Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
March 27, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Santa Barbara County Cabernet Sauvignon

Every week there are a few choices if you want to drink wine and chat about it on Twitter.

This week, I took part in an interesting and largely misunderstood aspect of the wine trade: Cabernet Sauvignon in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Vintners Association has been among the most aggressive and effective at marketing itself online, from it’s continued focus on events like last night, or bringing a few hundred bloggers to the Santa Ynez Valley last year for the Wine Bloggers Conference.

One reason I think it’s likely they’ve taken this stance is the great number of different varietals being grown in Santa Barbara County. Unlike say Napa Valley, they aren’t in a situation where they can hang their hat so to speak on a single varietal, even one as famous as Cabernet Sauvignon.

Instead a quick of geography has provided vintners in Santa Barbara County a tremendous opportunity to grow almost anything they want, along with giving them the challenge of finding a way to market what very well may be world class cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as outstanding Syrah and after last night I should add, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Having attended UCSB myself, I might not be the most impartial observer here but Santa Barbara vintners challenge and opportunity all stems from their coastline. As the only stretch of east-west coastline in California and the Santa Ynez Mountains which dig all the way to the beach itself (we used to be able to sit on the beach in 70 degree weather and then drive 20 minutes to snow in the foothills during some fall months) there’s a huge difference in temperatures as you move closer to the ocean.

In fact, with the coastline and mountain ranges coming together, you literally can watch the fog get swept in between the mountain range in the evenings, something the locals refer to as “turning on the ac.” For grapes, that’s pretty clearly a good thing. We’ve talked about the importance of diurnal temperature differences in this space before because it allows grapes to gain sugar content with the sun during the day, but to regain acidity at night, creating a more balanced wine that is still very much fruit forward. Katie Gassini shared the following image from their vineyard in Happy Canyon which I think shows the fog leaving first thing in the morning. Her family farms in Happy Canyon and has a tasting location in downtown Santa Barbara. This was my first interaction with Katie, but she’s pretty clearly a personable and interesting member of the wine trade. We’ll have a look at the Gassini wines for an upcoming shipment as well.

For vineyards closest to the beach growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay makes a ton of sense. Heck, Sideways made Pinot Noir famous in Santa Barbara, but there’s been high quality Pinot being grown in the region since the 70’s, well before it was popular elsewhere. Growing Syrah, Cabernet and other Bordeaux varietals has been a more recent focus for a wider number of vintners.

The Happy Canyon AVA was approved in 2011, while Ballard Canyon was approved in 2013. In essence Syrah plantings sit directly west of the town of Santa Ynez, while Cabernet plantings sit directly east of it. Both AVA’s are contained in the wider Santa Ynez Valley AVA. I have had experience with at least a dozen Syrah’s from Ballard Canyon, both through my continued appreciation of Stolpman Vineyards, but also many of their neighbors such as Beckmen, Larner & Saarloos & Sons. There’s plenty of world class Syrah being grown and attention is starting to be paid to these growers and vintners.

All that brings us to Cabernet Sauvignon which was the point of last evening’s chat. I received two bottles to taste during the chat, a Westerly Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 and a Happy Canyon Vineyards Barrack Ten-Goal 2010. Both were Happy Canyon AVA’s, from the same vintage which was fun and again, really well planned by the vintners association. Through two bottles of wine from neighboring vineyards, I feel like I was able to get a good feel for both the style of Cabernet from Happy Canyon, as well as the quality.

The 2010 vintage should be counted as a trying one for Santa Barbara vintners, although to their credit no one brought that up during the chat.  I've heard winemakers refer to a death knell growing season as one that starts really cold (which causes many growers to cut fruit, allowing the remaining to ripen more fully) and then has a huge heat spike at the very end.  That's exactly what Happy Canyon vintners experienced in 2010, but these wines were no worse for the wear.  One of the advantages of the fog leaving early enough in the morning is that ripeness should be achieved even in cooler growing season.

