Uncorked Ventures Blog
Back on April 1st, I had the opportunity to attend a trade tasting for the Anderson Valley Winegrowers, which took place on the Mendocino Coast(in a gorgeous little stretch of coastline in the town of Albion). As it turns out, my email probably had ended up in the wrong spot of their list because of the tasting was meant for locals in the Mendocino area, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to taste wines from about half of the forty or so Anderson Valley winegrowers.
I was excited about the tasting (if not the 3 hour drive each way) after having some experience with a few Anderson Valley projects. I first tasted the style of wine being produced in the Anderson Valley through Anthill Farms and their Comptche Ridge Pinot Noir, which has led us to source directly from Comptche Ridge itself (they make about 50 cases of wine per year only, you can read a bit about our experience and thoughts on their wine here) as well as working with Baxter WInery a few months back as well.
In California we’re definitely in the middle of a venable sea change in terms of the style of wine being made. A new generation of winemakers is coming of age and looking, not for the best Napa Valley vineyard that they can find, but instead for the coolest climate vineyard around. That search has led many to the Anderson Valley, which might be the most Burgundian style growing region in California. The locals definitely appreciate the style of wine that they make and it’s pretty consistent across all the brands in the Valley.
The drive into the Anderson Valley is worth a mention simply because it’s one of the most remote winegrowing regions I’ve visited in California. From San Francisco you’ll drive north through Sonoma County passing Santa Rosa and Healdsburg and eventually exiting the freeway by the famed Dry Creek Valley. Then you drive west on a winding one lane road for about 90 minutes. I went from thinking I was going to be ridiculously early, given I had two hours to make the last 45 miles of the drive, to eventually thinking that I would certainly end up being late. There was a period about 5 miles in (which seems to be the slowest part of the trek, that I thought I wouldn’t make it at all….heck one winemaker at the tasting joked that she lived in Sonoma when she first started and the result was listening to plenty of books on tape….yes the radio leaves almost immediately….it is a true valley after all) In the end I had enough time to grab a sandwich at the historic Navarro Market and ended up being right on time.
The drive across highway 128 to Anderson Valley really made me think of the scale of the whole place. From the lengthy drive, to the huge Redwood groves that the road is cut through, to the size of the wineries in Anderson Valley themselves…..the scale in Anderson Valley is truly different. The wineries in Anderson Valley made me laugh a bit simply because so many of them are family owned and operated (many without any additional staff, unless they have a small tasting room) so making two thousand cases of wine seemed like a fairly large operation. I had one winery tell me, they were getting pretty big...1,700 cases. When I compare that to places in Napa Valley that seem to think 100,000 cases of wine per year is still small and unknown, the sense of scale really becomes almost overwhelming. In Anderson Valley Goldeneye is probably the biggest name nationally and they pegged their own production at about 20,000 cases of wine, which would hardly even get them a tasting room in the Russian River Valley where the average production is at least twice what Goldeneye produces and probably ten times the average production in Anderson Valley. While I could talk about the about Anderson Valley for quite a bit more time here in this space, I thought taking about some of the wineries I met during the tasting on the Mendocino Coast would provide a better example of the types of wines being produced.
Panthea Wine: From Panthea Wine I had a chance to chat with Jess Boss, who owns the label along with her husband Kelly, as well as their toddler in tow. A 2 person shop they’re making under 2,000 cases per year and Jess was kind enough to give me a partial lay of the land so to speak in Anderson Valley, from a local’s perspective. I can appreciate the trials and tribulations that a small label like this goes through, after all it’s hard to take a vacation when you don’t have staff right? I came away impressed by both their single vineyard offering from the Londer Vineyard, as well as their entry level Siren offering, which is a blend from 6 different vineyards. I’ve talked about the scale of Anderson Valley before and price points here are worth a mention, at $28 and $38 respectively, they’re leaving some cash on the table in my opinion. These are both really solid offerings, more Burgundian in style than Sonoma, this is the type of label that wine lovers whom love European styled Pinot Noir, would be incredibly happy to support.
