Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
July 3, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Wines for July 4th

I hope everyone enjoys a happy and celebatory July 4th. It’s a bit last minute we know.  So here’s 5 picks from our local Safeway (if you live in Southern California, it’s Vons)....sorry no time to find a local Kroger/Ralph’s and Costco before a holiday scares me. I’ve left off most of the usual suspects so to speak.  I think we all know if Mondavi, Gallo, Franzia or Chateau St Michelle works for us, right?

Napa Cellars 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

I've talked a lot about how pricing of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has gone into the stratosphere.  What seemed to be $45 when we opened Uncorked Ventures, now seems to be sitting around $65.  Sure, the local tech industry has exploded, which helps drives pricing and increases in California wine consumptions among the naveau rich in China helps explain it a bit as well, but Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has gained a foothold as a luxury item to be sure.  That's why a retail $30 Napa Valley Cabernet, even made in these large quantities is nice to see.  Marked down under $20 for us locally, Napa Cellars offers one of the most affordable looks into the 2013 Napa Valley vintage, called one of the best by winemakers not because it was perfect, but because it was balanced in such a way that winemakers truly could make any decision that they wanted in regard to when to harvest their grapes. For the first time in perhaps two decades, you're getting exactly what winemakers chose in the 2013 vintage, weather was not at issue, not at all.

Gnarley Head Old Vine Zinfandel Gnarley Head has definitely begun to show up at every grocery store and drug store in America. To my knowledge, it's the first wine brand to actually be shipping Old Vine Zinfandel at these prices (about $12 these days, about $8 originally).  Based out of Lodi, it's a nice opportunity to show what old vine Zin actually looks like-the vines are literally gnarled and grown onto themselves. Aged at 35 years or more, these are vines that I do think deserve to be called old vines, it's a good wine at a more than fair price.

The Prisoner Red Wine

The Prisioner is a red wine blend from Napa, consistently scored in the low 90 point range-the nice thing about bringing wines for July 4th in my opinion is that it's fun to bring stuff to start a conversation at times.  The guy in chains on the wine bottle? That's get a chuckle, or at least a comment from most everyone around. We see this priced at $40 online, but our local Safeway again had it on sale for about half that-an especially good deal at a price point that grocery stores, I don't believe sell very well.


Insurrection WineInsurrection: the first time I've seen this bottle-it's something I would have picked up, based on the label alone. From Australia, which I would have noticed after seeing the Shiraz listed on the front, instead of the French or American Syrah. It's a Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Prototypically Aussie in flavor profile, bigger is better....hey they fooled someone at my local Safeway....for July 4th-who puts an Aussie wine on an endcap?


Seghesio ZinfandelIf you haven't noticed as of yet, I think Zinfandel is probably the best choice for a BBQ-so I had to include what amounts of the classic version from Sonoma.  Seghesio is a multi generational family owned winery (and are really, really nice people when you meet them at trade events, even if you're someone like me and my wine of the month club that doesn't fit for what they're doing, or what we're doing) and the Zinfandel offers a slighter touch than that of the Gnarley Head, or most others.  There's a sense of finesse here that isn't always evident with the varietal. At 92 points from Wine Spectator and $24 retail.....it can easily be the best wine you open with your non wine geeky friends on the 4th of July-and it'll make everyone happy.

Mark Aselstine
July 1, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Evening Lands Oregon Pinot Noir, Ampelos Cellars Syrah, Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir

So here’s the thing, sometimes when you’re looking for wines that hover around $50, you end up seeing a couple around $30 that pike your interest.  Thus is the shipment at the Special Selections Wine Club level this month where we’re shipping 3 wines, all good, really good actually, and all about $30 in price point.  Here’s some information on the virtual grab bag that’s your monthly wine club shipment.

Ampelos Syrah 2008Ampelos Cellars Gamma Syrah:

Tanzer gave the thing 91 points, which is how it ended up on my radar, like I said, I don’t love scores, but they’re helpful.  Now, it’s a Syrah, so that means there isn’t a huge run up of people looking to buy it, unlike say Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Like I said, without a score to grab my attention, I wouldn’t be much interested.  Of course, I’ve had wine club members tell me that I’m too busy searching the outlands of every cool climate vineyard in California, just in case they have a few rows of Grenache, or Cabernet Franc.  Guilty as charged there.

Plus, the Ampelos project is one that I’ve been watching for some time, largely to try and find a Pinot Noir that made sense for my wine club members from the property for two main reasons.  First, Ampelos is a nice parcel of close to 100 acres in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, renowned for its cool climate grape growing promise.  Secondly, the family that owns it has a son who has worked in the wine industry for a while, Don’s now the winemaker at the much acclaimed (and mailing list only these days) Sea Smoke. So the families ties to the wine industry run deep these days.