I also appreciated that I received two samples that came from wineries and projects that would fit well in my wine club programs. Both are small production and have limited exposure outside of the Central Coast and their natural market (Los Angeles, which sits about an hour to 90 minutes south). There were other wineries represented during the chat, which shipped two Cabernet’s to different social media personalities to review like Lucas and Lewellen, a winery I am familiar with and like, but has a 400 acre vineyard and a production level too high for me to include in my wine clubs.

To start I came away impressed and the focus on higher acidity Cabernet Sauvignon was evident. These had more acid than what you would find in what you’d consider Napa Valley and even cooler climates within Napa like Coombsville offer a poor comparison because there isn’t as much fruit evident. I’m compared Santa Barbara Cabernet to Napa a few times here, not because I think that Napa is the be all and end all in terms of Cabernet, but because in the market it’s simply the gold standard. When winemakers think of making Cabernet, most often, they think of making it in Napa Valley. That’s one reason I thought the story behind Westerly was interesting because winemaker Adam Henkel spent time on the winemaking team at Harlan Estate and moved to Santa Barbara, to make Cabernet and other Bordeaux varietals there. I also had a joke at his profile picture’s expense during the chat:

Happy Canyon Vineyards carries the pressure and perhaps the honor, of having the AVA basically named after their winery and they carry a winemaker with as big of a pedigree as exists in Santa Barbara County: Doug Margerum. We’ve featured Margerum wines before in our Explorations Wine Club and Doug’s been at the helm since the first vintage of Happy Canyon Vineyards.

As you might expect, near the end of the night, chats are as much as about relationships and personalities as they are about the wine itself. Here’s a few highlights, as well as brief reviews of some of the wines that were shared:

From Dezel Quillen who writes My Vine Spot:

From Please the Palate, an event planning and industry marketing company (I have no affiliation, but the information on their site is both good and approachable)

All in all, it was an interesting evening and a thought provoking look into Cabernet Sauvignon in Santa Barbara County. I can only speak to Happy Canyon, but they pretty clearly have the opportunity to gain something here in the Cabernet market, if they can only convince people to give them that first try.

Mark Aselstine
March 27, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

People's Wine Revolution

A lot of people that try and sell me wine are surprised that, if you hit my schedule correctly, you’re likely pouring samples at my house.  I haven’t found a ton of winemakers that do the same thing, or at least those with multiple wines on their resume scored at 95 points and above.

Thus was my surprise when I opened an email from Matt Reid, who is the newly (or relatively newly at least, this being his second vintage on the job) installed winemaker at Benessere Vineyards asking if we could spend some time together, seeing if his personal project might be a fit for my wine clubs.

Matt comes highly recommended and I’ve talked in the past about what good shape the folks at Benssere are based on hiring an astute and creative general manager Stephanie Grubbs, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw Matt’s background in and around Napa.

If you’re someone who pays attention to classic Napa wineries, or winemakers that work there, Matt’s work at Seavey should be fairly familiar off the bat.  As he said while we sat in his backyard, dog running around like crazy (and seriously, the dog is the best catcher of tennis balls, I’ve ever seen, many of which go Willie Mays style over his back shoulder) the Seavey property is a strong profile and tasting through the wines he made there, along with the winemaker before as well as after, it’s a great job to have.  Frankly I think that undersells it a bit, as an example the ‘07 Cabernet he made was scored at 96+ points.  Matt’s worked as the custom crush winemaker at Failla Wines, as well as working at Gallica which put him at a label made by Rosemary Cakebread, which for anyone who drinks any wine, is no small addition to a resume. All in all, he's certainly a winemaker in demand and presumably would have his pick of any number of jobs in and around Napa.  After all, only so many winemakers walking the earth currently have a resume that includes the types of critics scores that we're talking about here.  Plus, Matt comes across as a personable and frankly, nice guy, who would be easy to work with.  In the era of wine industry ego's that apparently we've entered into, that counts for something as well.

Alas, Matt has a different vision for his future and his future winery than many others.

People’s Wine Revolution came from what is an increasing fact within Napa Valley: the people making the wine, can’t afford to buy it, even when offered a significant industry discount. According to Wine Business, which publishes an industry survey every year about salaries within the wine industry, winemakers earn about 80k per year.  I asked myself, at that salary level, how many bottles of wine might I be paying $100 for?

