Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
May 29, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Culler Wines: A Classic Name Exists

Every so often, I run into some news which seems important enough to pass along in this space.  I've been writing a bit about the history of Napa Valley, both the environmental movement, growers vs vintners and the names and wineries which helped to make the valley what it is.

During a bit of research I found myself on the Culler Wines website and found that famed winemaker Karen Culler was taking a break from winemaking and potentially walking away to spend more time traveling after 30 years in the business. I've only run into one Culler Cabernet Sauvignon, but this was classic Napa from a winemaker with what looks like an ecclectic mix of wine offerings.

In any case, bon voyage Karen, I can't do her send off justice myself, so I'll recommend you read it here.

PS-the line at Bouchon has gotten pretty brutal

Mark Aselstine
May 28, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Benessere Vineyards, Vineyard

Benessere Vineyards, vineyardI took this photo on a recent trip to Benessere Vineyards, to enter the property you turn off Highway 29 on Big Tree Road and continue until the dead end, about a half mile down.  Benessere sits on the northern side of the street (the left as you're entering) and after a hundred yards or so of compacted dirt road, you turn onto pavers and then quickly find a visitors parking lot.  This image is taken from that parking area looking back toward Big Tree Road.


We've previously featured wines from Benessere Vineyards in both our Special Selections Wine Club, as well as our Explorations Wine Club.

Mark Aselstine
May 14, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Wineries To Know This Week: The Other 46

Every so often, I come across a winery, or a group of wineries that deserve a mention in this space. This week, instead of talking about the wineries that I’ve had a chance to visit in person, or get to know a little bit, I thought I’d feature a group of wineries that exist outside of the established wine producing states (California, Oregon, the state of Washington and New York) affectionately by many referred to as “The Other 46”. I’ll note these all came up during conversations with others in the industry over the past month:

Dos Cabezas Wineworks, Arizona:

I’ve been tasting through Wilcox Arizona, although that’s pushing 5 years ago at this point, but over the past few years I’ve had the chance to taste a few dozen wines from Arizona.  Gruet has made sparkling wine a success next door in New Mexico and it’s pretty clear that Arizona wineries, with their home markets as well as their natural access to the tens of millions of people in Southern California, may soon be thought of as another wine destination by the general public.  

Dos Cabezas (that's two heads in Spanish btw) is helping to lead that charge into wider relevance both through the results of what is being made, namely the El Campo which is a blend of Tempranillo and Mourvedre and is a wine that comes with with Sommelier’s here in San Francisco as a great entry point into Arizona wine, but also because they have an approach that should serve as a template for other wineries in the region.  

Let’s face it, Arizona is hot during the summer. One of the few ways a farmer can fight that heat is by choosing to plant at higher elevations.  If you water grapes too much, they don’t struggle and without any struggle, the fruit simply isn’t as good. While dry farming isn’t an option without any ground water, you can see the difference in average daily temperature based on the elevation.  Elgin Arizona where Dos Cabezas has a vineyard averages temperatures in the 80’s during summer months and sits at almost 5,000 feet above sea level, whereas Phoenix which sits at a thousand feet above sea level, averages 104 degrees Fahrenheit in August.  

I know we all make assumptions about vineyard conditions based on the state and area on the bottle, but would you be surprised to know that summer temperatures for these Arizona wines is actually equivalent, or even slightly lower than those in St Helena?

Lastly, I absolutely love that the winery keeps a portion of their vineyard to test new grape varietals including those from Spain, Italy and elsewhere.  It’s that type of experimentation that led to Syrah being saved in California, or the planting of the first Pinot Noir vines in Oregon. It makes you wonder, what might Dos Cabezas discover in their high altitude vineyards in Arizona?

Llano, Texas:

A lot of small wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma will tell you that receiving a 90 point score from Wine Enthusiast, or any of the other large trade magazines can be an absolute game changer for their business, they’re also awfully hard to receive if you don’t fit the standard profile.  

Llano has a couple of 90 point scores on their resume and they hardly fit the standard profile of small scale and located in either Napa or Sonoma.

Located in Lubbock Texas, the site of Texas Tech and an area that’s talked about a bit in my house to this day since my wife spent a few years there as a kid, Llano is helping to deliver Texas viticulture onto a larger stage.  One thing I appreciate about Texas, is that the state much like my home in California, appreciates a home grown story.  While I’m sure there are plenty of sales waiting for Llano in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and across the state, the winery has shown the willingness to move beyond their home state’s borders.

While Texas grape growing dates to the 17th century and really has a longer and more complex history than we do here in California, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that there was a renewed focus on wine in the state. Llano was the first commercial vineyard planted in the state back in the late 70’s and has been featured at the White House numerous times, largely with the help of George Bush and his presidency. Let’s be clear though, this is no small scale operation, Llano is producing over 200,000 cases of wine per year, an achievement in and of itself.

