Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
 
November 8, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

The Passionate Foodie, Emerson Brown Drink Local & More

With the state legislature in Massachusetts set to vote on a direct shipping bill sponsored by Free the Grapes (among others of course) which would bring the state largely into compliance with an increasing number of states allowing competition, abiding by the commerce clause (if you believe it actually exists, or has gone way of the Dodo bird) and most importantly, giving consumers a wider set of choices when it comes to the wine they drink.

For me, no state has been quite as frustrating as Massachusetts.  I think a lot of the frustration stems both from our inability to compete for customers in a state that, based on demographics would be good for us and receptive to our message of better wine, from smaller vintners.  Also, I’ve seen one of my favorite winemakers and a true star of the industry in Napa Valley struggle with a law that is either simply unfair, certainly politically motivated and quite possibly unconstitutional. Keith Emerson who spends his days making wine at Vineyard 29 under Phillipe Melka, but who also makes a personal brand called Emerson Brown has roots and strong family ties in and around Boston.

Emerson is an interesting case because he comes with a family background where his family owned high end restaurants in an around Boston.  The current shipping and regulations do not allow Emerson’s family to buy and serve his own wine at their restaurants.  Based on my experiences as a kid and my dad owning a Dairy Queen (and more importantly the relationships that was created by simply being around the restaurant as a kid), I don’t think it is a stretch to think these world class wines, would be warmly received at locations where the family is well known.

Another great example is Drew Bledsoe who has returned to live in the Northwest where he grew up and then attended college.  He’s since founded a winery called Doubleback. Bledsoe as you might expect, has become the perfect spokesperson for the wine industry when it comes to Massachusetts shipping.  He’s known and after years have healed some wounds, well liked almost universally within the state.  It doesn’t hurt that his winery cannot legally ship wine into the state either.

That’s probably a longer introduction than I intended, but when it comes to Massachusets based wine writers, there’s a relatively short list of memorable writers.  With perhaps a handful of exceptions, I think that list begins and ends with Richard Auffrey ie the Passionate Foodie.

Auffrey is an interesting case, even in the world of wine writing which seems to bring out a nice range of personalities.  The guy has written a series of books called the Tipsy Sensi, which includes zombies, ninjas and cats.  Seriously.  I’ll admit, I’m slightly intrigued by anyone who may be able to weave those elements into an interesting novel. My personally favorite aspect of the Passionate Foodie blog is his Monday Rant series which is where you see (IMO at least) his best writing and personality shine through.  From a rebuff of a Kansas couple that refused to tip a waiter who provided excellent service, but whom they believed to be gay (seriously, this exists still?) to his continued reminders that drinking and driving is preventable and pointless, to a request that we all stop eating shitty fast food hamburgers from major chains he offers a varied set of tastes and statements.  Among my favorite, a request that we stop spoiling our kids when it comes to food, in a family where my soon to be 3 year has never seen a chicken mcnugget and thinks it’s “silly” when kids at other homes get something different to eat than the parents, I couldn’t agree more.

A practicing attorney he also is well versed and certified when it comes to Spanish wine and Sake while most interestingly, is a board member of the Drink Local Wine organization.  Drink Local has a singular purpose, to provide a set of resources for people looking to drink wine (that we don’t sell!) that doesn’t come from the west coast. 

I’ve expressed support for these type of sites and organizations before, only to have customers and readers ask “Why?” The answer is really simple, wine like food is best from local sources.  Admittedly, a wine drinker who starts drinking $10 local wine often times grows into someone who wants single vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir as well-at least to try and we’re frankly a really good source for that.  That’s just to say that these type of organizations help to grow the industry and some of my own favorite tasting experiences have taken place well outside of Napa Valley, like Wilcox Arizona where I found a group of established, interesting, insightful and exceedingly gracious vintners making wine better than anyone in California might otherwise give them credit for. 

