Uncorked Ventures Blog
Biodynamic 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.
We 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.
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.
I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again in the future, but of all the large scale wine events I think Rhone Rangers continues to be my favorite.
Rhone Rangers is a trade organization based in Paso Robles that is largely responsible for the saving (hey, remember the 1980’s when everyone wanted to plant only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon?) the Rhone varietals in California, while also helping vintners to grow their Rhone business.
This year marked a change for the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting in San Francisco for a few reasons. Most notably, the tasting event was moved from Ft Mason to the former Ford factory, now called the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond.
I loved the new location. Here’s a few things that I thought were vast improvements about hosting in Richmond, instead of Ft Mason. To start, the Richmond location was a heck of a lot easier to access via public transportation. BART gets you pretty close and then the event had a free shuttle to bring you from the Del Nort BART stop. It was really well designed and the shuttle seemed to be able to make a round trip in about 20 minutes, so no one ever had to wait long. We took the first shuttle at 12:15 which got us to the venue by 12:30. Plus, we had the opportunity to bug the other two people on the shuttle with our constant chatter. Of course, we got to know Yoni Donner a little bit, Yoni is the purchasing manager for the Stanford wine society, as well as writing own wine blog called Blind Spectator. Evidently I also missed Nancy Brazil of Pull That Cork fame on the way home-but the shuttle turned into a good place to chat. If you have a look at the outside of the venue above you won't see a huge line of people standing outside attempting to finally get their name badge and get checked in, that’s another thing that was different about this tasitng event, no long lines at checkin. Typically, when I arrive at one of these large tastings, there’s seemingly a few hundred people in line. At the Rhone Rangers, it was simply, walk to the table show your ticket, ID and business card and receive your ticket etc.
As you might expect, they didn't want to make it more complicated for those in San Francisco to access the event and the Craneway Pavilion has the huge advantage of sitting directly on the water, so a free ferry was provided directly from San Francisco.
Another highlight from the venue is the Assemble restaurant, whcih we noticed on the shuttle on the way in because they own and operate a number of small urban farms inthe parking lots around the structure. The restaurant is seasonal and largely organic, but affordable. Given the view, that’s no small feat. Additionally the venue itself allowed for a rolling door to be opened up and Assemble made small eats availble for purchase directly inside the tasting. When you’re there for a few hours, that’s no small thing. It was nice to not have to leave, or stand in an extremely long food truck line outside.
One of my collegaues for the day is a native Texan, so he was overjoyed (we'll put that mildly) when he noticed a Frito Pie on the menu. He ended up suckering in our other friend to try it, but I stuck to the Korean Spare Ribs, which were excellent.
Rhone Rangers has two distinct time periods at play during these tasting events. It’s a trade only event from 1-3pm and then the general public is able to enter from 3-6pm. I don’t know if there were less people this year, or the space was a bit bigger, or really a combination of the two….but there didn’t seem to be an indorinately larger number of people after 3pm.
Here’s what I tasted and why it was memorable:
First, it’s always fun to note the winemakers and other winery staff walking around and tasting themselves during the trade section of the event. From Jeff Cohn and JC Cellars fame to the 2 Shepherds folks, there were plenty of industry folks walking the venue and trying wine from wineries they hadn't hda the chance to taste before.
Prospect 772: It’s the least amount of fanfare I’ve ever seen on a tasting room floor for wines that scored 92 points and 94 points respectively. Pick these wines up and move them from the Sierra Foothills to Napa Valley, Sonoma or even Paso Robles and you’d probably see not only a line at tasting events like these, but also a doubling of price. Good for the rest of us that don’t buy into those preconceived notions of value and goodness of wine. Prospect 772 has hired Jeff Cohn to make their wines and well, despite Jeff’s reported increase in prices, seems really worth the investment. I loved both estate bottling and while I don’t live and die with points like some, 92 and 94 points are well, 92 and 94 points. Both wines seem well worth their critical acclaim and highligted my time at Rhone Rangers. Additionally, it merits a mention that I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with both founders, Ron Pieretti as well as Wendy Sanda who both said the idea to start a winery was their other partners. It’s a good set up and some of the nicest people I ran into the entire day.
