Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
September 21, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Aselstine Family Cellars: Stoney Peak White

Aselstine Family Cellars Stoney Peak WhiteWhen Matt and I first opened Uncorked Ventures, this was something we thought of doing. We wanted to have some wine made on our behalf.

Oh, we pictured it bigger and better of course.  We thought about walking the vineyards in Rutherford, picking some Napa grapes and then having superstar winemaker (insert name of the moment here, say Phillipe Melka these days) make the wine.

This wine came from a casual email that said, I hope things are going well-I’m going to have some extra juice because of some greater travel with my day job: want any of it?

Of course I did.

The winemaker in question I won’t name, after all this wine really doesn't exist, but let’s just say that he focuses on Rhone varietals, has learned aside some of the very best, has been named among the most 150 people in the wine industry by the San Francisco Chronicle and well….I hope that’s enough to convince you.

I spent a couple trips up to Sonoma meeting him and tasting through some barrel samples, making choices and then arranging a bottling.  

It was an interesting process.

I’ve seen a number of blending sessions and while the back of a wine bottle is really specific about what’s inside, I can say with certainly….the difference between a few percentage points shouldn’t even be discussed.

We started out by staring at 26 barrels of wine, some of which the winemaker would be keeping for his own project, so we had an opened ended project to find a wine that I liked.

When it comes to white Rhone grapes, Grenache Blanc is by far my favorite.  I know that the winemaker works with two vineyards that I was pretty familiar with.  First, Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley and there are only 2 acres of Grenache Blanc left anywhere in the RRV-all as part of this wine.

I knew I’d want at least part of that juice if I went forward with the wine.

Secondly, the winemaker works with a vineyard down in Los Olivos, Saarloos and Sons.

Having gone to school at UCSB, I felt like there was something poetic about having a Santa Barbara part of the wine.

Here’s the issue though.  Saarloos and Sons charges about $20 for their Grenache Blanc and the Russian River Valley version goes for about $30.  Yet, to combine the two….I’d have to have a label that read simply: California.

That was a let down and quite frankly…..this was going to be a hell of a lot better than those faceless wines we all buy from time to time at the grocery store that are called California.

Sure, maybe it was a bit of ego slipping in.

In any case, as it turned out the Russian River harvest for 2014 was slightly larger than most imagined, so there was some extra juice.




All available, but pricy.  Given the fruit prices in play, we were talking a $35 bottle of white wine.  As you might expect, there’s some barrier that most people won’t cross when it comes to white wine pricing.  We only offer a $20 version in our wine clubs (our cheapest club, the Explorations Wine Club is $40 for a red and a white).

Pretty much, my wife and I realized, we’d be looking at this wine for a while, so what the heck, let’s do it and go 100% Russian River Valley.

What we ended up with, after quite a few hours holding a beaker that we continually filled up with wine, tasted, then tried a different combination of: we started 50% Grenache Blanc.  25% Viognier and 25% Marsanne + Roussane (anyone who says they can get this down to single percentage points in a beaker, out of a barrel, is a better salesman than I am).

As you’ll note by the back of the bottle, I started wanting to bottle a 100% Grenache Blanc and ended up with only 10%.

Part of the reason for that, is quite simply, during the Rhone Rangers last year, I attended the seminar section of the event.  Bob Lindquist from Qupe down on the Central Coast, brought a bottle from the mid 80’s, Rhone varietal white’s and it literally changed how I saw wine.

I’ve had the conversation with winemakers already, Jean Hoefliger at Alpha Omega in Napa might be the most forceful about it, saying that he’ll gladly drink his Sauvignon Blanc every day, but he’d prefer it to be buried in the vineyard for 20 years first.

Quite honestly, most winemakers feel the same way. Even when we buy wine for the wine club and I know it’s something that I want to keep over the long term, we rarely keep more than a bottle or two.

This was a chance to make something and have it around for all of life’s important events.  With young children still in the house, there’s plenty of those happening already and even more coming up.

I hope you enjoy the wine.  I’ve shared with friends and family already and it’s an interesting process for me.  When I ship a wine, it’s generally something that I like and that I’d gladly drink.  There’s a certain level of stress when you open something for others, when you can’t be sure of their reaction.

This is really the first wine that fits what I want to find perfectly-but then again, it’s a Rhone white blend and there isn’t a ton of those sold in America.  I mean, if you’re a winery….do you want to take the time to education someone about Roussane and Marsanne, or would you rather plant some more Chardonnay?

