Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
May 25, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

UC Davis Trinchero Building

Trinchero Family Vineyards has been a Napa Valley landmark since the family left a comfortable life in New York City to live the dream in wine country. They bought an old and outdated winery which was once Sutter Home and began to remake the land, vineyards and buildings. Of course the profile of the winery took a dramatic step forward when they started producing what was likely the first White Zinfandel in California. While White Zin has certainly become the punch line of many jokes within the wine community of late, it helped to introduce a skeptical public to California wines in the 1980’s, well before the average American consumer realized the quality wines being produced domestically. Less well know is that the winery also had started to make a name for itself among the wine elite by a series of outstanding Amador county Zinfandel offerings. Ensuing decades brought even more changes and increases in quality including the purchase of over 200 of the best vineyards in Napa Valley as well as moving the winery into St. Helena. The end result of over 60 years in the wine trade: a really, really high quality Napa Valley winery producing approximately 12,000 cases of wine per year.

We bring up Trinchero today because UC Davis has officially dedicated an agriculture and environmental sciences building bearing the families name. While many wine drinkers realize that UC Davis educates and trains many American winemakers, most people don’t realize that the University does at least as much in terms of true viticulture research. Whether its genetic testing to find the parents of currently popular grape vines, or the continued research into stopping Phyllexora here and abroad UC Davis is truly living up to its charter as a University made to create high quality, relevant research. Additionally, the ties between the Mondavi family and Davis have been well chronicled elsewhere, but for someone working in the wine trade I can greatly appreciate another winery choosing to help support the greatest publicly funded research center in our industry, especially in a time where state funding is stretched incredibly thin.

Mark Aselstine
May 21, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

When Is Family Owned Not Family Owned?

We don’t talk competitors much in this space for a number of reasons, mainly because we don’t think it is appropriate, but every once in a while a wine that one of our competitors ships gets our attention.

While I won’t name them out of courtesy, I saw a post on a wine blog that I read frequently with the review of the wine club shipment.

The wine club in question sells itself in much the same way that we do, they’re family owned and feature family owned wineries.

The bottle in question was made by Fess Parker.

Yes, Fess Parker is family owned.

Yes, Fess Parker makes some nice wine.

Yes, Fess Parker has a great story behind it. (It was started by the actor of the same name who made a name for himself as Davey Crocket and Daniel Boone on tv)

I have to wonder though, if this is what customers expect when they hear about a family owned winery. The winery currently owns 1,500 acres of vines and crafts at least a few hundred thousand cases of wine annually.

I guess I wonder, when is family owned what we expect? Is there a production level limit as well? If so, where does it lie?

It also made me think how lucky we are to know the Santa Barbara wine scene so well. Fess Parker has been a providing and training ground for a number of up and coming winemakers in the area. Mike Siqouin who makes the wine at Beckmen Vineyards and under his personal label Kaena would have made an excellent choice. Blair Fox got his start at Fess Parker at that same time and now crafts Robert Parker’s favorite group of wines in the area out of a 200sq foot tasting room on the back of a coffee shop in Los Olivos, with pictures of his young children on the walls. Lastly, Larry Tercero makes wine under his own label to craft more eccentric wines which we’ve also enjoyed. Heck, the three of these winemakers now get together every year to celebrate their becoming friends while working at Fess Parker by making a wine called Thread. We were lucky enough to be present at a blending meeting during one trip to Beckmen Vineyards and saw them working to put the best barrel of fruit they each had into this interesting blend.

Maybe it’s some nostalgia on my part having lived in Santa Barbara for five years, but the wine scene is really full of great winemakers who have great stories to tell about why they make wine under their own label. I wish our competitors would take the time to discover those stories from time to time. Admittedly, this is the one competitor who I think works most closely to the way that we do, so it was even more surprising.

Time Posted: May 21, 2012 at 12:52 PM
Mark Aselstine
May 16, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

Steve Heimoff on Wine Reviews and Thank You’s

Steve Heimoff on Wine Reviews and Thank You’s

First let’s start if you aren’t familiar with Mr Heimoff, he is the west coast editor of Wine Enthusiast. He held the same position at Wine Spectator before moving over and has been a part of the wine industry for as long as I’ve been alive. Steve is a fixture of the California wine scene and behind the scenes, holds much of the same power when it comes to scores and selling wine as does Robert Parker, without much of the consumer acceptance.

Secondly, we’ll also mention that Wine Enthusiast runs a wine club and is a direct competitor of ours (no I’m not going to link to it here). They offer a few clubs and international choices end up in 3 of their 4 club options, so we won’t get too bent out of shape over the competition angle.

