Uncorked Ventures Blog
What is an Estate Wine?
While Alcohol-Beverage-Control and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacoo and Firearms have their own distinct rules for an estate wine, really there are two important notes. First an estate wine must have 100% of the grapes grown on a winery owned vineyard. That happens less often than you think, but perhaps more importantly the wine must then be made in its entirety in a continuous process, on its own site. Estate wines therefore are an expensive proposition with some estimates in Napa Valley showing minimum investments of $30 million needed to create an estate wine program.
It took me a while longer than I initially thought, but I do have plenty of thoughts on the wines and wineries that we encountered on the Finger Lakes Riesling Twitter #winechat last week.
Swedish Hill Winery 2012 Dry Riesling: Swedish Hill has one of the more extensive histories in the Finger Lakes region, with a winery dating back a quarter century and a history of grape cultivation on the property dating back at least two decades before that. The winery also seems to bring with a certain sense of humor. We’ve seen, well let’s call it hundreds of wineries with pictures of their dogs or even their cats on their websites. Heck, there’s even a calendar here in northern California devoted to Napa Valley’s dogs. Swedish Hill has a miniature donkey, now that’s something worthy of a picture during a visit and also I think speaks to the winery not wanting to take itself too seriously. Maybe they should take themselves more seriously though as Swedish Hill has grown to become one of the larger wineries in the Finger Lakes, now crafting about 60,000 cases per year. Still family owned the winery is focused on delivering a variety of wines, suitable for every palate while keeping everything they produce as food friendly as possible. I found their 2012 Dry Riesling to be the easiest of the bunch to pair with food and could imagine it being served well with a ton of different summer salad’s, including those focused on fruit just as easily as cheese and fish.
Standing Stone Vineyards Old West Block 2012 Riesling: The Standing Stone property has a history of cultivation going back to the early 70’s, although the current ownership group didn’t come into being until the early 1990’s. The focus at Standing Stone is on Riesling and Gewurztaminer which isn’t surprising given the cooler climate that they inhabit in the Finger Lakes, but one thing that struck me as I was learning a bit more about Standing Stone was that they are actively planting and testing red wine grapes as well, with plantings as varied as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Sapaeravi. The Sapaeravi planting caught my attention because it shows the winery is willing to experiment and is clearly trying to find the best fit in the vineyard, not at the table where marketing initiatives are creating. Native grapes often make incredible wine, but they can be hard to sell because the average consumer isn’t aware of them. I appreciate Standing Stone giving Sapaeravi a try and wish more wineries would do the same.
Red Newt Cellars Circle Riesling 2012: The Circle Riesling came in as the most decorated bottle by major wine critics with a range of scores encompassing 88 points from Wine Spectator and 90 points (and a Best Buy label) from Wine Enthusiast. Frankly, it didn’t take long to see why everyone enjoys this wine so much and it was certainly my favorite of the night. It was a refreshing, slightly sweet Riesling that would pair well with food, but also work well by itself. Notes on the palate included apple, fig and other stone fruits with an overwhelming sense that the winery should be charging more the $12 listed on their website, which feels more like a misprint than a real price. The winery adds a Bistro on site and has existed since 1998 and has taken a rather quick path to being, perhaps the most recognized name in Finger Lakes wine. If you wanted to select your first bottle, or two of Finger Lake Riesling, this would be my choice.
Wagner Vineayrds 2012 Riesling Select: Perhaps it continues to date me, but Wagner Vineyards was established the same year that I was born, 1979. With one of the most extensive histories in the region, Wagner also boasts that the current ownership group is the 5th generation of family growers involved in the direct operation of their vineyard. As with many of the wineries that I talk about here in California their winemaker, Ann Raffetto has a degree from Winemakers U (UC Davis) and has been at Wagner for over a quarter century herself. With a brewery and a café on site, it certainly seems like an interesting spot to stop in for a taste and the Riesling Select bottle that we received was one of the more interesting bottles of the night. It was the bottle that I was willing to share with neighbors who are seasoned wine lovers, one of whom worked a Sonoma harvest himself at one point earlier in life. The wine was the sweetest of the four standard bottles of the night and showed clear pineapple and honey overtones throughout both the nose as well as the palate. Given the sweetness involved and the ever increasing alcohol percentages at play here locally, I was almost amazed that the bottle came in at only 11.2% alcohol.
Fulkerson Winery 2012 Riesling Iced Wine: I almost feel badly about not having much to compare it to, but I’ve honestly never had another Riesling dessert wine as most of the local dessert offerings are Sauv Blanc or more often Viognier. In any case, it was interesting and I can see how it would work as an end of the night aperitif. The winery also appears to be doing a brisk business supplying others yeast, bottling supplies and much more.
