Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
May 11, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

A tale of 2 wines from Dry Creek Valley:

Dry Creek Valley, I’ll admit it’s a spot I simply haven’t spent enough time  Part of that comes from the fact that I don’t typically drink a ton of Zinfandel, although I’ve had a transformative experience or two with the grape.  As time has gone by, friends, family and others within the wine industry have realized that I don’t drink a lot of Zinfandel, so they bring what they say, is the best small scale producer of Zinfandel they’ve ever found and have me try it.

Of course, for someone who’s been said to be on a search for lower alcohol rates in wine, Zin may not always be the best choice.

Let’s stop for a quick history lesson on Dry Creek Valley.  As you drive north on the 101 freeway from San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll pass by the town of Santa Rosa, pass a number of turnoffs for western Sonoma County and eventually pass through the incredibly scenic town of Healdsburg.  Then you find Dry Creek Valley, which butts up to the more famous (at least it is more famous these days, with the newly found Renaissance of Pinot Noir, amazingly now rivaling Cabernet Sauvignon in prices) Russian River Valley.  According to Sonoma County the Dry Creek Valley is 2 miles wide and 16 miles long, has one stop light and one deli.  When combined with the world class wine, I’m sure you can see why Dry Creek Valley is becoming a world class wine travel destination. Dry Creek Valley is famous for its Zinfandel of course, in large part because many of the vines have survived Prohibition and compose perhaps America’s longest planted sites of Zinfandel.

Recently, two of the bottles that showed up on my door, perked my interest in the grape once again and both may end up in a future wine club shipment. Yeah, yeah I know...for someone who reads historical fiction and who likes multigenerational winery families...Dry Creek should have been higher on my to-visit list.

First, Saini Vineyards makes both a Zinfandel, as well as an old vine Zinfandel.  Old vine, if you aren’t familiar, doesn’t have any legal ramifications, so producers can get a bit squirrely with what they consider an old vine Zinfandel.  10 years? Heck, if you need some extra sales….throw that on the label.  25 years...getting closer.  50+ years….now I’m interested.

Saini Vineyards has a number of blocks available for their old vine labels, many of the vines themselves were planted in the early 1940’s.  By any measure, a Zinfandel vine planted over 70 years ago should be counted as an “old vine”.

Saini is an interesting case in my continued insistence that customers actually decide if a wine is good or not, based on actually trying the wine.  I understanding wanting your wine club to deliver good value, but there’s something to be said for trying something before making a decision right?  These Saini wines show a very real and noticeable difference between the Dry Creek Zinfandel and their Old Vine versions.  Of course, Wine Enthusiast gives all the wines about the same ratings, mid 80’s, until the 2012 vintage.  Higher in acidity and lighter in style than many in Dry Creek, even when taking into account the old vine nature of what’s being offered….simply not the type of wines that are likely to score incredibly well according to wine critics.

I tend to trust folks whom are 4th generation farmers though like Saini and these wines have been more worthy of your attention than their critics scores would otherwise imparted.  I also feel like folks making under 200 cases of wine in a given vintage, have a tougher time achieving high critics scores than those making a thousand or many, many more. Part of the reason behind that is there are less critics willing to score them. Wine Enthusiast won’t score something that isn’t available to a large percentage of the county, or is from a well known winery.  Startups, or in this case new entrants into the winemaking game, are left with one less choice.

Saini, as I talked about a couple of days ago, did receive a score into the mid 90 point range from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate for their past vintage, a score that’s likely to put the winery on the map so to speak-but do you really believe that they figured stuff out so much from one vintage to another, especially when it comes to vines that were planted more than 70 years ago? In my estimation, those should be more consistent than others, based on age alone.

This is a winery and a wine I think that helps to show why some folks are moving away from scores in their reviews at all and another good example of why I try and tell a story about the choices that come in our wine of the month clubs.

The second bottle from Dry Creek Valley comes from Rancho Maria.  A more classic Zinfandel in style, it’s thicker, jammier and has the hints of tobacco and smoke that have made the grape an instant hit at summer BBQ’s across the country. Rancho Maria has absolutely nothing in terms of reviews by critics and even the hard core wine lovers on Cellar Tracker have yet to discover it, there’s only a few bottles in people’s cellars and no real tasting notes to speak of.

The vineyard at Rancho Maria dates back to the early 1900’s and offers another true Old Vine Zinfandel experience.