Of more interest for our customers is how Steve views his job working for a magazine which allows wineries to advertise, while reviewing and selling wine at the same time.

To me, that’s an interesting paradox and must be a challenge to keep all those activities separate. Yes, I think they do a good job currently, but it is a concern of mine going forward as competition in our space continues to increase. I mean, how can we expect newspapers to exist if they aren’t selling wine right?

In any case, I get what he’s saying about being thanked for being supportive. We get much of the same reaction, although on a much smaller scale I’m sure. As an independent wine club we aren’t required to buy wine from the same people year after year.

Yes, it can be strange and somewhat surreal to have to explain that you aren’t placing an order because you didn’t think the wine was as good in their current vintage. Yes, it can hurt relationships.

We hope that wineries whom we largely consider our partners more than anything understand that doing the best thing for our customers is good for everyone long term. There are plenty of distributors out there who are required to push whatever wine comes their way from their clients.

That isn’t our model and it won’t ever be our model.

As for Steve, I hope reviewers at his magazine and others are able to remain as impartial as he has always seemed to be.

Time Posted: May 16, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Mark Aselstine
April 30, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

Wine at Costco

I should start by saying I have a Costco membership. I’ve enjoyed it since it was called Price Club in Southern California.

Anyone who has ever been in a Costco on a Saturday or Sunday knows how busy the warehouse chain really is these days, everything from a first rate butcher to the cheapest toilet paper on the planet really brings in the crowds.

Heck, my 15 month old really loves Costco for the samples. Where else can we go that random people will give him food to try?

All that being said, I was somewhat sickened when I saw the CNBC show on the Costco Craze last week. Specifically the part about wine and how Costco’s lead wine buyer doesn’t view wine any differently than toilet paper.

If we’re really going to compare an agricultural product like wine to an inadament one like toilet paper, I think we’re in trouble at Costco when it comes to quality.

I could honestly see a parallel if they promoted someone from the beer or hard liquor department to take over the wine department when the previous buyer left, but I think the standardization of wine isn’t going to be a good thing for Costco long term.

Believe it or not, plenty of consumers like supporting local vintners. Plenty of consumers like supporting smaller vintners. Not everyone is buying wine simply on price. Plenty of people are choosing to buy wine based on quality. Yes, story matter for wine. There is romance. Vintage even matters. Unlike beer and other hard liquor, some years are better than others in certain regions.

If a wine buyer who is responsible for over 1B in yearly sales understands none of that, I have to seriously ask what might happen to the quality of wine being sold at Costco over the long term.

As an example, my local Costco here in San Francisco carries a much higher end sample from Bordeaux than does the Costco in San Diego where my in laws and parents live. Does that change? Will there be any thought in regard to local tastes? Sensibilities? Will it all be a price game? Should I expect other products like coffee to go down this same path?

Mark Aselstine
April 19, 2012 | Mark Aselstine

Stonestreet Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Every once in a while we can’t pass up a huge score and simply one of the top wines of the year. Let’s start with what Robert Parker had to say about Stonestreet’s latest vintage:

These are far and away the most impressive group of Stonestreet Alexander Mountain estate wines I have ever tasted. Kudos to proprietor Jess Jackson and winemakers Graham Weerts and Marcia Monahan for exploiting this high elevation terroir. This has been a work-in-progress for Jackson, and he has finally hit paydirt with the following wines. Readers need to pay close attention as there are some amazing Chardonnays as well as red wines emerging from Stonestreet. There are seven distinctive cuvees of Chardonnay, ranging in production from 185 cases of Red Point, to 660 cases of Lower Rim. All of these super-impressive efforts come from elevations of 900 to 1,800 feet. I tasted one Merlot and seven Cabernet Sauvignons, and as readers can tell, these are also impressive wines. Production ranges from approximately 250 cases of the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons (the only exception being the 5,000-case cuvee of Cabernet Sauvignon Monument Ridge)."

At 5,000 cases of production this is one of the largest production wines we’ve ever featured at any of our club levels, but while we know that our customers love our focus on smaller wineries, more than anything else they expect us to deliver incredible wine.

This Stonestreet is an incredible wine.

Rated at 96 points by Wine Enthusiast, 94 points by Robert Parker and ranked as the 11th best wine of 2011 by Wine Spectator-the critics universally agreed that this was a transcendent vintage for Stonestreet.

What stuck out to me and in the end made me want to feature this wine was its unusual combination of mountain fruit and a sense of balance or even finesse in its young age. A small hint at a coming attraction, but we’re featuring a wine from Audelssa next month that is cut from much the same cloth, but never submitted for scores because of its small production levels.

Time Posted: Apr 19, 2012 at 8:37 PM