Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
March 24, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

R2 Wine Company

When Matt and I started Uncorked Ventures, our first tasting appointment was with Alpha Omega in Napa Valley.  The first time we ventured to Sonoma, we had a 10am appointment (yes, we’re *professionals* so we taste that early) at Copain and despite Matt losing a shirt to a coffee stain at the front gate, Copain became one of our favorite wineries to work with.

That was a few years ago and while we continue to be fans of Wells Gunthrie and Copain, I recently ran into a new wine project called R2 Wine Company.  Drew Huffine was part of the winemaking team at Copain when we were there at the beginning of Uncorked Ventures (which coincided with their shift into lower alcohol wines) and now Huffine is the winemaker in charge of R2. R2 Wine Company is owned by Roger & Richard Roessler, originally known for founding and then selling their namesake brand, Roessler Cellars which had Wells Guthrie from Copain as winemaker. While the Roessler story is certainly important, it’s a bit of an off shoot from my experience with R2 Wine Company and a story for another day.

I had the chance to meet Drew Huffine, the winemaker at R2 Wine Company at Bratavelle (Berkeley, California) on the morning of Valentine’s Day along with John Rojas from Titan Wines.  I love where I live, partially because my family enjoys the city of San Francisco, but also because I’m only a half hour or so outside of Napa and Sonoma.  It’s rare though that I meet a winemaker who lives nearby and Drew lives only a few miles down the road.  He’s also a Santa Barbara guy as well, which I appreciate.

R2 is an interesting winery in concept, theory and most importantly, execution.  Production on an overall basis doesn’t seem incredibly small, but in reality half the total production of the winery is a single wine, Black Pine.  I’ll have some comments about this wine and Huffine’s marketing skills, at the end of the article since Black Pine, isn’t their most important when it comes to our customers.

The other half of production centers around a series of smaller production wines.  The morning of our tasting I had the chance to taste a range of offerings from R2 and came away impressed with the lot.  In many ways, these are wines which are reminiscent of Copain.  Not overly big or fruit forward, but not translucent either, they walk a nice middle ground in terms of fruit vs acidity, as well as flavor combinations.

On the white wine side two wines stood out to me.  First was the Big Bend White.  In reality, it’s a Chardonnay from Carneros. I’ve voiced my general displeasure with many Chardonnay’s in this space before because of their overall lack of acidity, but I am happy to report, this wine doesn’t suffer that same fate.  Sourced from Big Bend Vineyard which sits at the base of the hill which separates Petaluma from Sonoma, Big Bend is in many ways, a typical Carneros Chardonnay, only it retails for $25 instead of the $40-$50 price points that you’ll see elsewhere. It’s a wine that sips well by itself, as well as with food (this is where I see some of the Copain influence on Huffine’s style more than other winemakers I taste with) and carries a nice combination of tropical fruit on the nose, followed by more zesty citrus notes.  It’s a wine my wife and I could drink, which isn’t typical for a Chardonnay.

The second white that deserves a note here is the Vin Blancs.  So, we shipped this wine to a few of our wine club members last month, so that might tell you all you need to know about how I felt about this wine-but it really deserves more of a mention here.  Simply put, this is one of the best examples of Viognier I’ve found in the past two years.  You’ll notice, they didn’t call this wine a Viognier even though they could (it’s 80% Viognier, 16% Roussane and 4% Grenache Blanc) for a couple of reasons.  To start, Huffine talked about the ability to blend as they see fit on a yearly basis.  Given the sourcing of the fruit coming from the Central Coast, Huffine said he could imagine years where the Viognier is well under the required 75% for it’s name to be included on the label.  Plus, it’s harder to sell a Viognier than it is a randomly labeled white.  While others have written about this much more authoritatively than I can, I think there are two main issues selling Viognier.  First, the average consumer can’t pronounce it, so they aren’t going to ask for it.  Second, most of the Viognier that gets produced tastes like over extracted oak bombs that will make you pine for a beer.

This wine walks the hard line between the reasons why the French have loved Viognier as the backbone for blends in the Rhone for generations and why, it can be difficult to make well.  Viognier has a certain, rounded mouthfeel.  I’ve called it my favorite white wine grape to serve to people who “only drink red wine” in the past because to me, it’s the closest to a red wine in terms of a full mouthfeel.