I might be a glutton for punishment, but please do tell me what you think of this one.

Oh and before you ask, sure I might try and do something similar again in the future.  But, this was really a one-off and there aren’t plans to do anything similar any time soon.  Once a year or so, we’d go through the process if we liked the winemaker enough, but this won’t be a core aspect to our business as it moves forward.

Mark Aselstine
September 11, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Ciacci Piccolomini d'Argona review & a Discussion of the Italian Wine Industry

The first place I really ever drank wine, was in Italy....even though we don't sell it-it's going to show up here on the blog at least slightly more often in the coming months.

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures so first, happy Friday to everybody, I hope the weather across the country is starting to cool down a little bit. We're definitely looking forward to some cooler and more manageable weather for wine club shipments. If you're waiting for a wine of the month club shipment from us, it's likely either in-route or will be coming shortly. Here in San Francisco, we've had another string of warm days. If you know weather patterns at all, if it's warm here, that means it's going to be oppressively hot over the next week as it moves across the Midwest into the East Coast. In essence, I don't worry so much about the wine being on the truck, it's where it stops at a warehouse for the weekend where it starts to get into trouble and that's where we start getting phone calls and emails from UPS saying that the wine leaked. That's what we want to avoid.

I'm joined today by something that I don't talk about very often although it's something that in the wine industry that I'm slightly passionate about at least. This is an Italian wine. You'll have to excuse my pronunciation, this might come out more in Spanish than Italian, my French is worse than my Italian is, so this the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Argona and it's a Super Tuscan wine. The Ciacci estate has been around since the 17th Century. It's now run by a couple of the kids and they have a couple ranges of wine. They do a high-end [Brunello 00:01:21] that comes in the states, maybe $100 or so a bottle, all the way down to this guy, which is between $15 or $20 and they have some wider than normal distribution, at least compared to the high-end offerings. This was at a local high-end grocery store that we have called Berkeley Bowl.

A couple things about Italian wine. Let's take a step back here. When you read the label, the one thing you're going to notice first and foremost is that on the front label, unlike an American wine, there is no way to tell what grapes are in it. In essence, you have the producer, you have the region, and then this IGT is a classification that they have. They have DOG they have IGT. They both are seals, so the Italian government back in the 80s, the wine quality was let's just say it's crap or was crap. They went is this certification process to make sure that people were using the grapes that they were supposed to. They're not as strict and stringent as say the French are, but they do want to make sure that grapes that grow well in certain areas are being used.

They also want to make sure the wine's a certain quality before it gets put into the kind of import and export market. That's the classification, there's this DOG which is a more stringent certification, that's the grapes are native, grapes for Italy and that's ... Truly one of the challenges is that Italians have all these native grapes. In America, we can neither pronounce them nor have we ever heard of most of them. That makes the sale tougher than it is for say a small French producer that just makes [cabernet 00:02:56] that's easy, they put on the front of the label, done, ship it to America, easy.

You don't even know what grapes it is. I can tell you based on the IGT, the fact that it's

Tuscany, that it's going to be Sangiovese. We also know from IGT, instead of the DOG, that it can be some part international grapes. That's where Italy has turned and that's where they've been able to increase sales and their market share, both here domestically in the states and as well as abroad. It's called a Super Tuscan because it's some combination of locally native grapes in Italy, it's usually Sangiovese. Take sangio and they combine it with international varieties, such [cab, merlot, sera 00:03:38] etc. [Sera 00:03:40] you don't see as often, montepulciano is something that they grow locally and it's native and it's probably the most similar grape to [sera 00:03:47] on the international scene. You'll see [merlot and cab 00:03:51] and it's mostly [cab 00:03:52] so a Super Tuscan in essence ends up being sangio and [cab 00:03:55] blended together. That's what we have here, although this, if this was grown even in the state of Washington, which is the most stringent on the percentages of grapes, they could put Sangiovese on it. It's 85% sangio and then about 15% merlot plus cab put together.

That's how you read an Italian wine label. It's something I do wish they would change. I think putting the grapes on that are in the bottle makes it easier for consumers, I think that's something they should consider doing. I know that change when you're dealing with large governments like that, it's not something that happens easily or quickly, but I hope that's something they would consider. I think it would help them. As an example, I said this is in the [under twenty dollar 00:04:34] range, rated 90 points by one spectator. It's a solid value wine from a good producer. It's something that if people knew the wider story and knew everything that was really in the bottle, they would be more likely to pick it up on the shelf. It hits most of the classic Italian wine points. You get this earthy quality that you don't get elsewhere. There's enough fruit that makes it feel like you can pair it with both pasta and a grilled meat. That's something that I think at least here in California, it plays really, really well.

Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures, I hope everybody's having a nice Friday and I hope you enjoyed a short entry into Italian wine and reading Italian wine labels which quite honestly is a little bit easier said than done. Have a good weekend guys.

Mark Aselstine
September 2, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Ranchero Cellars 2012 Carignan

The highest rated bottle of Carignan ever according to Wine Spectator is heading to our wine club members right now-learn something about the woman behind it, as well as the grape itself:

Video Transcription:

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm joined today by a bottle of wine that I think deserves some attention by itself. It's a 2012 Carignan from Ranchero Cellars. Ranchero Cellars is located down in Paso Robles. The winemaker and owner Amy has become somebody who we've shipped wines from in the past couple years. She works with our friend Anthony Yount from Denner on a Brouhaha blend, which is kind of a crisp, acidic white. We know her work pretty well, and during the last large-scale Rhone Rangers, I made a point to go and try this. Which I was then not surprised when I saw Wine Spectator came out a month or two ago and rated this the highest rated Carignan they've ever had anywhere, France included.

Carignan as a grape, let's go to the hat for a minute, since you may have heard of it, you may not have. At one point it was the widest-planted grape in all of France. They had something called the wine lake that happened in the late 80's, and that was in large part, the Rhone and Languedoc planted a whole ton of grapes. They planted so many grapes, in fact, that the entire European wine market was drawn down by those. In essence, they had over planted, they had an oversupply, and so everything got a heck of a lot cheaper. As you might imagine, the French government wasn't very pleased, so they actually were paying farmers to pull out their vines. In large part that was Carignan.

Carignan's known as something, if you have dry, hot conditions but if you can water it a lot, it will grow. You get yields that are sitting at ten tons per acre, perhaps more, and that's why you see it both in the quote unquote wine lake in France, but you also see it used as part of large-scale production in California's Central Valley. This obviously is not that, at 94 points from Wine Spectator. There's about half the grapes come from a vineyard up in Mendocino County, and about half come from a vineyard down in Paso Robles. I think that's a nice combination. I think one of the things that you'll run into sometimes with Mendocino County fruit is that it's almost too acidic and you almost can't get your kind of brain around how a red wine can be as acidic as a lot of whites that you like. Also, sometimes in Paso you're missing some of that acidity. I think Amy does a good job of combining those two here, and I think the results obviously speak for themselves.

Ranchero Cellars, worth a look on a number of different levels. She focused on Rhone varietals, both on the white and red side. Carignan is a favorite of the wine maker, and so that's something that you should look into. Although I'm guessing at $32 or so retail and 94 points from Wine Spectator, these are going to be gone by the time this video goes out there. First, congratulations to Ranchero, and then second, I hope our wine club members enjoy them this month. I likely don't have any extras.

Once again, I'm Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I hope you've enjoyed a short history of Carignan and of Ranchero cellars. Amy makes some great wine, and both deserve your attention, and I hope everybody's having a good week.

Mark Aselstine
August 25, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Napa Valley Wine Train Kicks Off Book Club

While I probably shouldn't wade into politics and race relations on a business site....I will.  The Napa Valley Wine Train kicked off a book club, made up primarily of African American women.  To me, it brought up a few questions...first, why? Second, Napa Valley has a history of being made and created by people admittedly that look a lot like myself, although there's a whole upper valley versus lower valley dynamic at play as well.



Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm going to spend a couple minutes today talking about something that's a rather uncomfortable topic in that if I had any business advisor they would tell me to steer clear of this and never talk about it again for the rest of my life but it's just not something I'm comfortable doing. Over the last few days it's come out in the news both here locally in Northern California and it's now hit the national news that there is a group club of African=American women that were kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train. Let's start with what is the Napa Valley Wine train. It runs from downtown Napa up to Calistoga and it's about a 3-hour round trip. They serve lunch or dinner plus food, drinks, the whole kind of nine yards. It's a nice way to see the valley if you're a tourist. They're heavily marketed the thing to tourists and it is a pretty gorgeous ride.