I also think these organizations say something important about the wine industry in general.  In France there are stringent laws, rules and regulations about what grapes can be planted in each region and what wines can be made (and even how they can be made).  That lack of experimentation and improvement has allowed California to grab a dramatic amount of market share in little less than a generation.  New wine regions will continue to push local vintners here in California to not only keep prices reasonable (a very real concern when it comes to not only Cabernet Sauvignon but Chardonnay and Pinto Noir as well) but continue to try new grapes, new planting locations and generally speaking to not rest of their laurels.

Just like direct shipping in Massachusetts, competition from new and lesser known wine regions should help everyone continue to grow this industry over the long term.

Mark Aselstine
 
November 8, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Blackbird Vineyards A New Napa Classic

Blackbird VineyardsThere’s been a ton of debate about Napa vs Bordeaux for well over a generation now.  I’ve always been somewhat frustrated by the whole idea that as an industry we have to decide who makes better Cabernet Sauvignon, can’t we simply agree that it’s good for the world of wine and wine drinkers that two regions on two continents make outstanding Cabernet, in largely divergent styles.

Part of that divergence comes from the fact that Bordeaux tends (well, if you eliminate the first growth’s that let’s be honest, few of us can afford anyway) to source grapes from multiple vineyard locations in a contiguous location to craft their wines.  Part of the reason for that difference, which is a rather large one when we’re talking about how wine is made, is how vineyard sites were drawn up in Bordeaux and truly across much of wine country in France.  The French created their vineyard plots by looking at terroir or the natural geography of the land, before defining ownership.  In California, even Napa Valley the ownership piece has always come first, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has lead to many more single vineyard offerings in Napa than you’ll often see in Bordeaux, if you compare similar price points.

The VineyardAt Blackbird Vineyards, there is a certain European and French sensibility to their wine, which comes from both ownership and their winemaker as well.  The winemaker on site is Aaron Pott who comes with two unique experiences which likely make him uniquely qualified to make a French inspired Cabernet in Napa Valley.  First, he tells the story about learning about wine for the first time in a Parisian Bistro at the age of 9.  He ordered a glass of milk, only to be told that milk is for babies and being brought a watered down glass of red wine.  I haven’t spent an inordinate amount of time in Paris, but anyone who has traveled there of late can probably both appreciate the story and believe that it probably happens more than we know.  Secondly, Pott spent 6 vintages working in St. Emillion after meeting and befriending winemaker and winery consultant extraordinaire Michele Rolland while working at Newton.  Newton itself is a hot bed of sorts of European influence within Napa, having employed several winemakers of European descent over the years.  In any case, if you want a French inspired Cabernet, finding a winemaker with a UC Davis viticulture degree and experience making wine in both Napa and Bordeaux makes a lot of sense. We’ll talk about Aaron’s work here and elsewhere at a later date, but we hope it suffices to say that the winery is in exceedingly good hands here with Food & Wine’s Winemaker of the Year for 2012 at the helm.

Anyone running a business knows that good hires and smart planning takes someone to set up a business in such a way to allow those type of smart decisions to happen, so we should mention that here’s where I think Blackbird shines when compared to other wine projects.  Founder Michael Polenske comes to the world of wine with a financial planning background and he has taken that focus and applied it to the wine industry. 

Arise MerlotFrankly, that isn’t something that we see all the time, too often winery projects get out of hand in terms of pricing vs quality as they serve only as an ego building exercises for the owner/founder and never end up being run like a real business.  That’s why you end up seeing so much $100+ Napa Cabernet sitting on the secondary market.  Polenske says that he is now in the business of leisure, which is just better stated than we ever could, but it’s important to note that he also owns a variety of sites around Napa devoted to food, art and furnishings.  We don’t typically mention business arrangements in this space, but it’s refreshing to see simply because I’d love to see more of these targeted and focused projects around the valley.  It frankly makes my job easier when a winery offers an interesting take on Napa Valley Cabernet, does it well and offers the wine at a fair price point given the quality.

These are wines that we can ship in any of our wine clubs and we think, they are wines that you, as a consumer should be aware of.

