Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
September 11, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Ampelos Cellars

Ampelos WineI 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.

Mark Aselstine
September 6, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Dos Lagos Vineyards

Dos Lagos Vineyards, in my estimation is going to one of the most talked about names in Napa Valley within 5 years: Here's Why:

Dos Lagos VineyardsI’ve talked about Atlas Peak before in this space, but it is truly one of the more interesting and unique places in Napa Valley these days.  I’ve heard it described by a few folks who have been the Valley for some time (certainly longer than I have) that Atlas Peak is much like walking back in time, to a simpler time in Napa.  That’s a time before the tasting of Paris, before the $30M+ sales of wineries and before the pretentious nature of some wineries which have gained famous names more for real estate than for wine.

When we start to look at wineries and wines to include in our wine clubs, we tend to look at two things.  Vineyards and winemakers.  Sure a great story is a bonus and makes writing these blog entries and newsletters easier, but at the end of the day the most important aspect of a winery is what ends up in the glass.

The vineyards on Atlas Peak aren’t at issue any more.  The wide ranging and dramatic success of Stagecoach Vineyard among others has truly put the AVA on the map when it comes out outstanding growing areas for Cabernet, among other grapes.  In fact, when we’ve done informal taste tests with some of our best customers, they tend to enjoy Atlas Peak wines at least as much as their more famous relatives on Howell Mountain and other mountain AVA’s within Napa Valley.

The second aspect of a winery is their winemaker.  Here’s where everyone should truly be sold on Dos Lagos-their winemaker is Robert Foley.  Foley isn’t one of the new generation of winemaker superstars who doubles on the San Francisco celebrity circuit, but you’ll recognize a few of his winemaking projects immediately: Pride, Switchback Ridge and School House.  If you were to ask a number of wine critics which Napa Valley winery made mountain fruit a household attraction, I’m betting more than half would tell you that Pride is the biggest thing in mountain wineries within Napa.  All that is to say that Foley’s credentials are as strong as any winemaker, anywhere.

If you were wondering how Foley came to this project, a short guess has to be centered around the fact that the grapes from Dos Lagos are in his own wineries’ Claret.  If you feel strongly enough about a vineyard to include them in a wine whcih carries your own name you're probably going to feel comfortable making an esate wine for the fruit as welll.  Foley hasn’t taken on a new project, by our count at least, for at least a decade.  For an industry veteran, I think that speaks volumes about what he thinks of the Dos Lagos fruit.

Lastly, no article about a winery is complete without talking about the folks behind the idea and the brand.  Dos Lagos is owned by Tom & Marcie Dinkel.  The Dinkel’s, unlike so many winery owners (or even wine club owners, present company included) have chosen to not clutter their own website with personal information-so suffice to say that the couple seems to have a diverse set of interests, such as a day job in solar power, loving the America’s Cup which has finally come to San Francisco and of course some art along the way as well.

If you’re looking for a new, interesting Napa Valley Cabernet then Dos Lagos should be at the top of your list.  With their first vintage under a decade ago, Dos Lagos is still a new venture and stands to continue gaining market share and attention as time goes on. 

Mark Aselstine
September 5, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

The Prince of Pinot

Prince of PinotWhen it comes to wine critics, the recent changes at Wine Advocate, including Robert Parker’s new relative lack of involvement have certainly created a vacuum of sorts.

One of the things we want to do over the coming days and weeks is to feature wine critics that we feel are likely to take some of that available market share.

Our first entry (and frankly the wine website and reviewer we feel most strongly about) is the Prince of Pinot.

Since we first started Uncorked Ventures, one of the first sources we ever check when it comes to buying a Pinot Noir, is the Prince of Pinot.  Written by a retired ophthalmologist (that’s an eye doctor) the Prince of Pinot explains his love for Pinot in a way I only wish I could match:

I figured out early on that Pinot Noir was the greatest food wine on the planet. Loving gourmet delights, Pinot Noir was the natural partner for foods from the sea (salmon, ahi), the air (quail), the water (duck) and the earth (venison). Pinot Noir is made for drinking with food and when you have the perfect match, the experience can bring you to your knees! Seductive, elegant, and earthy, Pinot Noir unites friends, food and good time into a glorious dining experience.

We first started taking the reviews at the Prince of Pinot after taking a meeting with Paul Lato, largely based on the glowing recommendations which existed in his database.  The Prince is unlike a lot of other reviewers in that he seems to enjoy a wide variety of Pinot Noir, there is no discernable bias in his palate between wines which are bigger in terms of fruit or higher in terms of acidity.  We can appreciate that type of even handed review and thought process and especially appreciate his willingness to review wines not only from our neck of the woods here on the west coast, but also those internationally.  Additionally the Prince of Pinot takes the time to review Pinot from up and coming destinations like South Africa and especially New Zealand (we couldn’t agree more, the Kiwi’s are likely the next big thing in imported Pinot) instead of simply telling everyone how good the $200 per bottle Burgundy he had last night happened to be.

If you're someone who loves Pinot already, or simply someone who fancies himself a sophisticated wine lover-reading the Prince of Pinot is a logical and common sense starting point for any wine journey.

Mark Aselstine
September 3, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Napa Valley Discounts & Free Stuff

I’ve been told that I’ve been writing a bit too much about Sonoma in this space and not enough about Napa Valley.

Point taken.