Lichen Estate: Originally called Breggo Cellars and located on a 150 acre former sheep ranch (I can attest to seeing a TON of sheep on my way through Anderson Valley, if you’re looking at buying a few hundred acres in the Anderson Valley, it’s likely a sheep ranch right now) Lichen Estate has been around since 2005 and with ten years in business, it’s one of the elder statesmen in Anderson Valley wine. That status comes through both in the wine, but as well in their variety of offerings. There’s some really unique stuff happening here such as their Les Pinots Noirs and Gris
Meyer Family Cellars: No matter what wine region you’re in, there’s always one guy in the room making something different than everyone else. I always want to find “that guy”. In the Anderson Valley I think Matt Meyer is that guy, for two reasons actually. First, Matt focuses on Syrah in the Anderson Valley. Cool climate Syrah is totally a thing and might be what ends up saving the grape in California over the long term, these are interesting and complex wines at belie their $28 price point (I saw that $28 intro red wine price point at a number of winery tables, which seems to mean it is a concerted effort at pricing, still incredible given the quality and the fact that if Meyer Family Cellars said Russian River Valley on the label, they’d easily be getting $40 a bottle for them). Matt’s also a second generation winemaker, which is rare in a part of the California wine industry where the first plantings happened in the 80’s. The first generation focused more on Napa Cabernet, which comes through with an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon that is produced by Meyer Family Cellars.
Phillips Hill Winery: One question that I always ask at tasting events when I spend some time with a winemaker and they seem to understand what I’m looking for, is who else I should spend some time with. Toby Hill of Phillips Hill Winery was mentioned all three times I asked the question and I came away utterly impressed by his offerings. With a tasting room right off highway 128, I was surprised to hear that production was under 2,000 cases….especially given some of the multiple 90+ point scores that have come from the property already. Toby also mentioned that he was high school friends with the owner of Comptche Ridge Vineyards, a winery that largely was my introduction to the Anderson Valley and a wine that our customers will still ask about to this day.
Handley Cellars: Milla Handley is something of a founding member of the Anderson Valley. Truly one of the first female owned wineries in California, Handley received her viticulture degree from UC Davis (where else?) back in 1975. Time at Edmeades and Chateau St Jean (under famed winemaker Richard Arrowood) prepared her for her own project, which opened in 1982. One thing we chatted about for a while was the organic certification of her estate vineyard, which came at no small expense in terms of either money, or time. Most small wineries (and yes, despite the 30+ years in existence, this is still a very small production winery) don’t take the time or spend the money to achieve the certification. The aromas of the Handley Gewurztraminer will literally blow you away and it’s worth it to find a bottle of Milla’s Gewurztraminer for that reason alone. It’s a unique look into a white wine that deserves more attention than it currently receives.
There were at least another dozen wineries there, that deserve a mention in this space, but then again there’s the issue of space. Anderson Valley is well worth a look based alone on the quality of the wine being produced, but there’s also in an interesting spot where the wider wine market is coming straight into what they do well, cool climate varietals made by smaller, family owned wineries. Those are exactly the type of wineries that our customers expect to find in our wine club shipments, so you can expect to see some of these names show up in upcoming months. This was perhaps the most impressive industry tasting I’ve attended in the past two years and I’m greatly looking forward to learning more about the Anderson Valley in general, the wine in peculiar and to gain a greater understanding why so many simply nice and considerate people started their wine journey’s in one of California’s hardest to reach valley’s.
Anderson Valley is an impressive growing region in Mendocino County. It's worth your attention especially if you believe that 11% ABV Pinot Noir is a fool's errand in California. Cool climate and really dedicated people make this wine region with under 40 active wineries, one to watch.
Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm joined today by two bottles of wine from California's Anderson Valley. Yesterday I took a three-hour drive in each direction to the Anderson Valley. It's the first time I've been up there, although we've worked with a couple Anderson Valley wineries in the past, they've always been through meetings that we've done here down in San Francisco. As an example, a Comptche Ridge Pinot which we're shipping the last bottle or two today for a couple of new folks that are trying out a wine club subscription on a short-term basis.
Anderson Valley has 36 wineries or so. It's one of the coolest-climate growing regions in California. As much as the Sonoma Coast folks want to say that they are Burgundian in style and in results, personally I think that probably the Anderson Valley might be the closest to Burgundy within California's limits. That's just simply based on temperature. For me to get up there it's not the most fun drive in the world. It's about an hour and a half or so on the freeway going north after you pass through Healdsburg and Dry Creek Road in the Dry Creek Valley you hit what is California 128 and you go west. I thought I was going to be super early because it's 50 miles west, but a switch back to one-lane road in each direction through Redwood Groves doesn't exactly lead to high speeds.