Specifically, their Arise red wine (which contains almost enough Merlot to be so named, not like any winery would make that choice given the current sales environment swirling around the varietal), priced at $50 is a wine that deserves notice by consumers for a few reasons.  First, as you might expect, it is more European in style meaning you’ll find more acid and less fruit forwardness especially in the 2011 which was produced in a cooler Napa Valley vintage.  Arise hits the mark in terms of great Merlot, which unfortunately many American wine drinkers wouldn’t recognize even if it were sitting on their dinner table.  The wine is dry, yet brings a certain sweetness which is another of the trademarks of the grape, although it’s one usually only found in high end French versions of the grape.

Mark Aselstine
 
November 5, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Sorting Tempranillo in Sonoma at Vinify

For wine retailers, the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is by far the busiest time of the year.  For a winery, the equivalent time of year is harvest.  It’s an interesting dichotomy given that October and the beginning of November is a time period when we’re really trying to gear up for the holidays, but wineries aren’t always available, or at least the people we want to spend time with and get to know, aren’t available.

Instead of not visiting wineries during October like we have in previous years, this year I decided to work a few days of harvest at a couple of different custom crush facilities in Sonoma.

A trip from a couple of weeks ago brought me to Vinify.  I’ve mentioned Vinify in this space before, but I originally found Vinify through a neighbor and their introduction to Matt Duffy and his Vaughn Duffy wine label.  Duffy also is the winemaker in charge at Vinify which helps approximately 30 wineries to make world class wine out of a warehouse space in Santa Rosa.

One picture I wish I had available happened as I was first pulling into the parking lot.  The wine industry isn’t exactly known for having a group of early risers, so arriving before 9am as I did that day, sometimes would leave me some time for coffee (at least) before anyone else showed up.  During harvest though, things are different.

I found multiple trucks carrying grapes (mostly Pinot Noir) to be dropped off at Vinify and a few of the other production facilities in this industrial park. Additionally, the picture I wish I had was the group of 10 winemakers sitting on the curb, much like little kids like my toddler and his friends at the park, although the winemakers were waiting for their grapes to come in.  It’s the kind of image that consumers would enjoy seeing and I wish the industry would share more often.  It’s easy to forget, but winemakers love their job and I think as a group, are incredibly thankful that they get to do something they’re so passionate about.

Ok, so I’ve worked enough around a winery at harvest to know a few things.  First, winemakers love having new guys around, especially one’s that are willing to get their hands dirty.  I’m guilty of that, I enjoy seeing the winemaking side of the business, that’s of course why we’re all here. Winemakers and other winery staff also more than willing to find a bad job for you to do.  I knew going in that Pinot push downs were a really great job, for an intern.

Duffy in all his wisdom (and probably to get me out of his hair for as long as possible) got me hooked on with Jon Grant who makes wine at Vinify for both his Straight Line label, as well as for his Couloir Wines label.

A little background on Jon, first and foremost you’ll recognize one name above all others-he’s the assistant winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars.  Turley won’t need an introduction for many of our readers, but I do think it makes sense to point out that if you were choosing a single winemaker and winery to learn from in California today, Turley would have to be at, or near the top of that list.  I mention that simply to say that there is a pedigree here.

Jon’s Couloir Wines label is his Pinot Noir project and shows an interesting take on how a winemaker with a varied set of interests can break those wines apart to make the most sense for consumers.  Couloir offers four different Pinot’s, each from a different vineyard around the state of California. It feels almost like cheapening the experience if I mention that all four were rated at 90+ points by Wine Enthusiast.  Of note is the Monument Tree (the highest rated at 93pts) to me simply because I’ve become something of a fan of the vineyard after running into vineyard designate wines made from Monument Tree Pinot fruit at Copain and more recently an aged bottle from Drew Family Cellars. It’s a really interesting vineyard that’s well known for being among the coolest climate Pinot vineyard around, certainly among the coolest in the Anderson Valley.  If you have a friend or wine lover who doesn’t believe that California Pinot can be restrained, refined and almost classy-find a wine from Monument Tree and change their mind forever about the vast possibilities.