That mouthfeel often gets a bit out of control and it becomes hard to imagine finding a good food pairing for the wine, which is where I think you see some of the innovation that the California wine industry is known for.  If you buy a red wine blend from the Rhone, it’s like a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre) but you’ll note only a small percentage of the wine is typically Mouvedre. Mouvedre is typically extremely tannic and is used in these blends to provide some additional backbone to the wine.  I bring that up because of the small amount of Grenache Blanc in this blend.  Anthony Yount, the winemaker at Denner and his own Kinero Cellars project sent us a Grenache Blanc sample a year or so ago, that we loved, but couldn’t ship because the acidity nearly knocked us over.  Matt described it as bracing.  I found it interesting.  As I’ve found, some vineyards on the Central Coast consistently produce Grenache Blanc with that level of acidity.  If you were a winemaker, knowing the history of blending in the Rhone and elsewhere, wouldn’t including some Grenache Blanc with your Viognier seem to make sense?  Huffine told me that the Grenache Blanc exists here speficially for the acidity and helps to show where winemaking is as much art, as science.  Without going into too many superlatives, this Vin Blancs is a pretty picture and if you’re stuck in a Chardonnay rut, find a bottle.

On the red wine side, select wine club customers have received the Rhapsody Red Wine Blend from R2 Wine Company.  This was interesting.  When I heard, red wine blend, I was prepared for another GSM.  As it turns out, this samples like a GSM from Paso Robles, but gets there in a different path.  54% Grenache, 23% Mourvedre and 23% Carignane.  The flavor profile is familiar, yet different at the same time.  R2 calls it complex, yet approachable which is a statement that I can agree with. Of interest to me is the way that the Carignan (in California we tend to add a trailing “e” that you won’t see in French versions) interacts with Grenache in the blend, imposing its color and structure to the wine. It’s a bright and vibrant wine that I’m as happy to open with friends on a Tuesday, as I am on a Saturday.

R2 Wine Company Black Pine Pinot NoirLastly, I need to say something about Huffine and marketing in general.  When we first opened, that meeting at Alpha Omega occurred with a winemaker who was also the General Manager of the winery.  That’s something of an ideal set up for us, we can decide on a wine that we like and then figure out a purchase path with the same person.  Sales guys are fine, but can complicate matters and let’s be frank, I didn’t start a wine business to deal with the winery’s sales guy. Huffine isn't the GM of R2 Wine Company, that’s getting increasingly rare as more money pours into the industry and sales targets, the ability to run SalesForce and marketing majors are increasingly in rougue, but R2 is a smaller winery where you get the idea that one partner, knows whom the winemaker is meeting with and why. We didn't run into a, "I need to ask my boss" type of response for anything, which is always a refreshing way to have a meeting.   I mentioned the Black Pine earlier, which represents about half of the production at R2, but doesn’t fit my program-so a bottle wasn’t available to sample.  A couple of days after we got together a bottle of the wine was waiting for me, magnum format signed by Drew Huffine.  It was a nice touch, but also showed that sometimes, winemakers simply care more for what they produce than do others and that of course, R2 is in good hands.

As you might have grown to expect at this point, yes this was written by Mark Aselstine.

Mark Aselstine
March 5, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

The California Drought and It's Affect on The Wine Industry

Despite all the stories about inclement weather in the Midwest and on the East Coast of late, California is in the middle of perhaps it's worst drought over the past thirty years.  As a kid I remember rocks ending up in front of a number of houses on our street, as well as the huge wild fires that seemed to increasingly spring up every fall in the hills outside of Los Angeles and San Diego....unfortunately this drought is suppose to much worse than that.

The saving grace so many years ago was that the Sierra Foothills and the Bay Area still were receiivng rain and snowfall roughly equivalent to their normal amounts.  Now, depending on who you ask, snow packs in the Sierra's are 25-50% of their average and there are serious issues with both rian water run off (or the lack thereof) as well as ground water amounts.

I'm starting to see farmers and vintners take a more serious look at how this may affect the wine industry both during this growing season, but also if something like this drought were to continue to unfold over the next few years.

In Lake County, they're talking about improving effeciency and stopping as much water loss as possible.  Healdburg, in many ways the home to the Russian River Valley has imposed a mandatory 20% cut on residents while the state is talking about telling farmers in the region that they simply cannot take any surface water at all this year.

Of course, for our purposes here: what's the likely affect on the wine industry, especially those high end wineries in the Russian River and those up and coming names in Lake County?

In some ways, it's a bit early to tell.  Spring will need to be wet to help, but very little water is typically used in grape cultivation during winter months as it is.  A hot, hot summer and little water won't be a good omen for either area though.  The concern is that a lack of winter rainfall leads to early bud break which, if followed by a severe frost (without ground water to help prevent it) could decimate crops across the region.

