Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
November 6, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Troll Bridge 2010 Big Club

I’ve worked with a Troll Bridge wine before, but thought that given our Reserve Selections members were receiving this wine shortly, that it deserved it’s own write up now.

Troll Bridge is at least as much about the owner, as it is the winemaker, which is a statement that I don’t get a chance to make very often.

Owner Allan Ezial is a graphic designer by trade, having formerly worked out of a space on Berkeley’s famed 4th street art and design district, he now works out of the north bay-which makes sense because he has a number of winery clients: many of which are names you’d recognize, namely Caymus.

His connections to the wine industry run pretty deep and over lunch & margaritas at Picante, a long time standout in Berkeley (also one of his favorite old lunch haunts….& since his office has moved, it seems he misses the place) we talked about his vision for his winery and why he decided to make wine in the first place.

A number of years back Allan told the story that he was having lunch with a group of growers in Napa and they were talking about how they wish their vineyards would perform like a couple of the rows or blocks that needed literally zero maintenance throughout the growing cycle.  The specific blocks changed every year, but these high end vineyards always had a few.

Allan wondered what could be done if someone bought only these small maintenance blocks and had a wine made with them?

Troll Bridge is the project that has made that happen.

Over the past month or two, the majority of you have received a bottle that I made.  I bring that up here, to highlight the spare no expense style of wine bottle that we’re looking at.  I paid about 50 cents per bottle and an additional 15 cents for the unbranded, completely generic corks. Those prices were lower than normal because I also piggybacked on a longer and larger bottling run, but you get the idea….I bought expensive fruit and then dealt with pricing elsewhere as best as I could.

While Allan didn't want to share exactly what he paid here, I’m guessing that the etched bottle ran him into the $3 range and the cork a similar price step up from mine, perhaps close to $1.  I know you’re thinking, Mark that’s only a $3.50 difference from yours and this is a $100 bottle.  Ok. That being said though, he’s made similar choices throughout the winemaking and marketing process.

Talking to friends with similar projects, he might not be making a profit of more than a few dollars on his sale to me.  Partially, I bring that kind of stuff up to simply say, finding these incredibly high end Napa projects at this price point isn’t as easy as it initially sounds & yes, Troll Bridge prices are likely to increase as time goes on.

Apart from some great vineyard sources, the winemaker for Troll Bridge is Jon Engelskirger.  Jon’s one of those guys. who has been around the valley for quite some time (and since we seem to exist in 2 valley’s right now, I’ll clarify that I’m talking about Napa instead of Silicon) making wine for a litany of interesting and influential names such as: Silverado, Robert Pepi & Turnbull among others.

If you’re wondering why someone leaves the likes of Turnbull and shows up a smaller project, like Troll Bridge, Jon’s working on his own wine project based out of Contra Costa County.  Contra Costa’s an interesting place.  On one side of the hill that faces San Francisco, it’s damn cold.  On the other, an inland valley is hot enough that Italian and Portuguese immigrants found it among the best spots near SF to plant their native grapes. Jon’s making about 2,000 cases of an interesting mix of grapes in a town called Brentwood, out of a farm that he owns personally.  It seems that even winemakers whose names we recognize, can’t find land to buy on and make wine from any longer in Napa….which is unfortunate.

I think the 2010 Napa Valley vintage also deserves a mention at this point.  I’ve talked about vintage a ton in this space over the past few years.  Basically my argument boils down to this: if it’s a great year, buy wine from anyone.  Anyone can do a good job of making wine in a good year.  If it’s a bad year, taste wine from respected winemakers and choose what you like.  It’s bad practice for consumers, as well as, the industry as a whole to try and avoid entire vintages. If we all do that, the 1,000 case wineries we all love and want to support will simply cease to exist.

Ok, so the 2010 vintage. Was it 2009? No, not even close….it was a challenge.  So here’s the exact way that you get vintners and growers really worried about a vintage.  Start with rain or simply cold weather to get everything started late.  Have cooler than normal temperatures continue throughout much of the spring and into early summer.  Napa wines need to be ripe, so the natural reaction by most is to cut some fruit and make sure that they get opportune ripeness for what remains.

Then, have an extremely hot spell come through during the late summer and early fall. Sunburned grapes (yes it happens and it’s about as bad as you’re thinking it is) don’t make for good wine. But, vintners have to choose to risk the burn to get to the ripeness level that they want.

In 2010, there was some severe heat in late August, but for vintners who decided to hold off picking (most did, the one’s who were impatient ended up with substandard wine, better put into the bulk market) that was followed by what I’ve heard described as a “glorious” month of Indian summer where the grapes added sugar, without dropping much acidity.

