Uncorked Ventures Blog
Every once in a while you end up running into a bottle of wine that you really like, even when it comes from an unexpected place. I’ve already talked about the chagrin that often overtakes me when I have a friend, or a neighbor who suggests a friend’s wine, or a wine that they really like. I mean, if I had a couple of bucks for every time someone suggested that we purchase some wine from their friend who was making it in their garage, or this great wine from a 1M+ case winery, well my wife and I would be choosing better restaurants.
Enter a bottle from Lang & Reed Wine Company.
I was blown away.
Lang & Reed fits the mold of a winery which would open, make some good wine and then rapidly scale up production before being sold. But it hasn’t. I thought that would be the model for Lang & Reed based on the founders having a long stretch of experience in the wine industry, which in this case seems to have made them sure that building a brand for themselves and theoretically their children, makes more sense.
A husband and wife team of Tracey and John Skupny own Lang & Reed Wine Company. John’s resume in Napa Valley and beyond is longer than virtually any others than you could possibly find, but stops in the marketing departments of Caymus (in the 80’s no less!) and Coppola certainly would open the entire world of Napa to him in terms of grower relationships and the opportunities that help to create a world class wine. His wife and business partner Tracey spent over a decade in the marketing & sales departments at Spotswoode (I warned you, good connections abound) before taking time off to raise their two sons (something I can greatly appreciate in terms of the amount of work, stress and the lack of genuine road map given I have my son a couple of afternoons a week) and as the kids have grown closer to adulthood, has focused more attention on the winery. She’s also the director of the Napa Valley Vintners Board of Directors, so it’s pretty clear that Lang & Reed are every bit of a partnership.
What really interested me about Lang & Reed was the fact that despite a St. Helena address, they have chosen to focus their winery project on Cabernet Franc. There are a number of issues with Cabernet Franc, not the least of which is that the average consumer isn’t necessarily going to choose a bottle of it when a more familiar Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir is present.
The winery offers two versions of the Cabernet Franc, an entry level more approachable bottle (the one I was able to taste) priced at $24 retail and a more structured and dense, single vineyard offering priced at $48. While the number of available varietal specific Cabernet Franc’s isn’t wide even here in the Bay Area, I’d have to say this was among my favorite versions of the varietal that I’ve tasted over the past three years (well right up there with Mark David).
Oh and as you’ll look around their website, you’ll notice their love for animals, especially a set of Saluki dogs. We’re lucky to have neighbors who have a couple of them a few doors down and I can attest that the dogs really are intelligent and incredibly gentle with the variety of little kids trying to do everything short of ride them around the block.
Lastly, I can’t help but say that we need more wineries like this in Napa Valley, but elsewhere as well. Focusing on a more obscure varietal like Cabernet Franc should be something that those of us in the industry respect and average consumers try to support when possible. More choices in terms of wineries and types of wines is a good thing for consumers and Lang & Reed is a great example of a winery taking a chance of sorts, but crafting a really high quality wine at the same time.
What is an Estate Wine?
While Alcohol-Beverage-Control and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacoo and Firearms have their own distinct rules for an estate wine, really there are two important notes. First an estate wine must have 100% of the grapes grown on a winery owned vineyard. That happens less often than you think, but perhaps more importantly the wine must then be made in its entirety in a continuous process, on its own site. Estate wines therefore are an expensive proposition with some estimates in Napa Valley showing minimum investments of $30 million needed to create an estate wine program.
It took me a while longer than I initially thought, but I do have plenty of thoughts on the wines and wineries that we encountered on the Finger Lakes Riesling Twitter #winechat last week.
Swedish Hill Winery 2012 Dry Riesling: Swedish Hill has one of the more extensive histories in the Finger Lakes region, with a winery dating back a quarter century and a history of grape cultivation on the property dating back at least two decades before that. The winery also seems to bring with a certain sense of humor. We’ve seen, well let’s call it hundreds of wineries with pictures of their dogs or even their cats on their websites. Heck, there’s even a calendar here in northern California devoted to Napa Valley’s dogs. Swedish Hill has a miniature donkey, now that’s something worthy of a picture during a visit and also I think speaks to the winery not wanting to take itself too seriously. Maybe they should take themselves more seriously though as Swedish Hill has grown to become one of the larger wineries in the Finger Lakes, now crafting about 60,000 cases per year. Still family owned the winery is focused on delivering a variety of wines, suitable for every palate while keeping everything they produce as food friendly as possible. I found their 2012 Dry Riesling to be the easiest of the bunch to pair with food and could imagine it being served well with a ton of different summer salad’s, including those focused on fruit just as easily as cheese and fish.
Standing Stone Vineyards Old West Block 2012 Riesling: The Standing Stone property has a history of cultivation going back to the early 70’s, although the current ownership group didn’t come into being until the early 1990’s. The focus at Standing Stone is on Riesling and Gewurztaminer which isn’t surprising given the cooler climate that they inhabit in the Finger Lakes, but one thing that struck me as I was learning a bit more about Standing Stone was that they are actively planting and testing red wine grapes as well, with plantings as varied as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Sapaeravi. The Sapaeravi planting caught my attention because it shows the winery is willing to experiment and is clearly trying to find the best fit in the vineyard, not at the table where marketing initiatives are creating. Native grapes often make incredible wine, but they can be hard to sell because the average consumer isn’t aware of them. I appreciate Standing Stone giving Sapaeravi a try and wish more wineries would do the same.