There’s one interesting aspect to the Gamma Syrah in your shipment, outside of the vineyard and its location. The wine is aged for two and a half years in a combination of new American Oak and French new Oak barrels.  So that brings up an interesting question: this wine is pretty well integrated and you don’t taste the oak, if at all. Heck, the tasting notes from the winery barely included the mention the word.

So why not? The Spanish would tell you (the winemakers in Rioja age their wine for 5 years before releasing them on the high end, the longest time frame in the world) that the longer you leave the wine in oak barrels, the less oak you taste.  Likewise, the more exacting that the barrel standards are, smaller grains mainly, the less you taste the oak.  More surface area means more inclusive flavors and you find less to taste.  The dichotomy is pretty interesting and the explanation of why it occurs, reminds me, perhaps a bit too much, of a college chemistry class.

Lastly, a momentary word about Syrah.  It’s a tough grape.  The Rhone Rangers and the wineries in Paso Robles definitely hitched their fortunes to the grape.  The thing almost went extinct in the late 80’s and generally speaking, the grape struggled along for close to a generation….until things turned around, right about the turn of the century.

Then Syrah was hot, perhaps white hot even.  It was a thick, jammy wine for those that enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, without all the stares that come from those folks who think they’re too sophisticated to drink wine from any black grape.  It’s dumb & pointless, but these are the folks that can dominate conversations.

A few years back we started to hear about more and more Napa Valley wineries planting Syrah, heck a few wineries with 50 acres of Cabernet and about 5 acres of Syrah, would tell you that the syrah was the most important section of their vineyard.  Pretty amazing right? Of course, there is an explanation, Cabernet prices are pretty well set by the market these days, there isn’t a ton of room to extend the amount of cash you can make on your Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.  Syrah though, is an open door.  You might get something like the $18 our Explorations Wine Club members paid for their People’s Wine Revolution Syrah and love it.  Other times, some searching gives you the $35 Gamma Syrah that’s in this shipment.  A higher end bottling from Napa, might you get $60?

So how do folks chase those larger numbers behind Syrah.  These days, you find cooler climate vineyards.  That’s true here of course and is partially the story of many of the wines we ship.  Additionally though, it leads to plantings of Syrah in more unusual spots.  No longer is the grape situated in only the warmer climate versions of the state.  Instead, I find plantings in the coldest climate vineyards in and around the state.  Hell, the folks in Oregon are planting Syrah to see how it works.  Syrah works wonderfully in the warmer climates of Washington State (as a reminder, Washington state’s main wine regions don’t match your expectations for Washington….Seattle’s cold, but the state on the other side of the mountain range….is pretty warm, almost California warm).

Here’s the rub, not all grapes and not all vineyards can like cooler weather.  Syrah’s one that probably does though, so it’ll have to compete for vineyard space in that context.  Of course, for a grape that’s been little more than the red headed step child of Cabernet Sauvignon for millennia, might be accustomed to the same setup here in California.

Calera 2012 Central Coast Pinot NoirCalera Central Coast Pinot Noir:

Calera’s been a winery that we’ve worked with in consecutive vintages now, which is unusual, we’ve only done that a handful of times.  Full disclosure, their high end estate Pinot’s are outstanding and offer one of our favorite versions of the varietal in California. Second disclosure, they really, really want you to take a few cases of this more generic Central Coast Pinot Noir, as you take on a few cases of their high end single vineyard offerings.

Here’s a fun trivia question? Where are the most profitable vineyards in the state of California?

As you drive through the California Central Coast, you’ll go about 300 miles from the city of Santa Barbara, until you hit San Jose, straight up Highway 101 (also called El Camino Real, it’s the King’s highway, it basically follows the path that Catholic missionaries followed, as they set up the Mission system a few hundred years ago). Along the route these days, not entirely in Santa Barbara wine county, or Paso Robles, you see vineyard butting up against the freeway.

Those are the most profitable vineyards in the wine industry within California today, especially if they’re planted to Pinot Noir.

In this bottling you have grapes from ten seperate vineyards around the Central Coast.  I find it intuitive to talk about where the component parts of a wine came from, before talking about the finished product….so here we go.

Laetitia Vineyard 24%: Laetitia is one of the quality leaders on the Central Coast, they have a range of high end estate vineyard block offerings that run about equal to Calera’s, well into the near $100 per bottle range.  Quality’s great and reportedly, these grapes are really difficult to access.