All in all, most call it a challenging vintage, but most were also incredibly happy with the results, as long as the growers and winemakers were patient.

The folks growing the grapes for Troll Bridge, as a collective, have been doing this for some time.  It’s been said that farming is one of the most patient of professions and these are truly professionals.

They waited-plus, with the vineyard blocks needing little maintenance, all the more reason to let the grapes hang a couple of extra days right?

All in all, I’m happy to provide what I believe to be an absolutely prototypical Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at a price point that I hesitate to call a good bargain.  But, at $95, this feels right.

Plus, Allan’s someone that deserves our support for swimming up stream here.

Mark Aselstine
November 2, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Future of Zinfandel in California

A short intro to Zinfandel in California. Where's it at and perhaps more importantly, where it's going.

Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Happy Monday to everybody from what is a cold, rainy, and wet San Francisco today. Late last week I talked about the feature of Grenache in the state of California and so today I wanted to talk a few minutes about the future of Zinfandel and kind of what we're seeing in terms of plantings and what we can expect going into the future.

First, I think Zinfandel is a really interesting grape. If you go back and look at the history of Zinfandel, there's always been a lot of conversation and talk about where did the grape come from, where is it native to. Is it native to California? Is it native to Italy where it's called Primitivo? UC Davis, not surprisingly, has been at the forefront of a lot of the genetic research. In essence, what I think they've come to the conclusion of, along with some other research based in Europe, that Zinfandel and Primitivo are almost like different species of monkeys where they share a common ancestor but they were largely allowed to create genetic diversity on the two continents simultaneously. Common ancestor. Not one derived from the other in a lab like some other grapes would be,

Secondly, I also think it's an interesting grape because it's the one grape where here in California, if you were to ask somebody within the wine industry, "How do I pick a Zin?" Almost everybody would tell you, "Pick an old vine Zin." The problem with that though is that old vine is a marketing term. There's no legal ramifications for it and some vintners do a good job about saying this is what an old vine is and this is why we think it's an old vine and some just slop it on the label after a few years.

Here's kind of the way vines and the way I think of it usually works. It usually take about 5 years for a grape vine to start producing fruit in sufficient quality enough that it's going to be anything but bulk wine. That's in essence because the roots need to get established. You don't want to have to be watering it so much so it's not watered done et cetera, et cetera. A standard grape vine also only produces for about 30 years. Zinfandel, of course, can go significantly longer than that into the century, century and a half. I've had wine from grapes that are sitting on vines that are 125, 130 years old and they taste just great. There's kind of that whole back and forth.

For me, if somebody's going to be true about what an old vine is, I think if a Pinot vine can only last 30 years, to be an old vine, it has to be older than 30. There are some Sonoma vintners who are slopping on labels after 5 years which I think is doing a disservice to both the grape itself and to the general public who's buying their product but that's a story for another day. That's the problem with Zinfandel though. If I wanted to plant a few acres of Zinfandel in Napa today, it would take me 35 years before I could realistically start to recoup the maximum amount of money from that vineyard, as opposed to say Cabernet, Pino, even Grenache, where you might be able to start recouping it after 5 years so there's not a lot of incentive there.

That's why you're seeing ... This is Black Rock and Black Rock is something that we've shipped both to our premium wine club members as well as to some folks on different wine club levels. Black Rock I think is interesting because it was made by Kirk Venge who his dad Nils Venge is famous in the wine making community in large part because Robert Parker gave Nils a bottle made by him at least the first hundred point score on Napa wine.

Kirk went through the UC Davis viticulture program and now he makes wine in a number of places himself, mostly high acclaimed. Including places like B Cellars and Venge Vineyards itself, the family namesake winery. They also own this, or at least they make the wine here, Black Rock which is up in Lake County. I think this is where you're really going to see Zinfandel kind of gain exposure.

I talked to Mark Grenache and they're kind of needing to be planted in not prime vineyard spots but slightly further away. I think that's true with Zinfandel as well although Zinfandel can grow in kind of the same Bordeaux kind of climates that others can as well as hotter conditions. Lake County is a good example. You have a natural offshoot for Napa wineries and Napa winemakers who can no longer can afford to buy places in Napa for themselves. Kathy Corison quite famously bought herself a spot off Highway 29 for Corison Winery. An equivalent skilled winemaker, i.e. one of the 10 best winemakers in the world, may never make enough money these days to buy an equivalent site.