Not many.

That’s where People’s Wine Revolution comes in.  Matt along with his wife Marcy Webb want to craft the type of award winning wines they’ve always worked with, but at a much lower price point.  Marcy’s an industry veteran as well with Franciscan and Chalk Hill on her resume, so this is truly a family affair and not a singular dream of one member of the family.

Right off the bat, a few things struck me about People’s Wine Revolution and helped me to make a quick determination that this was a label, brand and story that I wanted to support.  First and foremost, this is the full time time for both Matt & Marcy.  Look, every winemaker has side projects, but they are usually just that, but through some good negotiating, Matt will continue making the wines at Benessere, without as large of a time committment, leaving him ample time to continue building People’s Wine Revolution.

Having the extra time will surely come in handy.  There are so many fixed costs associated with wine, one of the only differences between a seriously expensive bottle and the $10 bottle at Safeway, is the cost of the grapes.  For that reason you'll see PWR producing Grenache, Syrah and other Rhone varietals, but you won't find a Cabernet, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir on the list.

Another way to find cheaper grapes, is to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for small gems in larger regions.  An example, the People’s Wine Revolution Zinfandel is sourced from Mendocino County instead of Dry Creek Valley, which is both closer and more highly thought of…..but would carry fruit that would cost at least twice what the Poor Ranch Zinfandel does.  That's why a PWR Zinfandel can continue to be priced at $18, while an equivalent bottle from Dry Creek Valley, would run well into the $30's.

At the same time though, what winemaker after winemaker tells me certainly is true, wine is made in the vineyard, so simply finding cheaper fruit won’t produce high enough quality wine for the folks at PWR to be happy.

Speaking of that Zinfandel, Poor Ranch is a unique spot in Mendocino as it was planted in the 1880’s and hasn’t ever had irrigation.  That's a pretty unique proposition both in terms of age, but also in terms of irrigation.  Most within the industry firmly believe that less irrigation makes for better, in fact, much better wine.  The vines feel more stress and produce less fruit because of it.  Given that growers typically sell their grapes by the ton, not by the acre....they have significant financial inventive to water their vines and water often. Pretty clearly, the vineyard site is a hidden gem.

Another great example of saving money is that the only Napa Valley vineyard represented is Syrah-a grape that could be planted directly next to Cabernet Sauvignon and be sold for about a fifth of the price. I'll challenge anyone to find another single vineyard Napa Valley wine, of any varietal, white or red, that's priced under $20. Wine Enthusiast gave the wine a 91 point score, another completely unheard of metric at this price point.  To put that more in perspective, I ran an analysis of the Syrah's in a recent issue of Wine Spectator and found the average price for a 91 point wine was $46.

As you might expect, the problem is that finding those unique sites does take time and while some like the Saisun City Petite Sirah vineyard comes from a previous job, there’s a ton of work to be done in finding lesser known vineyard sources that produce phenomenal fruit.  Of course, there’s a lot of competition for those sources between smaller wineries and winemakers and when you add the fact that established brands have a tendency to buy out contracts when word gets out about a better quality/price ratio in a vineyard....things can get tricky over the long term.

All that being said (if producing consistent 90+ point quality wines was easy, I wouldn’t have a job) I like their chances at People’s Wine Revolution to carve out a niche for themselves and create a new winery that reminds people that this stuff is suppose to be fun and add to our enjoyment of life, not be stressful and frustrating.

This is about as exciting of a project that I've seen in some time both because of the people behind the label, but also because of the wines being produced.

Mark Aselstine
March 24, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Arsenic Levels in Wine

Arsenic Levels in Wine: I'm not sure three's anything more scary and frustrating than a study coming out about level of any unsafe ingredient in our food.  Living in a house where my wife as well as my son have severe food allergies, we're accustomed to reading labels including terms like "may contain" or "processed in a facility" and many more depending on the brand and manufacturing process.  We even have had to learn a bit about how certain genetically modified foods may carry DNA from a food that we're allergic to....so I'm accustomed to similiar conversations.  That being said, I am not freaking out about the study about arsenic levels in wine that came out, far from it. The reason is pretty simple, the levels carry the same assumption as the guidelines for arsenic in drinking water.  Basically if you're drinking 4-5 bottles of wine per day, I doubt that cancer is your largest concern.  Also, experts aren't even sure what an acceptable level is.  Oh and perhaps most importantly, the guy doing the study has an economic reason to scare everyone. It is something we're paying attention to and I think adds to the argument of a complete list of possible ingredients in your wine (on the cheaper end of the spectrum you may be surprised at how lengthy that list actually is).


