Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
November 5, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Sorting Tempranillo in Sonoma at Vinify

For wine retailers, the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is by far the busiest time of the year.  For a winery, the equivalent time of year is harvest.  It’s an interesting dichotomy given that October and the beginning of November is a time period when we’re really trying to gear up for the holidays, but wineries aren’t always available, or at least the people we want to spend time with and get to know, aren’t available.

Instead of not visiting wineries during October like we have in previous years, this year I decided to work a few days of harvest at a couple of different custom crush facilities in Sonoma.

A trip from a couple of weeks ago brought me to Vinify.  I’ve mentioned Vinify in this space before, but I originally found Vinify through a neighbor and their introduction to Matt Duffy and his Vaughn Duffy wine label.  Duffy also is the winemaker in charge at Vinify which helps approximately 30 wineries to make world class wine out of a warehouse space in Santa Rosa.

One picture I wish I had available happened as I was first pulling into the parking lot.  The wine industry isn’t exactly known for having a group of early risers, so arriving before 9am as I did that day, sometimes would leave me some time for coffee (at least) before anyone else showed up.  During harvest though, things are different.

I found multiple trucks carrying grapes (mostly Pinot Noir) to be dropped off at Vinify and a few of the other production facilities in this industrial park. Additionally, the picture I wish I had was the group of 10 winemakers sitting on the curb, much like little kids like my toddler and his friends at the park, although the winemakers were waiting for their grapes to come in.  It’s the kind of image that consumers would enjoy seeing and I wish the industry would share more often.  It’s easy to forget, but winemakers love their job and I think as a group, are incredibly thankful that they get to do something they’re so passionate about.

Ok, so I’ve worked enough around a winery at harvest to know a few things.  First, winemakers love having new guys around, especially one’s that are willing to get their hands dirty.  I’m guilty of that, I enjoy seeing the winemaking side of the business, that’s of course why we’re all here. Winemakers and other winery staff also more than willing to find a bad job for you to do.  I knew going in that Pinot push downs were a really great job, for an intern.

Duffy in all his wisdom (and probably to get me out of his hair for as long as possible) got me hooked on with Jon Grant who makes wine at Vinify for both his Straight Line label, as well as for his Couloir Wines label.

A little background on Jon, first and foremost you’ll recognize one name above all others-he’s the assistant winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars.  Turley won’t need an introduction for many of our readers, but I do think it makes sense to point out that if you were choosing a single winemaker and winery to learn from in California today, Turley would have to be at, or near the top of that list.  I mention that simply to say that there is a pedigree here.

Jon’s Couloir Wines label is his Pinot Noir project and shows an interesting take on how a winemaker with a varied set of interests can break those wines apart to make the most sense for consumers.  Couloir offers four different Pinot’s, each from a different vineyard around the state of California. It feels almost like cheapening the experience if I mention that all four were rated at 90+ points by Wine Enthusiast.  Of note is the Monument Tree (the highest rated at 93pts) to me simply because I’ve become something of a fan of the vineyard after running into vineyard designate wines made from Monument Tree Pinot fruit at Copain and more recently an aged bottle from Drew Family Cellars. It’s a really interesting vineyard that’s well known for being among the coolest climate Pinot vineyard around, certainly among the coolest in the Anderson Valley.  If you have a friend or wine lover who doesn’t believe that California Pinot can be restrained, refined and almost classy-find a wine from Monument Tree and change their mind forever about the vast possibilities.

Of more interest given my experience is the Straight Line label and specifically the Tempranillo.  We actually shipped the Straight Line some time ago (2 vintages ago perhaps), but had never run into Jon personally before this day at Vinify.  The fruit for the Straight Line Tempranillo that I encountered came from a vineyard in Lodi, while there are other grapes that come from Terra Alta (one of my favorite California vineyards based on experiences with Blair Fox down in Santa Barbara).

In any case, I learned a few things about Tempranillo that day:

First, the destemmer doesn’t really help that much.  Evidently, an extraordinarily high percentage of jacks gets through because the berries cling more tightly to the jacks than do other varietals.  Those clinging jacks aren’t a problem with the whole stem ferments that happen as part of Straight Line, but this batch was meant to be de-stemmed.  It’s a testament to how much Jon cares about his finished product to see him bending over in a sort of back breaking labor, to get every possible jack and stem out of the half ton bins.  

I also learned at least two things about making wine at a custom crush facility like Vinify.  First, it's damn hard to find a good towel.  Secondly I learned that there is a real sense of community at these custom crush facilities.  Over the course of a couple of hours you could hear a winemaker or two complaining or mentioing how this vintage is different, worse or better.  Almost universally you'd have another winemaker offering some type of encouragement.  It was striking to me since wine retailers generally hate each other.  When I run into other retailers at tasting events they act as if we have nothing to talk about.  A couple of weeks ago a wine club competitor of ours launched a redesigned website, I told them congrats and that it looked great....only to be told to leave them alone.  Winemakers are a different bunch to be sure because even though they are competiing with each other, there was a lot of discussion about how to deal with the challenges that kepy coming up during these early days of harvest.  There's a real sense of community and a large amount of community knowledge available for winemakers that probably isn't available or discussed in other industries.

