Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
July 15, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Kiona Vineyards 2013 Chenin Blanc

Kiona Vineyards is a trailblazer in Washington wine, having planted what I believe to be the first grapes in what has become the Red Mountain AVA.  It started with 12 acres and according to anyone that you ask, many times that number of people telling founder John Williams that he had completely lost his mind.  Why would he think that planting grapes on 12 acres of sagebrush was a good idea? Well, Kiona is now on their 3rd generation and have about 250 acres under vine…..so it’s gone better than anyone, perhaps outside of John and his Ann, thought possible.

A short word on the name since, having grown up in Southern California, that sounds like a Hawaiian island to me-Kiona is the original Yakama Nation Native American name for the Red Mountain area that is literally translated to “Brown Hills”.  The Red Mountain AVA designation is actually more important here than another AVA might be elsewhere, there’s only about 1400 acres under vine in the AVA.  We can talk all we want about soil compositions (those are certainly important to be sure) as well as elevation and steepness of hillsides, but one thing that I think separates the Red Mountain AVA from others is that the average rainfall is only 7 inches.  As happens here locally in the Bay Area near Half Moon Bay, the mountains in essence trap the clouds which would otherwise deliver rain.  Seattle gets a lot of it and those folks on the other side of the mountains, don’t get much.  They get even less during summer and fall, giving winemakers the ability to allow grapes to sit on the vine for as long as possible, without any real concern about rain coming along and ruining a large portion of the crop at the last minute.

So Kiona has been there quite a while, but the future is still coming for Washington wine, so they aren’t the household name that they would be, if say, those 12 acres were purchased in Napa.  Of course, the wine is no worse, but the region will get there.

Kiona boasts a nice family story that almost everyone in the wine business aspires to: three generations working together, hopefully without killing each other, while living what many would call a dream life.

We wanted to feature a Chenin Blanc here for a few different reasons.  First, the grape is native to the Loire Valley of France, one of the coldest growing climates in all of France.  Washington isn’t cold though and the state’s success with this continues to show that there’s something a bit different about growing conditions in Washington that simply isn’t getting articulated by simple soil composition studies, or rainfall totals.

California vintners have always planted the grape, in large amounts, in the most generic vineyards around the state.  A single vineyard Chenin Blanc like this? It doesn’t exist.

It’s often referred to as a workhouse variety, which really means that in the hot climate of the inland valley’s that cut down the state like a scar, the grape grows well, given enough water to produce those $5 wines that we all started drinking.  The French, of course, are slightly aghast at the treatment of what they consider something of a noble variety.

A lot of the Washington folks that I’ve talked with have said that they think Chenin Blanc might end up being the white wine grape that the state is known for.  Part of that is a certain mindset that comes from having to compete with so many regions in regard to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet based blends on the red wine side, wouldn’t it be nice to have something a bit less complicated on the white wine side….at least from a marketing perspective?

Many wine regions have struggled with the transition from unknown and underappreciated to established and few have found a single red and a single white wine grape that they can be known for, without question.  After all, travel to the Rhone Valley of France and tell me, what the white wine grape of choice?  They’re 300+ years in and haven’t figured it out yet.

Washington though is onto something here and prices could easily jump for these low production versions of Chenin Blanc, if they can figure out the marketing.  All the classic appeal is here, there’s plenty of acidity, but there is also a ton of fruit aroma that isn’t necessarily apparent in other white wine grapes around the state.

Members of our Explorations Wine Club are enjoying this Chenin Blanc as part of their regular wine club shipments, at least some of them are!

Mark Aselstine
July 10, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Corvidae The Keeper 2012 Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley

Ok, so let’s start with the big “secret” Corvidae is a side project, or affectionately called a 2nd label within the wine industry for the folks behind Owen Roe wines.

A second label comes into being for a variety of reasons, but here’s the usual suspects:

Winemaker wants to work with a varietal that doesn’t make sense under his own label.  As an example, if a cult Cabernet in Napa, say Vineyard 29 as an example wanted to make a Sonoma Pinot Noir, they might do it under a 2nd label to not confuse people.