Overall, this was an interesting experience. When I started Uncorked Ventures, I would have said that the hype surrounding wines from New York State was likely outreaching their quality. I still that's the case in regard to other regions, which is probably to be expected given New York City's status as the media capital of the world and all. That being said, the Red Newt wine in peculiar was a bit of eye opener. While I think too many people want to compare their wines to California (that's certainly the case among many NY wine backers) the regions are different enough than to really make it a moot point. There's some good wine being produced here, but we do need as an industry to keep expectations in line a bit in terms of the likely quality to be produced when a region is really out in front of all others in the United States. As we've seen with California's Central Coast and the Rhone Rangers outfits in Paso Robles, starting from scratch can often take generations.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I was impressed moreso than I expected I might be. Thank you again to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance for organizing, it was an insightful and interesting evening. While we might not be necessarily moving forward with a purchase of any of these sample wines today, the Red Newt in peculiar is on the radar for the future.
I can’t help but take a moment before talking about our #winechat last night which involved a series of sample bottles provided by Finger Lakes wineries to address the 12th anniversary of 9/11. So much has been written already by so many places I can’t add anything new to the discussion other than to simply say that here at Uncorked Ventures we hope that all of those who serve as first responders continue to stay safe and those who lost someone special on that horrific day find as much peace as humanly possible.
Thank you for all your sacrifices.
Ok, so on to wine chat for this September 11th.
A group of bloggers were sent a series of sample bottles of Riesling from the Finger Lakes wine region in New York State. To start with the most basic, the Finger Lakes is a region of wineries centered in western New York State. Ok, so maybe they’re technically central, but it all depends on the person you’re asking is from the City in which case anything 1 mile west of Manhattan is western, or from Buffalo. Since I was actually born in Buffalo and have plenty of family living on both sides of the great divide of New York State, that is the city vs upstate (ie everyone else) I feel confident in my ability to point that out without making anyone too upset.
Anyway if you look at the map of New York State you’ll find out a few things almost immediately. First the Finger Lakes are aptly named since they’re long and they all run in parallel to each other in a north-south plane. Seriously, they really do look like fingers.
Secondly, they’re well positioned as an area to take advantage of much of what New York State has to offer. Yes, the city is a way’s off, but the Thruway is easily accessible (it’s still hard to type that after driving a Freeway my entire life in Southern California and no, I still can’t believe they charge tolls as often as they do) and offers relatively easy access into America’s largest and most important market. Secondary cities in New York State also offer their own unique and interesting mixes of food and wine culture as well as growing markets for Finger Lakes vintners. Buffalo was decimated in the same way as Pittsburgh by the end of the American steel industry, but has been staging a comeback of sorts as America’s insurance home. Albany is the state capital to one of the largest states in the country, in fact the one which holds the world’s financial center. Syracuse is a diverse, urban and often gritty college town which is still one of my favorite places to see a basketball game anywhere in the world. Rochester has one of the most diverse economies in the region, in fact one that we’d be proud to call our own here in California, even after Kodak virtually went belly up taking many jobs with it. All of this is to say, there’s a market for local wine, it’s big and it’s growing. Additionally, the location also offers relatively easy over land access to other major market’s both on the east coast as well as in the Midwest, after all Philadelphia is barely any further away than is New York City. This is equivalent to Napa Valley vintners selling their wine in Los Angeles here in California, a day’s trip isn’t anything to worry about.
Of more interest perhaps for our readers is the focus of the Finger Lakes. The climate and the influence from the lake’s ensure that the region is often thought of in the same terms as the Rhine region of Germany. Much like the Rhine, the Finger Lakes focuses on Riesling.
Riesling, as we know given the amazing work of the faculty and researchers at UC Davis to document the genetic past of wine grapes across the world, was actually born in the Rhine Valley of Germany, likely in the 14th or 15th century. Generally speaking most wine consumers know this grape as its slightly sweet version, although dry versions are created on a yearly basis as well. One of my favorite moments during this week’s #winechat was hearing from a few of the New York wineries about how they chose to have a dry wine, or a sweet wine. I enjoyed the fact that most produce some of both from different blocks in the vineyard, after all I do agree that both versions of the wine have an attainable market.
Really what you need to know about Riesling lies in it’s percentages. It is both the 20th most planted wine grape in the world, but likely the 3rd most important white wine grape and certainly among the top 10 overall. That is simply to say that finding good growing conditions for the grape can be easier said than done, but if you find them the results can truly be both memorable as well as superb.
More on the wines as well as our community tasting notes tomorrow-
I have to admit, I find it easy to be mesmerized by Santa Barbara wine country and that’s not just because I enjoyed my time in Santa Barbara, the warmer weather and views make it one of the most appealing wine destinations in America.
Of course, Ampelos Cellars and their owners share some of those same thoughts which helps to explain how they ended up retiring onto 80+ acres in the Sta. Rita Hills all the while creating a new business for themselves.
I think the background of Ampelos is interesting, the winery is named after a Greek word for wine, largely taken because the proprietors have owned a bed and breakfast on a small Greek island for some time. For many, retiring to that small Greek island would have been a happy enough end don’t you think?
For Rebecca and Peter Work, having one incredible retirement opportunity simply wasn’t enough, it seems they wanted both the beachside bed and breakfast as well as the winery.