That's kind of sad but that's also driving people to other wine regions and Lake County is one of those regions that is benefiting now and will continue to benefit in the future. It's also a place that has the largest fresh water lake in California so there's kind of that ocean, not ocean breeze but there's that cooling effect from the lake over the winter and that's something that winemakers really like to see from their vineyard sites. I think that's where you're going to see Zinfandel. You're going to see people who are industry veterans or people that have perhaps a little bit more patience than somebody who made a bunch of money in tech or silicon valley who wants a wine to give to their friends tomorrow. Instead, you're going to see people who are part of the wine industry and they want to make Zinfandel because I think you do hear a lot about Zinfandel in the wine industry circles, perhaps more than other grapes, as far as compared to what you hear from the general public.

Places like Lake Country are even further off the beaten path than say Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, and even like the end of Valley. You're going to see plantings there where people can say, "You know what? We're building this business. We're going to build a Zinfandel vineyard and the goal is my kid is going to make the wine there," and he's four kind of thing.

I think that's where Zinfandel is going. You're going to see a very small number of plantings with it. You will see ... There are some projects that have old vines in Napa and elsewhere and I think those are going to continue to garner even more greater attention because it takes 35 years for it to really be an old vine, I think you're going to see a greater emphasis on the ones that are truly old, past a century. They're kind of a great vine to look at too. These old marled. They're shorter, they're thicker. They look like a grape vine kind of should look like, I think. I think you're going to see more and more marketing plays on the ones that are older and for good reason.

Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. If you're waiting for a shipment, please check your email and your spam. It's probably out already. I look forward to speaking with you. If you have a few minutes, take a look at the gift baskets. We're in the process of updating those. Thanks.

Mark Aselstine
November 2, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

McCrea Cellars Grenache 2005

So I’ve worked with a few McCrea Cellars bottlings over the past five years and Doug McCrea’s work continues to be among my favorite’s in the state of Washington. Doug McCrea is an interesting guy, having had a full career as a musician in both New Orleans, as well as, San Francisco, before settling in Seattle and making Rhone varietals.

Founded in 1988, McCrea Cellars was the first winery in Washington dedicated to Rhone varietals.  At that point it’s been said you could buy Syrah grapes….from a guy, if you knew who to ask & you were nice about it.

Ok, I decided to circle back for yes, yet another Grenache (sorry….ok, not sorry) because this is one of the few that I could find with some bottle age.

We’ve talked about it some with wine club offerings at all of our club levels, but wine that’s stored correctly (pretty much the only organizations capable in the United States, are the wineries themselves….I’ve been to the warehouses of large retailers…..it isn’t the most pretty, or the most organized) takes on a set of qualities that aren’t entirely consistent with the initial offerings.

Take this Grenache as an example.  When you open it, please give it an hour or so to open up.  Like when you get off an airplane, the wine seems to need the chance to stretch its legs a little bit.

You’ll find it’s become almost dainty in its old age, much different than the almost 15% alcohol that is stated on the label.  Yakima Valley in Washington State was the Pacific Northwest’s first AVA and continues to be a trailblazer in many ways.  Not the least of which is the ability to try new things as the AVA has the most acres under vine in the Pacific Northwest, close to 20,000 acres in total.

To put that number in perspective, that’s about half of Napa Valley’s total and almost equal to Sonoma.

Lastly, a quick word on 2005 in the Yakima Valley.  Patience was helpful in a vintage where a scorching hot summer led some vintners to pick early, only to see cold temperatures pervade September and October-allowing grapes to hang almost indefinitely.  That’s part of the reason this wine is so darn dark in your glass, significantly darker than a Grenache from the same set of Yakima Valley vineyards might be during a different vintage.


Mark Aselstine
November 1, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Field Recordings Neverland Cabernet 2013

So we’ve worked with a number of Field Recordings wines over the years, this is a special one for me for a few reasons.

To start, I really, really like the Grassini Vineyard.

During a wine chat on Twitter (yeah, yeah I know….but it’s actually my favorite social media platform) I had a chance to try a range of high end Santa Barbara Cabernet’s.  People that have been in the wine club for a while know that I went to UCSB and that Santa Barbara suffers from part of its own success when it comes to growing grapes.  I’ll save the gory details, but in essence the California central coast is the longest stretch of east-west coastline in North America (along the Pacific Ocean of course). The mountain ranges literally run into the ocean, meaning that the cool breezes from the Pacific turn into something resembling air conditioning at about 3-4pm every day.  Fog and clouds are as ubiquitous in the late afternoons and evenings as is the bright sunshine that has made the French call SB, the American Riviera. Anyway, that’s a good combo for growing grapes and SB can grow almost anything.  Pinot and Chardonnay grow best a few miles from the coast.  Go slightly further inland and the temperature rises about 1 degree per mile traveled, so Cabernet is king.  A few more miles inland and you start seeing Syrah.