A winery is 100% estate….but a neighbor has some fruit that they really, really like.

A winery produces mostly $40+ wine and wants an entry level addition, without driving all their current customers into that entry level addition.

The Corvidae wines (the name comes from the latin word for the type of bird, which include crows) don’t fit into one of those categories completely, but in this case, I am guessing the issue is more to do with the grape varietal than anything else.

Let’s start with an admission: Cabernet Franc just might be my favorite varietal.  Well, it’s right there with Pinot Noir, or maybe Grenache, but I’m comfortable saying that I like it much, much more than most. Evidently, I’m also not someone willing to drink a single type of wine for the rest of my life...so there’s that.  That affection for Cabernet Franc is why it’s painful to read the Wikipedia page (that gets posted everywhere around the web) which basically says it’s only grown so that it can be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon (ok, ok, I get it) or Merlot (what?)!

At it’s core Cabernet Franc is a dark skinned grape that will remind you of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, to me the fruit and density falls somewhere in between those two grapes-but it carries higher acidity than either. Slate ran an article a number of years ago about the sad state of Cabernet Franc and again sadly, things haven’t changed in the decade since it’s release.  Other than Pinot becoming even more important and everyone in the new world completely forgetting that Merlot exists of course. Heck in the last decade imports of the wine have tripled, yet no one has seemed to notice, or care.

Largely known from the cool climate Loire Valley, Cabernet Franc has been called everything as a good pairing for fish, to a variety that can’t ripen well.  Sounds a lot like Pinot Noir right? Of course, those imperfections have little to do with the grape itself and have much more to do with the Loire Valley, itself one of the coolest growing climates in France.  Having tasted a Cab Fran from the Russian River Valley and a few from Napa in addition to the Washington wine in your glass, ripeness isn’t an issue.

Then again, if the grape is always going to 3rd, 4th or 5th in line for vineyard space, how good can the wines ever get? What’s needed is a region to focus on it and I don’t mean Long Island (Long Island actually make some good wine, but it’s already been developed so there isn’t a lot of production) but instead a part of a new world wine region that can make enough for people to actually get some of the wine at the entry level, but also care about it enough to make great wine with it by giving it some of the best vineyard space they have.

Enter the state of Washington.

If you haven’t been in one of our monthly wine clubs for long, you might not have had a Washington wine before, so here’s some quick background.  Walla Walla is probably the most important region for wine in Washington and the climate couldn’t be any different from what most picture in their heads (Seattle and it’s rain, right?).  It’s damn hot during the summers and Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah do well there.  Pinot does not.  Smart vintners won’t even plant the stuff to the east of the mountain ranges any longer-it’s just too warm during the summer growing months.

Anyway, Cabernet Franc has an uphill fight to gain acceptance and market share everywhere, including Washington, but there’s one major, major difference.  Most people when they judge where the wine industry is going, tend to look only at plantings.  In that case Cabernet Franc is the 4th most planted red wine grape in the state of Washington and 9th overall when you add the white’s.

What makes Washington the new world’s best hope for the grape though is that while plantings aren’t much different than elsewhere, pricing is.  Instead of also being at the back of pricing (the prices that winemakers pay to growers I’m talking about here) Cabernet Franc is either first, or second depending on the vintage (of course, Cabernet Sauvignon continues to be king of grapes).  That tells me that local winemakers LOVE the stuff.  When winemakers like something, they tend to find ways to market it.  They’ll pour it and encourage people to try it in person, basically marketing the grape by itself for the first time in America.

I liked this version of Cabernet Franc because it comes with all the tell tale markers of the varietal.  Think like Cabernet Sauvignon.  Higher acidity though.  Flavor notes that include herbs and a certain tobacco element when you first open the bottle.