Yep. Three hours each way to Anderson Valley, but I did get the chance to meet 20 of the 36 wineries in one fell swoop. Somehow I managed to weasel myself an invitation to what should have been a tasting only for folks that live on the Mendocino Coast and own restaurants and in on-premise retail sites there.
In any case I wanted to spend a couple minutes talking about two wines that I thought were interesting. First, the Anderson Valley definitely known for Pinot Noir. This is Handley Cellars, which was started by Milla Handley quite a number of years ago in the early '80s. I wanted to talk about Milla just because I spent a couple of minutes picking her brain and picking the brain of some of the other folks that work with her. Handley Cellars, the estate vineyard, is certified organic, which comes at no small expense either to the winery in money or time. They feel really strongly about it and that's something that you see, I think, in a higher percentage in the Anderson Valley than you do in any other [garden 00:02:23] region that I've been to in California. Milla does an excellent job with both this Pinot, Estate Pinot, and then the Gewurztraminer which is the other varietal that folks in the Anderson Valley are known for.
For that I have a bottle of Navarro Cellars. Navarro is one of the interesting folks that ... it was described to me by a lady who owns the winery and with her husband that they make about 2,000 cases a year, Navarro is the spot where when you're first learning to drink wine in the Anderson Valley if grow up either on the Mendocino Coast in the town of Mendocino, Ukiah, or some of those small inland towns that are kind of dotted around the valley. Navarro is the place that you go and you learn about wine.
It was striking at the tasting, they had a table with 10 or 12 wines set out, where most folks had in essence three or four. They don't work with online folks like us, but for restaurants and stuff Navarro is kind of required to be on the menu, it seems like out in the Mendocino Coast.
Mark Aselstine, Uncorked Ventures. I'll have a longer and more in-depth write up coming in the next day or two with some of the folks that we met and why I think they're so interesting. As I've talked about in the past you have these [veren 00:03:38] regions like Napa and Sonoma and you're pushing people out, further from the locations just based on the fact of price of land. The Anderson Valley is definitely a spot that you're seeing people land if they want to make a lighter-in-style Pinot. I tasted a couple of Pinots that were in the 11% alcohol range. That's something that in California, quite frankly, if you told a buyer at a major Southern California wine shop, they would laugh at you if you said that you tasted a California pinot that was at 11% and made well, made by professional winemakers.
The Anderson Valley itself has been made a little bit famous at least by Goldeneye. If you're not familiar Goldeneye, Goldeneye is a Duckhorn brand at this point. I was just going to see what the alcohol percentage on this is; 13.8 which is one of the higher ones, but that's Mendocino as opposed to just Anderson Valley. Anderson Valley is worth a look.
If you're somebody who is constantly looking for both acidity, balance, but then a lower alcohol content in your pinot, Anderson Valley might be your first spot that you should look within California, if you can find anybody. Almost everybody at the tasting made 2,000 cases or under. Goldeneye, who everybody looks half suspiciously at, at stuff like that because they are so big and so well known, and whose [critics scores 00:05:00] have held up for so long makes only 20,000 cases. If you move them into the Russian River, 20,000 cases doesn't even register.
Once again Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I hope you enjoyed this small intro to Anderson Valley. Like I said I'll have up on the blog in the next few days some pictures of both the drive, as well as little small intros to about ten wineries that I had a chance to meet with for a few minutes and taste through some of their stuff. I hope everyone is having a good week. Wine club customers, you're going to notice that we have changed from FedEx to UPS. That change has happened now and we'll start getting on a more consistent shipment schedule. I appreciate everyone's patience very much. Thanks again.
Yesterday was the main event of the Rhone Rangers yearly tasting here in the Bay Area. William Allen from Two Shepherds was nice enough as President of the North Coast chapter of the Rhone Rangers to suggest the seminar portions of the event, which ran from 10am-1pm when the walk around tasting started for members of the trade and media. At 3pm the general public gets to come in and taste wine until the early evening. This was my third consecutive year attending the SF Rhone Rangers tasting, but my first attending the seminar section. Although I have a few meetings per week directly with winemakers, this was an interesting and incredibly insightful look into personalities and the rationale behind why certain wines were made above all others.