Of more interest given my experience is the Straight Line label and specifically the Tempranillo.  We actually shipped the Straight Line some time ago (2 vintages ago perhaps), but had never run into Jon personally before this day at Vinify.  The fruit for the Straight Line Tempranillo that I encountered came from a vineyard in Lodi, while there are other grapes that come from Terra Alta (one of my favorite California vineyards based on experiences with Blair Fox down in Santa Barbara).

In any case, I learned a few things about Tempranillo that day:

First, the destemmer doesn’t really help that much.  Evidently, an extraordinarily high percentage of jacks gets through because the berries cling more tightly to the jacks than do other varietals.  Those clinging jacks aren’t a problem with the whole stem ferments that happen as part of Straight Line, but this batch was meant to be de-stemmed.  It’s a testament to how much Jon cares about his finished product to see him bending over in a sort of back breaking labor, to get every possible jack and stem out of the half ton bins.  

I also learned at least two things about making wine at a custom crush facility like Vinify.  First, it's damn hard to find a good towel.  Secondly I learned that there is a real sense of community at these custom crush facilities.  Over the course of a couple of hours you could hear a winemaker or two complaining or mentioing how this vintage is different, worse or better.  Almost universally you'd have another winemaker offering some type of encouragement.  It was striking to me since wine retailers generally hate each other.  When I run into other retailers at tasting events they act as if we have nothing to talk about.  A couple of weeks ago a wine club competitor of ours launched a redesigned website, I told them congrats and that it looked great....only to be told to leave them alone.  Winemakers are a different bunch to be sure because even though they are competiing with each other, there was a lot of discussion about how to deal with the challenges that kepy coming up during these early days of harvest.  There's a real sense of community and a large amount of community knowledge available for winemakers that probably isn't available or discussed in other industries.

In any case, Jon makes some good wine and any winemaker willing and able to sing along to a 50 Cent song is someone we plan on seenig more of in the future.

Lastly, thank you to everyone at Vinify for putting up with me.

Mark Aselstine
 
October 31, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Halloween Wines

Judging by the Dragon, Pirate, Giraffe and more at my son’s preschool this morning, Halloween has arrived.  Are you in the mood spooky and scary mood yet?  Here’s a few wines which should help.

Devil!Charles Smith Wines, Velvet Devil Merlot: This isn’t a wine from an unknown winery and winemaker simply trying to find a marketing gimmick, in fact Smith might be one of the top 5 winemakers in the state of Washington.  He’s also a Maverick in a number of ways within the wine establishment, not the least of which is his long hair, motorcycle and reportedly, epic tasting trips with members of the trade.  To put Smith in perspective, he spent a decade managing rock bands in Europe.  As much as we talk about winemakers with different pedigrees, this is as different as it gets.  Oh if you’re wondering if the wine’s likely to be good-Smith is responsible for a 100 point wine and then no less than 50 more scored at 95 points or above.

La Serena Wines Pirate Treasured: A Napa Valley blend of 7 varietals that’ll simply make you think, this is a damn good Cabernet. The bottle, yes looks like a rum bottle and many consumers when they see it, think it might be a Port. This is a serious, serious wine though.  Made by Heidi Peterson Barrett who is famous in wine circles for receiving back to back perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker in the early 1990’s and then for bringing Screaming Eagle and Cult Cabernet into the public consciousness a decade later.  If you aren’t familiar with the story of Cult Cabernet in California, or Screaming Eagle, let’s just say that a single bottle of wine once sold for $650,000 at auction.  Priced at $60 this Pirate Treasured might be a whimsical look into the world of wine in Napa Valley, but the quality will make your wine drinking friends, green with envy.

Vintage Cowboy Winery: We don’t feel like every Halloween wine on your list has to be serious, at least we hope it doesn’t.  Vintage Cowboy is located in Santa Margarita California, a site on the Central Coast that does produce a range of nice, drinkable wines.  The draw here is one part price (all 4 of their wines are about $20) but also the label, after all have you ever been to a Halloween party that didn’t have at least one Cowboy?