Lastly, a minute on the Columbia Valley. One of the very few vineyards that span state lines, the Columbia Valley is Washington’s most important (and first) AVA, with 99% of the wines being produced in the state grown within the AVA (others are grown on the fringes of Seattle) but the AVA also has a few miles of Oregon within its boundaries.  As often happens, state’s are drawn with different natural dividers than are viticultural areas.  The Columbia River makes a nice boundary between Oregon and Washington, but the mountains that form the valley itself are what matters for the wine industry. Thus the dichotomy.  Additionally, good luck making any generalizations about an area this big (think about a fifth of the entire state, give or take) because there are plenty of microclimates around the river itself, in the foothills and at significant elevation.

Give it a shot, let me know what you think!

Mark Aselstine
July 9, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

R Stuart & Co 2008 Autograph Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (375ml-half bottle)

R Stuart Autograph Pinot Noir WIllamette Valley 2008I’m still a bit surprised more wine critics and consumers aren’t all over the 2008 Pinot Noir’s out of Oregon.  That’s the vintage that really should have put everyone into a tizzy, like 1994 or 2005 in Napa Valley, South Africa’s 2003 (that led to their first world wide distribution networks) or even the 2012 Pinot’s from California’s Anderson Valley that literally put the region on the map.

Maybe it’s because, well it’s Oregon, so things may move a bit more slowly and while Portland is a cosmopolitan city and certainly one of the great food and wine capitals of the world, it just doesn’t capture the attention of small town and big city America in the same way that does, say San Francisco or New York.

Ok, so I’ve expressed my general displeasure with vintage hype especially given the size of the wineries that we work with consistently (is one suppose to just forget every Napa Valley 2011 because the critics weren’t happy with the vintage, or can we taste and judge for ourselves?) but this is one vintage, the 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot’s where I think the hype is justified and perhaps even undersold.

Critics and consumers alike enjoy debating how long wine can last. I’ve had two greatly memorable wine experiences, the first occurred at the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2014 where a 45+ year old Burgundy Pinot Noir was opened.  It was reportedly from a great vintage, but the bottle would have cost, according to the winery owner who had it, about $4 today. Secondly was a Qupe Marsanne (that’s a white wine grape, mainly used for blending if you aren’t familiar) at a Rhone Rangers seminar this year, from the 80’s.  Both helped to cement my thought process that perhaps, as a nation we’re simply drinking wines too soon. Perhaps it’s worth it to miss the optimum drinking window in some cases, only to see massive regards from others.

I bring all that up because I’ve seen it written of late that the 2008 Oregon Pinot’s need to be consumed now, that they’re starting to go flat.  Frankly, I flat out disagree and so will you after opening this bottle.  This is a fine time to open one of these, but I’ll take advantage of some of the prevailing wisdom here (and the smaller format bottle) to get my wine club members, something that would go into the mid $40 range based on quality.

My first experience with R Stuart & Co was last summer when I spent a week in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  I stayed in the small picturesque town of McMinnville and low and behold, a few feet outside of my front door was R Stuart’s wine bar.  They originally weren’t on my list of wineries to visit, but with some small bites and a local wine scene that largely closes down at 5pm, I was excited to sneak in an extra stop since they’re open until 8pm. Winemaker and owner Rob Stuart probably should have been on my short list to visit with though based on his resume alone-biochem degree and then a full career in Napa led to winemaker gigs in Washington and then finally at the much acclaimed Erath in Oregon. Eventually, he started his own label.  As I’ve been told by quite a few different winemakers, better to learn your trade on someone else’s dime and then start your own once you’re overqualified.  Stuart is definitely overqualified to produce these small batch wines, but it’s the type of juice that gets people excited.  His background does come through in my opinion in the wine that’s in your glass, these are more dense and darker than many other Willamette Valley Pinot’s I’ve had-still balanced of course, but you lose a bit of the earthyness and add in my cherry cola flavors. I was literally shocked to read that there’s 95% new French oak on these, you don’t notice it, like at all, but that helps to explain some of the depth here.  Wine, no matter what anyone tells you, still likes oak barrels best.  It has for millenia and that isn’t changing any time soon.

