Uncorked Ventures Blog
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.
When Matt and I started Uncorked Ventures, our first tasting appointment was with Alpha Omega in Napa Valley. The first time we ventured to Sonoma, we had a 10am appointment (yes, we’re *professionals* so we taste that early) at Copain and despite Matt losing a shirt to a coffee stain at the front gate, Copain became one of our favorite wineries to work with.
That was a few years ago and while we continue to be fans of Wells Gunthrie and Copain, I recently ran into a new wine project called R2 Wine Company. Drew Huffine was part of the winemaking team at Copain when we were there at the beginning of Uncorked Ventures (which coincided with their shift into lower alcohol wines) and now Huffine is the winemaker in charge of R2. R2 Wine Company is owned by Roger & Richard Roessler, originally known for founding and then selling their namesake brand, Roessler Cellars which had Wells Guthrie from Copain as winemaker. While the Roessler story is certainly important, it’s a bit of an off shoot from my experience with R2 Wine Company and a story for another day.
I had the chance to meet Drew Huffine, the winemaker at R2 Wine Company at Bratavelle (Berkeley, California) on the morning of Valentine’s Day along with John Rojas from Titan Wines. I love where I live, partially because my family enjoys the city of San Francisco, but also because I’m only a half hour or so outside of Napa and Sonoma. It’s rare though that I meet a winemaker who lives nearby and Drew lives only a few miles down the road. He’s also a Santa Barbara guy as well, which I appreciate.
R2 is an interesting winery in concept, theory and most importantly, execution. Production on an overall basis doesn’t seem incredibly small, but in reality half the total production of the winery is a single wine, Black Pine. I’ll have some comments about this wine and Huffine’s marketing skills, at the end of the article since Black Pine, isn’t their most important when it comes to our customers.
The other half of production centers around a series of smaller production wines. The morning of our tasting I had the chance to taste a range of offerings from R2 and came away impressed with the lot. In many ways, these are wines which are reminiscent of Copain. Not overly big or fruit forward, but not translucent either, they walk a nice middle ground in terms of fruit vs acidity, as well as flavor combinations.
On the white wine side two wines stood out to me. First was the Big Bend White. In reality, it’s a Chardonnay from Carneros. I’ve voiced my general displeasure with many Chardonnay’s in this space before because of their overall lack of acidity, but I am happy to report, this wine doesn’t suffer that same fate. Sourced from Big Bend Vineyard which sits at the base of the hill which separates Petaluma from Sonoma, Big Bend is in many ways, a typical Carneros Chardonnay, only it retails for $25 instead of the $40-$50 price points that you’ll see elsewhere. It’s a wine that sips well by itself, as well as with food (this is where I see some of the Copain influence on Huffine’s style more than other winemakers I taste with) and carries a nice combination of tropical fruit on the nose, followed by more zesty citrus notes. It’s a wine my wife and I could drink, which isn’t typical for a Chardonnay.
The second white that deserves a note here is the Vin Blancs. So, we shipped this wine to a few of our wine club members last month, so that might tell you all you need to know about how I felt about this wine-but it really deserves more of a mention here. Simply put, this is one of the best examples of Viognier I’ve found in the past two years. You’ll notice, they didn’t call this wine a Viognier even though they could (it’s 80% Viognier, 16% Roussane and 4% Grenache Blanc) for a couple of reasons. To start, Huffine talked about the ability to blend as they see fit on a yearly basis. Given the sourcing of the fruit coming from the Central Coast, Huffine said he could imagine years where the Viognier is well under the required 75% for it’s name to be included on the label. Plus, it’s harder to sell a Viognier than it is a randomly labeled white. While others have written about this much more authoritatively than I can, I think there are two main issues selling Viognier. First, the average consumer can’t pronounce it, so they aren’t going to ask for it. Second, most of the Viognier that gets produced tastes like over extracted oak bombs that will make you pine for a beer.
This wine walks the hard line between the reasons why the French have loved Viognier as the backbone for blends in the Rhone for generations and why, it can be difficult to make well. Viognier has a certain, rounded mouthfeel. I’ve called it my favorite white wine grape to serve to people who “only drink red wine” in the past because to me, it’s the closest to a red wine in terms of a full mouthfeel.
