Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
June 1, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

PWR Newsletter

A couple of strange aspects to this shipment.  First, you’ll notice both bottles of wine come from the same winery, I think this is the first time we’ve done this at the Explorations Wine Club level in over 2 years.  Secondly, I’ve written about the winery, People’s Wine Revolution, after I first met with winemaker Matt Reid, so some more information on the project at http://www.uncorkedventures.com/blog/Peoples-Wine-Revolution which has a lot more information on the project and why I felt it was important enough to handle two bottles in this shipment.

Some brief information, winemaker Matt Reid is a highly accomplished winemaker at spots like Seavey and Benessere (where we were introduced) but he noticed a few things.  Even at severe discounts (and the discounts that winemakers receive might make all of us blush), many of the people making wine in Napa, can’t afford to buy it.  Thus, his People’s Wine Revolution where he tries to bring outstanding, Napa Valley $100+ quality, to wine being sold for about $20.  Of course, that means you won’t find Pinot or Cabernet being made with his label, those grapes are simply too expensive.  Instead you’ll find Rhone based varietals like Viognier and Grenache.

Grenache from Lodi: I have to admit that Grenache is my favorite grape and I’ve been called something of a fiend for cool climate versions of the varietal by those in the business that know me well.  Lodi isn’t exactly known as a cool climate destination, it’s actually pretty damn hot during the summer months. Lodi has been making a lot of improvements in the quality of fruit that it produces and some of it,. runs afoul of what we’d expect in California.  First, it’s a top down approach with the AVA setting pretty stringent standards on how grapes can be grown, especially in terms of sustainability. The Lodi sustainable program is a strict set of rules on how farmer’s need to go about growing their grapes, down to making suggestions of improvements or as they term it, areas of concern.  One thing I find interesting, there’s a small beetle that’s on the endangered species list, yet exists in and around vineyards.  It doesn’t hurt the vines, but does get destroyed with fertilizer, or when cover crops are completely removed.  Lodi is to my knowledge, the only growing region in the world that uses elderberry bushes as part of their cover crops, or end caps to help give this beetle a place to live.  It might seem like a small thing, but if you read the history of Napa Valley or even the Russian River Valley, these seemingly small concerns and details, when they’re handled well, seem to build on themselves as time goes on.

If you’re not familiar with the Clements Hills designation on the bottle, that’s a sub AVA in Lodi, located in the furthest southeastern corner of the AVA.  It gained it’s own AVA status because it’s simply wetter and hotter than much of the rest of the larger AVA.  I’ve talked about it some in regard to the challenges faced in Arizona and elsewhere, but when you have a really hot environment in which to grow grapes, one way to combat that, is to plant at altitude.  Most the grapes in this Grenache come from higher altitude plantings, many are planted at 1,000 above sea level, or higher. The wet conditions also allow either dry farming, an unheard of practice in the San Joaquin Valley because of the heat, but a sustainable one.  Both of those factors come into play and you’ll note a much, much higher level of acidity than you might otherwise expect in this bottling. We haven’t done much from Lodi, but a bottle like this does make us wonder if we’ve missed some interesting wine along the way, especially when you have a fairly unique set of terroir and a world class winemaker.

Viognier from Dry Creek Valley: This is a 100% vineyard designate wine, from Salem Ranch. Salem Ranch is an 8 acre vineyard and being located in Dry Creek Valley, it’s mostly Zinfandel, as you probably expected.  There’s a single block of Viognier that the farmers like to have on hand, much of the time for blending, but Matt takes enough to make just under 300 cases per vintage. Having a single block Viognier at this price point, yes even for a more obscure grape like Viognier, is about half the price of what you’d expect. If you aren’t familiar with Viognier, it’s a white wine grape from the Rhone Valley.  It’s been used in blends from the region for generations because it offers some of the best aromatics of any white wine grape.  In the Rhone, you’ll see it blended with Marsanne and Roussane, although there’s a movement afoot in Sonoma for more single varietal Viognier’s.  The grape is finicky which helps explain why so many people haven’t planted it over the years.  Too cold and it molds.  Too hot and the alcohol level gets out of control and then you lose the aromatic qualities that people enjoy about the grape.  In that way, Dry Creek is a nice spot to grow the grape and prices for the grapes are kept under control because there aren’t many winemakers looking for it…..yet.

I hope you enjoy this look into a winemaker looking to make affordable, world class wines.  I can’t stress how unique Matt’s perspective is, I’ve met literally hundreds of winemakers who have had jobs at wineries that you’d recognize based on name alone and it’s only a handful that don’t want to copy that exact same business model. People’s Wine Revolution, it’s a unique project and one that deserves our attention and support.

Mark Aselstine
May 30, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Benessere Vineyards from Big Tree Road

Benessere Vineyards from Big Tree RoadAnother interesting view (imo at least) of Benessere Vineyards. This image was taken on Big Tree Road, looking back across the vineyard I thought it was interesting to be able to see the winery building in the distance, as well as the general setup of a spring vineyard.  During winter months you'll see a larger number of cover crops, many high end vineyards like Benessere uses clover and other cover crops to be able to sustain top soil levels, while adding nutrients like nitrogen back into the soil. You can see a few of the other plants growing in the vineyard at the forefront of this image, including on the end cap of the vine line on the left. Lastly, I liked this image because I felt that it showed how Benessere sits almost tucked into the hills at form the eastern reaches of St. Helena.