Alta Colina: A small confession, I had a friend or two who became employees for the day at Rhone Rangers. Given that having alternative viewpoints at events like this is incredibly valuable, I don’t feel bad about it. Of course, we’ve known the Alta Colina folks for some time now and the opportunity to say hello to Maggie in person is always nice. One of our new employees said that Alta Colina, the first spot we visited was his favorite of the entire day. Given that he continues to express his love for a Syrah/Grenache blend from down the street at Thomas Alexander, I wasn’t surprised. Oh and the big news...wait there's big news with Alta Colina....but I don't see it publicly yet. Same winemaker and team don't worry, but this is exciting stuff for those of us who have known the folks behind the label for a while.
Ranchero Cellars: So I’ve talked to Amy before via email after hearing about Ranchero through her partnership with our “old” friend Anthony Yount, whom combine to produce a wine called Brouhaha. Amy’s focus is largely Carignane and she has said multiple times, publicly that the opportunity to pour at an event where people are excited about Carignane instead of her having to explain the mere existence of the grape, is a good thing. The wine was memorable and if you ever have the opportunity to run into Amy, she’s among the funniest winemakers I’ve come across. There was this during the seminar session:
The Washington Folks: Ok, so here’s the thing…..I was really, really excited to see some Washington faces in the room. Increasingly, Syrah is coming into its own in the Northwest both in Washington, as well as the warmer environments in Oregon (see my post about Del Rio Vineyards). While Skyler from Press Wine Sales knows his stuff and I’ll gladly sit down with him to look over the wines from the 3 vineyards that he represents, it was disappointing to not have anyone from the wineries at the event. I think it also speaks to a clear point of focus for the Rhone Rangers organization itself in the coming years, raising awareness in growing regions that currently are not represented well enough. Oregon and especially Washington are clearly targets to start while even Temecula, Arizona and other non standard regions should be marketed to as well.
Kiernan Robinson: Any time I run into someone standing in front of a table, with two different Syrah’s and little else, I’m interested. When the winemakers name is on the label, even better. Kiernan Robinson makes wine in a more French style, not surprising given the winemakers experience in the RHone Valley, as well as elsewhere. Robinson’s complete bio reads like a who’s who of the international wine industry, he’s worked with Michele Rolland as well as my old favorite, Paul Hobbs. These wines reminded me most of Hobbs in that they showed bright fruit and vibrant acidity all the same time, without giving up the dense and lush mouthfeel that drives so many sales to Napa Valley and Sonoma in the first place. If you want a small production Syrah from Rhone Rangers, this is the spot.
Carica Cellars: I’ll talk more about Carica at some point in the future since they’re local but they merit a mention here as well. Carica crafts about 1,000 cases of wine annually out of the Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda. They're good and I hope it's cool to simply leave it there for now.
Acquiesce Winery: A few months back, we found a Picpoul from France that we liked enough to include in our wine clubs. Frankly I’d seen so little of the grape, even at larger events like this, that I didn’t even realize it was technically a Rhone grape before deciding to ship it. Acquiesce deserves a mention because their version of the grape stood up well to that and of course, they were the only winery pouring a Picpoul at the event. If you’re stuck in a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc rut, this seems like a grape that’s worth a look, especially as a replacement for Sauvignon Blanc.
Caliza: It’s always nice to run into Carl, who I didn’t have enough time to chat with. Caliza’s a winery with a viewpoint and while it hasn’t received the hype that’s flown to 2 Shepherds and some of the lower alcohol folks these days, these are outstanding wines that are going to please a wide, wide majority of wine drinkers.
Epiphany Cellars: So it’s owned by the Fess Parker family, but I love their winemaker Blair Fox, who makes an outstanding smaller label under his own name as well. This is the day job for Fox and the results given the price points are memorable. The Gypsey red blend at $25 is an absolute steal and I enjoy Fox’s take on Grenache Blanc, which is simply that more acidity is better than less for hot summer days. I couldn’t agree more.