In any case, Jon makes some good wine and any winemaker willing and able to sing along to a 50 Cent song is someone we plan on seenig more of in the future.

Lastly, thank you to everyone at Vinify for putting up with me.

Mark Aselstine
October 31, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Halloween Wines

Judging by the Dragon, Pirate, Giraffe and more at my son’s preschool this morning, Halloween has arrived.  Are you in the mood spooky and scary mood yet?  Here’s a few wines which should help.

Devil!Charles Smith Wines, Velvet Devil Merlot: This isn’t a wine from an unknown winery and winemaker simply trying to find a marketing gimmick, in fact Smith might be one of the top 5 winemakers in the state of Washington.  He’s also a Maverick in a number of ways within the wine establishment, not the least of which is his long hair, motorcycle and reportedly, epic tasting trips with members of the trade.  To put Smith in perspective, he spent a decade managing rock bands in Europe.  As much as we talk about winemakers with different pedigrees, this is as different as it gets.  Oh if you’re wondering if the wine’s likely to be good-Smith is responsible for a 100 point wine and then no less than 50 more scored at 95 points or above.

La Serena Wines Pirate Treasured: A Napa Valley blend of 7 varietals that’ll simply make you think, this is a damn good Cabernet. The bottle, yes looks like a rum bottle and many consumers when they see it, think it might be a Port. This is a serious, serious wine though.  Made by Heidi Peterson Barrett who is famous in wine circles for receiving back to back perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker in the early 1990’s and then for bringing Screaming Eagle and Cult Cabernet into the public consciousness a decade later.  If you aren’t familiar with the story of Cult Cabernet in California, or Screaming Eagle, let’s just say that a single bottle of wine once sold for $650,000 at auction.  Priced at $60 this Pirate Treasured might be a whimsical look into the world of wine in Napa Valley, but the quality will make your wine drinking friends, green with envy.

Vintage Cowboy Winery: We don’t feel like every Halloween wine on your list has to be serious, at least we hope it doesn’t.  Vintage Cowboy is located in Santa Margarita California, a site on the Central Coast that does produce a range of nice, drinkable wines.  The draw here is one part price (all 4 of their wines are about $20) but also the label, after all have you ever been to a Halloween party that didn’t have at least one Cowboy?

Zombie ZinChateau Diana Zombie Zin:  One of the most whimsical and interesting labels that we’ve ever come across, if you have this wine sitting on your counter-don’t you think everyone at your party would at least try it.  Don’t tell them it sells for only $12 because winemaker Dawn Sacchetti brings a much longer and more complex winemaking resume than you typically find at this price point.  She has worked for years in Sonoma as an enologist at shining stars in the wine scene like Cline Cellars. This is a better wine than you’d expect given the label and price point.

Happy Halloween everyone! Enjoy the night, stay safe and don't be afraid to open a Port with your kid's extra candy after you get them to sleep!

Mark Aselstine
October 21, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Ahnfeldt Wines

Ahnfeldt WinesAhnfeldt Wines

It appears that when we named our company Uncorked Ventures, we set ourselves up to have plenty of company with that Uncorked term.  The latest folks that we came across with a similar name have a special place in that group because they make some really good wine as well.

During a recent trip we walked into the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, only to be looking at “Uncorked at Oxbow”.

If you aren’t familiar with the Oxbow Market, it is set up in a similar fashion to other high end food emporiums which bring together a group of separate vendors within a single facility, the concept in many ways is similar to a Farmer’s Market in many ways, but with permanent stalls and typically with more prepared food.  My wife and I have a peculiar affection for the Ferry Building in San Francisco and are anxiously awaiting the opening of something similar in Oakland’s Jack London Square, if that project can ever get off the ground. Given Oakland’s newly found center at the center of the food startup scene in the Bay Area, it makes you wonder why the developer can’t pull that one off-but back to Ahnfeldt and Uncorked at Oxbow.

After a moment, we realized that Uncorked at Oxbow was in effect a tasting room for Ahnfeldt Wines.

That brings us to the important part of the story, Uncorked is more than a standard tasting room where there is wine and frankly not much else.  It features open mic night’s, barrel tastings, blending sessions and generally aims to open the side door to the wineries that we all love and let the general public have a look at how things really get done in Napa.  It’s a really cool idea and a project that deserves our support.