I do know that Napa can be expensive and no matter your budget for a trip into Napa Valley, it’s fun to get something at a discount isn’t it?

Here’s a few places you can score some interesting discounts for your next trip into Napa:

Napa Valley Register:  It’s really the only true home town newspaper for Napa Valley and the Register undoubtedly offers more local content than does the San Francisco Chronicle. Almost every locally based hotel and business of note does some sort of advertising with the Register and most offer a discount or two along the way, even if those discounts aren’t always easy to find.  From the Napa Valley Register’s home page, click their “Visit Napa Valley” link on the header and then search for the deals link on the right.  Looking through their current choices you’ll find everything from discounted hotel stays to free wine tastings at over 50 wineries

Wine Country This Week: The magazine does an outstanding job keeping current with exactly what’s happening in the Valley and offers 2 for 1 on basically anything you’d ever want to do on a visit. It’s also worth a read because they really do a good job at featuring lesser known and smaller wineries in their monthly issues.

Email Someone Like Us: Seriously.  If you’re visiting a wine region that we work with, really anywhere in California, Oregon or the state of Washington please email us first.  We’ll happily make reservations with you with wineries for tastings, most of the time you won’t be sitting in the tasting room with everyone else but being given a complete tour of the property, often by a member of the winemaking team.  It’s really the only way I’d ever want to see wine country and your first barrel tasting experience is usually one to remember.

Mark Aselstine
August 31, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Dashe Cellars

Dashe CellarsA generation ago, my little outpost in the east bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area wouldn’t have truly afforded me any local wineries.  Sure some wineries were sourcing grapes from the truly hot vineyards on the other side of “the hill” and it was still only an hour drive to Napa Valley or Sonoma, but there weren’t many local wineries to speak of.

That’s changing rapidly these days both because of the urban winery movement as well as the general appreciation for food and wine that I find here in the east bay.

One of the vanguards of that movement into urban spaces has been Dashe Cellars.  Operated by a husband and wife team, Michael & Anne Dashe, the winery benefits from its founders having about the best list of qualifications you’re ever set to find.  Between the two of them, who incidentally share winemaking duties, you’ll find job experience at the likes of Château Lafite-Rothschild,  Ridge, Far Niete, Chappellet and Schramsberg. Education wise, they aren’t much worse off either with a Davis degree and a University of Bordeaux degree between them.  I think we can agree that the pedigree of the winemaking talent isn’t to be questioned.

Dashe Cellars itself is located in an up and coming section of Oakland California, close to Jack London Square.  It’s a real working winery and offers an interesting mix of access to winemakers and vineyard staff, with a convenient location and tasting room.  In reality, when people say that we need more urban wineries, Dashe is largely the model they’re hoping for in their own town.

The wines at Dashe were originally focused on single vineyard Dry Creek Zinfandel. With 9 current Zinfandel’s for sale, I think it is safe to say that varietal is still the focus at Dashe although they also craft a range of other red and white wines. Dashe also hasn’t experienced the huge run up in prices that we’ve seen elsewhere as the economy has begun to improve in the past few years, with most of their single vineyard Zinfandel offerings, still sitting at $35 per bottle, or under.

If you’re up for a visit to Dashe during your next trip to San Francisco (please take BART, seriously you’re there in under 30 minutes door to door, quicker and easier than driving) try as many of the Zinfandel’s as they’ll allow, but don’t miss the Les Enfants line of wines.  

There is a whole movement in the wine industry about crafting more natural wines.  While some wineries take that to the extreme through biodynamic means, there wines are special and interesting in that they use native yeasts.  The whole native yeast concept was originally explained to me by the winemaker at Alpha Omega in Napa Valley, Jean Hoefliger.  Grapes have naturally occurant yeasts on the skins which will cause fermentation to occur in time, but there are generally many different strains.  As fermentation begins, some of the strains may begin fermentation and then fizzle out so to speak, only to have other strains eventually take over.  

natural yeast winesWinemakers generally have two issues with using natural yeasts.  First, they add an element of surprise to the entire process.  If you don’t know exactly what strains of yeast you have, it isn’t possible to know before fermentation begins exactly how long the process is likely to last.  Many winemakers say they get enough surprises in the vineyard, they don’t need them at the winery in addition.

Secondly, so many wines are made at custom crush and other shared facilities that using natural yeasts isn’t always an option.  With synthetic or other chosen yeasts around in such large quantities, it’s impossible to keep them completely separated.

Dashe doesn’t have either issue since the facility in Oakland is a working winery of their own and they get to choose who gets to use the facility with them.  With two highly trained winemakers on staff, who both own the business, it makes sense that no amount of attention is going to bother them.

In any case, I applaud Dashe for crafting a series of Les Enfants wines.  Currently they have a Zinfandel as well as a Grenache available from that line, both underpriced in my estimation given the work involved and quality of the wines, at $24.

Lastly, since I know a number of our readers do like white wine more so than red-Dashe does craft a range of white wines including Riesling and Vin Gris.  Although I find there to be more red wines than I could ever enjoy being produced on site, the dry Alsace style of Riesling is an interesting choice.  I’m seeing that style of Riesling being produced by more and more wineries sourcing grapes from Sonoma.  If you’re a wine drinker ready for a bit of an adventure, especially if you don’t love oaky Chardonnay, give the Riesling a try.