Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
May 7, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Andretti Merlot Napa Valley 2011

Can Merlot be a serious grape? What if it comes from a vintage that has been universally panned in the main stream press?  What if it’s from Napa Valley?

We’ve talked about Andretti in the past, of course, with almost unlimited financial backing both through ownership cash infusions, as well as the clout to arrange meetings with any restaurant group, distributor or broker in the world, there’s going to be some good wine made.

Andretti’s wines are made by esteemed winemaker Bob Pepi, which is why this is taken off the curiosity list and into the category of, high quality wines….at least in my opinion. Although known for his work as his father’s right hand so to speak in developing Sangiovese in the Valley, Pepi’s history in Napa makes Merlot, in my opinion a natural off shoot.

Pepi’s been in the valley for his entire life and the ability to continually source outstanding grapes, comes largely from relationships in Napa Valley.  There’s about 1400 people total in Napa making wine today, most of which wouldn’t give Merlot a second look.  They’re too busy thinking about a Sonoma Coast Pinot, or a mountain Cabernet.  History isn’t a bad thing though in this case, in Bordeaux Cabernet and Merlot inhabit opposite sides of the river and neither is considered a red headed step child, as Merlot has become here in California.  An old world approach respects Merlot for what it can be given a solid vineyard and a good growing year.

That brings me to the much malingned 2011 vintage in Napa Valley.  Was it colder than normal? Yes, it was.  My meetings with winemakers though are interesting when it comes to their 2011 wines….I’m not scared of shipping them and I think my wine club customers have enjoyed them enough that I don’t need to intentionally skip the vintage as a whole in Napa.  Winemakers don’t know that though.  Inevitably, they’ll open an ‘11 and say….take it with a grain of salt, it’s an ‘11.  Then they’ll ask as soon as I’ve tasted it, pretty good right? When you look at the sun hours chart for the vintage (I haven’t seen it online, but some of the more scientifically inclined winemakers swear by the thing, which all too often is sitting above their chemistry set) it was about 10% cooler than normal.  To me, once you taste what’s here, it isn’t a death knell for the vintage.  Are these classic Napa wines? Not exactly, they’re a bit more acidic and austere, but Napa’s been a world famous wine region for a generation in large part because everything, ALWAYS gets ripe.  Hell, you can’t complain about Napa being too “big” and “over-ripe” in the 2010 vintage, then come back and say that the ‘11’s are underripe and undrinkable.  I mean, sure we can all be some version of Goldilocks and looking for the perfect fit for our cash and wine expenditures, but when you actually open this and drink it, I think you’ll say the same thing that the average winemaker does: this is pretty good.

Folks in our Special Selections Wine Club, as well as select members of our Reserve Selections Wine Club will get a chance to tell us, can Merlot be taken seriously?

Mark Aselstine
May 6, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Caraccioli Sparkling Brut 2008

Caraccioli Sparkling Brut 2008

I have to admit, I didn’t drink a lot of sparkling wine before a few months ago, but necessity intervened.  To start, we’re expanding our gift basket offerings, including a breakfast styled gift basket, so I need a sparkling wine to carry and include in that basket.

Secondly, my wife does love her Champagne.  If you aren’t familiar, California technically cannot produce Champagne since that’s a region in France and while a few brands don’t bother following what is actually law, all sparkling wine, even when made from Chardonnay, should be labeled as sparkling wine….not Champagne.  I’m suspicious of those not following the rules there, since it seems like an easy marketing mechanism to steal some extra on premise sales and I hate those wines that are brand driven, instead of being quality driven.

