Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
July 24, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Santa Cruz Mountains

Given that we’re based just a stone’s throw south of San Francisco, people typically think that the closest wine regions to us are Napa Valley and Sonoma. While that might be right on some level, the Santa Cruz Mountains are certainly closer as the crow flies and when you count some of their tasting rooms at the foot of the mountains, we have easier access to these wines than any others.

Given that proximity and the lack of understanding about the Santa Cruz Mountain wine region, we thought this short guide would be helpful for our readers.

Let’s start at the beginning.  The Santa Cruz Mountains, not unexpectedly is located on the coast, just outside of the beautiful college town of Santa Cruz.  It has a couple of advantages when it comes to growing grapes.  First, it is a warmer section of the northern California coast than most. In fact, depending on who you ask, some growers do consider Santa Cruz more Central Coast, than North Coast.  Secondly, their location gives them unprecedented access to the city of San Francisco and the city of San Jose.  For a year my wife and I lived in the city of Half Moon Bay, a short 40 mile jaunt up the coast from Santa Cruz and during the picking months of September through November, we frequently saw trucks carrying grapes from the Santa Cruz Mountains cross almost in front of our home.  Of course, those grapes were headed elsewhere, but it speaks to the marketing potential of this wine region because within an hour you could have wine sitting in any number of tech companies in Silicon Valley, or at any home of the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula, one of the most exclusive in the country.

View from Ridge

When wine lovers first learn about the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA, they learn about two wineries.

First, they learn about Ridge.  For good reason.  Ridge is an institution both in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but also within the California wine scene.  Back in the 1970’s when California pushed its way into the wine elite, Ridge was there for the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976. In fact Ridge finished 5th of  the 10 wines which were included in the competition for their Monte Bello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which sits along their tasting room high in the Santa Cruz Mountain mountains. When most wine drinkers hear about the Judgment of Paris, they hear about how Napa Valley defeated Bordeaux.  The story is a bit more complicated though, the Monte Bello Vineyard is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, that’s part of the story that is conveniently left out, it was a wide swatch of California wine growing regions which were considered at least the equal to Bordeaux, not only the ultra exclusive Napa Valley vineyards that we all see in wine stores across the world on a daily basis. More recently Ridge has expanded and now crafts a full range of wines, but the Monte Bello is still their most sought after offering. It offers an interesting combination of depth and in fact some finesse, which we don’t often see with other mountain fruit.


Secondly wine drinkers hear about the cult Pinot Noir producer Rhys. It’s quickly becoming the most sought after Pinot Noir producer in the new world and really is among the only Pinot producers in California that can realistically say there is a waiting list to receive its wines. Owned by venture capitalist Ken Harvey, who has been featured prominently on Forbes Midas List for close to a decade (that’s a Forbes list of folks able to take new companies to IPO and have them perform well)

Two Other World Class Wineries That Should Receive More Attention:

162/365 - Mount Eden Pinot Noir

Mount Eden: In the 3+ years we’ve been in business, I don’t think we’ve ever run into an estate which had the same winemaker in place since the early 1980’s.  Mount Eden has experienced unprecedented growth under the winemaking of Jeffrey Patterson.  The Pinot Noir estate vineyard goes back even further, all the way to 1945. Mount Eden is perhaps the pantheon of the non interventionist Pinot Noir in America, natural yeast, open top fermentation in a true Bugundian style.  The results are both dramatic as well as surprising given what we’ve all heard about how different wine from California is from France.  Perhaps winemaker choices and vineyard select deserve more mention than some of the innate differences of the fruit, after all most people describe these as old world wines at first taste.

Sonnet: Admittedly one of my favorite producers, Sonnet Wine Cellars is known as a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producer, but they also make a range of cool climate Syrah and Bordeaux blends.  At this point, I'm sure there is much left to say about Sonnet and the quality of the Pinot being produced by the estate that hasn't already been said.  These are cool climate, racy and intense Pinot Noir's that would be truly at home among the top Burgundian producers, although the difference in price points might make you blush.

What’s Old is New Again:

One of the common threads that you see in California wine are wineries which have existed since the 19th century, but only recently were purchased and rehabilitated by new ownership groups.  That’s an interesting juxtaposition in that you have wineries inexorability linked to the land for well over a century, but under new and motivated ownership.

Hallcrest Vineyards:  With a family history dating to the 19th century and an onsite wine history dating to the mid 1940’s, Hallcrest is one of the more historic vineyards in California. That being said, the current owner (John Schumacher) bought the site in the late 1980’s and it was only then that the estate was given the respect and attention that it needs and deserves.  The results are a range of wines including Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel and more. Among the youngest people to ever open their own winery, Schumacher has brought plenty of modern winemaking and frankly, modern marketing to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Always a big winner in terms of wine competition medals, it seems only a matter of time before Hallcrest takes its place among the more respected names in mountain wine.