I was stopping at Benessere to pick up wines for shipments in our Explorations Wine Club this month, from winemaker Matt Reid (although the wines are his own, not those from Benessere).

Mark Aselstine
May 29, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Culler Wines: A Classic Name Exists

Every so often, I run into some news which seems important enough to pass along in this space.  I've been writing a bit about the history of Napa Valley, both the environmental movement, growers vs vintners and the names and wineries which helped to make the valley what it is.

During a bit of research I found myself on the Culler Wines website and found that famed winemaker Karen Culler was taking a break from winemaking and potentially walking away to spend more time traveling after 30 years in the business. I've only run into one Culler Cabernet Sauvignon, but this was classic Napa from a winemaker with what looks like an ecclectic mix of wine offerings.

In any case, bon voyage Karen, I can't do her send off justice myself, so I'll recommend you read it here.

PS-the line at Bouchon has gotten pretty brutal

Mark Aselstine
May 28, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Benessere Vineyards, Vineyard

Benessere Vineyards, vineyardI took this photo on a recent trip to Benessere Vineyards, to enter the property you turn off Highway 29 on Big Tree Road and continue until the dead end, about a half mile down.  Benessere sits on the northern side of the street (the left as you're entering) and after a hundred yards or so of compacted dirt road, you turn onto pavers and then quickly find a visitors parking lot.  This image is taken from that parking area looking back toward Big Tree Road.


We've previously featured wines from Benessere Vineyards in both our Special Selections Wine Club, as well as our Explorations Wine Club.

Mark Aselstine
May 14, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Wineries To Know This Week: The Other 46

Every so often, I come across a winery, or a group of wineries that deserve a mention in this space. This week, instead of talking about the wineries that I’ve had a chance to visit in person, or get to know a little bit, I thought I’d feature a group of wineries that exist outside of the established wine producing states (California, Oregon, the state of Washington and New York) affectionately by many referred to as “The Other 46”. I’ll note these all came up during conversations with others in the industry over the past month:

Dos Cabezas Wineworks, Arizona:

I’ve been tasting through Wilcox Arizona, although that’s pushing 5 years ago at this point, but over the past few years I’ve had the chance to taste a few dozen wines from Arizona.  Gruet has made sparkling wine a success next door in New Mexico and it’s pretty clear that Arizona wineries, with their home markets as well as their natural access to the tens of millions of people in Southern California, may soon be thought of as another wine destination by the general public.  

Dos Cabezas (that's two heads in Spanish btw) is helping to lead that charge into wider relevance both through the results of what is being made, namely the El Campo which is a blend of Tempranillo and Mourvedre and is a wine that comes with with Sommelier’s here in San Francisco as a great entry point into Arizona wine, but also because they have an approach that should serve as a template for other wineries in the region.  

Let’s face it, Arizona is hot during the summer. One of the few ways a farmer can fight that heat is by choosing to plant at higher elevations.  If you water grapes too much, they don’t struggle and without any struggle, the fruit simply isn’t as good. While dry farming isn’t an option without any ground water, you can see the difference in average daily temperature based on the elevation.  Elgin Arizona where Dos Cabezas has a vineyard averages temperatures in the 80’s during summer months and sits at almost 5,000 feet above sea level, whereas Phoenix which sits at a thousand feet above sea level, averages 104 degrees Fahrenheit in August.  

I know we all make assumptions about vineyard conditions based on the state and area on the bottle, but would you be surprised to know that summer temperatures for these Arizona wines is actually equivalent, or even slightly lower than those in St Helena?

Lastly, I absolutely love that the winery keeps a portion of their vineyard to test new grape varietals including those from Spain, Italy and elsewhere.  It’s that type of experimentation that led to Syrah being saved in California, or the planting of the first Pinot Noir vines in Oregon. It makes you wonder, what might Dos Cabezas discover in their high altitude vineyards in Arizona?

Llano, Texas:

A lot of small wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma will tell you that receiving a 90 point score from Wine Enthusiast, or any of the other large trade magazines can be an absolute game changer for their business, they’re also awfully hard to receive if you don’t fit the standard profile.  

Llano has a couple of 90 point scores on their resume and they hardly fit the standard profile of small scale and located in either Napa or Sonoma.

Located in Lubbock Texas, the site of Texas Tech and an area that’s talked about a bit in my house to this day since my wife spent a few years there as a kid, Llano is helping to deliver Texas viticulture onto a larger stage.  One thing I appreciate about Texas, is that the state much like my home in California, appreciates a home grown story.  While I’m sure there are plenty of sales waiting for Llano in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and across the state, the winery has shown the willingness to move beyond their home state’s borders.