Another reason that the project deserves our support is that Ahnfeldt makes some damn good wine.  Routinely scored at 90 points and above by major wine critics, the winery offers in many ways the essential grapes of Napa Valley: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  When it comes to wine tasting in Napa Valley, people can sometimes be overwhelmed by the number of available choices and winery options.  Ahnfeldt makes itself an interesting and unique place to taste based on both the environment as well as the way they’ve set up their wine program.  It’s always fun to learn a little something when you visit Napa, Ahnfeldt helps there by offering an interesting mix of wines.  As an example, they offer a Napa Valley Merlot, but also a Reserve Merlot from their Hardman Vineyard.  It might be challenge for your palate, but the chance to see the differences inherent to a single vineyard in Napa Valley is a fun thing to taste and try.  Their Cabernet Sauvignon program offers something similar while it additionally offers two single vineyard choices, one from the Mountain District-which is unique because it is one of the highest vineyard sites in Napa, more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

I also appreciate the winery having a couple of other labels available in order to offer a Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and what I think might be the next big thing in Napa, Sangiovese.

In this space we typically talk a bit about the winemaker in question, at Ahnfeldt he really needs little to no introduction for most of our readers-Paul Hobbs who quite simply makes some of the most memorable Cabernet Sauvignon in both North and South America in any given vintage. Hobbs has produced a running number of 95+ point wines, which fits well with Ahnfeldt and what they are trying to accomplish.  Let’s just say I’m sure Hobbs’ services aren’t cheap these days, so it says a lot about the commitment of owners Celeste and Bruce and their commitment to the labels to bring him on board. The couple although married in 2005 have both been part of Napa’s wine scene since the mid 1980’s.  Bruce has grown and sold grapes for years as a side project to his law practice and Celeste opened and operated one of the nicest, smallest and most exclusive bed and breakfast’s in the region.

Uncorked at OxbowThe next time you find yourself in downtown Napa, Uncorked at Oxbow is a great place to check out and enjoy a unique and memorable wine tasting experience.

Mark Aselstine
October 20, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

October Wine Club Shipments

Just a short head's up that our monthly wine club shipments are set to go out this Friday morning October 25th, 2013.

Customers should see credit card charges placed by Wednesday and then Fedex tracking numbers by Thursday afternoon or early evening.

We hope everyone is having a nice weekend and is looking forward to Halloween and the coming fall and holiday seasons. October shipments feature a few aged California selections from a special winery relationship that we've made over the years, as well as selections from Oregon and Washington. We're especially excited about this month's shipment as we had the opportunity to show off some of the ecclectic side of winemakers in Oregon and Washington-it isn't all Pinot Noir in the Northwest!

Additionally, shipments for Novemeber and December will leave the warehouse earlier in the month (approximately the 15th) to ensure that they arrive before Thanksgiving and Christmas respectively. If you'll be traveling for either holiday and have some specific dates in mind, we're also happy to make sure your wine arrives before or after your travel.  Just shoot us an email with your dates and when you'd like the wine delivered.

Warm Regards from sunny and warm California-

Mark Aselstine
October 15, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Bodega de Edgar

Bodega de Edgar  

Bodega de Edgar is one of the newer wine projects in Paso Robles and has attracted a significant amount of attention for both the quality of the wine and what it means for the wider wine industry.

Owned by winemaker Edgar Torres who is the assistant winemaker at Barrel 27 by day, Bodega de Edgar focuses on three varietal specific wines and 5 blends.  Of interest for our wine club members was his Tempranillo offering, which we featured in our Special Selections Wine Club a few month’s back after discovering it at an industry tasting in San Francisco.

Bodega de Edgar, in my estimation is an important project for a couple of reasons.  First, he is helping to push the boundaries of the grapes and plantings in and around Paso Robles.  One thing that made Paso become the preeminent wine destination that it is today was it’s willingness back in the 1980’s to buck the trend of plantings and focus on the Rhone varietals of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre which are so well suited for the western section of Paso.  I’d love to see the region continue experimenting and Tempranillo especially seems like a grape which could achieve a level of consumer success and critical acceptance in the region.  Not many well known wineries try to make it though which severely limits it's plantings and long term prospects.  It’s nice to find a startup willing to get behind the grape.

Secondly, you’ve probably noticed the Spanish style winery name (in this case Bodega is being used as the Spainards do, to mean winery and not corner store as we sometimes see in New York City and elsewhere) and wine types being produced, both are a nod to the winemaker’s heritage.  Edgar grew up in the coastal town of Cambria and while working as a waiter in Paso Robles, ended up making friends with a winemaker or two (like I said, Paso’s a cool little community of folks) and after some time as a Cellar Rat was promoted to what I consider, one of the best winemaking teams in California at Barrel 27.

That process of interest and then an internship of sorts I believe to be an important one in our industry.  Winemaking is certainly as much art as science, feel as it is textbook and I’d hate the industry to go to a model in which a 4 year viticulture degree was the only way to start making wine.  Let’s face it, not too many high school senior’s living outside of a few wine capitals, think making wine is a realistic career path.  I certainly didn’t. That being said, plenty of people become interested in making wine, or the wine industry at some point of their life, so having a way for them to work professionally in the industry is important.  Given some of the conversation and the way that winemakers work together during harvest, I think that learning from an established winemaker makes complete sense.

The focus on newer grapes for the area, an internship route to becoming a winemaker and simply interesting, unique and good wine all make Bodega de Edgar a new Paso Robles wine project that you should check out.

Our wine club members already have.