Heart O’ The Mountain: Established by Pierre Conwell in 1881, the estate was revived after being purchased by Bob and Judy Bassfield in the late 1970’s.  Stop us, if any of this sounds familiar.  The results are an impressive Pinot Noir house.  When I say they focus on Pinot Noir, I mean that completely.  All they grow are Pinot grapes, which gives them a plethora of choices for varietal specific Pinot Noir, in addition to a Rose which always comes highly recommended.  If you’re someone who enjoys Pinot and is willing to test your palate, Heart O’ The Mountain is a virtual must visit.  You’ll be able to try and distinguish individual clones of Pinot Noir from each other or try and judge the differences from one vineyard block to another.  It’s a fun process for most wine lovers and one which Heart O’ The Mountain is uniquely suited to provide.  Plus, the Pinot Noir is good and fairly priced for the quality.

Sometimes You’re Simply New:

La Honda: We originally ran into their vineyard, certainly by mistake.  Most parent’s have seen the scene, a 1 year old with an ear infection unwilling or unable to fall asleep for nap.  Enter the car, a guaranteed fix.  What I ran into while driving my son was a group of vines outside of the town of Woodside high among the Santa Cruz Mountains. It turns out those vines are used to produce the wine for La Honda, an urban warehouse winery based in Redwood City (about 5 miles up the road from Palo Alto and Stanford University).  Personally, I find La Honda to be interesting largely due to their Exponent Red wine blend.  It’s a Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese blend that simply isn’t made anywhere else. It’s complex to be sure, but there is a level of finesse that comes from the grapes place and the use of the Sangiovese, one of the lightest red wine grapes available.  Multiple 90+ point scores from major wine critics have put La Honda and their winemaker Colin McNany on the wine map.  As far as urban warehouse wineries go, this is still a unique project given its location and the relative ease it is likely see in marketing to Silicon Valley, which seems to be a bit of home base for the Santa Cruz Mountain wineries.

Loma Prieta: Loma Prieta is worthy of a mention here for a few reasons.  To start, the winery boasts one of the most ridiculously gorgeous views that you’ll find anywhere. Looking out over the mountain to the ocean beyond is what many picture when they think of mountain wineries in California and it’s worth a trip to be sure.  That being said, the wine produced at Loma Prieta is worthy of a mention as well.  The winery does a really nice job at offering visitors a wide range of choices when it comes to the wines they produce.  Few wineries in California attempt everything from a sparkling wine, through Bordeaux varietals, Rhone varietals and end at a Port styled dessert wine. They also make a Pinotage, which I especially like both in terms of its construction, but also their willingness to try something eclectic and unique for the Santa Cruz Mountains.  That willingness to experiment I think says that they are going to continue to improve the quality of their wines over the coming years despite already being worth a visit the next time you’re in the area.

House Family Winery: Very rarely do we run into wineries that utilize 100% estate grapes any more.  Bulk grapes and bulk wine are simply too cheap for most to turn away from.  That’s where we have taken a liking to House Family Winery which sits high atop the eastern (and therefore warmer) ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains above the town of Saratoga. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are all grown on their estate vineyard and then falls into the more than capable hands of Jeffrey Patterson.  We didn’t mention Mount Eden’s winemaker because we knew Patterson would show up later on, he’s making a bit of a name for himself as one of the go to winemakers for Santa Cruz Mountain wineries.

Time Posted: Jul 24, 2013 at 2:31 PM
Mark Aselstine
July 23, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

#WineChat 7/17/2013 Review Part 2

Imagine Wines LLC 2010 Viognier

I’ll admit to loving Viognier, it’s a Rhone varietal so that’s not surprising. I like the rounded edges that can come with it and find it to be a pleasurable food wine. While everyone else at my table typically drinks Chardonnay, I am usually content with a Viognier, although I tend to enjoy spicy food so it’s a natural fit. What I said:

What Others Said:

Sierra Madre Chardonnay: I will admit that Sierra Madre is an old favorite of ours, when we lived in Santa Barbara it was part of a by the glass program pretty close to where we lived. It was good then and it continues to be good now. What I said:

What Others Said:

Brewer Clifton Gnesa Chardonnay In many ways, this was a typical California Chardonnay. Rounder than some, but no so round that it was off-putting for those of us who enjoy more acidity in our wines, this was an inspired effort to showcase what the central coast does really well-simply produce great wine. Given that I typically enjoy my Chardonnay with bubbles included, I was happy to pour myself a glass of the Gnesa Chardonnay when the chat ended. What I said:

What Others Said:

Mark Aselstine
July 18, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

#WineChat 7/17/2013 Review

Last night brought a rather unique opportunity to take part in #winechat with the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. The Association brought together six wineries, who shipped one wine each to ten different wine bloggers, myself included.