Sierra Madre Vineyard 16%: Old school, classic Santa Barbara County vineyard.  So old school, they don’t even make their own wines. Oh and want an interesting ownership history.  Try this: Prudential Insurance sold to Douglas Cramer who was the producer or executive producer for tv projects like Dynasty & The Brady Bunch.  The Mondavi family owned the vineyard for a while before current owner Doug Circle (who made his fortune in strawberries of all things). Quality’s consistent and the fact that Fess Parker

Antle Vineyard 10%: Antle is a Monterey County vineyard, located within the Chalone AVA.  Winemakers often talk about how it pays off in better wine when vines are forced to struggle. Well, perhaps no region in California epitomizes the struggle more than Chalone.  It’s dry, bone dry actually since most vineyard space sits above the fog line and quite frankly the soils suck.  Literally, limestone soil is the stuff that your local garden center would tell you, can’t grow anything because the PH is simply too high.  The calcium carbonate, for a vine though is accessible and it’s the stuff that’s made Chateau de Beaucastel a household name in France.  In California, there’s only one sliver of limestone cutting through the state, in this case it runs from somewhere south of the Santa Cruz Mountains and splits the state in two, until it reaches Lompoc.  Thus, the fascination with Syrah and other Rhone varietals in the area. Combine lack of rail and bad soil, you get stressed vines and good wine.  Chalone is a true up and comer in the wine industry-

Bien Nacido 10%:  The first vineyard that I learned about when I started drinking wine in Santa Barbara.  There’s an estate winery these days as well these days, but the vineyard(s) are about 2,000 acres, so anyone who is anyone in Santa Barbara wine is going to source Pinot fruit from here. Like many other truly historic spots in California wine, Bien Nacido dates to the original Spanish settlements up and down the coast.  Grapes have existed on the property since about 1837.  The Catholic Church takes detailed records that were assumed by subsequent owners after the land grant, so it’s possible to dig through the history of literally every grape planted on the property pre Prohibition if one was so inclined

Doctor’s Vineyard 10%: IMO, the darkest fruit being grown on the Central Coast….truly an awful place to visit, let alone to try and grow anything.  Doctor’s Vineyard sits above the town of Soledad, it’s windy, the soil literally looks bad and the vines struggle to produce much of anything.  As we’ve talked about before, struggle removes water from grapes and leads to more expensive and flavorful wine.

Those are the backbone of the wine in your glass-I think you’ll agree, it’s good and helps explain what’s going on within vineyards on California’s Central Coast.  I lived there for 5 years and still feel like I’m just now getting a handle on the wide variety of available grapes and growing regions.

Evening Lands Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir:

Oregon Pinot (and by Oregon Pinot, I usually mean Willamette Valley Pinot) has become something of a go-to in our house.  That’s largely price point driven, if this wine were to be made in California, you would likely have to tack on another $15 or so to the price point.

I’ve talked about Evening Lands before and our ongoing wine club members expressed pleasure in the 96 point and 98 point Pinot Noir’s that we’ve shipped from them in the past.  This wine is an entry level version for the winery, so it’s not on that level of complexity, but sometimes it’s nice to see an Oregon wine that simply is good and more of an international style than the earthy tones that have made the state famous (but that some consumers are still working to accept).

Evening Lands is one of the first Oregon wineries to have a story more reminiscent of California, it was opened by a Hollywood movie producer concerned literally, only with producing world class wines, no matter the cost. He bought vineyards in California and Burgundy and signed an amazing (& unheard of) 45 year lease for the Seven Springs Vineyard in Oregon, despite the shelf life of vines being about 30 years for Pinot Noir (they wouldn’t sell, no matter the price btw).

It didn’t work out at the beginning, sales in the wine industry are tougher than people imagine.  After all, there are about 8,000 commercially active wineries in America and only 4 true nation wide distributors.  Of course, you can use brokers in local markets, but here in San Francisco there’s only 5 or so that are actually good (call it 3, if we eliminate the two whom sell wine, but reportedly don’t pay their winery clients on time)

I think you’ll find as you pour a bottle, this seems a lot like California.  That’s ok too.  I won’t drone on about this Pinot Noir, it isn’t the most complicated and dense version ever.  It’s just good


Mark Aselstine
June 29, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Comptche Ridge Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir Mendocino County

When it came time to talk about this Comptche Ridge Pinot, I struggled to find a specific story that I wanted to tell.  Yes, this is perhaps the most Burgundian of wines that we’ve ever shipped and while the winery is owned and operated by two brothers, much of the wine industry is family owned at this point, well at least until a conglomerate offers tens of millions for your brand name. What I think is most important about this wine though isn’t the specific vineyard where it’s from, but it’s the Anderson Valley itself.  Located about two hours north of San Francisco along the undeveloped coastline of California, Mendocino County and the Anderson Valley has become prime Pinot Noir territory for those who want to make wine from a vineyard that they can actually own themselves, while being in a cool climate region.  Literally cut out from Northern California’s famous Redwood groves Comptche Ridge offers the best insight into a family taking lighter styled California Pinot Noir to it’s logical extreme.  Actually that’s part of the allure of Anderson Valley, an AVA that I recently had to the pleasure to visit and taste through with almost all of the 20 different vineyard’s in the area.  The results are becoming more impressive as time goes by and a number of the most talked about winemakers in Napa and Sonoma have expressed an interest either publicly, or privately in our brief conversations about wanting to craft their own version of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.