Tablas Creek: It says something about this event that the winery that in essence, started it all didn’t have a larger line. I joked a few days ago that April was beginning to turn into Tablas Creek appreciation month on social media, but a few moments at their table showed why. The setup of the wines is very French with tiers of price points and complexity. For a winery that literally dominated the talk of Rhone’s to this day based on location alone (wineries sell their wine based solely on the fact that their vineyard is kitty corner to Tablas Creek) there isn’t a pretentious bone in the body of anyone at this place. Maybe I was being a bit unrealistic when I scanned their table to see if a bottle of the Panopile had made the trip?
Terre Rouge: We’ve shipped a wine from Easton before which is the Cabernet arm of this well established Sierra Foothills grower and vinter. I thought they deserved a mention here both in terms of quality, but also price points. It’s rare to find any wine these days produced by an estate on a yearly basis that isn’t sold for over $20 and oftne that’s finding its way into the $25 per bottle range
Fields Family: Less of a typical Lodi than most, these are restrained wines with lower alcohol than I frankly thought would be possible from the AVA. Sitting at under 14%, this is a Syrah that's lower in alcohol level than some you might find from Oregon. While that's not necessarily good or bad, it shows some perspective from the winery and winemaker, which is something I can't help but encourage. Plus, the wine was good.
The Girl and The Fig: They’re a staple at this event, making a small bowl of food for everyone, for free. The whole free thing makes me simply say thank you here-the next time you find yourself on Sonoma Square, it’s a great place for a bite to eat and a glass of wine. Of course the restaurant was at the forefront of encouraging the Rhone’s in Sonoma so this is a natural pairing for them. I can also respect the ladies working for them, had a bottle of Ridge’s Mouvedre open and behind their table-
Del Rio Vineyards, Oregon:
Every once in a while, a set of samples shows up that pikes my interest. I had been familiar with Del Rio Vineyard's Syrah production through a local winery here in the East Bay Stage Left Cellars and their "Scenic Route" wine is produced from grapes that are sourced from Del Rio Vineyards. More on Stage Left at a later date, but it was fun to get in touch with the winery growing the grapes for the first time.
Del Rio Vineyards sent 6 bottles of wine for us to try and I came away impressed with a few of the offerings.
Let's start with some of the basics, Del Rio is one of the larger wineries in Southern Oregon, making about 20,000 cases per year (about a quarter of which is actually exported to Asia). Throw them into the Russian River Valley and that's pretty average, so it's not like we're talking about huge production levels here. What we are talking about is a vineyard which is large enough to plant and grow a wide variety of grapes. That variety has led to an interesting and in my opinion, eclectic assortment of wine available. They have approximately 200,000 vines growing on the property, so there's space to experiment with growing locations, clones and yes, even grape types.
Del Rio Vineyards is historically significant and not just in terms of the rise of Oregon wine over the past two decades, but with the history of Oregon itself. The winery's tasting room is situated in the former Rock Point Stage Hotel which dates to 1853. The property itself spent many years as a fruit grove, before current ownership began planting vines after their purchase in the late 1990's.
Situated in the Rogue Valley, which itself is the furthest southwestern portion of the state and seperated from the Pacific Ocean by the Cascade Mountain range, the Rogue Valley is perhaps the warmest growing region in Oregon. For our purposes, that leads to different wine than you might be accustomed to from the state. These are wines more consistent with international versions rather than the mineral and lighter styled wines which we so often associate with Oregon's wine industry. That climate has driven some of the choices at Del Rio Vineyards, including their production focus on Syrah and even a Claret.
I found the Syrah to be both interesting as well as intense. It's a good look into what's possible in the warmer climates in Oregon. Wine Club members can expect to see something along these lines in the coming months.
The most interesting wine though, was the one I was least looking forward to tasting. I'll be honest here. My wife and I both love Champagne and other sparkling wines. We both generally dislike Rose. Enter the Rose Jolee, which is a slighly sweet, sparkling Rose that literally bursts with Mango and honey flavors. It's been called a great summer wine, which seems like an apt description, but beyond that it's another good example of how the American wine industry continues to benefit from lax regulations in terms of both planting and production. This isn't a standard wine by any sense of the word, but it's a memorable one. How sad if anyone would try and precent wineries like Del Rio Vineyards from experimenting with their vines, plantings and winemaking styles.
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