Video Transcription:

Hi, guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures.

Sorry, I am not joined by a bottle of wine right now because quite frankly I didn't think any of the guys that we work with would quite appreciate having a bottle show up when I'm talking about arsenic in wine. A lot of people have read over the last few days, it's been on every major news cast, every major news channel from CNN to NBC, to Forbes Magazine now online.

There's a guy who runs a lab testing service who tested about 1,300 different California wines and came up with a large number of those that scored higher than he thought was appropriate levels of arsenic. Before we go to far, any level of arsenic in wine is a scary thing. And any level of arsenic in food is a scary thing, from water etc. I think anybody who knows me or who knows us as a company pretty well, you know we're a member of 1% for the planet. We really truly believe that taking care of how we eat and how we drink and where that stuff comes from, taking care of the wider earth and planet makes ... not only makes sense but also just kind of the right thing to do. It's a scary thing, but I will also say that as far as when you read the research and read some of the statistics that come out about the arsenic in wine thing, so what the researcher and what the test lab did is took the average levels for water and just applied them to wine. Me personally, I might drink two liters of wine a day. If I were to drink two liters ... or two liters of water a day. If I drink two liters of wine a day I would have bigger issues than whatever cancer might pop up 30 to 40 years later based on that influx of arsenic.

I also know that according to the EPA and according to the FDA and a few other sources, European origin, they can't come to a conclusion about what a safe level of arsenic if any is and they also can't come to a conclusion about what level should be found in certain foods. We know a lot about arsenic from movies and this seems to be the way that people poison each other in every made from TV movie out there but what we don't know is that it actually occurs naturally in the ground supposedly. Arsenic levels in wine, I think this is something that you're going to see a lot more coming up lately in the future. I will also say the guy who did the testing is marketing the testing services to wineries both through emails and phone calls right now. Wine makers aren't excited about that. He seems to have picked a certain pedigree of wine and that's cheap labels that will get the most attention. It's definitely gotten a lot of attention with this. While I'll say this is something that we're aware of, that as a human being and as a consumer, I'm concerned about, I'm not overly concerned about where I'm going to be pouring stuff down the drain or going to be afraid when I open my next bottle. Arsenic levels in wine, I think it's a lot to ... they've got a lot of media attention and I don't think it's very cut and dry exactly what's going on right now or quite frankly why, because the guy has a clear motivated monetary interest in people freaking out about this.

So, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm sure we're going to hear a lot more about this.

Lastly, if you've enjoyed this content and want more of it coming on a daily basis, please consider giving a wine club gift, we guarantee your friends or family members will enjoy the wine.

Mark Aselstine
March 23, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

McCrea Cellars

McCrea Cellars was one of the very first Rhone producers in the state of Washington. Since the 90's they've turned out award winning bottles, having opened when a paltry 5 acres of Syrah had been planted in the entire state.

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures.

This is something that I should have done quite a while ago I think. I enjoy Rhone varietals quite a bit and I'm also somebody who thinks that that state of Washington has a lot of really good things going on up in the Pacific Northwest. I think a lot of times people get accustomed to California wine because California makes about 90% of the total American production and especially on the cheap side almost all of it is kind of from California central valley and then as you start drinking more expensive wine and kind of branching out folks try local stuff but then they're met with Oregon which can be kind of more austere than their planning and kind of feels like it's coming out of left field a little bit.