Interestingly, I’ve heard from a number of people that their Viognier is simply not to be missed. In a state like Texas, which is suppose to be warm, it wouldn’t be a white wine that I’d think to try at first, but they’ve figured something out here with the grape according to most.  Also, they have a charitable relationship set up with Texas Tech University where a portion of the sale of each bottle is given back to the University’s Alumni Association and research into grape growing at Texas Tech.  Given that we could really, really use a wider selection of viticulture programs in America (as much as I love UC Davis, Cal Poly SLO & Cal State Fresno, there aren’t enough spots here for interested kids) it’s a program I hope continues to see more than it’s fair share of support.


I’m going to hedge a bit here and talk about a state as a whole and a great place to find some more information about the wines in the state, along with an explanation about why the winery I was planning to talk about, won’t be my central focus.

Ok, so here’s one thing that people don’t realize about frost and freezing with grape vines.  Cold air from lakes or oceans doesn’t allow the ground to freeze (or at least helps to stop it from freezing), that’s why more water in Sonoma is used not during warm summer months, but for frost prevention in winter. In Michigan that means that grapes are grown within a handful of miles of Lake Michigan.  Much like people discount wines from Arizona and Texas as being too hot, many will immediately think that grapes won’t grow well in Michigan because it’s too cold. That’s simply not true, as I’ve said plenty of times before…..stressed out grapes are good for the quality of wine.

Michigan does produce ice wine before you ask, but I’ve always been more interested in the state because of the moderating influence of Lake Michigan on it’s Riesling, Pinot Grigio and other white wine. Cabernet Franc is talked about some, but quite honestly I’ve yet to find a cool climate version of the varietal that makes sense to me.

I was planning to feature Bower’s Harbor here, which is generally accepted as the quality leader in the state of Michigan, at least by the folks that I know who have been tasting through the state, admittedly that’s not a huge number…..  michwine.com has a better run down on the story than I can have.  I’ve heard that some vintages in truly cold climate states like Michigan will lead to lower than expected production (it’s the opposite issue that we have here in California where sometimes the weather is so good during the summer that the crop ends up increasing 30% or more without much warning, cratering the lower end of the market) but having to source grapes from the state of Washington for their award winning Pinot Grigio must be a tough pill to swallow. It’s also an issue that will likely resolve itself as time goes by.  As the wine industry in Michigan develops there will be more vineyards come online and a better chance for good wineries like Bower’s Harbor to source local grapes if yields in their home vineyards can’t keep pace with the amount of wine that the market desires.  We’re seeing that locally with Sonoma Coast vineyards, which are sometimes having to turn to vineyards on the Central Coast to keep production constant or increasing, so there isn’t anything to be ashamed of here, after all Michigan only boasts about 1,400 acres of wine grapes planted as of 2011.  To put that in perspective, Napa Valley has about 45,000 acres under vine currently. Bower’s Harbor hit what many would consider a growing pain, or the equivalent of a tech company adding users so quickly it had to use an outside agency for customer service since it couldn’t hire people fast enough. They’ll figure it out and as the wine market continues to appreciate more highly acidic white’s as San Francisco is doing, Michigan is going to gain market share.

Three Sisters Vineyards, Georgia:

If you gave me a choice about where to start a new wine region, I’d want to be about an hour outside of a major American city.  Being close allows for day trips for millions of people, thus the creation of a tourist industry, but also allows winemakers and sales folks to venture into the city, to gain restaurant placements and other on site sales placements for their wines.

Three Sisters Vineyards sits just over an hour outside of Atlanta Georgia and the views are absolutely something which will draw someone from urban or suburban Atlanta to the vineyard for a day away from the city.  Three Sisters checks all the usual boxes for a small winery to gain local market share, they’re 100% estate grown and offer a range of interesting wines from international varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay, but they also produce a Vidal Blanc as well as a Cynthiana-Norton.  Cynthiana-Norton is better known as a jam or juice grape, but the wines are often medium in body and higher in acidity than most, it’s a natural replacement for Merlot as the grape continues to lose market share across the country.  Vidal Blanc is a genetically engineered grape typically used for ice wine in Canada and elsewhere, but folks like the Three Sisters Vineyards in the foothills of Georgia are making it into a table wine.  I talked about innovation being important for new wine regions previously here and the development of VIdal Blanc as a table wine grape is something that makes wine in Georgia not only interesting but potentially important over the long term.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a short intro to the Other 46 wine states and some of the wines and grapes that have come up during my conversations over the past month.  There’s a lot happening across the country in terms of wine cultivation and I hope that only continues to grow. While our wine clubs only feature wines from California, Oregon and Washington, there's plenty of interesting things happening elsewhere. Want better coverage than I can offer about local wine? Check out The Other 46.