While Texas grape growing dates to the 17th century and really has a longer and more complex history than we do here in California, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that there was a renewed focus on wine in the state. Llano was the first commercial vineyard planted in the state back in the late 70’s and has been featured at the White House numerous times, largely with the help of George Bush and his presidency. Let’s be clear though, this is no small scale operation, Llano is producing over 200,000 cases of wine per year, an achievement in and of itself.

Interestingly, I’ve heard from a number of people that their Viognier is simply not to be missed. In a state like Texas, which is suppose to be warm, it wouldn’t be a white wine that I’d think to try at first, but they’ve figured something out here with the grape according to most.  Also, they have a charitable relationship set up with Texas Tech University where a portion of the sale of each bottle is given back to the University’s Alumni Association and research into grape growing at Texas Tech.  Given that we could really, really use a wider selection of viticulture programs in America (as much as I love UC Davis, Cal Poly SLO & Cal State Fresno, there aren’t enough spots here for interested kids) it’s a program I hope continues to see more than it’s fair share of support.


I’m going to hedge a bit here and talk about a state as a whole and a great place to find some more information about the wines in the state, along with an explanation about why the winery I was planning to talk about, won’t be my central focus.

Ok, so here’s one thing that people don’t realize about frost and freezing with grape vines.  Cold air from lakes or oceans doesn’t allow the ground to freeze (or at least helps to stop it from freezing), that’s why more water in Sonoma is used not during warm summer months, but for frost prevention in winter. In Michigan that means that grapes are grown within a handful of miles of Lake Michigan.  Much like people discount wines from Arizona and Texas as being too hot, many will immediately think that grapes won’t grow well in Michigan because it’s too cold. That’s simply not true, as I’ve said plenty of times before…..stressed out grapes are good for the quality of wine.

Michigan does produce ice wine before you ask, but I’ve always been more interested in the state because of the moderating influence of Lake Michigan on it’s Riesling, Pinot Grigio and other white wine. Cabernet Franc is talked about some, but quite honestly I’ve yet to find a cool climate version of the varietal that makes sense to me.

I was planning to feature Bower’s Harbor here, which is generally accepted as the quality leader in the state of Michigan, at least by the folks that I know who have been tasting through the state, admittedly that’s not a huge number…..  michwine.com has a better run down on the story than I can have.  I’ve heard that some vintages in truly cold climate states like Michigan will lead to lower than expected production (it’s the opposite issue that we have here in California where sometimes the weather is so good during the summer that the crop ends up increasing 30% or more without much warning, cratering the lower end of the market) but having to source grapes from the state of Washington for their award winning Pinot Grigio must be a tough pill to swallow. It’s also an issue that will likely resolve itself as time goes by.  As the wine industry in Michigan develops there will be more vineyards come online and a better chance for good wineries like Bower’s Harbor to source local grapes if yields in their home vineyards can’t keep pace with the amount of wine that the market desires.  We’re seeing that locally with Sonoma Coast vineyards, which are sometimes having to turn to vineyards on the Central Coast to keep production constant or increasing, so there isn’t anything to be ashamed of here, after all Michigan only boasts about 1,400 acres of wine grapes planted as of 2011.  To put that in perspective, Napa Valley has about 45,000 acres under vine currently. Bower’s Harbor hit what many would consider a growing pain, or the equivalent of a tech company adding users so quickly it had to use an outside agency for customer service since it couldn’t hire people fast enough. They’ll figure it out and as the wine market continues to appreciate more highly acidic white’s as San Francisco is doing, Michigan is going to gain market share.

Three Sisters Vineyards, Georgia:

If you gave me a choice about where to start a new wine region, I’d want to be about an hour outside of a major American city.  Being close allows for day trips for millions of people, thus the creation of a tourist industry, but also allows winemakers and sales folks to venture into the city, to gain restaurant placements and other on site sales placements for their wines.

Three Sisters Vineyards sits just over an hour outside of Atlanta Georgia and the views are absolutely something which will draw someone from urban or suburban Atlanta to the vineyard for a day away from the city.  Three Sisters checks all the usual boxes for a small winery to gain local market share, they’re 100% estate grown and offer a range of interesting wines from international varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay, but they also produce a Vidal Blanc as well as a Cynthiana-Norton.  Cynthiana-Norton is better known as a jam or juice grape, but the wines are often medium in body and higher in acidity than most, it’s a natural replacement for Merlot as the grape continues to lose market share across the country.  Vidal Blanc is a genetically engineered grape typically used for ice wine in Canada and elsewhere, but folks like the Three Sisters Vineyards in the foothills of Georgia are making it into a table wine.  I talked about innovation being important for new wine regions previously here and the development of VIdal Blanc as a table wine grape is something that makes wine in Georgia not only interesting but potentially important over the long term.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a short intro to the Other 46 wine states and some of the wines and grapes that have come up during my conversations over the past month.  There’s a lot happening across the country in terms of wine cultivation and I hope that only continues to grow. While our wine clubs only feature wines from California, Oregon and Washington, there's plenty of interesting things happening elsewhere. Want better coverage than I can offer about local wine? Check out The Other 46.