The state of Washington is probably more similar to California as far as climate and growing conditions. So many people when they hear about Washington growing grapes they assume that you're talking about Seattle and the rain and the whole kind of common wisdom that we have about the state. But when you go to the eastern part of the state it feels a lot like California. You know, Walla Walla is pretty darn hot over the summer. So that's all to kind of segue to what amounts to the state of Washington's first true producer of Rhone varietals, and this is McCrea Cellars. It's owned by two couples but I'll focus on Doug McCrea who makes the wine for them. Doug makes about 4,000 cases a year and they're all Rhones.

We recently shipped an '06 Viognier (it went into our Explorations Wine Club) from him and anytime you start talking about white wines that are 8 or 9 years old you start getting into the how is this holding up kind of thing. Viognier is a white where if you ask the French they'll tell you it's both the natural accompaniment to Syrah where in the Cotes du Rhone they will even add a small bit of Viognier in with the Syrah kind of on a consistent basis, but they'll also tell you that the wine can lay down for quite a while. And that's when we tasted these we thought that they were not only holding up well but they were a nice representation of what was happening in the state of Washington and not just 10 years ago. So this is the Ciel du Cheval vineyard and that's also worth a mention here.

The Ciel du Cheval vineyard was one of the first vineyards in the state of Washington to both plant Viognier and Syrah. When we first opened Uncorked Ventures one of my first conversations actually with a Washington winemaker was Doug McCrea who I asked who distributes you guys, how do I get your wines? Because there's all these requirements you have to go through to pull wine from one state to another including tax payments and all that kind of stuff. And Doug's been really helpful over the years. Perhaps more helpful than he should have been both in setting me up with some of his wine but then also helping me find some other Washington producers that would fit what we're trying to do. The Ciel du Cheval vineyard is one of the first. When Doug McCrea first started making wine at McCrea Cellars if you wanted to make a Syrah in the state of Washington, there was five acres planted and today's there's over 4,000. So I think that speaks to both the increasing quality but the increasing demand for what's being produced and I think that over time you're going to see more and more wineries spring up like this. I think this is a healthy thing for the industry, of course.

And McCrea Cellars, if you're interested in learning a little bit about what is a short history of Washington wine to this point but also seeing where the Rhones are kind of going, increasingly in California we're seeing this kind of rush to cooler climate conditions and we seem to go from the Syrah made is Napa is too thick and kind of too jammy for some high-end consumers to enjoy but if we can go to the Sonoma Coast then we're fighting Pinot vineyards and that kind of stuff for space. I think the state of Washington is kind of a natural secondary market for this kind of stuff and I am hearing a few Napa winemakers or at least a few Sonoma winemakers who are talking about bringing grapes down from Washington to make wine with those. So I think it's an interesting state of the industry right now and McCrea Cellars is definitely worth a look.

Anything that you want that's a Rhone they probably make it. They make a Piquepoul which is incredibly rare in the United States and Cinsault too. So, once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures and this is a short intro to McCrea Cellars and the state of the Rhones in the state of Washington. Thanks again guys and as you're no doubt heard before, I hope you'll consider a wine club membership of your own!

Staff Writer
March 22, 2015 | Staff Writer

Famous California White Wines

California is a quintessential place for growing some of the best grapes in the US. Here we are going to talk about some of the famous white wines that California is famous for.


The California Chardonnay can be best described as fruit forward with light hints of minerals and a toasty finish. The Chardonnay is the State’s most widely planted grape and is known for its spectrum of flavors that match the variety on the California terroir.

Chenin Blanc

You can enjoy Chenin Blanc with chicken in coconut curry or sliced ripe pears. Whichever way you try it, the Chenin Blanc is nothing if not versatile as compared to other off dry whites. The white wine is known for its crisp and refreshing taste which goes well with a number of food combinations.

Pinot Gris

The pinot Gris offers the crisp taste of citrus flavors that the California state is so famous for. The Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio as it’s called goes perfect with light meals like pasta or noodles with shrimp.


The California Riesling foes well with Thai spring rolls or bacon on rustic country bread. Its floral aromas of the Napa Valley gives it flavors of pears, apples with hints of honey.


Try the delicious and sparkling Moscato with vanilla custard or a rich cheesecake. The Moscato’s tangy taste goes well with dark chocolate torte as well and is even great for an afternoon sip with its late harvest, full-bodies taste.