine come from the same winery, I think this is the first time we’ve done this at the Explorations Wine Club level in over 2 years.  Secondly, I’ve written about the winery, People’s Wine Revolution, after I first met with winemaker Matt Reid, so some more information on the project at http://www.uncorkedventures.com/blog/Peoples-Wine-Revolution which has a lot more information on the project and why I felt it was important enough to handle two bottles in this shipment.

Some brief information, winemaker Matt Reid is a highly accomplished winemaker at spots like Seavey and Benessere (where we were introduced) but he noticed a few things.  Even at severe discounts (and the discounts that winemakers receive might make all of us blush), many of the people making wine in Napa, can’t afford to buy it.  Thus, his People’s Wine Revolution where he tries to bring outstanding, Napa Valley $100+ quality, to wine being sold for about $20.  Of course, that means you won’t find Pinot or Cabernet being made with his label, those grapes are simply too expensive.  Instead you’ll find Rhone based varietals like Viognier and Grenache.

Grenache from Lodi: I have to admit that Grenache is my favorite grape and I’ve been called something of a fiend for cool climate versions of the varietal by those in the business that know me well.  Lodi isn’t exactly known as a cool climate destination, it’s actually pretty damn hot during the summer months. Lodi has been making a lot of improvements in the quality of fruit that it produces and some of it,. runs afoul of what we’d expect in California.  First, it’s a top down approach with the AVA setting pretty stringent standards on how grapes can be grown, especially in terms of sustainability. The Lodi sustainable program is a strict set of rules on how farmer’s need to go about growing their grapes, down to making suggestions of improvements or as they term it, areas of concern.  One thing I find interesting, there’s a small beetle that’s on the endangered species list, yet exists in and around vineyards.  It doesn’t hurt the vines, but does get destroyed with fertilizer, or when cover crops are completely removed.  Lodi is to my knowledge, the only growing region in the world that uses elderberry bushes as part of their cover crops, or end caps to help give this beetle a place to live.  It might seem like a small thing, but if you read the history of Napa Valley or even the Russian River Valley, these seemingly small concerns and details, when they’re handled well, seem to build on themselves as time goes on.

If you’re not familiar with the Clements Hills designation on the bottle, that’s a sub AVA in Lodi, located in the furthest southeastern corner of the AVA.  It gained it’s own AVA status because it’s simply wetter and hotter than much of the rest of the larger AVA.  I’ve talked about it some in regard to the challenges faced in Arizona and elsewhere, but when you have a really hot environment in which to grow grapes, one way to combat that, is to plant at altitude.  Most the grapes in this Grenache come from higher altitude plantings, many are planted at 1,000 above sea level, or higher. The wet conditions also allow either dry farming, an unheard of practice in the San Joaquin Valley because of the heat, but a sustainable one.  Both of those factors come into play and you’ll note a much, much higher level of acidity than you might otherwise expect in this bottling. We haven’t done much from Lodi, but a bottle like this does make us wonder if we’ve missed some interesting wine along the way, especially when you have a fairly unique set of terroir and a world class winemaker.

Viognier from Dry Creek Valley: This is a 100% vineyard designate wine, from Salem Ranch. Salem Ranch is an 8 acre vineyard and being located in Dry Creek Valley, it’s mostly Zinfandel, as you probably expected.  There’s a single block of Viognier that the farmers like to have on hand, much of the time for blending, but Matt takes enough to make just under 300 cases per vintage. Having a single block Viognier at this price point, yes even for a more obscure grape like Viognier, is about half the price of what you’d expect. If you aren’t familiar with Viognier, it’s a white wine grape from the Rhone Valley.  It’s been used in blends from the region for generations because it offers some of the best aromatics of any white wine grape.  In the Rhone, you’ll see it blended with Marsanne and Roussane, although there’s a movement afoot in Sonoma for more single varietal Viognier’s.  The grape is finicky which helps explain why so many people haven’t planted it over the years.  Too cold and it molds.  Too hot and the alcohol level gets out of control and then you lose the aromatic qualities that people enjoy about the grape.  In that way, Dry Creek is a nice spot to grow the grape and prices for the grapes are kept under control because there aren’t many winemakers looking for it…..yet.

I hope you enjoy this look into a winemaker looking to make affordable, world class wines.  I can’t stress how unique Matt’s perspective is, I’ve met literally hundreds of winemakers who have had jobs at wineries that you’d recognize based on name alone and it’s only a handful that don’t want to copy that exact same business model. People’s Wine Revolution, it’s a unique project and one that deserves our attention and support.

Mark Aselstine
May 30, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Benessere Vineyards from Big Tree Road

Benessere Vineyards from Big Tree RoadAnother interesting view (imo at least) of Benessere Vineyards. This image was taken on Big Tree Road, looking back across the vineyard I thought it was interesting to be able to see the winery building in the distance, as well as the general setup of a spring vineyard.  During winter months you'll see a larger number of cover crops, many high end vineyards like Benessere uses clover and other cover crops to be able to sustain top soil levels, while adding nutrients like nitrogen back into the soil. You can see a few of the other plants growing in the vineyard at the forefront of this image, including on the end cap of the vine line on the left. Lastly, I liked this image because I felt that it showed how Benessere sits almost tucked into the hills at form the eastern reaches of St. Helena.

I was stopping at Benessere to pick up wines for shipments in our Explorations Wine Club this month, from winemaker Matt Reid (although the wines are his own, not those from Benessere).