Ok so more important, Caraccioli.  There aren’t many small production sparkling wine houses in California-in fact other than J Vineyards and Korbel, even Sonoma and Napa offer a select few choices, none of which I both liked enough to ship while being small enough production to warrant my attention. Caracciloi is a project from Gary Caraccioli who leads what is a 4th generation of farmers, making wine for the first time starting in 2006.  Early returns on the sparkling side have been solid, or above and as we move into later vintages, there’s the opportunity for much, much more.  These grapes come exclusively from the famed Santa Lucia Highlands, known world wide for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The Brut Cuvee in your glass is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, made in a traditional fashion.  I had originally run into Caraccioli a couple of years back, but this is our first large scale release of their wine to our wine club customers, in large part because production is incredibly small. Also, I ran into a pretty famous critic, who used to write for Wine Advocate, who asked his name not be used here….we chatted about the death of sparkling wine startups in California, only to have him mention Caraccioli and that the scores are sitting in the low 90’s now, but they’re figuring out the winemaking side of things and their fruit is among the best in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

That was enough for me and this could easily be our house sparkler, if we could pay about $50 for the privilege.  When compared to some of the larger labels out there, you’ll find a sense of depth and nuance here that belies the youth of the winery, but shows what might truly be possible when it comes to sparkling wine production in California’s colder climates. We hope that our wine of the month club members enjoy the first sparkling wine we've found sufficient in quality to ship in the past two years.

Mark Aselstine
May 5, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Dexter Lake California Red Wine 2013

Dexter Lake 2013 California Red Wine BottleIt’s the most ridiculous bottle I’ve run into in some time.  There’s the mustache, which makes me think I should have shipped this thing in Movember, instead of the spring.  Then there’s the free Wordpress website that hasn’t been updated since the summer of 2013.

Seems like a winery trying really hard for sales, right?  Kind of a mess too, right?

I thought the exact same things, before I actually opened a bottle.  It’s good and it’s a classic California red.  Which led me to do some more digging about how this weird, strange thing ended up on my doorstep.

Dexter Lake is a project from winemaker Matthew Rorick, who makes the acclaimed Forlorn Hope Wines. Since those are almost stupidly small production lots, I’ll let Jon Bonne from the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine section do some of the introduction for me.  Bonne called Rorick a winemaker to watch in 2013 and has included his Forlorn Hope label among 150 wineries leading the charge to a new type and style of wine in California.  That style is one I am more accustomed to than most (it’s what I would make, if I could in fact make wine) but has led to some interesting experiences.  Rorick’s first Chardonnay spent 14 months fermenting because he used native yeasts and the fermentation kept stopping when the weather got cold, hot, rained etc.  It would make a less patient guy dump in some commercial yeasts like most winemakers, only to return after 21 days to a finished fermentation.  Instead, he’s continued, native yeasts, whole grape clusters and only a touch of sulfur (other than Donkey and Goat, God Bless you if you find anyone else not using any these days).  Maybe it’s Rorick’s background as a surfer in San Diego (Oceanside, but we counted it as kids, so I’ll count it here) but there’s a patience here.

Part of that patience I’m afraid does come from his wife’s family owning Snowden Vineyards in Napa, a winery that we’ve shipped in our Special Selections Wine Club previously, but the profile of Snowden has undoubtedly allowed Rorick the space to generate the types of wines that he wants.  

Emboldened by a 19th century winemaking text Rorick is working to master a new generation of California wine, even if the winemaking techniques he’s using happen to have been created in the Chateau’s of Bordeaux, around the time when Charles Darwin was walking around London.

Oh and before I forget, this is a series of old vine vineyards in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco, which make up the backbone for this wine.  Sometimes, even superstar winemakers want to try something new and when they do, they often have a 2nd label to do so. We think our Explorations Wine Club members are going to especially enjoy this full bodied California red, that comes in at only 13% alcohol, a trick of native yeast to be sure.


Mark Aselstine
May 4, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Cane & Fable

Cane and Fable Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon BottleCane & Fable is a joint project between two winemakers.  First, Curt Schalchlin who produces Sans Liege, a series of incredibly small production wines that he makes completely by himself. Secondly, you have Andrew Jones who produces the wines at Field Recordings, but is known as much as a grower as a winemaker.