The seminar was broken up into two parts, the first included 8 different Rose’s with winemakers or vineyard staff there to talk about why the winery makes a Rose in the first place. I told my wife last night that of all the wine critics that I see acting as MC’s at these type of events, I think Patrick Comiskey from Wine and Spirits does the best job, he’s engaging and always makes sure that the discussion is both fun and interesting. Asking why a Rose was made in the first place, I thought was the most interesting question of the entire day.
The second part of the seminar asked us to taste wines, generally made from the same vineyard about 10 years apart to see how they age. There were some pretty incredible wines being poured and all the big boys in the Rhone industry in California took part from Bob Lindquist at Qupe, to Ridge and of course, Tablas Creek. While I suspected that Rhone’s would have aged just as well as other wine’s, there were some surprised faces especially when it came to Marsanne, which is a grape that we do not generally consider an age worthy white.
Over the course of the 3 hour seminar, I tried to take notes as best as I could while actually enjoying the wine and the small bits of conversation around me. My apologies if I missed anything that was said, or seemed to cover your section less than some others, it wasn’t intentional. I've also tried to clean up spelling mistakes and other issues as I've seen appropiate, without losing any of the aspect of simply writing this while the event was going on. I wanted people to get a sense of what they would experience at such an event.
Patrick Comiskey (Moderator and writers for Wine & Spirits Magazine as well as his own site): Rose is like Scooby Doo, or WIley Coyote at graduate thesis seminars. Seems not to fit in. Doesn’t beg to be talked about, but begs to be enjoyed.
Rhone Valley home to the heart and soul of Rose-
Steve Anglim(His winery has a tasting room in downtown Paso Robles, opened as he told me quickly after the earthquake, production is about 3,500 cases per year): 18th attempt to make a Rose his wife loves. Wife went to high school in England and remembers tasting Rose in southern France.
-Former auto industry guy-so just in time manufacturing. Last drop went into bottles less than 48 hours ago. “Amazing depth and complexity after 2 days” sarcasm.
Grapes come from neighbor who works for larger winery, he takes juice and gives skins back since neighbor wants deeper red wine than he is given based on when he is required to pick based on his contract. Grenache and Syrah come out at 23-24 BRIX. Barrel fermented separately. Grenache is always the primary component though.
Randall Grahm(Really the guy should need no introduction to audience’s like this, been referred to as the original Rhone Ranger and much more. Owns and makes the wine for Bonny Doon): Made Rose to have red wines to be more critics friendly-label sayings and truthfulness should be the case. 8 years ago started making proper Vin Gris.
Vin Gris vs Rose: Takes issues with the lack of complexity in pink wine. Vin gris is from Provonce, higher acidity, lighter color
Craig Camp(Carig’s always impressive and has certainly grown the reputation and profile of Cornerstone Cellars with a focus on new media, social media and generally acting like it is the 21st century: Red, white and Rose are all wine categories. Rose can be serious like any other wine.
It’s actually the 2013, because he can’t get his bottles because of the dock strike. Likes Syrah, but because of economics, Syrah is being taken out of Napa for more Bordeaux varieties. On the far west edge of the Oak Knoll, next to Carneros. Were making red wine previously, but didn’t like it. Over extraction is an issue in Napa, thus no Rose. Discovering the vineyard gave him the opportunity to leave grapes on the vine long enough for flavors, without excess sugar. Late October harvest and 22 BRIX.
There’s a roundness here that the others do not share.
Maloactic fermentation and non red wines in Napa, are not a good thing. Need the acidity.
Jason Robinson(Works at Field Stone winery as the wholesale sales mananger as well as the tasting room manager, knowledgeable and likable which is something I don’t say about a huge number of wine sales guys): Make 19 wines and had a hole. Have 121 year old Petite Sirah vineyard, so makes sense.
Family has owned property since the 50’s. Andre Tscheltzoff was their consultant. Vineyard was back to ½ ton per acre. After 7 years they had it back to 5 tons per acre. On St George rootstock.
Bottled March 6th-makes it rough on the nose. Just a lighter Petite Sirah really. Buy 6 or more bottles and get a crazy straw. Watermelon and jolly ranchers on the palate. About 1 hour on the skins here.