A few things about the wine industry and about Napa in general. The first thing to understand is that the wine train starts in downtown Napa which has traditionally seen a very clear divide between the upper valley which is St. Helena, Yountville kind of, et cetera, and the lower valley which is kind of where American Canyon ends and where downtown Napa begins. Downtown Napa is home to the courthouse. They're home to a lot of the county facilities and quite honestly until a decade or two ago, they were home to what was a lot of abandoned storefronts and a rather rundown downtown for something that should be a tourist destination. Upper valley has never had that. St. Helena, they refer to themselves as America's Main Street and it's gorgeous.

That's one thing about Napa Valley that you have to understand. It's that there has been this traditionally lower valley versus upper valley dynamic that adds to the grower versus vintner kind of discussion that we've had so many times in the past here. Secondly you also have to realize that the wine industry itself, and we're talking owners of wineries here and people in places or positions of decision making authority, are not the most diverse set of people in the world. The valley was started mostly by Italian immigrants and there were some other folks that came in from Western Europe as well and as immigration has continued into Napa because of the wine industry and because of the kind of stature among the world wine capitals, et cetera, it's continued to draw people from outside of the county. You do meet a lot of Europeans and a lot of people that were born overseas.

However, most of them are from Western Europe or from kind of other Anglo-American countries. I've met plenty of people from New England ... oh, New England... From New Zealand, from Australia. Definitely there's plenty of people from France and Italy still. It's not a diverse set of people though and that's something that the wine industry has struggled with is how do you kind of market yourself

to the entire country and continue to grow sales and then also encourage people from different ethnic or racial backgrounds, however you want to phrase it, to come into both the industry as a job and career-minded path and then open their own winery. Ceja vineyards and Campesino vineyards are two Hispanic owned wineries and those are ones that we tend to notice in my house. My wife was born in El Salvador so we do notice if there's a little bit of marketing done in Spanish or just folks that have a little bit of different outlook.

You do see some of those folks growing different grapes and there's kind of a different perspective which I think is good and that's really healthy. Do I believe that this group of women was kicked off of the wine train because of their ethnic background or however you want to phrase it? Frankly I don't think there's any way to know. I don't think that we've heard the entire story. Quite frankly if they were kicked off for just being loud and obnoxious on the wine train I would be frankly rather shocked. That's a pretty boisterous group a lot of times when you see people getting off. It's obviously a vacation kind of activity. There's plenty of alcohol flowing and so people tend to have a good time and enjoy themselves. When you get off the thing after three hours, it's usually people have had ... It's obvious people have had a good time and it's good that they're walking to the final destination.

Unfortunately the Napa Valley Wine Train is in the news. I think it has also brought up some of the inherent, maybe not bias, but some of the inherent issues that have gone on in Napa over the years. I hope this can be the start of a conversation between folks both in Northern California and Napa and kind of wine county in general and how do we figure out how to be more inclusive and how do we get different viewpoints and how do we continue to grow the industry by being as inclusive as we possibly can. I think it's important and I think it's something that you're going to continue to see and hear about. It's something that we're going to write about a little bit more than we have to this point and hopefully that'll continue the discussion and hopefully this is the start and not the end of it.

Once again, mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm sorry for the small offshoot off of what is typical wine conversation into race, politics or relations in the United States. I know it's an uncomfortable thing and maybe it's something I shouldn't talk about but I think at this point it's important. I think it's important to know some of the history of Napa and of the region in general both in terms of the lower valley, upper valley stuff but then also because it's just frankly not the most diverse group of people in the history of the world and that's something that I hope changes. Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Have a good one. We've been called one of the best wine clubs in America by Forbes Magazine, I think partially because we're willing to have this dicussion with our members and our readers.  

Mark Aselstine
August 24, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

A Lodi Introduction: Old Vine Zin & More

Lodi is known for Old Vine Zin and quite frankly little else.  It's a wine region in America that is going to be known for more in the coming years, including Albarino, a classic Spanish varietal that grows incredible well in Lodi.  Here's some history and what's happening now in the AVA.

Video Transcription:

All right guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. First, happy Monday to everybody. Hope everybody is off to a good week. Little interesting Mr Toad's wild ride with the stock market this morning ... I hope everyone's recovered.