Both Schalchlin and Jones work out of the California Central Coast, so this version of Cabernet Sauvignon coming from Paso Robles is a natural off shoot for both of them.

You might be wondering how a second label like this came about for each of them, given their schedules and the fact that both are already pressed for time.  That’s a question that I asked Curt when we sat down and tasted through a range of his wines at Berkeley’s acclaimed Bartavelle, over a couple of orders of Avocado toast. He said that both of the winemakers behind Cane & Fable wanted to produce a high quality Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, but neither wanted to add an entirely new wine, or range of wines to their brand.  Neither Sans Liege, nor Field Recordings feature a Cabernet, so both winemakers felt that having one on their site, would add an element of confusion especially given that neither focuses on Bordeaux varietals.

So here we have Cane & Fable, interesting label don’t you think? At first, I found the image of the insect rather strange, but when we’ve opened a bottle for friends, they’ve remarked that it’s both interesting and really, really well put together. Ok, maybe I’m just out of touch here.

Paso Robles doesn’t get enough credit for their Cabernet Sauvignon, that’s in large part because Napa Valley so dominates the California landscape and discourse around Cabernet.  Paso also has chosen, largely based on its own history within the wine industry, so focus on Rhone varietals like Grenache and Syrah. Cabernet is only now being granted some of the best vineyard spaces in new Paso Robles vineyards.  Cabernet also needs a more nuanced approach to growing than the east side of Paso Robles can offer, it’s simply too hot for great Cabernet there. West side Paso Robles though offers an abundance of good vineyard space for Cabernet, if vintners and growers are willing to devote the space to what’s affectionately called, the king of grapes.  As you might expect, in Paso, some simply are not. If you’re wondering, Cabernet is the king because it garners the highest prices per acre for the farmer, as well as for the vintner once it’s in the bottle.

Things are changing though, much like I mentioned when it comes to Anderson Valley and Pinot Noir, there’s always a weird guy in the room ready to try something outside the beaten path. Paso’s into their second decade of Cabernet production, which allows wines like this to be made; the winemakers found some extra grapes on the market and crafted a wine that holds up well, especially when you consider the price point, when compared to any others in California.

I’m typically pretty skeptical of these types of partnerships, after all the end result of these types of joint projects are only as good as the grapes going into them.  Many, too many in fact, are simply a couple of winemakers taking juice they cannot sell themselves and adding it to a second label, for some quick dollars.  Cane & Fable rises above those lower expectations and at a price point of $20, this is a nice house Cabernet Sauvignon.  We’re including our last few bottles of Cane & Fable Cabernet Sauvignon in the coming days for new wine club members. Reviews in the main stream press are non existent, largely because production is so small and Cane & Fable is only sold directly from the wineries themselves (let’s recall, their small staffing levels, winemakers only) or from a broker or two in larger markets. Wine Spectator especially won’t review these types of wines because they aren’t available to enough of their 3M+ readers and Wine Advocate doesn’t spend as much time in Paso as many would hope. Even on Cellar Tracker, there’s only 3 reviews for the wine across all vintages, but with an average score of 91.3 points, I think that is a pretty consistent with the quality of what’s being produced.

We’ve enjoyed working with this wine and we hope you enjoy it as well.

Mark Aselstine
May 1, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

The Best Wine Writing of April 2015

Something new for us here at Uncorked Ventures, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite wine writing on the web.  We’ll cover blogs and independent writing moreso than the large nationally known sites and reviewers, since we find that people paying $50 for bottles of wine are already familiar with Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and a host of other print mags.  Additionally, the blogosphere isn’t constrained by space, or typespace, so you can find more in depth, authoratitive studies of wines, wineries and wine regions.