Of course, like anything, a couple of good rain storms and we'll all forget any of this was even being talked about.

Mark Aselstine
March 3, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Porter Family Vineyards

Porter Family Vineyards LogoPorter Family Vineyards is one of the most unique and interesting wineries in Napa Valley.  Located in the cool climate region of Coombsville, which I’ve talked about a bit in recent days, the defining aspect of Porter Family Vineyards is a rather large hill in the center of the vineyard. Lying within that hill is the 17,000 square foot winery that is now producing world class wines.

While other, perhaps better known properties in Rutherford and elsewhere in Napa are constantly trying to create these wine caves, which according to many within the industry, are the optimum way to both make wine, but also to age wine before its release, Porter Family Vineyards has one of the best natural setups I’ve had the opportunity to come across.

I ran into Porter Family Vineyards for the first time during a trip to the Ferry Building in San Francisco which seems to have been a bit of luck given that distribution for Porter is more heavily centered in Florida, rather than here in the Bay Area at least based on some of the distribution models that I’ve been able to dig up.

Tom and Beverly Porter have a story like many others, they moved to Napa to have a bit of peace and contentment in an otherwise busy world. Scientists by trade (Tom quite famously helped patent some of the technology that sits within every 3.5 inch floppy disk, as well as helping design the automated ticketing system for BART that gives my 3 year old no shortage of amusement when he knows how to put his ticket in and the tourists seemingly have problems) they seemingly couldn’t have been happy with simply making a bit of wine for themselves and family members, once they realized that they had something special on their hands.  The way that the family speaks in deference to a set of fossilized sandpiper tracks that they found on the property, I think helps to show that this is a different family than many others in Napa in both their long term goals for the property, but also the fact that they are bringing a sort of scientific method of study to their families winemaking venture. That combination of a long range way of looking at a winery project, shown both by putting the winery into the hill itself (not a cheap venture, to be sure) as well as putting their own name on the label, helps to explain that this is a wine project that is being made, to exist for quite some time. The Porter’s children, Heather and Tim, both of which have had careers of their own before being drawn to the winery project, also help run the day to day operations of the winery bringing a wide and diverse set of skills of their own to the project. Heather spends part of her time as their assistant winemaker while Tim helps to handle the winery's financials, an increasingly complicated and time consuming job for many projects these days.

This photo of Perata Luxury Tours - Private Wine Country Tours is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Of course, any amount of passion from owners doesn’t help, without the help of an outstanding winemaker.  Ken Bernards needs perhaps no introduction to the hard core oenophile, but a brief background shows a stop as onologist at Domaine Chandon and then a full career making world renowned Pinot Noir at Ancien Wines. Bernards continuing as winemaker once the Porter Family bought the property makes a ton of sense when you consider his background in Chemistry. This is the only winery website that I’ve ever seen that includes quotes from books like, John Reader, Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man

Lastly, I don’t want to leave our readers without a mention and highlight of the philanthropic nature of the winery itself.  Besides supporting a number of interesting and unique causes from the Napa Valley Food Bank to the Michigan Tech Fund, the family makes a wine called Amani.  This is pretty unique in the world of wine where wineries will sometimes make a wine and donate the profits, or a few dollars per sale.  The Porter Family donates the entire $28 purchase price per bottle to the Amani Children’s Home in Tanzania. Focused on not only rescuing children from a life on the street, but giving them a warm, safe and comfortable opportunity to build a new life for themselves afterward, it’s hard to think of a more worth endeavor for a wine.

Ok, so lastly a word about the wine.  This is classic Coombsville in many ways.  Cooler Cabernet Sauvignon meets Syrah and even a Rose and Chardonnay. Wine Spectator has consistently rated the wine at 90 points or above, noting strong and chewy tannins across multiple vintages-a highlight of cooler climate growing regions throughout Napa, especially Coombsville.

All of this is to say, this is clearly a winery worth of checking out and the next time you feel like ordering a few $30 bottles, Amani sounds like a nice way to do that doesn’t it?

Mark Aselstine
February 28, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Mercy Wines

Mercy Vineyards LogoA week or so ago I had the chance to meet Mike Kohne of Mercy Vineyards over coffee and came away impressed with the direction and goals of Mercy Vineyards, having already been impressed by Mercy’s wines, even if they won’t be showing up in one of our wine clubs for a few more months.

Kohne studied economics at UCSB (a place that I greatly enjoyed myself, so we had that in common, a rarity in the wine industry where Davis, Fresno and Cal Poly all have ardent supporters) and took a job with Beringer and has hardly looked back.