Red Newt Cellars Circle Riesling 2012: The Circle Riesling came in as the most decorated bottle by major wine critics with a range of scores encompassing 88 points from Wine Spectator and 90 points (and a Best Buy label) from Wine Enthusiast. Frankly, it didn’t take long to see why everyone enjoys this wine so much and it was certainly my favorite of the night. It was a refreshing, slightly sweet Riesling that would pair well with food, but also work well by itself. Notes on the palate included apple, fig and other stone fruits with an overwhelming sense that the winery should be charging more the $12 listed on their website, which feels more like a misprint than a real price. The winery adds a Bistro on site and has existed since 1998 and has taken a rather quick path to being, perhaps the most recognized name in Finger Lakes wine. If you wanted to select your first bottle, or two of Finger Lake Riesling, this would be my choice.
Wagner Vineayrds 2012 Riesling Select: Perhaps it continues to date me, but Wagner Vineyards was established the same year that I was born, 1979. With one of the most extensive histories in the region, Wagner also boasts that the current ownership group is the 5th generation of family growers involved in the direct operation of their vineyard. As with many of the wineries that I talk about here in California their winemaker, Ann Raffetto has a degree from Winemakers U (UC Davis) and has been at Wagner for over a quarter century herself. With a brewery and a café on site, it certainly seems like an interesting spot to stop in for a taste and the Riesling Select bottle that we received was one of the more interesting bottles of the night. It was the bottle that I was willing to share with neighbors who are seasoned wine lovers, one of whom worked a Sonoma harvest himself at one point earlier in life. The wine was the sweetest of the four standard bottles of the night and showed clear pineapple and honey overtones throughout both the nose as well as the palate. Given the sweetness involved and the ever increasing alcohol percentages at play here locally, I was almost amazed that the bottle came in at only 11.2% alcohol.
Fulkerson Winery 2012 Riesling Iced Wine: I almost feel badly about not having much to compare it to, but I’ve honestly never had another Riesling dessert wine as most of the local dessert offerings are Sauv Blanc or more often Viognier. In any case, it was interesting and I can see how it would work as an end of the night aperitif. The winery also appears to be doing a brisk business supplying others yeast, bottling supplies and much more.
Overall, this was an interesting experience. When I started Uncorked Ventures, I would have said that the hype surrounding wines from New York State was likely outreaching their quality. I still that's the case in regard to other regions, which is probably to be expected given New York City's status as the media capital of the world and all. That being said, the Red Newt wine in peculiar was a bit of eye opener. While I think too many people want to compare their wines to California (that's certainly the case among many NY wine backers) the regions are different enough than to really make it a moot point. There's some good wine being produced here, but we do need as an industry to keep expectations in line a bit in terms of the likely quality to be produced when a region is really out in front of all others in the United States. As we've seen with California's Central Coast and the Rhone Rangers outfits in Paso Robles, starting from scratch can often take generations.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I was impressed moreso than I expected I might be. Thank you again to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance for organizing, it was an insightful and interesting evening. While we might not be necessarily moving forward with a purchase of any of these sample wines today, the Red Newt in peculiar is on the radar for the future.
I can’t help but take a moment before talking about our #winechat last night which involved a series of sample bottles provided by Finger Lakes wineries to address the 12th anniversary of 9/11. So much has been written already by so many places I can’t add anything new to the discussion other than to simply say that here at Uncorked Ventures we hope that all of those who serve as first responders continue to stay safe and those who lost someone special on that horrific day find as much peace as humanly possible.
Thank you for all your sacrifices.
Ok, so on to wine chat for this September 11th.
A group of bloggers were sent a series of sample bottles of Riesling from the Finger Lakes wine region in New York State. To start with the most basic, the Finger Lakes is a region of wineries centered in western New York State. Ok, so maybe they’re technically central, but it all depends on the person you’re asking is from the City in which case anything 1 mile west of Manhattan is western, or from Buffalo. Since I was actually born in Buffalo and have plenty of family living on both sides of the great divide of New York State, that is the city vs upstate (ie everyone else) I feel confident in my ability to point that out without making anyone too upset.
Anyway if you look at the map of New York State you’ll find out a few things almost immediately. First the Finger Lakes are aptly named since they’re long and they all run in parallel to each other in a north-south plane. Seriously, they really do look like fingers.