Petite Sirah is not generally used to make Rose because of the color. (I'll note this was the first wine that I tasted, I honestly had thought someone had made a mistake and poured a Pinot Noir instead of a Rose. After all, most of the people helping at the event are
Ranko Anderson(Owns Kale wines with her husband Kale, who is a really well known and respected winemaker due to his work at Pahlmeyer): Was originally a way to concentrate other reds. Only non red in the portfolio.
Picked right after veraison at about 20 BRIX. Grapes are literally pink. Control in color comes in the vineyard, not the winery.
Herb Quady(Opened Quady North in ‘06, I always love talking to the Oregon folks in a sea of California): Fanatic about Rose, one of only 3 wines served at my wedding. Spent time in Southern France and worked at Bonny Doon. In southern Oregon, marginal climate for Rhone’s. They just get ripe, so they can play with late varieties that are typically not suited for red wine in Oregon.
Has the opposite problem of Napa-too much acid, so they coferment with Syrah to drop it and add sugar.
Pinot Noir sales help subsidize Rose.
Counise is not bottled by itself normally in the Rhone, but used to uplift other wines. Coinise Rose sold to Seattle chain, before it was made. Rose has helped him get in front wine stewards and helps sell Syrah and Cab Franc. It’s a loss leader in effect. Strong and high geek factor, works well in Seattle.
John McCready(Sierra Vista started in the early 70’s, which still almost doesn’t seem correct, there’s a historical aspect to what John’s seen that is increasingly disappearing within the industry): Had Grenache and didn’t think it was good enough to bottle on its own (note after tasting the day of at the larger walk around tasting, the current version they sell is quite good, vine age seems to affect Grenache more so than it does other grapes)
Larry Schaffer (Owns Tercero on the Central Coast, one of the best winemakers are talking to people within and outside of the industry): Doesn’t believe in a true Rose. As a winemaker always revolving. Love Mourvedre. Doesn’t get ripe enough for a deep red wine, made for a food wine and enjoyed at room temperature.
Mourvedre comes from Happy Canyon, Vogelzang Vineyard. Mourvedre needs lots of late harvest heat. Foot stomped for about 30 minutes. Mourvedre is the girl you don’t bring home to meet mom. Earthy quality, funk takes over if fermented warm. Thus, ferment cool 50-55 degrees in old French oak. Needs to be in bottle ASAP. Comes in at 22 BRIX and comes in at 12.92 alcohol pecentage. At above 13.5% it comes in as a light red wine.
Comiskey: Rose is made to pleasure someone else, until they find that they actually like it. Starts as a by-product.
Comiskey: Syrah isn’t used in the Rhone Valley to make Syrah, but it is common in America.
Part 2 of the Seminar began after a short break, allowing a new set of winemakers to take their places:
Comiskey: All dug into their own library to provide rare stuff to try. Aging is an abstract endeavor. Shouldn’t really be worth the effort, it is inexact. Closures continued to be a fundamental flaw, especially given that you cannot tell until the bottle is opened. Sense of loss when you expect a great wine, but it doesn’t deliver. Cellartracker has a portion to sense where a wine is at, based on other people’s tasting notes. Some varieties from the Rhone, age especially well. Centuries of experience have taught us what wines can age and which cannot, thus the forward and reductive are blended together: Marsanne and Roussane.
Bob Lindquist(Owns Qupe and quite the celebrity at these types of events, even when wearing a Dodgers shirt): WIth Randall Graham, was the first to plant Marsanne in modern California. Making since ‘87 as a young fresh white wine. Joking, he’s among the 3 people in the world that age Marsanne. Says the 93 was still going strong at dinner in Oakland last week. Girard Shav (reds tasted before white’s as is customary) grand busche (great bottle for a tasting) was a white hermitage. “fucking blew my mind” Regrets having not kept more to age. Early there was more demand than bottles. This is the oldest vintage he has enough to “give away” If you come to the winery, happy to pull something. Gets oilier, fatter and more complex. Pairs with mushrooms and truffles with age, instead of basic grilled fish. Picks at 21 BRIX. neutral barrel and malo. My personal reaction, I just LOVED this version of Marsanne. It will absolutely change my opinion of not only how I drink wine personally in my own home, but also how I source wine for my wine clubs and the drinking suggestions that I send to customers.
Marsanne ferments pretty easy.
Comiskey: white wine is more transparent, especially Marsanne.