Zombie ZinChateau Diana Zombie Zin:  One of the most whimsical and interesting labels that we’ve ever come across, if you have this wine sitting on your counter-don’t you think everyone at your party would at least try it.  Don’t tell them it sells for only $12 because winemaker Dawn Sacchetti brings a much longer and more complex winemaking resume than you typically find at this price point.  She has worked for years in Sonoma as an enologist at shining stars in the wine scene like Cline Cellars. This is a better wine than you’d expect given the label and price point.

Happy Halloween everyone! Enjoy the night, stay safe and don't be afraid to open a Port with your kid's extra candy after you get them to sleep!

Mark Aselstine
 
October 21, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Ahnfeldt Wines

Ahnfeldt WinesAhnfeldt Wines

It appears that when we named our company Uncorked Ventures, we set ourselves up to have plenty of company with that Uncorked term.  The latest folks that we came across with a similar name have a special place in that group because they make some really good wine as well.

During a recent trip we walked into the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, only to be looking at “Uncorked at Oxbow”.

If you aren’t familiar with the Oxbow Market, it is set up in a similar fashion to other high end food emporiums which bring together a group of separate vendors within a single facility, the concept in many ways is similar to a Farmer’s Market in many ways, but with permanent stalls and typically with more prepared food.  My wife and I have a peculiar affection for the Ferry Building in San Francisco and are anxiously awaiting the opening of something similar in Oakland’s Jack London Square, if that project can ever get off the ground. Given Oakland’s newly found center at the center of the food startup scene in the Bay Area, it makes you wonder why the developer can’t pull that one off-but back to Ahnfeldt and Uncorked at Oxbow.

After a moment, we realized that Uncorked at Oxbow was in effect a tasting room for Ahnfeldt Wines.

That brings us to the important part of the story, Uncorked is more than a standard tasting room where there is wine and frankly not much else.  It features open mic night’s, barrel tastings, blending sessions and generally aims to open the side door to the wineries that we all love and let the general public have a look at how things really get done in Napa.  It’s a really cool idea and a project that deserves our support.

Another reason that the project deserves our support is that Ahnfeldt makes some damn good wine.  Routinely scored at 90 points and above by major wine critics, the winery offers in many ways the essential grapes of Napa Valley: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  When it comes to wine tasting in Napa Valley, people can sometimes be overwhelmed by the number of available choices and winery options.  Ahnfeldt makes itself an interesting and unique place to taste based on both the environment as well as the way they’ve set up their wine program.  It’s always fun to learn a little something when you visit Napa, Ahnfeldt helps there by offering an interesting mix of wines.  As an example, they offer a Napa Valley Merlot, but also a Reserve Merlot from their Hardman Vineyard.  It might be challenge for your palate, but the chance to see the differences inherent to a single vineyard in Napa Valley is a fun thing to taste and try.  Their Cabernet Sauvignon program offers something similar while it additionally offers two single vineyard choices, one from the Mountain District-which is unique because it is one of the highest vineyard sites in Napa, more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

I also appreciate the winery having a couple of other labels available in order to offer a Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and what I think might be the next big thing in Napa, Sangiovese.

In this space we typically talk a bit about the winemaker in question, at Ahnfeldt he really needs little to no introduction for most of our readers-Paul Hobbs who quite simply makes some of the most memorable Cabernet Sauvignon in both North and South America in any given vintage. Hobbs has produced a running number of 95+ point wines, which fits well with Ahnfeldt and what they are trying to accomplish.  Let’s just say I’m sure Hobbs’ services aren’t cheap these days, so it says a lot about the commitment of owners Celeste and Bruce and their commitment to the labels to bring him on board. The couple although married in 2005 have both been part of Napa’s wine scene since the mid 1980’s.  Bruce has grown and sold grapes for years as a side project to his law practice and Celeste opened and operated one of the nicest, smallest and most exclusive bed and breakfast’s in the region.

Uncorked at OxbowThe next time you find yourself in downtown Napa, Uncorked at Oxbow is a great place to check out and enjoy a unique and memorable wine tasting experience.