In many ways, Mercy and its location in the Arroyo Seco AVA is a natural progression for someone who broke into the wine industry, at an earlier time on the Central Coast.  While everyone currently thinks of Santa Barbara as a popular wine mecca, think back to the years before Sideways burst onto the national consciousness and you had a very different wine region.  Jaffurs which now seemingly has a line outside of their downtown tasting room on the weekends (Surfboards still present, thankfully) was once in a shared space, seemingly looking for ways to sell its 3,500 cases of high quality wine.  Los Olivos wasn’t the 30+ tasting room behemoth in wine travel on the Central Coast, but it was a sleepy little place that you might pass through on the way to other locations, grabbing a quick cup of coffee and then heading over to Fess Parker.

All that is to say is that things have changed in Santa Barbara.  Land is more expensive.  Grower relationships are also increasingly competitive. Those of us who remember a simpler time, might opt for a simpler region that hasn’t had that “it” moment yet, despite it’s ability to produce world class wine.

Enter the Arroyo Seco.

When I met with Mike, he wanted to make sure I understood part of what makes the Arroyo Seco so special.  Yes, it is a cool climate growing region, but it’s important to note that it has some famous neighbors.  First, I am sure you have heard of the Santa Lucia Highlands, that sits directly to the north of Arroyo Seco. In fact, the unique geography of Arroyo Seco has it partially further to the west of the Santa Lucia Highlands.  Now, I realize that the wine industry shouldn’t be in a race for the coldest vineyard locations in California, it only seems that way, but given the success of the Sonoma Coast, St Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands, how long is it going to be before someone makes a 98 point Pinot Noir from Arroyo Seco and puts the region on the map for the average wine drinker?  My guess, under 5 years.

Mercy Vineyards is though, more than a simple stab in the dark at a region likely to gain in market share and reputation over the coming years.  On the winemaking side of things they’ve brought on Alan Phillips who carries one of the best recommendations possible within California wine-he trained and worked with pioneer Andre Tchelistcheff  at S Anderson Vineyards in Napa Valley.

Tchelischeff has been called everything from the brain of California’s wine industry (Mondavi would be its face in this example) to the father of California wine.  Old friend Bill Daley who now writes over at the Chicago Tribune summed up Tchelischeff’s influence better than I could when he simply said,  “Andre Tchelistcheff arrived in California on the eve of World War II to find a wine industry still reeling from Prohibition. His skill at winemaking, his peerless palate and his mentorship of other winemakers helped make American wine what it is today”

Phillips himself has had a storied career within California wine, most recently he has become well known for work on his own Pinot Noir project Fontes & Phillips.

I hope you can see the dots I am trying to connect here-industry veterans find a great set of vineyard sites, hire an outstanding winemaker and, as you might expect, produce really, really high quality at a fair price because they choose an AVA that isn’t part of the regular wine conversation.

I hope you’ll take the time to check out Mercy Vineyards, our wine club members will see Mercy show up in a shipment fairly soon.

Of course, having a quality winemaker and high quality vineyards in the Arroyo Seco isn’t entirely unique-there are other wineries with similar profiles (at least a few) so here’s what I thought was interesting about Mercy’s wines:

Mercy Wines Sauvignon BlancSingle Vineyard Chardonnay’s: If you have a look at Mercy’s website, you’ll notice that they produce a few single vineyard Chardonnay’s and then an AVA designate Arroyo Seco Chardonnay.  I always find the opportunity to compare vineyard sites within the same AVA rather interesting and informative.  With small yields, you’ll notice rather quickly that these are wines of higher acidity and fit the profile of high quality Chardonnay, but ones which are not the stereotypical California butter and oak bombs of the past.

Sauvignon Blanc: Actually my favorite wine that Mercy makes, go ahead and call me a man of the people, it’s also their cheapest, it’s a Sauvignon Blanc with bracing acidity and one of the lighest colored Sauvignon Blanc’s that you’ll find anywhere.  Mercy describes it as straw colored, but I’d call it more like translucent-it’s a wine you can almost see directly through. Truly clean, it's a perfect summer wine and one my wife would easily enjoy as the temperatures continue to rise in the coming months.

The Pinot’s, much like the Chardonnay example above give the opportunity to taste a range of vineyards as well as an Arroyo Seco version.  Again, the vineyard and climate shine through here.  There is a bit of a tart finish on these, reminiscent of cooler climate growing regions that I’m sure you’ve heard of, but no so brisk and underwhelming to scare anyone away if they aren’t currently eating (Americans, lets remember drink wine with and without food).  Mercy does a good job at walking the line here between the world’s extremes when it comes to Pinot Noir and show well because of it.