WineCompass: A nice review of winechat from a couple of weeks back (I talked about it here).  I’m always interested to see people’s responses to chat’s like this and NAME HERE received wine from two classic Santa Barbara names: Bridlewood and Babcock. The Winecompass blog is interesting for a few reasons.  To start it’s based in Virginia, which gives the author an interesting perspective on California wine, as well as a slightly different way of experiencing it.  Plus, he covers plenty of beer in his space as well, truly one of the few places I’ve found online where I can read about truly local craft beer in Virginia.  Well worth a look.

Wine on Six: When of consumers largest complaints is that restaurants and wine bars charge so damn much for wine on their lists.  Wine on Six is based in the UK and does a good job covering that issue in their article about 67 Pall Mall, which is a new on site wine club in London. With a yearly membership fee and a swanky space, it’s much different than my setup, but many of the issues are truly the same: delivering value.  I enjoyed the look into restaurant markup’s in the UK, which I think is an interesting wine market to follow.  First, it’s a massive market and second, it’s been established for hundreds of years, most of which without a high end locally made wine industry.  It’s one of the few markets to carry those two constraints at the same time and continues to be among the most interesting markets in the world because of it.

The Wine Sleuth: It’s spring and the Wine Sleuth is among the first to realize that (maybe it’s still cold for the east coast folks?) and put together a list of the best and easiest ways to pair food and wine in the spring.  From anchovy toast, which might be a tough sell in my house, to chocolate dessert which would be a much easier sell, it’s an interesting and insightful look into what’s possible with classic spring food choices.

Luscious Lushes: Thea always has some interesting stuff and the same is true in April.  This month I enjoyed the article about El Dorado wineries, it’s a region that doesn’t as much respect as some others either in the main stream press, or the blogosphere.  I find the struggles of regions like Livermore, El Dorado and Lodi to gain press an interesting thing to watch and I was glad to see Thea cover Lava Cap, which rightfully is starting to gain a following by grabbing plenty of minerality in their Chardonnay.

Another Wine Blog: AWB is among the 10 best out there IMO and this is a good example.  While so many talk about large scale consumer tastings and how fun they are, I rarely end up enjoying them myself.  It’s hard to hear, it’s hot and quite frankly after a half hour, the wine begins to run together. AWB does a nice job at explaining some of the pitfalls of large scale consumer tastings, even when they’re put on by the Languedoc in France.

Wine Folly: Madeline has one of the most interesting sites in wine and probably the only one that does Infographics this darn well.  Really worth a look. I enjoyed the article about Brunello vs Barolo.  Italy is an interesting wine producer simply because the country uses native grapes for so much of its wine.  So many wine regions around the world have moved away from their native grapes toward international varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon and certainly Italy has been successful with their Super Tuscan program (a blend of a native grape, with an international variety) but the backbone of their wine industry is still native grapes: in this case Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.  Personally, put me in the Barolo camp.

Chasing the Vine: Always one of my favorite blogs online because the images are awesome, Chasing the Vine had a series of postcard style shots from Paso Robles.  It’s a blog especially worth your time if you’re in NYC, as Lauren does a nice job at covering upcoming tasting events in and around the city.

Passionate Foodie: Has an interesting take on the single country wine list.  First, yes I agree….I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an Italian restaurant to have only wines from Italy. The one thing I HATE seeing at restaurants, is the exact same wines that are being served at the restaurant next door.  I want restaurants, especially if they’re making a 400% profit on each bottle of wine….to actually try to have an interesting list.  Is that asking too much? Passionate Foodie doesn’t think so.

Vindulge: Mary at Vindulge has one of the most in depth pizza posts I’ve ever seen.  Smoked vs grilled pizza, along with pairing advice and a brevy of interesting images? Sign me up for more posts like this one, even if it’s something of a guest post written by Mary’s husband (extra credit, for the baby Bjorn)

We realize that people who are members of our wine clubs buy wine from others, like their local wine retailer, grocery store, etc.  We also know they likely gather information about the wines we ship as well as other wine information from other sources.  We're happy to share some of our favorites.

Time Posted: May 1, 2015 at 9:22 AM