Santa Barbara hasn’t always been able to accurately explain what the wine region is all about, after all-are people really going to believe that you can grow pretty much anything you want?

Over the past decade, Santa Barbara has tried to rectify that marketing challenge by allowing an increasing number of sub AVA’s.

Grassini Vineyard is located in Happy Canyon.

You might be wondering, what would make a canyon be happy….I was.  As it turns out (and the application process to have a new AVA approved, requires this type of research) that the locals during Prohibition used the that exact name, Happy Canyon, to describe the canyon…..because it was the site of the only working still. No word on exactly what type of moonshine was being made, but I’m guessing there was an element of excitement that went with hiking into the canyon for your weekly allotment….of course, beggars cannot be choosers either right?

Grassini Vineyard was planted in 2002 and opened their own commercial winery in 2010.  Field Recordings has been making this single vineyard version of their Cabernet for about that same length of time.  Please note the difference in price points between the two offers-Grassini is a great fit in our high end, Reserve Selections club.  Field Recordings makes a nice fit for our Explorations Wine Club members.

Lastly, one other thing deserves a mention about Happy Canyon.  There’s an exclusive side to living in Santa Barbara that isn’t talked about in the main stream press, or really anywhere.  In college I saw it, living with surfers, who were always after that next exclusive and epic break (the same reasons that make Santa Barbara a nice place to grow grapes, make it a nice spot to surf…..plus a pretty thick kelp bed tends to keep the big fish a bit further off shore than they’d otherwise be, although as we found, fishing around sea otters is a pointless endeavor), we noted that just a bit to the north there was both a solid surf break-as well as, a group of large farms….only accessible by private road.  

Unfortunately for the landowners, what we lacked in money, we made up for in creativity and a 10 foot Zodiac was purchased and became the center of some of our favorite stories.  Like the numerous times we’d be out too far, past the kelp beds, only to see the motor die. Hey, we were in college and the “boat” wasn’t exactly lightly used.  It was old.  Then we’d paddle back in for hours. At least after the first time it happened, we also set off with oars.  Using a surfboard  and your hands to paddle a Zodiac, isn’t much fun.

It seems that landowners in and around Happy Canyon, like those farmers, aren’t the biggest fans of visitors.  Reportedly many of which are wealthy in their own regard, they raise world class race horses on their properties-so many wineries that grow grapes in the region have tasting rooms elsewhere.  Grassini Vineyards is one of those, with an urban tasting room in Santa Barbara.

Really, I don’t think that’s the worst set up for a wine region.  Dealing with the traffic in and out, along with the challenge of getting people there in the first place, is largely replaced by marketing yourself, along with the city where you’re based with an urban tasting room. To me, that’s always seemed like a better prospect, make yourself part of the existing tourist infrastructure and everyone benefits.

Plus, Happy Canyon is so new there are going to be growing pains.  There are only 500 or so acres under vine currently.  Part of those growing pains typically come from locals not affiliated with the wine industry, quickly seeing their sleepy country roads inundated with tourists.  In Napa back in the 60’s they saw the writing on the wall so to speak and enacted the Agricultural Preserve.  Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley (of which Happy Canyon and Grassini Vineyard is a part, at the far eastern end) is running into some development concerns along the western side of the AVA-that’s where the small town of Los Olivos has 26 wine tasting rooms and the locals are beginning to wonder, how many is too many in a town of about a thousand people, no hotel and only a handful of restaurants?

Since no one can write a piece about Santa Barbara without mentioning the elephant in the room….Sideways made everyone think the region could only grow Pinot Noir.  That wasn’t true when they made the movie and given some of the investment that the film helped to bring to the region, it’s even less true now. The movie helped to make the Hitching Post famous (the restaurant) & yes, they make their own wine there including all the shades of Santa Barbara: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

I’m a strong believer in the quality of wines being produced on the Central Coast & not only Pinot Noir, but a full range of what’s currently happening.  Increasingly, talented winemakers are finding their way to Santa Barbara (hardly a bad place to live) and Paso Robles instead of Napa or Sonoma.  A different lifestyle in both places yes, but access to grapes from a variety of established and good vineyard sites abounds.

Mark Aselstine
October 29, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Grenache in California

A few short words about the future of Grenache in California-the first in a series about specific grapes, where they're being planted and why.

Video Transcription:

Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures and I'm joined today by two bottles of Grenache. Over the next couple days, I'm going to talk about a set of different grapes and how basically, they're being planted and kind of made into wine here in California. I think we're kind of seeing two things that I find interesting.