Mark Aselstine
May 11, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

A tale of 2 wines from Dry Creek Valley:

Dry Creek Valley, I’ll admit it’s a spot I simply haven’t spent enough time  Part of that comes from the fact that I don’t typically drink a ton of Zinfandel, although I’ve had a transformative experience or two with the grape.  As time has gone by, friends, family and others within the wine industry have realized that I don’t drink a lot of Zinfandel, so they bring what they say, is the best small scale producer of Zinfandel they’ve ever found and have me try it.

Of course, for someone who’s been said to be on a search for lower alcohol rates in wine, Zin may not always be the best choice.

Let’s stop for a quick history lesson on Dry Creek Valley.  As you drive north on the 101 freeway from San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll pass by the town of Santa Rosa, pass a number of turnoffs for western Sonoma County and eventually pass through the incredibly scenic town of Healdsburg.  Then you find Dry Creek Valley, which butts up to the more famous (at least it is more famous these days, with the newly found Renaissance of Pinot Noir, amazingly now rivaling Cabernet Sauvignon in prices) Russian River Valley.  According to Sonoma County the Dry Creek Valley is 2 miles wide and 16 miles long, has one stop light and one deli.  When combined with the world class wine, I’m sure you can see why Dry Creek Valley is becoming a world class wine travel destination. Dry Creek Valley is famous for its Zinfandel of course, in large part because many of the vines have survived Prohibition and compose perhaps America’s longest planted sites of Zinfandel.

Recently, two of the bottles that showed up on my door, perked my interest in the grape once again and both may end up in a future wine club shipment. Yeah, yeah I know...for someone who reads historical fiction and who likes multigenerational winery families...Dry Creek should have been higher on my to-visit list.

First, Saini Vineyards makes both a Zinfandel, as well as an old vine Zinfandel.  Old vine, if you aren’t familiar, doesn’t have any legal ramifications, so producers can get a bit squirrely with what they consider an old vine Zinfandel.  10 years? Heck, if you need some extra sales….throw that on the label.  25 years...getting closer.  50+ years….now I’m interested.

Saini Vineyards has a number of blocks available for their old vine labels, many of the vines themselves were planted in the early 1940’s.  By any measure, a Zinfandel vine planted over 70 years ago should be counted as an “old vine”.

Saini is an interesting case in my continued insistence that customers actually decide if a wine is good or not, based on actually trying the wine.  I understanding wanting your wine club to deliver good value, but there’s something to be said for trying something before making a decision right?  These Saini wines show a very real and noticeable difference between the Dry Creek Zinfandel and their Old Vine versions.  Of course, Wine Enthusiast gives all the wines about the same ratings, mid 80’s, until the 2012 vintage.  Higher in acidity and lighter in style than many in Dry Creek, even when taking into account the old vine nature of what’s being offered….simply not the type of wines that are likely to score incredibly well according to wine critics.

I tend to trust folks whom are 4th generation farmers though like Saini and these wines have been more worthy of your attention than their critics scores would otherwise imparted.  I also feel like folks making under 200 cases of wine in a given vintage, have a tougher time achieving high critics scores than those making a thousand or many, many more. Part of the reason behind that is there are less critics willing to score them. Wine Enthusiast won’t score something that isn’t available to a large percentage of the county, or is from a well known winery.  Startups, or in this case new entrants into the winemaking game, are left with one less choice.

Saini, as I talked about a couple of days ago, did receive a score into the mid 90 point range from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate for their past vintage, a score that’s likely to put the winery on the map so to speak-but do you really believe that they figured stuff out so much from one vintage to another, especially when it comes to vines that were planted more than 70 years ago? In my estimation, those should be more consistent than others, based on age alone.

This is a winery and a wine I think that helps to show why some folks are moving away from scores in their reviews at all and another good example of why I try and tell a story about the choices that come in our wine of the month clubs.

The second bottle from Dry Creek Valley comes from Rancho Maria.  A more classic Zinfandel in style, it’s thicker, jammier and has the hints of tobacco and smoke that have made the grape an instant hit at summer BBQ’s across the country. Rancho Maria has absolutely nothing in terms of reviews by critics and even the hard core wine lovers on Cellar Tracker have yet to discover it, there’s only a few bottles in people’s cellars and no real tasting notes to speak of.

The vineyard at Rancho Maria dates back to the early 1900’s and offers another true Old Vine Zinfandel experience.

Here’s where I think Rancho Maria becomes it’s most interesting, location.  In the past I’ve talked about location of vineyards being a funny thing.  Paso Robles comes immediately to mind, where the James Berry Vineyard (called one of California Grand Cru vineyards by Robert Parker a number of years ago) often sees prices now approaching $100, or more for its Syrah.  Across a golf cart path, sits the Denner estate vineyard, where the Syrah runs about $65. Does a golf cart path, really take away a full 1/3rd of the quality of a grape vine? Can’t we say the same thing for vines within the James Berry Vineyard then? Of course, like anyone else, I love the stuff produced from James Berry, but all this is to say, sometimes we’re too caught up with names, without actually paying attention to place.