I’ll cover the tasting over the next few days, otherwise these entries are going to get out of control rather quickly. I’ll also take the time over the coming weeks to feature each of the six wineries whom were kind enough to share their wine, their story and their time with all of us.

I lived in Santa Barbara for five years and greatly enjoyed my time there, so I’m fairly familiar with the wines and growing regions of the central coast, Santa Barbara in peculiar, but this event was a good reminder for me of the wide range of wines and wine styles being crafted in Santa Barbara County.

How Come Bill Got to Drive?To start, I have to say a quick thank you to Bill Eyer of Cuvee Corner, someone I’ve actually worked a day of bottling with in the past as Morgen McLaughlin of the Santa Barbara Vintner’s Association for putting this together. As it turns out Morgen comes highly recommended from her time with the Finger Lakes Wine County, where she certainly helped the region gain a following with the wine community, especially in and around New York City. Welcome to California Morgen, there might not be a prettier and easier place to live than Santa Barbara County. I hope you enjoy your time there as much as I did.Wine #1: Fontes & Phillips 2010 Sauvignon Blanc: My notes were pretty simple. It’s a solid New Zealand in style (although lighter on the acidity) Sauvignon Blanc that has enough minerality to keep me interesting and make me sure this isn’t a Chardonnay. A good wine. A nice effort at the $15-$18 price point, where you don’t often find a ton of easily drinkable, yet interesting white wine’s. At 112 cases of production, it’s something I’d happy ship. What others said:

Wine #2: Baehner Fournier Vineyards 2012 Sauvignon Blanc One of the reasons people inside the wine industry, as well as consumers love events like this is the opportunity to compare and contrast wines from similar areas. In this case, we have vineyard locations only a few miles apart, but dramatically different wines. My notes show that there is more acidity here. Personally, I like that in my Sauvignon Blanc, but I worry that some of my newer wine drinking customers aren’t accustomed to it. Definitively a Bordeaux styled Sauvignon Blanc, this is a nice effort at under $20 as well. Creamy citrus is listed on the official tasting notes and that’s both a flavor as well as a smell which came through big time. It’s just a great summer wine. I also said:

What Others Said:

Wine #3: Palmina Winery 2011 Arneis I’ll have to be honest, when I first received my tasting list I assumed this wasn’t a varietal specific wine, but instead simply a name of a blend. It turns out Arneis is a grape, about to go extinct across the world, with its roots in Italy. After a bit of research, this is the wine I was most excited to try. It isn’t often that we find something truly unique within the wine industry. I said:

Others Said:

Mark Aselstine
July 16, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

July 17, 2013 #winechat

winechat July 17, 2013This Wednesday between 6-7pm PST we’ll be one of the 10 official tasters for #winechat.

This week 6 Santa Barbara County Vintners Association wineries have shipped wine to 10 different blogs or media outlets and asked everyone to come together for a virtual tasting.

The wines are:

Imagine Wines 2010 Viognier
Baehner Fournier 2012 Sauv Blanc
Summerland 2012 Sierra Madre Chard
Brewer-Clifton 2010 Gnesa Chard
Fontes & Phillips 2010 Sauv Blanc
Palmina 2011 Arneis

I’ll talk a bit more about each wine including our tasting notes after the event tomorrow evening, but I’m quite excited for the Arneis.  Arneis is a Italian wine grape from Piedmont that many Italian vintners have stopped growing over the years because it is so fickle. With under two thousand acres planted across the world, it is without a doubt a grape on the verge of extinction and one that I’ve never tasted in a varietal wine before.  Seeing a planting on the central coast says a lot about Palmina and their willingness to take some risks.

Time Posted: Jul 16, 2013 at 3:06 PM
Mark Aselstine
July 15, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Presqu’ile Winery

Presqu'ile Winery LogoHurricane Katrina was certainly one of the tragic event’s in our nation’s history, living in San Diego at the time I remember reading the stories of the people and events of those dark days and hoping that something good could come out of the outpouring of support.  For many, it simply meant being helped to find new places to live, from Texas to California.

Presqu’ile Winery is in some ways, an off shoot of that terrible time.  Presqu’ile means “almost an island” in Creole, a nod to the ownership’s family deep sense of place and belonging and farming tradition on the Gulf.