Secondly, they’re well positioned as an area to take advantage of much of what New York State has to offer. Yes, the city is a way’s off, but the Thruway is easily accessible (it’s still hard to type that after driving a Freeway my entire life in Southern California and no, I still can’t believe they charge tolls as often as they do) and offers relatively easy access into America’s largest and most important market. Secondary cities in New York State also offer their own unique and interesting mixes of food and wine culture as well as growing markets for Finger Lakes vintners. Buffalo was decimated in the same way as Pittsburgh by the end of the American steel industry, but has been staging a comeback of sorts as America’s insurance home. Albany is the state capital to one of the largest states in the country, in fact the one which holds the world’s financial center. Syracuse is a diverse, urban and often gritty college town which is still one of my favorite places to see a basketball game anywhere in the world. Rochester has one of the most diverse economies in the region, in fact one that we’d be proud to call our own here in California, even after Kodak virtually went belly up taking many jobs with it. All of this is to say, there’s a market for local wine, it’s big and it’s growing. Additionally, the location also offers relatively easy over land access to other major market’s both on the east coast as well as in the Midwest, after all Philadelphia is barely any further away than is New York City. This is equivalent to Napa Valley vintners selling their wine in Los Angeles here in California, a day’s trip isn’t anything to worry about.
Of more interest perhaps for our readers is the focus of the Finger Lakes. The climate and the influence from the lake’s ensure that the region is often thought of in the same terms as the Rhine region of Germany. Much like the Rhine, the Finger Lakes focuses on Riesling.
Riesling, as we know given the amazing work of the faculty and researchers at UC Davis to document the genetic past of wine grapes across the world, was actually born in the Rhine Valley of Germany, likely in the 14th or 15th century. Generally speaking most wine consumers know this grape as its slightly sweet version, although dry versions are created on a yearly basis as well. One of my favorite moments during this week’s #winechat was hearing from a few of the New York wineries about how they chose to have a dry wine, or a sweet wine. I enjoyed the fact that most produce some of both from different blocks in the vineyard, after all I do agree that both versions of the wine have an attainable market.
Really what you need to know about Riesling lies in it’s percentages. It is both the 20th most planted wine grape in the world, but likely the 3rd most important white wine grape and certainly among the top 10 overall. That is simply to say that finding good growing conditions for the grape can be easier said than done, but if you find them the results can truly be both memorable as well as superb.
More on the wines as well as our community tasting notes tomorrow-
I have to admit, I find it easy to be mesmerized by Santa Barbara wine country and that’s not just because I enjoyed my time in Santa Barbara, the warmer weather and views make it one of the most appealing wine destinations in America.
Of course, Ampelos Cellars and their owners share some of those same thoughts which helps to explain how they ended up retiring onto 80+ acres in the Sta. Rita Hills all the while creating a new business for themselves.
I think the background of Ampelos is interesting, the winery is named after a Greek word for wine, largely taken because the proprietors have owned a bed and breakfast on a small Greek island for some time. For many, retiring to that small Greek island would have been a happy enough end don’t you think?
For Rebecca and Peter Work, having one incredible retirement opportunity simply wasn’t enough, it seems they wanted both the beachside bed and breakfast as well as the winery.
Of course, most people don’t end up owning a vineyard without some type of connection to the wine industry and for the Work’s, their connection is among the clearest possible. Their son Don Work is the current winemaker at Sea Smoke. It bears a quick mention that neither the quality of the grapes in the Sta Rita Hills need a long mention in this space, but neither does the quality of the wines being produced at Sea Smoke. It’s said that California lacks the Grand Cru classification system that has served Bordeaux well for about 150 years, but we’ve heard from respected sources like Wine Spectator that the vineyards owned by Sea Smoke would certainly be included, or at least seriously considered among the five best in the state, or the equivilant to our Grand Cru. Additionally, Sea Smoke works solely off a mailing list these days, making the wines as successful with consumers as they are with critics. We’ve heard they’re the Studio 54 of wineries, it’s hard to get in, but once you do, you never want to leave.
Ok, so what do you have here at Ampelos? To start, you have a winemaker who currently holds the same title at a winery that makes wines you simply can’t buy , they’re too sought after and the mailing list attached to them reportedly is about a decade long. You also have a vineyard purchased in an earlier era of Santa Barbara wine, before Sideways and the hype which has ensued. Has Ampelos enjoyed the critical acclaim that Sea Smoke has? Certainly not and before Don Work ascended at Sea Smoke, Ampelos would have been simply one of about a dozen wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands that we thought was ready to take the next step to making world renowned wine. Now, that connection is more clear that many realize and we think, the time is right to enjoy an Ampelos wine, after all a long mailing list is likely in their future as well.
Here’s what to taste from Ampelos:
Pinot Noir. Let’s not get too complicated here, any Pinot made here is going to be among the best in California in a given vintage.
Grenache: I personally think it’s the next big thing from the Santa Lucia Highlands as the wine comes off these cooler vineyard sites with an incredible depth of flavors and spices. It seems as an industry we’re constantly looking for the next big thing when it comes to cool weather grapes, perhaps we’re just making things too complicated.
Late Harvest Viognier: Despite my Studio 54 reference earlier, I’m still a Millennial. Yeah, I know. In any case we’re reaching an age where a greater percentage of people have grown up drinking sweeter beverages than ever before from juice to soda. All that means is that there’s going to be an ever increasing market and market demand for sweet dessert wines. You don’t see ice wine’s or Port’s you’d actually want to drink at this $25 price point often.
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