Of course, most people don’t end up owning a vineyard without some type of connection to the wine industry and for the Work’s, their connection is among the clearest possible. Their son Don Work is the current winemaker at Sea Smoke. It bears a quick mention that neither the quality of the grapes in the Sta Rita Hills need a long mention in this space, but neither does the quality of the wines being produced at Sea Smoke. It’s said that California lacks the Grand Cru classification system that has served Bordeaux well for about 150 years, but we’ve heard from respected sources like Wine Spectator that the vineyards owned by Sea Smoke would certainly be included, or at least seriously considered among the five best in the state, or the equivilant to our Grand Cru. Additionally, Sea Smoke works solely off a mailing list these days, making the wines as successful with consumers as they are with critics. We’ve heard they’re the Studio 54 of wineries, it’s hard to get in, but once you do, you never want to leave.
Ok, so what do you have here at Ampelos? To start, you have a winemaker who currently holds the same title at a winery that makes wines you simply can’t buy , they’re too sought after and the mailing list attached to them reportedly is about a decade long. You also have a vineyard purchased in an earlier era of Santa Barbara wine, before Sideways and the hype which has ensued. Has Ampelos enjoyed the critical acclaim that Sea Smoke has? Certainly not and before Don Work ascended at Sea Smoke, Ampelos would have been simply one of about a dozen wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands that we thought was ready to take the next step to making world renowned wine. Now, that connection is more clear that many realize and we think, the time is right to enjoy an Ampelos wine, after all a long mailing list is likely in their future as well.
Here’s what to taste from Ampelos:
Pinot Noir. Let’s not get too complicated here, any Pinot made here is going to be among the best in California in a given vintage.
Grenache: I personally think it’s the next big thing from the Santa Lucia Highlands as the wine comes off these cooler vineyard sites with an incredible depth of flavors and spices. It seems as an industry we’re constantly looking for the next big thing when it comes to cool weather grapes, perhaps we’re just making things too complicated.
Late Harvest Viognier: Despite my Studio 54 reference earlier, I’m still a Millennial. Yeah, I know. In any case we’re reaching an age where a greater percentage of people have grown up drinking sweeter beverages than ever before from juice to soda. All that means is that there’s going to be an ever increasing market and market demand for sweet dessert wines. You don’t see ice wine’s or Port’s you’d actually want to drink at this $25 price point often.
Dos Lagos Vineyards, in my estimation is going to one of the most talked about names in Napa Valley within 5 years: Here's Why:
I’ve talked about Atlas Peak before in this space, but it is truly one of the more interesting and unique places in Napa Valley these days. I’ve heard it described by a few folks who have been the Valley for some time (certainly longer than I have) that Atlas Peak is much like walking back in time, to a simpler time in Napa. That’s a time before the tasting of Paris, before the $30M+ sales of wineries and before the pretentious nature of some wineries which have gained famous names more for real estate than for wine.
When we start to look at wineries and wines to include in our wine clubs, we tend to look at two things. Vineyards and winemakers. Sure a great story is a bonus and makes writing these blog entries and newsletters easier, but at the end of the day the most important aspect of a winery is what ends up in the glass.
The vineyards on Atlas Peak aren’t at issue any more. The wide ranging and dramatic success of Stagecoach Vineyard among others has truly put the AVA on the map when it comes out outstanding growing areas for Cabernet, among other grapes. In fact, when we’ve done informal taste tests with some of our best customers, they tend to enjoy Atlas Peak wines at least as much as their more famous relatives on Howell Mountain and other mountain AVA’s within Napa Valley.
The second aspect of a winery is their winemaker. Here’s where everyone should truly be sold on Dos Lagos-their winemaker is Robert Foley. Foley isn’t one of the new generation of winemaker superstars who doubles on the San Francisco celebrity circuit, but you’ll recognize a few of his winemaking projects immediately: Pride, Switchback Ridge and School House. If you were to ask a number of wine critics which Napa Valley winery made mountain fruit a household attraction, I’m betting more than half would tell you that Pride is the biggest thing in mountain wineries within Napa. All that is to say that Foley’s credentials are as strong as any winemaker, anywhere.
If you were wondering how Foley came to this project, a short guess has to be centered around the fact that the grapes from Dos Lagos are in his own wineries’ Claret. If you feel strongly enough about a vineyard to include them in a wine whcih carries your own name you're probably going to feel comfortable making an esate wine for the fruit as welll. Foley hasn’t taken on a new project, by our count at least, for at least a decade. For an industry veteran, I think that speaks volumes about what he thinks of the Dos Lagos fruit.
Lastly, no article about a winery is complete without talking about the folks behind the idea and the brand. Dos Lagos is owned by Tom & Marcie Dinkel. The Dinkel’s, unlike so many winery owners (or even wine club owners, present company included) have chosen to not clutter their own website with personal information-so suffice to say that the couple seems to have a diverse set of interests, such as a day job in solar power, loving the America’s Cup which has finally come to San Francisco and of course some art along the way as well.
If you’re looking for a new, interesting Napa Valley Cabernet then Dos Lagos should be at the top of your list. With their first vintage under a decade ago, Dos Lagos is still a new venture and stands to continue gaining market share and attention as time goes on.
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