That mouthfeel often gets a bit out of control and it becomes hard to imagine finding a good food pairing for the wine, which is where I think you see some of the innovation that the California wine industry is known for. If you buy a red wine blend from the Rhone, it’s like a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre) but you’ll note only a small percentage of the wine is typically Mouvedre. Mouvedre is typically extremely tannic and is used in these blends to provide some additional backbone to the wine. I bring that up because of the small amount of Grenache Blanc in this blend. Anthony Yount, the winemaker at Denner and his own Kinero Cellars project sent us a Grenache Blanc sample a year or so ago, that we loved, but couldn’t ship because the acidity nearly knocked us over. Matt described it as bracing. I found it interesting. As I’ve found, some vineyards on the Central Coast consistently produce Grenache Blanc with that level of acidity. If you were a winemaker, knowing the history of blending in the Rhone and elsewhere, wouldn’t including some Grenache Blanc with your Viognier seem to make sense? Huffine told me that the Grenache Blanc exists here speficially for the acidity and helps to show where winemaking is as much art, as science. Without going into too many superlatives, this Vin Blancs is a pretty picture and if you’re stuck in a Chardonnay rut, find a bottle.
On the red wine side, select wine club customers have received the Rhapsody Red Wine Blend from R2 Wine Company. This was interesting. When I heard, red wine blend, I was prepared for another GSM. As it turns out, this samples like a GSM from Paso Robles, but gets there in a different path. 54% Grenache, 23% Mourvedre and 23% Carignane. The flavor profile is familiar, yet different at the same time. R2 calls it complex, yet approachable which is a statement that I can agree with. Of interest to me is the way that the Carignan (in California we tend to add a trailing “e” that you won’t see in French versions) interacts with Grenache in the blend, imposing its color and structure to the wine. It’s a bright and vibrant wine that I’m as happy to open with friends on a Tuesday, as I am on a Saturday.
Lastly, I need to say something about Huffine and marketing in general. When we first opened, that meeting at Alpha Omega occurred with a winemaker who was also the General Manager of the winery. That’s something of an ideal set up for us, we can decide on a wine that we like and then figure out a purchase path with the same person. Sales guys are fine, but can complicate matters and let’s be frank, I didn’t start a wine business to deal with the winery’s sales guy. Huffine isn't the GM of R2 Wine Company, that’s getting increasingly rare as more money pours into the industry and sales targets, the ability to run SalesForce and marketing majors are increasingly in rougue, but R2 is a smaller winery where you get the idea that one partner, knows whom the winemaker is meeting with and why. We didn't run into a, "I need to ask my boss" type of response for anything, which is always a refreshing way to have a meeting. I mentioned the Black Pine earlier, which represents about half of the production at R2, but doesn’t fit my program-so a bottle wasn’t available to sample. A couple of days after we got together a bottle of the wine was waiting for me, magnum format signed by Drew Huffine. It was a nice touch, but also showed that sometimes, winemakers simply care more for what they produce than do others and that of course, R2 is in good hands.
As you might have grown to expect at this point, yes this was written by Mark Aselstine.
Despite all the stories about inclement weather in the Midwest and on the East Coast of late, California is in the middle of perhaps it's worst drought over the past thirty years. As a kid I remember rocks ending up in front of a number of houses on our street, as well as the huge wild fires that seemed to increasingly spring up every fall in the hills outside of Los Angeles and San Diego....unfortunately this drought is suppose to much worse than that.
The saving grace so many years ago was that the Sierra Foothills and the Bay Area still were receiivng rain and snowfall roughly equivalent to their normal amounts. Now, depending on who you ask, snow packs in the Sierra's are 25-50% of their average and there are serious issues with both rian water run off (or the lack thereof) as well as ground water amounts.
I'm starting to see farmers and vintners take a more serious look at how this may affect the wine industry both during this growing season, but also if something like this drought were to continue to unfold over the next few years.
In Lake County, they're talking about improving effeciency and stopping as much water loss as possible. Healdburg, in many ways the home to the Russian River Valley has imposed a mandatory 20% cut on residents while the state is talking about telling farmers in the region that they simply cannot take any surface water at all this year.
Of course, for our purposes here: what's the likely affect on the wine industry, especially those high end wineries in the Russian River and those up and coming names in Lake County?
In some ways, it's a bit early to tell. Spring will need to be wet to help, but very little water is typically used in grape cultivation during winter months as it is. A hot, hot summer and little water won't be a good omen for either area though. The concern is that a lack of winter rainfall leads to early bud break which, if followed by a severe frost (without ground water to help prevent it) could decimate crops across the region.
Of course, like anything, a couple of good rain storms and we'll all forget any of this was even being talked about.
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