Secondly, one of the month club's shipments for August are going out over the next 72 hours or so. As some folks have emailed and called to wonder what's going on. Quite simply, if you watch the nightly news you know that the hot weather has been a topic of conversation. We can't ship when it's so darn hot. The big issue is not when it's on the truck going to your house, the big issue is, for the east coast folks especially, it's a five day shipment process for ground, the wine stops somewhere for the weekend and we have absolutely no control really over, not only where it stops, but what the temperature is like in the warehouse. We've had wine too many times in the past for us not to pay attention a little bit about shipping temperatures and shipping time frames. We have gotten a little bit more sophisticated about knowing, if I ship this on Wednesday and it's going to the East coast, it's likely to stop after two days. Two days puts in Colorado. Denver is actually a pretty well air conditioned facility, so that's kind of where we're at.

Third, I have two bottles from Lodi in front of me today and we don't do a lot of Lodi wine. However, the Wine Bloggers Conference, which is really on of the largest meetings of wine industry folks in the country right now, is going to Lodi next year. Two years ago it was in Santa Barbara. I attended. Little bit of a hum game for me. Excuse me. This year, just finished up at The Finger Lakes in New York. If your not familiar with The Finger Lakes, sits in western New York. There is five lakes. They literally look like fingers. They run north to south instead of east to the west. We don't get a lot of their wine on the west coast simply because New York City takes most of the good stuff. What's remaining is still small enough production that they don't need it. The wine is pretty good, it's getting better. It's a focus area for New York wine is to get the finger lakes out there so there's the marketing message of- personally through the wine bloggers conference.

Lodi is doing something similar next year. The history of Lodi is two-fold. First, it's one of the true pre-prohibition growing areas within California. At the beginning they focused on Tokay, which is a grape that you virtually never heard of any more. Even when it's still grown they make it into fortified wine now, so you're not going to see a Tokay table grape any more. Then there's also some Zinfandel vines. Lodi has some of the best old vine Zinfandel, and by old vine, I used to tell people if it's older than me, it's old vine. I'm

in my mid-30s. I realise that makes it a sliding scale so to speak, so let's just say 30 years or older and I'll count it as an old vine Zin.

There are vintners who will throw 'Old Vine' on a label after 5 years, I think it's a little ridiculous. They know it's ridiculous but they're doing it for marketing, for easier sales. That's one question to ask, or one thing to read on the back of a bottle. If it's truly an old vine, they'll tell you exactly how old it is, what year the thing was planted, and what happened and why it survived through Prohibition if it's that old. If not, why they planted it in the 60s or 70s as opposed to something else that would have been an easier sell at that time, say, Merlot.

Lodi's this fascinating growing area for two reasons. First they have these, in the heart of Lodi, the original AVA, they have all these old vines in. Those are great. Those are interesting, those are a unique look into California and what a lot of people consider a native grape here. Second, they have this [inaudible 00:03:38]. This Grenache is from the St Clements Hills. As the heart of Lodi has been built out, you're starting to have these sub AVAs pop up in the periphery. You're seeing Grenache being grown at elevation. You're seeing Albariño, which is a Spanish white wine grape, grown really all over the place and grown incredibly well, it's a grape that's adapted really well to California's temperature in Lodi.

I should mention about Lodi, we have not the most positive opinion in the wine industry of what the San Joaquin Valley and what Central California grows. Stuff grows really really well there, and if vines are not stressed out they don't produce really flavorful wine. That's why the 2 dollar wine you buy at the grocery store, the 5 dollar wine at the grocery store probably came from Central Valley. As long as you water the stuff it produces almost year-round.

That's not what Lodi's marketing these days, it's not what they're going to be known for long-term. Lodi is at the furthest northern reaches of the San Joaquin Valley, and that's a really good thing because they're only 80 or so miles inland from the San Francisco Bay. They do get some maritime influence from the bay including the diurnal temperature which is probably more closely associated with Napa than it is for the rest of the inland California Central Valley.

In any case, Lodi. They make some interesting juice. It's something they're just trying to market themselves a little bit now, I think they're still trying to figure stuff out. Is this just going to be something they focus exclusively on old vines

in? If they do that, what does that say for folks that are just planting a vineyard now, or just want to open a vineyard? Do they have to wait 35 years to really be able to take part in the marketing, or can they create sub AVAs where they focus on Grenache, they focus on Albariño. Really that's part of the question that most of us face in California, is what's your white wine grape? If you're not growing Chardonnay, what is it? What's the story, why should we be interested in it, and why shouldn't I just buy a generic Champagne or Cava or Prosecco, on the sparkling side.

Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Hope you're having a good day. Once again, yes, wine club shipments. They are leaving in the next 72 hours, you should have an email with both a either prepaid or charged order, and then a second email with a checking number directly from us and UPS. Hope you're enjoying your week. Have a good one.