Here’s where I think Rancho Maria becomes it’s most interesting, location.  In the past I’ve talked about location of vineyards being a funny thing.  Paso Robles comes immediately to mind, where the James Berry Vineyard (called one of California Grand Cru vineyards by Robert Parker a number of years ago) often sees prices now approaching $100, or more for its Syrah.  Across a golf cart path, sits the Denner estate vineyard, where the Syrah runs about $65. Does a golf cart path, really take away a full 1/3rd of the quality of a grape vine? Can’t we say the same thing for vines within the James Berry Vineyard then? Of course, like anyone else, I love the stuff produced from James Berry, but all this is to say, sometimes we’re too caught up with names, without actually paying attention to place.

Rancho Maria sits right next to Maple Vineyards, which has made a name for itself over multiple generations as the prime example of what’s possible on Dry Creek Valley’s eastern bench (to compare, think of Rutherford in Napa Valley and the Rutherford Bench that we hear so much about). Maple Vineyards has it’s own set of old vine Zinfandel vines and have become famous for taking farming in Dry Creek Valley to its extreme.

If you ever have the chance, walking through Maple Vineyard will not only make you think differently about how grapes are grown, but probably a bit differently about your back yard garden as well.  The first thing you’ll notice is that there are trees.  Oak trees of course are generally a major issue for vine growth, unless of course you aren’t incredibly worried about total production per acre and are instead focused on great grapes. Maple Vineyards is one of the few vineyards in America you’ll see oaks growing in addition to other trees like olive, which the Italian’s do actively plant in portions of Tuscany as well. Having trees in the vineyard does attract birds, the scourge of gardeners the world over, but not all birds eat berries like in my yard, or grapes.  Some eat gophers and other rodents whereas others eat insects. Maple Vineyards is willing to make the trade off to continue an old world farming tradition in the middle of Dry Creek Valley.  I should also mention, they water their vines for the first 4-6 years of life, depending on the amount of rain that shows up, after that point the vines are left to their own devices and are effectively dry farmed. With 15,000 vines spread over 27 acres, that’s a lot to keep track of.

Rancho Maria has taken a lot of the experience and frankly, wisdom from Maple Vineyard and turned it to their estate project. St George rootstock has been in the vineyard since the beginning, only to have Merlot planted originally (hey it was the 70’s and 80’s after all) which were grafted to Zinfandel in the mid 1980’s when the owners decided that they really didn’t like the taste of Merlot (if they would have made a movie about it, perhaps they could have been household names!).

Overall, this has been an interesting week when it comes to Zinfandel.  There’s a number of Old Vine properties out there in both Dry Creek Valley, as well as elsewhere (say Napa Valley).  It’ll take some time, but these type of wines deserve more of my attention and they’ll find their way into wine club shipments in the coming months.

Mark Aselstine
May 10, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Saini Old Vine Zinfandel Pear Block 2012

Saini Old Vine Zinfandel Pear Block 2012

Ok, so I’ve been told that people are sick and tired of hearing about lower alcohol wines in these newsletters-I’ve been asked to give me something that reminds me what made California famous.

Here you go.

Saini is a 4th generation grower and before the 2012 vintage, scores from critics were always suspect.  That’s kept prices reasonable, then Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate folks tasted the 2012’s and came away impressed to say the least.

93 points for the wine that’s in your glass.

In some ways, this is a perfect storm for a good Parker score.  For a magazine (can we call it that when only a single page is in color?) that prides itself on answering only a single question about a wine: how much did I enjoy this? A Zinfandel at 15.5% alcohol, might always be highly scored. Only Saini hasn’t been to this point.

I think part of that is the fact that they are 4th generation growers and what you do as a grower, is different than what you do if you are growing an estate vineyard.  If you’re making the wine yourself, you retain more control and the finished product becomes more important than anything else along the way. Saini has also been working through the process of moving to their own production.  Growers and wineries typically have contracts for about 5 years on average, so this is one of the first full vintages where the family had the opportunity to make the entirety of their wine, the way that they see fit. The results, I think you’ll agree, are memorable.

Called full bodied and opulent, I couldn’t agree more.

A final note on Saini, the vineyard.  These are Zinfandel vines that have been planted since 1940, I’ve tasted through a range of Zin lately from the Dry Creek Valley and unlike other varietals, I really do feel that the hype behind “old vine” Zinfandel is warranted.  There’s a real difference in the depth and complexity of those vines planted a great deal of years ago, when compared with more recent additions.  Here’s the issue though, at your local wine store, or especially a grocery store or discount chain where someone might not be as available to help: unlike say AVA requirements, there are no legal requirements for what constitutes an “old vine”. Many vintners, in an effort for some extra sales say they have an old vine Zin, as soon as the vines are past 10 years old.  Personally speaking the expected life span of Cabernet or Pinot vines are about 35 years or so, give or take.  I’d look for old vine Zin, older than that.