Another interesting aspect to R Stuart and the winery’s story is that Maria Stuart (Rob’s wife, but to be clear, she’s had her own career in wine before meeting him and taking on the thankless tasks that come with a winemaker husband...marketing, PR and compliance aren’t as interesting as winemaking I’m afraid) writes simply put, one of the most interesting and insightful blogs of any winery owner that I’ve come across.  Far from only about wine and definitely not one of those overly salesy corporate blogs that we all hate,  Pinotmom.com is filled with recipe’s, stories about the family and generally will encourage you more than anything else that R Stuart does a company to support them.  Writing our newsletters and again for our company blog, PinotMom gives me a few ideas of things I could be doing different, & better.

I hope you enjoy another look into the Oregon 2008 vintage.  It was truly one for the record books and it’s one that we can all enjoy to this day.

Mark Aselstine
July 6, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Alta Colina GSM 2011

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the 2011 vintage.  I’ve talked about it before, should we avoid every 2011 wine made in Napa because critics hate the vintage because it was too cold? What does that say for Paso Robles, where this wine was made, also reported as a vintage that was simply too cold to be elegant….BUT then again, this is a region that critics usually say lacks restraint and subtleness that comes with cooler temperatures.  There’s a dichotomy at work here, one that winemakers and people within the industry have a hard time explaining.

Before we go any further, 93 points from Robert Parker for the wine that’s in your glass.

Maybe we shouldn’t assume anything about vintages from great vineyards.

Ok, so how we ended up working with Alta Colina is a better and more interesting story I think.  So it started with a chance appointment about 4 years ago, we were meeting another winery and Alta Colina’s tasting room, just so happened to be on site at their winery.  The owners of Alta Colina, the Tillman family had purchased a couple of hundred acres and was farming it, selling many of the grapes at the beginning, while starting to build their own label.  Initially they hired consulting winemaker Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars (and yes, this is a similar style, bigger, lush and definitely not austere, like not at all) to help them learn how to make quality wine.  Basically the long and short of it is, it worked.  Scores for their first vintage came out and immediately their Syrah and Syrah based blends like this GSM, received 90+ point scores from virtually every major wine critic.

Of course, production was small and sales as people in the business say, was only through the cellar door.  That’s to say, if a retailer or a wine club like us wanted the wine, you’d have to find it yourself and then show up to pick it up.

The Tillman’s daughter Maggie has been our contact from the beginning at Alta Colina, she handles sales, the tasting room, social media and generally wears a ton of different hats in and around the winery.  She told us explicitly, if this were anyone else….the sale wouldn’t be happening.

Over the years Alta Colina has certainly grown, they’re now out of the rented space literally on the side of another winery and have opened their tasting room and winery production facility in their own vineyard. It’s a beautiful spot with over 200 acres, rolling hills and enough sub climate’s and hillsides to keep them interesting in terms of new plantings probably for well over a generation.

What you have in your glass is a 2011 GSM.  It’s a bit different as GSM’s go, largely based on composition.  It’s 43% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre and finally, only 23% Syrah.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is, to be fair, a fan of the style here, Alta Colina is bigger and denser than most, although IMO, this GSM is one of their more restrained offerings, but 93 points for the wine that’s in your glass. Here’s their write up:

93 Points!  Also gorgeous, the 2011 GSM Estate offers a Chateauneuf du Pape-like feel in its kirsch, blackberry, Asian spice and herbs de Provence-driven bouquet. Medium to full-bodied, layered and with beautiful purity of fruit, this is all-around impressive and one of my favorite examples of this cuvee to date. It will have upward of a decade of longevity.  I continue to love what this estate does. The wines have classic Paso Robles fruit and texture, and stay balanced, clean and lively.  Jeb Dunnuck, The Wine Advocate #214, August 2014