Rancho Maria sits right next to Maple Vineyards, which has made a name for itself over multiple generations as the prime example of what’s possible on Dry Creek Valley’s eastern bench (to compare, think of Rutherford in Napa Valley and the Rutherford Bench that we hear so much about). Maple Vineyards has it’s own set of old vine Zinfandel vines and have become famous for taking farming in Dry Creek Valley to its extreme.

If you ever have the chance, walking through Maple Vineyard will not only make you think differently about how grapes are grown, but probably a bit differently about your back yard garden as well.  The first thing you’ll notice is that there are trees.  Oak trees of course are generally a major issue for vine growth, unless of course you aren’t incredibly worried about total production per acre and are instead focused on great grapes. Maple Vineyards is one of the few vineyards in America you’ll see oaks growing in addition to other trees like olive, which the Italian’s do actively plant in portions of Tuscany as well. Having trees in the vineyard does attract birds, the scourge of gardeners the world over, but not all birds eat berries like in my yard, or grapes.  Some eat gophers and other rodents whereas others eat insects. Maple Vineyards is willing to make the trade off to continue an old world farming tradition in the middle of Dry Creek Valley.  I should also mention, they water their vines for the first 4-6 years of life, depending on the amount of rain that shows up, after that point the vines are left to their own devices and are effectively dry farmed. With 15,000 vines spread over 27 acres, that’s a lot to keep track of.

Rancho Maria has taken a lot of the experience and frankly, wisdom from Maple Vineyard and turned it to their estate project. St George rootstock has been in the vineyard since the beginning, only to have Merlot planted originally (hey it was the 70’s and 80’s after all) which were grafted to Zinfandel in the mid 1980’s when the owners decided that they really didn’t like the taste of Merlot (if they would have made a movie about it, perhaps they could have been household names!).

Overall, this has been an interesting week when it comes to Zinfandel.  There’s a number of Old Vine properties out there in both Dry Creek Valley, as well as elsewhere (say Napa Valley).  It’ll take some time, but these type of wines deserve more of my attention and they’ll find their way into wine club shipments in the coming months.

Mark Aselstine
May 10, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Saini Old Vine Zinfandel Pear Block 2012

Saini Old Vine Zinfandel Pear Block 2012

Ok, so I’ve been told that people are sick and tired of hearing about lower alcohol wines in these newsletters-I’ve been asked to give me something that reminds me what made California famous.

Here you go.

Saini is a 4th generation grower and before the 2012 vintage, scores from critics were always suspect.  That’s kept prices reasonable, then Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate folks tasted the 2012’s and came away impressed to say the least.

93 points for the wine that’s in your glass.

In some ways, this is a perfect storm for a good Parker score.  For a magazine (can we call it that when only a single page is in color?) that prides itself on answering only a single question about a wine: how much did I enjoy this? A Zinfandel at 15.5% alcohol, might always be highly scored. Only Saini hasn’t been to this point.

I think part of that is the fact that they are 4th generation growers and what you do as a grower, is different than what you do if you are growing an estate vineyard.  If you’re making the wine yourself, you retain more control and the finished product becomes more important than anything else along the way. Saini has also been working through the process of moving to their own production.  Growers and wineries typically have contracts for about 5 years on average, so this is one of the first full vintages where the family had the opportunity to make the entirety of their wine, the way that they see fit. The results, I think you’ll agree, are memorable.

Called full bodied and opulent, I couldn’t agree more.

A final note on Saini, the vineyard.  These are Zinfandel vines that have been planted since 1940, I’ve tasted through a range of Zin lately from the Dry Creek Valley and unlike other varietals, I really do feel that the hype behind “old vine” Zinfandel is warranted.  There’s a real difference in the depth and complexity of those vines planted a great deal of years ago, when compared with more recent additions.  Here’s the issue though, at your local wine store, or especially a grocery store or discount chain where someone might not be as available to help: unlike say AVA requirements, there are no legal requirements for what constitutes an “old vine”. Many vintners, in an effort for some extra sales say they have an old vine Zin, as soon as the vines are past 10 years old.  Personally speaking the expected life span of Cabernet or Pinot vines are about 35 years or so, give or take.  I’d look for old vine Zin, older than that.

I’m not the biggest fan of Zinfandel, it has been said after all that people usually either enjoy Pinot Noir, or Zinandel but not often both….but this is a damn good wine and well deserving of the critical praise that it came with.

Wine club members are receiving this Saini Zinfandel in their May shipments.  Enjoy!