First, as the new vineyards are planted and there are a lot getting planted, but in more established regions, in real estate you'd use the term, "infill development," but there's some infill as far as vineyard base going on. There's also some folks that are you know, trying to save a little bit of money on location and are planting in some lesser known areas. I think it's really interesting to talk about kind of what they're planting and why. 

Second of all after Phylloxera ... I guess a little bit of history here. When we first started planting grapes in the United States for wine, we used exactly what they have in Europe. We brought root stock and grafted on Merlot, Cab, Pinot, etc., and it started growing and everybody said, "Great, we have a wine industry." Then, a few times in our history, Phylloxera hit. Phylloxera is a teeny tiny pest that affects grape vines. It is native to North America. The problem is, European root stock does not have any defense to it from natural means and as you might expect, continuing to kind of irrigate and spray grape vines forever doesn't seem like a very good idea when you can simply put in good old American St. George's root stock that probably grew the Concord grape juice that your kid drank this morning and then graft on the Cabernet Sauvignon on the top and call it a day.

The Europeans have actually had to do that too, because as we found out more and more, the world is flat, and so pests can travel on boats, ships, airplanes, etc. and they have kind of invaded Europe at different times, too. I think it's interesting to talk about if people are grafting on different grape varieties on the top of the vines that are kind of well established, what are they choosing?

Grenache is something that's winning right now, a little bit in California. It's not winning in kind of the traditional Napa Sonoma sense, but I think these are both two good examples about seeing where Granache is going and what's being tried. I love cool climate Grenache, but there's not a lot of that happening, unfortunately, yet, but there is some warm climate Grenache. So, Cinque Insieme, this is a Dry Creek Valley version. Dry Creek is known more Zinfandel as you might expect and know, but there is some kind of outside plantings going on there. This Granache is a good example of that Cinque.

These guys, if you're familiar with Wells, Gunthrie and Copain, these are some of the winemakers and some of the team from Copain. Copain used to have a custom crush facility and these guys ran it. This is one of the lines that came out of this custom crush facility that then has become in essence, Cinque Insieme. So there ... Kind of 25 cases or so were produced. We've shipped it to both of our red wine clubs so far and it's something that we get a good response with. It's kind of an interesting wine and I think it's an interesting story, too.

Rhapsody, is quite honestly one of my favorite versions of a grape that we've done and I think all three of our wine clubs have ended up with a version of this at some point. This is Drew Wine company. Drew Huffine is the wine maker up there. I had a chance to sit down with Drew and bought a bunch of wine from him after what I will admit to be an avocado toast and breakfast here in Berkeley.

Rhapsody is actually more of a blend than a straight Grenache. I think this is 54 percent Grenache according to the back with Mouvedre & Carignan. So I think it's kind of interesting to note, because it issues Syrah and adds Carignan instead. It's a different flavor profile than you might expect from kind of a standard GSM blend, because they have substituted one grape for another on the Rhone version. I think that's kind of two things where you're seeing warm climate Grenache being planted. One, if you're in an area where they grow zin really well but you don't feel like waiting 35 years for your Zinfandel to be called "Old Vine Zinfandel," with any statement of truth to it. Some people are trying Granache.

I areas where they are already growing Rhone, but you are already seeing increasing amount of plantings of it. I've talked about Syrah a lot in this place. I don't think Syrah makes bad wine by any stretch of the imagination. However, consumers seem to hate it. Wine stores can't sell it. We can do it because we can tell the story and we can get it out to people in a way that they're going to try it and set it up for success, but the average wine store and the average winery simply can't do the same thing and even if you look at the oldest guys, they're largely devoid of Syrah because it just doesn't sell that well. I think carignan is the most natural offshoot if you don't want to grow Syrah, but I do think there's going to be plenty of Grenache plantings that go in, too.

This is Santa Ynez Valley, in Santa Barbara, which I've talked a lot about over the past few days and week and I think Santa Ynez and kind of the wider Santa Barbara growing region is going to be one that profits from this wider look into the wine industry where it's more than just Cabernet Sauvignon. Although Santa Barbara does grow some good Cabernet, the nice thing about it is that it's not 100 dollars a bottle, it's closer to 25 or 30 in large places.

Once again, I think Granache you are starting to see increasing plantings of it. You're seeing it because it grows well in warm climate conditions. There's some natural off shoots. If you don't want to wait a ton of time for your Zinfandel vines to mature, you can plant Granache and get something good five years down the line. If you like Rhone varietals, but you know that you can't sell Syrah because nobody can, you might try Granache instead.

Once again, Mark Aseltine with Uncorked Ventures. Hope that everybody is having a nice week.