Owned by multiple generations of the Murphy family (Matt, Amanda, Jonathan, Lindsey, Anna, Madison and Suzanne) Presqu’ile is definitely a family operation and should continue to be indefinitely.  It seems that Matt Murphy has been the driving force here, he is responsible for bringing the love for wine to the family, as well as for his building a friendship with a South African, who would eventually become the estate’s winemaker.  For those looking for a wine experience where you meet someone in the tasting room who is intimately connected to the wine and the winery, Presqu’ile offers that opportunity, an opportunity which seems to be dying in California wine.

Of course, an interesting and unique family story is only that, without some good wine to back that up.  Presqu’ile is located in the Santa Maria Valley (which we’ve talked about in this space before) and offers some of the most varied terrain and terrior in the state from which to craft wine.

Presqu'ile Vineyard MapWe’ve borrowed their own image for their vineyard location, but really the highlight of the growing region is an incredible combination of sun and cooler breezes from the Pacific Ocean.  Wine grapes need a delicate balance these days between sun, which promotes ripeness and cooler breezes and night time temperatures which allow the grapes to regain acidity and achieve a higher quality of wine.  Santa Maria Valley has that combination in spades and the Prequ’ile Vineyard is no different.  We’ve talked a lot in the past about how wine seems to bring people with different backgrounds, but vineyard manager Jim Stollberg might have the most divergent background for a vineyard manager that we’ve ever seen.  Spending time at UC Davis sometimes seems like a prerequisite for winemakers and other winery staff in California, but seldom do we see people with biomedical undergraduate work enter the world of wine.  Evidently Stollberg entered Davis with plans to play baseball and spend an awful lot of time in labs, only to find himself interested and eventually working in the world of wine for his company, Maverick Farming.

Since we are in the time of superstar winemakers, we can’t possible talk about a winery and vineyard without spending some time on the man, or woman behind the winemaking decisions.  Dieter Cronje holds the winemaker post and is one of the younger members of that select group on the Central Coast.  Like Presqu’ile and their grower, he’s something of a maverick.  As an example, we’ve run into very, very few winemakers who are willing to use natural yeast.  Yeast occurs naturally on grapes and fermentation will occur if you given juice and skins enough time, but you won’t necessarily know how long fermentation will take.  That’s part of the allure to commercial yeast, you are adding a known quantity to your winemaking process.  Natural yeast throws mother nature right into your wine production, just as it is in the vineyard.  We’ve seen winemakers like Jean Hoefliger at Alpha Omega use natural yeast (we love their wines and the people at Alpha Omega btw) but generally winemakers willing to take those chances have already made a name for themselves and something to fall back on if things go wrong.  Now, there’s no real reason that things would go wrong with natural yeast, but it isn’t how you’re generally taught to make wine.

That willingness to experiment is one of the things that we continually hear about Presqu’ile.  They experiment in their vineyard and allow their winemaker to experiment with what’s being produced.  This is about as natural of a process as you can find, native yeast, no filtering, no fining.  Only sulfur is added.  As you might expect, this isn’t a winemaking style that you see taught at large scale American winemaking schools or intern programs, Cronje originally hails from South Africa.

Ok, ok you probably want to know something about the wine.  First, given their process, it isn’t surprising that these are among the most food friendly and restrained wines that you’re going to find in the Santa Maria Valley.  Pinot Noir is the requisite star of the show here and Presqu’ile offers both a Santa Maria Valley blend, as well as a number of single vineyard choices.  For the wine enthusiast inside me, I love the variety of vineyard choices, even when the vineyards are only a mile or two apart.  The differences in vineyard and block sites are evident, especially when comparing their estate vineyard and the Rim Rock which adds some other interesting aspects to a high end Pinot Noir discussion because it is fermented in cement and comes in via whole clusters.

Additionally, if you’re a big fan of Pinot Noir on the Central Coast, 100% of the Rose grapes are from Pinot Noir.  The Presqu’ile Pinot is a buzzy and rounded version of Rose that should appease even those who don’t usually drink pink, assuming they find it on a warm enough day.

As you might expect the estate also crafts a range of Chardonnay’s as well as two different Sauvignon Blanc choices.  One other wine of note though is their Syrah, which is currently sourced from the outstanding Bien Nacido Vineyard. I thought this was an interesting wine on two levels.  First, it was really good.  Second, it is one of the few Syrah’s in California that you can find being made from a single clone and within a single vineyard.  In this case, it’s clone 99.  Clone 99 has become something of a catch phrase of sorts in the Santa Maria Valley when you speak with growers.  It grows slightly larger berries than other grapes, as well as offering a good yield per acre.  It’s also one of the better known Syrah clone’s around these days, with widespread plantings internationally.  I think those wide spread international plantings are especially important given the chances being taken by Presqu’ile on the yeast side-they need clone’s with as much available information as possible.