I hope you enjoy the look into Alta Colina, perhaps Paso Robles fastest growing wine brand. I mentioned earlier that they grow about 200 acres, that’s given them access to many of the top winemakers in and around Paso Robles.  I find that growers, even if they are perhaps not exactly sure about when to pick, can make some assumptions by the timing of when other winemakers tend to pick grapes from their vineyard. As an example Denner Vineyards is among the best known names in Paso Robles wine and their winemaker Anthony Yount makes a small side project called Kinero (which we LOVE and you’ll receive a bottle from in your next shipment).  He sources some white wine grapes from Alta Colina, he jokes that the Alta Colina folks simply pick their Grenache Blanc exactly a week after he does in every vintage (Anthony +7).  I hope that doesn’t come across to lessen what they’re doing, what I think Alta Colina best represents is an estate that’s really one of the best vineyards in California and a family really taking the time to learn how to make world class wine.  I don’t think there is much doubt that Alta Colina is going to join the ranks of the Paso Robles elite in the near future, the quality is already there, it’ll just take a couple more vintages for the wine trade and wine media to catch up to what consumers already know: these are among the best wines being made in California today.

Want to enjoy wines like this? Join one of our 3 wine clubs today!


Mark Aselstine
July 3, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Wines for July 4th

I hope everyone enjoys a happy and celebatory July 4th. It’s a bit last minute we know.  So here’s 5 picks from our local Safeway (if you live in Southern California, it’s Vons)....sorry no time to find a local Kroger/Ralph’s and Costco before a holiday scares me. I’ve left off most of the usual suspects so to speak.  I think we all know if Mondavi, Gallo, Franzia or Chateau St Michelle works for us, right?

Napa Cellars 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

I've talked a lot about how pricing of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has gone into the stratosphere.  What seemed to be $45 when we opened Uncorked Ventures, now seems to be sitting around $65.  Sure, the local tech industry has exploded, which helps drives pricing and increases in California wine consumptions among the naveau rich in China helps explain it a bit as well, but Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has gained a foothold as a luxury item to be sure.  That's why a retail $30 Napa Valley Cabernet, even made in these large quantities is nice to see.  Marked down under $20 for us locally, Napa Cellars offers one of the most affordable looks into the 2013 Napa Valley vintage, called one of the best by winemakers not because it was perfect, but because it was balanced in such a way that winemakers truly could make any decision that they wanted in regard to when to harvest their grapes. For the first time in perhaps two decades, you're getting exactly what winemakers chose in the 2013 vintage, weather was not at issue, not at all.

Gnarley Head Old Vine Zinfandel Gnarley Head has definitely begun to show up at every grocery store and drug store in America. To my knowledge, it's the first wine brand to actually be shipping Old Vine Zinfandel at these prices (about $12 these days, about $8 originally).  Based out of Lodi, it's a nice opportunity to show what old vine Zin actually looks like-the vines are literally gnarled and grown onto themselves. Aged at 35 years or more, these are vines that I do think deserve to be called old vines, it's a good wine at a more than fair price.

The Prisoner Red Wine

The Prisioner is a red wine blend from Napa, consistently scored in the low 90 point range-the nice thing about bringing wines for July 4th in my opinion is that it's fun to bring stuff to start a conversation at times.  The guy in chains on the wine bottle? That's get a chuckle, or at least a comment from most everyone around. We see this priced at $40 online, but our local Safeway again had it on sale for about half that-an especially good deal at a price point that grocery stores, I don't believe sell very well.


Insurrection WineInsurrection: the first time I've seen this bottle-it's something I would have picked up, based on the label alone. From Australia, which I would have noticed after seeing the Shiraz listed on the front, instead of the French or American Syrah. It's a Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Prototypically Aussie in flavor profile, bigger is better....hey they fooled someone at my local Safeway....for July 4th-who puts an Aussie wine on an endcap?


Seghesio ZinfandelIf you haven't noticed as of yet, I think Zinfandel is probably the best choice for a BBQ-so I had to include what amounts of the classic version from Sonoma.  Seghesio is a multi generational family owned winery (and are really, really nice people when you meet them at trade events, even if you're someone like me and my wine of the month club that doesn't fit for what they're doing, or what we're doing) and the Zinfandel offers a slighter touch than that of the Gnarley Head, or most others.  There's a sense of finesse here that isn't always evident with the varietal. At 92 points from Wine Spectator and $24 retail.....it can easily be the best wine you open with your non wine geeky friends on the 4th of July-and it'll make everyone happy.