I’m not the biggest fan of Zinfandel, it has been said after all that people usually either enjoy Pinot Noir, or Zinandel but not often both….but this is a damn good wine and well deserving of the critical praise that it came with.

Wine club members are receiving this Saini Zinfandel in their May shipments.  Enjoy!

Mark Aselstine
May 8, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Wait Cellars Green Valley Pinot Noir Devoto Garden Vineyard 2012

Wait Cellars Green Valley (a sub AVA of the Russian River Valley) Pinot Noir Devoto Garden Vineyard 2012

So that’s a mouthful of a name right? So Wait Cellars is a local winery for us here in San Francisco, owner Bob Wait owns the Page on Divisadero Street in SF, which you’ll see referred to as a nightly bar, or even a dive bar depending on who you’re talking to. When I hear it from folks who live in other districts of the city, it’s referred to as a dive bar, but often with a longing look because their local watering holes have been getting torn out for redevelopment with increasing regularity. With the wine being made at Bluxome Street winery just down the street, Wait Cellars has become something of a local essential on high end restaurant wine lists. When you open your bottle you’ll see why.

Allowed to ferment with exclusively native yeasts (a risky proposition at a winery with anything of a shared space) the wine has a lightness and depth that speaks to the 2012 vintage that Sonoma winemakers describe as idyllic so often that it must have come from some type of marketing campaign.  Really though, the vintage was pretty perfect for what this type of wine is trying to be.  The spring and summer was cool, which was only topped off by a consistently warm and dry summer and early fall.  While Napa winemakers talk about their vintage of the century every few years, this is the first time I’ve heard that type of hyperbole from Sonoma vintners. If this were Burgundy, prices would have gone through the stratosphere already.

The Green River Valley, deserves a mention before I go on. A smaller AVA completely contained within the wider Russian River Valley. Located in the southwestern part of the Russian River, it’s the coldest growing region in the RRV.  As you leave the town of Sabastapol, many times you’ll notice a definite change in the temperature, it’s at least 5 degrees colder than it is in town, which is why you end up with brighter, more acidic wines.  Oh and the fog comes straight in from the Petaluma Gap, enveloping the region in fog until mid morning and again beginning fairly earlt in the afternoon. That more acidic wine is the style of the day of course, but the sun still shines for long enough for the grapes to reach ripeness, which is helping the Green River Valley to be among the most sought after growing regions in Sonoma.  Over the past few years, the prices for Pinor Noir grapes from the region have close to doubled and while not in the range of Napa Valley Cabernet as of yet, but it’s getting more expensive by the vintage.

Before I go on, I should mention…..93 points from Wine Enthusiast. Also mentioned as one of the top 12 Pinot Noir’s from Napa and Sonoma for the entire vintage.  It’s a wine we’re happy we sourced before the scores came out!

So what’s in your glass? A Sommelier’s dream.  Mid level tannin.  High acidity.  There’s been whole cluster fermentation, which leads to the slight hazyness in your glass.  Most winemakers would attempt to clean that up, simply for sales sake….a lot of consumers think that means there is something wrong with the wine, it’s simply not filtered, but there’s something to be said when you’ve only made 300 cases of a wine and you’re pretty sure it’s great and also that you can move the wine at local restaurants, or the bar you own.  Then one of the 3 most important wine reviewers on the planet gives your little side wine project a 93 point score and things maybe just changed.  For Wait, this is a wine that may move someone from being a bar owner who tried to make a little wine on the side, to someone who makes wine for a living and got his start because he owned a bar.

I love this wine and I love the story.  At 300 cases and this level of quality, it’s a project that I am truly happy to support.

Currently being shipped to wine club members for their May 2015 shipments.

Mark Aselstine
May 7, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Andretti Merlot Napa Valley 2011

Can Merlot be a serious grape? What if it comes from a vintage that has been universally panned in the main stream press?  What if it’s from Napa Valley?

We’ve talked about Andretti in the past, of course, with almost unlimited financial backing both through ownership cash infusions, as well as the clout to arrange meetings with any restaurant group, distributor or broker in the world, there’s going to be some good wine made.