As you can tell, it’s a quality winery now and is only likely to continue gaining in both reputation and sales as time goes by.  I’m happy to have gotten to know Mike a little bit before that all happened.

Mark Aselstine
February 19, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

Marita’s Vineyard

I’ve expressed my general displeasure in this space before about friends and family suggesting wines to me for my wine clubs, generally because small production means different things to different people.  Frankly, just because you’ve never heard of a winery before, doesn’t make it small production and usually, your wine store is getting its wine from the same four national distributors as the wine store down the street.  You know, if the winery is owned by one of Mondavi’s grandkids, it really isn’t THAT small production.

Sometimes though, a friend finds a gem that I wouldn’t have found on my own.

Marita's VineyardIn this case, I present Marita’s Vineyard.

At it’s core, Marita’s Vineyard is a story of a father and his two sons.  Given my toddler running around as I return emails, phone calls and pack boxes, I can appreciate this.  Marita’s Vineyard was founded in 2001 and had the same dream that so many of us do in the wine industry, to build something that is sustainable and can be passed to the next generation.

Marita’s though, in a number of other ways, is unique even in California in 2014.  Brothers Manual and Bulmaro Montes may have come of age in Napa Valley and the wine industry over the past four decades, but frankly speaking latino owned wineries are still few and far between in this day and age.  Given that my wife was born in Central America, this is something that we do notice at tasting events, charity auctions and wine events across the state. While I don’t think the exact number of latino owned wineries is available for public consumption, I’m aware of only about a dozen of the five hundred or so operating wineries in Napa. It’s a growing area of wine production both because of a burgeoning interest in wine in latin America in general, but also because the first major wave of latino immigrants is reaching an age, where they could theoretically have the available cash to make purchases like the 2.6 acre vineyard which serves as the backbone for Marita’s.

I want to be clear, I bring up the demographics at play because I think it’s important that the wine industry in Napa Valley and elsewhere continue to have a variety of voices in decision making positions.  Having a variety of viewpoints and experiences encourages innovation which is exactly how Napa has pulled even, or ahead of Bordeaux on the world’s stage. I may find this stuff even more interesting and significant than does the Montes family, but I think their unique hospitality and extremely high quality show what’s possible when a family wants to make both a life and a business in Napa Valley. I hope stories like this are always possible.

Marita’s Vineyard is, in other ways, a classic example of Coombsville.  While most wine drinkers cannot imagine that a region of Napa Valley can be undiscovered to this day, that in large part describes Coombsville (WIne Spectator by comparison has run cover stories on Atlas Peak, but Coombsville generally sits in the shadows).  It boasts an interesting and dare I say it, unique combination of volcanic soil and cool temperatures that aren’t found in many Cabernet vineyards anywhere in the world.

I was originally introduced to Coombsville by my friends over at Vellum Wine Craft, in the year before the AVA was finally formally adopted. What I found, was something I didn’t believe to be possible.  A Cabernet Sauvignon marked with a Napa Valley label, that showed more acidity than it did fruit.  I think reasonable people can disagree about where the proper fruit to acid ratio lands, but it has to be important that higher acidity wines are possible in great growing destinations like Napa Valley, even if they aren’t known for them. This is another area where I think Marita’s Vineyard shows an elegance and intelligence not apparent in all new wineries, they produce both a lighter styled wine as well as a dense and dark Cabernet Sauvignon which would make anyone who considers California Cult Cabernet the pantheon of wine, blush.

Lastly, I think it is important to note that when it comes to wine tasting in Napa Valley, one couldn’t find a bigger difference anywhere in the world than the tasting experience that you’re likely to find at Vellum, Marita’s Vineyard and other Coombsville properties with what you currently find in Rutherford.  In many ways, if you’ve ever seen the movie Bottleshock, it is like stepping back in time 40 years in Napa Valley.  There is a personal touch here that simply isn’t possible at a winery making a million cases of wine per year.  The Coombsville folks don’t seem to mind and also seem happy to help you find some other wine to drink from their friends and neighbors.  That spirit of camaraderie is more consistent with Napa in 1974 than Napa in 2014, but it shines through in Coombsville.

All that is to say quite simply, this was a memorable wine from a winery with a memorable story that more people should know about.

Written by Mark Aselstine.

Time Posted: Feb 19, 2014 at 4:19 PM