Uncorked Ventures Blog
When 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.
I’ve been told that I’ve been writing a bit too much about Sonoma in this space and not enough about Napa Valley.
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.
A 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.
Winemakers 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.
Every once in a while, life deserves a splurge don’t you think?
The next time you’re looking for a splurge from Napa, think about an offering from Arrow and Branch. Instead of Duckhorn or Cakebread, try something smaller and more authentic in Arrow and Branch. Here’s why:
Arrow and Branch was one of the more active participants in the recent San Francisco Family Winemaker’s event, even taking the time to send out an email to other members of the trade inviting us to visit their table.
The draw with Arrow and Branch for most consumers, is their high end red wine blend, called outstanding in virtually every vintage, by every significant wine critic. It’s also fairly unique, being based largely on Cabernet Franc, using Cabernet Sauvignon as a blending agent instead of the other way around. One thing you’ll note is that the percentages change, often dramatically from vintage to vintage. To me that says a few things, first they aren’t looking for a specific taste or a formulaic wine. Second, they’re actually looking at the vineyard and seeing what each specific vintage decided to produce. There are a select few high end wineries in Napa Valley willing to do that, as consistent house styles have become the norm instead of the exception. From the 09 to the 10 vintages of the Arrow and Branch red wine though you see 20%+ changes in the amount of specific varietals in the wine, in this case trading Cabernet Franc for Merlot-which will certainly change the taste and likely the texture of the wine.
The first thing we typically talk about with a wine, is where the grapes came from. The Arrow and Branch estate vineyard is located in Coombsville, the newest AVA within Napa Valley. Our good friends at Vellum Wine Craft source from Coombsville as well, so we know the region a little bit at least. It is gaining a following and some distinction among Cabernet growers and vintners because it is perhaps the coolest AVA within Napa Valley. That coolness allows winemakers to produce wines which are more reminiscent of the old world, than many of their neighbors in Rutherford. Frankly, we’ve always been impressed with the fruit and the higher levels of acidity which seem possible when made well. Additionally, Arrow and Branch sources some of its fruit from the historic and well known Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak. Atlas Peak is really one of the last unknown spots in Napa to source fruit. A recent trip up the hill greatly surprised us, both in terms of the small town feel (local residents still waive at cars since there are so few tourists) as well as the simple wildness of the area. From the vineyard at Vinroc, you can see Stagecoach almost glistening in the distance on the next hill, but there are few, if any other vineyards visible. It’s a dichotomy that it’s strange yet, exciting to not have as many developed vineyards in an area getting known more seemingly by the minute. The mountain fruit from Atlas Peak offers some of the gritty aspects that we all expect from Cabernet Sauvignon, in addition to some real depth to the wine. Personally speaking, I can see the draw of combining grapes from Coombsville and Atlas Peak.
At the end of the day, winemakers have become celebrities and while the reasons for that sea change are both complex and varied, it’s the world we all live in. Consumers can often readily identify a handful of winemakers, but couldn’t name a single vineyard or even a single district within Napa Valley. I bring that all up in spite of the fact that winemakers are incredibly important to the wine production process, at least as important as the fruit with which they work, no matter how much they try and convince all of us otherwise. At Arrow and Branch Jennifer Williams is the lead winemaker, having spent time at such highly thought of wineries as Araujo and Spottswoode while also learning from some of the top names in the industry like Cakebread and Sotor, her pedigree certainly isn’t at issue. Personally speaking, it’s always nice to hear about people that grew up close to where you did, with Southern California roots, that can be rare in the wine industry. Williams grew up in Valley Center, a farming community only a few miles from my own outpost in north inland San Diego and one I remember well having taken a seemingly endless number of trips as a kid. I’ve mentioned it here in this space, but my dad owned a Dairy Queen, which included an Orange Julius which went through a few hundred pounds of oranges every week. We took trips to Valley Center to load up his van, which incidently was one of my few excursions to a true farming community during my suburban upbringing. While the folks out in Valley Center are known more for oranges and avocado’s than grapes (they’re trying in some spots, but it’s really too hot to grow wine grapes) the community aspect and respect for the farming process is still evident and I think probably made for a smooth transition to winemaking for Jennifer. She also crafts a personal label (as every great winemaker does) called Zeitgeist, itself a well respected Napa Valley Cabernet label.
Lastly, one can’t write anything about a high end Napa winery without mentioning the people behind the label, the owners. Arrow and Branch is owned by Steve and Seanne Contursi, who came into the wine industry in northern California after falling in love, both with each other and with Bordeaux. That part of their story isn’t surprising, but what is surprising is how the money behind the estate looks to have been made. While we see many winery owners having made their fortune’s as either high tech professionals or financial executives, Steve is a rare coin dealer with roots in that industry dating back to his college days in the 70’s. Of course, as the parent of a toddler myself (anyone who calls during off hours is likely to hear him running around the house behind me) I can’t help but mention that the family also boasts five children of their own, something that I imagine keeps them busy even as the kids move toward adulthood.
As you might expect, this is a winery which we hope beings showing up in our wine clubs in the near future.
A few quick harvest notes that we ran into here in the middle of August:
-Our friend William Allen of his own 2 Shepherds label already picked up some Lodi Cinsault
-Alan Baker, the winemaker over at his own Cartograph label is still getting ready. Evidently those cooler weather Sonoma Pinot vineyards are only now starting to consider ripening. Thanks for the pic Alan!
-Further south in Ballard Canyon (ok, ok Santa Barbara county next to Los Olivos) Stolpman Vineyards is following the tried and true tradition of driving their vineyard staff crazy by harvesting at the coolest temperatures possible ie at night. Thanks for the image Peter!
Lastly, I'll be joining a few Sonoma wineries for harvest in the coming weeks, so we should have much more information, pictures and video as time goes by.
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