Andretti’s wines are made by esteemed winemaker Bob Pepi, which is why this is taken off the curiosity list and into the category of, high quality wines….at least in my opinion. Although known for his work as his father’s right hand so to speak in developing Sangiovese in the Valley, Pepi’s history in Napa makes Merlot, in my opinion a natural off shoot.

Pepi’s been in the valley for his entire life and the ability to continually source outstanding grapes, comes largely from relationships in Napa Valley.  There’s about 1400 people total in Napa making wine today, most of which wouldn’t give Merlot a second look.  They’re too busy thinking about a Sonoma Coast Pinot, or a mountain Cabernet.  History isn’t a bad thing though in this case, in Bordeaux Cabernet and Merlot inhabit opposite sides of the river and neither is considered a red headed step child, as Merlot has become here in California.  An old world approach respects Merlot for what it can be given a solid vineyard and a good growing year.

That brings me to the much malingned 2011 vintage in Napa Valley.  Was it colder than normal? Yes, it was.  My meetings with winemakers though are interesting when it comes to their 2011 wines….I’m not scared of shipping them and I think my wine club customers have enjoyed them enough that I don’t need to intentionally skip the vintage as a whole in Napa.  Winemakers don’t know that though.  Inevitably, they’ll open an ‘11 and say….take it with a grain of salt, it’s an ‘11.  Then they’ll ask as soon as I’ve tasted it, pretty good right? When you look at the sun hours chart for the vintage (I haven’t seen it online, but some of the more scientifically inclined winemakers swear by the thing, which all too often is sitting above their chemistry set) it was about 10% cooler than normal.  To me, once you taste what’s here, it isn’t a death knell for the vintage.  Are these classic Napa wines? Not exactly, they’re a bit more acidic and austere, but Napa’s been a world famous wine region for a generation in large part because everything, ALWAYS gets ripe.  Hell, you can’t complain about Napa being too “big” and “over-ripe” in the 2010 vintage, then come back and say that the ‘11’s are underripe and undrinkable.  I mean, sure we can all be some version of Goldilocks and looking for the perfect fit for our cash and wine expenditures, but when you actually open this and drink it, I think you’ll say the same thing that the average winemaker does: this is pretty good.

Folks in our Special Selections Wine Club, as well as select members of our Reserve Selections Wine Club will get a chance to tell us, can Merlot be taken seriously?

Mark Aselstine
May 6, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Caraccioli Sparkling Brut 2008

Caraccioli Sparkling Brut 2008

I have to admit, I didn’t drink a lot of sparkling wine before a few months ago, but necessity intervened.  To start, we’re expanding our gift basket offerings, including a breakfast styled gift basket, so I need a sparkling wine to carry and include in that basket.

Secondly, my wife does love her Champagne.  If you aren’t familiar, California technically cannot produce Champagne since that’s a region in France and while a few brands don’t bother following what is actually law, all sparkling wine, even when made from Chardonnay, should be labeled as sparkling wine….not Champagne.  I’m suspicious of those not following the rules there, since it seems like an easy marketing mechanism to steal some extra on premise sales and I hate those wines that are brand driven, instead of being quality driven.

Ok so more important, Caraccioli.  There aren’t many small production sparkling wine houses in California-in fact other than J Vineyards and Korbel, even Sonoma and Napa offer a select few choices, none of which I both liked enough to ship while being small enough production to warrant my attention. Caracciloi is a project from Gary Caraccioli who leads what is a 4th generation of farmers, making wine for the first time starting in 2006.  Early returns on the sparkling side have been solid, or above and as we move into later vintages, there’s the opportunity for much, much more.  These grapes come exclusively from the famed Santa Lucia Highlands, known world wide for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The Brut Cuvee in your glass is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, made in a traditional fashion.  I had originally run into Caraccioli a couple of years back, but this is our first large scale release of their wine to our wine club customers, in large part because production is incredibly small. Also, I ran into a pretty famous critic, who used to write for Wine Advocate, who asked his name not be used here….we chatted about the death of sparkling wine startups in California, only to have him mention Caraccioli and that the scores are sitting in the low 90’s now, but they’re figuring out the winemaking side of things and their fruit is among the best in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

That was enough for me and this could easily be our house sparkler, if we could pay about $50 for the privilege.  When compared to some of the larger labels out there, you’ll find a sense of depth and nuance here that belies the youth of the winery, but shows what might truly be possible when it comes to sparkling wine production in California’s colder climates. We hope that our wine of the month club members enjoy the first sparkling wine we've found sufficient in quality to ship in the past two years.