Lagier Meredith (Mt Veeder is definitely known for Cabernet so for a couple with wine industry backgrounds teaching at UC Davis acclaimed viticulture school and making wine at Mondavi, they must know something) : Mt Veeder! Wine helps bronchitis recovery! (joking) What factors that contribute to aging? All vintages seemt to age well. Wet vs Dry doesn’t matter how term. New oakd and Syrah not thought to be a good marriage by founder Lagier. Saves money and Syrah naturally has plenty of oak. Barrels bought from Pinot makers. Their property is the only thing that truly matters for aging. 1300 feet, no volcanic soil, can see the Bay from the vineyard. Cant eat outside during the summer Have had Syrah thats been aged 25 years with Girard Shav
Bill Easton (Bill owned my local wine store Solano Cellars, before selling and moving on to making wine of his own in the Sierra Foothills, we've previously shipped a version or two of his Terre Rouge and Easton Wines) : Part of being committed to Rhone’s is that we don’t sell them all immediately. We don’t get concerned about banker phone calls. That’s not a Rhone business model. Thinks the 6 month sales model is breaking the wine business. Looking for hedonism. Best wine experiences come from wines that are aged 10 years. Terrible wine lists are ones with 2 year old wines on a restaurant wine list. Rhone’s are more structured and require more patience. 1400 feet in decomposed granite. 24-25 BRIX but that’s the first week in September. Planted on it’s own rootstock
Benjamin Silver (A name I wasn't familar with before the event, Ben makes the wine that carries his name Silver Wines. Everything here comes from SB County): 03 was a huge warm vintage in California, but this is a Syrah vineyard with Pinot Noir planted next to it.Picked Oct 12-28. Ph levels around 3.5, max 3.6. Comiskey
Neil Collins(Tablas Creek winemaker since 1998, more direct than many are accustomed to in the industry: I appreciate it): They do not do anything to create age worthy wine. It’s all the property and the limestone soil and climate. As a winemaker, I don’t know anything about aging wines, didnt want to be on a panel with Lindquist. Did not like an aged wine at first, it’s complex and remarkable. Annoying French word terroir. 40/30/20/10
Syrah and Grenache flip flop more than others.
Yin/Yang in Syrah and Grenache for aging according to Comiskey. Collins says “not really”
He’s Scotish, according to my seat neighbor....I knew he grew up in the UK.
Syrah is whatever you need Grenache, I’m here for you. Grenache is finicky.
Mourvedre is the intriguing stuff and always empty at the bottom of dinner.
To Comiskey who swears wine is more direct and less confusing with age: Do you get less mysterious with age? Just more confusing
100% organic. Trying biodynamic. Neutral wood. 100% native yeast. Planted in 92 through 97. Dry farmed last 8 years
David Gates:(Ridge is the last winery that needs an introduction, Gates the VP at Ridge)
Comiskey says about Petite Sirah: Story 3 years ago described Punchline led to believe it was baout Cabernet, first thought is I can’t beleive this is Petite Sirah. PS is ageable above all other Rhone’s. Great joys in life are 20-30 year old PS.
Cold soak is not intentional. Pump over with lots of airation for PS.
Skins for 3-4-5 days...sometimes 6-7 days.
Skins readily give up color and tannin
After 30 years of age, it’s just a Claret.
PS found a home in California because it is such a great blender
Carole Mededith found the PS genetic heritage at UC Davis
PS is susceptible to wood disease
Peller Sean is always found in 100+ year old vineyards
Preller sean is gritty
As you can tell, this was an interesting seminar to say the least. One thing that the wine industry does not generally hurt for is big personalities and many of those were on display here. It was an enjoyable few hours and one I'm really glad I was able to take part in. Laslty, the Craneway Pavilion deserves a short mention in this space, located in the Bay Area, in the east bay city of Richmond, the Pavilion is a former Ford manufacturing plant and helps to show how a city not known for its economic might, can bring in tourist dollars and events. It's a beautiful venue directly on the water. They also showed a willingness to learn a little something from one year to the next. Two changes this year included both tents for the wineries pouring during the walk around tasting (the sun comes in pretty strong as the afternoon moves along) as well as bringing in a handful of food trucks in addition to the on site restaurant (which simply doesn't have the capacity to handle the amount of people that attend). In all, I hope this was a good event for the Craneway Pavilion and of course, the Rhone Rangers.
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)
— Dezel Quillen (@myvinespot) March 27, 2015
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.
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?
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.
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