Perhaps the best approximation comes from the owner of Nob Hill Cafe in San Francisco who simply summed up the wine in your glass as being a “Somm whisperer”.  What she means by that quite simply is that every Sommelier who tries this wine, wants it on their list.  Food friendly, but with enough backbone to be interesting the Comptche Ridge folks use almost 50% whole cluster’s, which adds some extra tannin and depth to the wine.  Given the cold temperatures and fog that give this wine it’s light fruit and low alcohol content, that addition is crucial.

Wine Club members in both our Reserve and Special Selections Wine Clubs have received this wine.

Lastly, it’s probably important to note that Pinot Noir is the traditional accompaniment to turkey.  While we might be challenging you a bit with the bottles of Tempranillo, we thought it might be nice to play it safer with the other part of the shipment.

All of 45 cases were made of their 2012, here’s the winery provided tasting notes (as per their request):

The 2012 Pinot Noir Comptche Ridge is all about texture, silkiness and polish. Wonderfully layered and sensual in the glass, with dark red cherry, plum, licorice and star anise as some of the many notes that grace the palate in this exquisite, layered Pinot. The 50% whole clusters add lift, but are also beautifully integrated.

Mark Aselstine
June 29, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Brooks Amycas White Wine

To start, this is the Brooks winery in Oregon….there’s are a few other wineries of the same name, many in areas that aren’t as familiar to wine drinkers, like Tennessee. Opened in 1998 by Jimi Brooks (who tragically died of a heart attack in 2004 at only 38) and passed to his son Pascal, winemaker Chris Williams has been tasked with helping the winery to keep its footing with a managing partner who couldn’t legally drink the wine he was technically responsible for.  Pascal was only 15 when he became managing director of Brooks back in ‘04, although he’s living in the Midwest with his mom, returning to the Willamette Valley to work harvest and spend time when not in high school.  Luckily, the family had a plan in place, even with a tragic and unexpected passing and they’ve set the winery up well for now and into the future. A horrible story to be sure and having a toddler in my house and being in my mid 30’s, it puts things into perspective to be sure, but sitting slightly outside of the wine establishment and having such a different set up both in terms of space (the winery building is only 35 feet by 50 feet, that’s especially tiny in Oregon where land is cheaper) and ownership, leads to some innovation.  

I think this Amycas white is a good example of that innovation.  Oregon has struggled for some time to find a complementary white to their standard bearer Pinot Noir, but this might be an example of where some wineries might go.  Made from a combination of Pinot Blanc (yes, genetically related to Pinot Noir) and Muscat, (there are also smaller amounts of Riesling and Pinot Gris) it’s an interesting mix of floral notes and acidity.

Personally, I find the Muscat addition the most interesting.  Perhaps the oldest and most genetically diverse grape in the world, some of the current research at UC Davis shows that perhaps all of the 200 cultivated grape species in the world today, are somehow descended from Muscat.  It certainly seems that when 5,000 years ago people found wild grape vines growing around the Mediterranean, it was likely Muscat.  Typically, you can find Persians, Italians, French and even Spaniards convinced that the grape originated in their part of the world, to this day, no one can be quite sure.  I find the addition of Muscat interesting from a historical perspective, but also because despite the preponderance of different types of Muscat grown today, they all share a single rather unique trait, an intense aroma of sweetness and floral. Those aromas come through loud and clear for me in this wine and makes it interesting in a way that some wines, especially the classic oak and butter Chardonnay’s, simply are not.

Previously featured in our most inexpensive wine club, the Explorations Wine Club.

Winery Provided Tasting Notes: Perfumed honeysuckle and paperwhites, white peach, rose petals and orange blossom flowers. So pretty in the nose with lychee, gardenias and pear. In the mouth the rich fruit explodes! Canned pear syrup, peach, lemon pie, cantaloupe, melon, passion fruit and jasmine. Beautiful wine with a lush texture, finishing with a hint of orange rind and bright acid. Loving this wine both in the aromas and the structure and pure ripe fruit. Great with tuna conserva, celery root salad, grilled fish, etc.

Mark Aselstine
June 29, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Pax Cellars Castelli-Knight Ranch Syrah 2011 Russian River Valley

This is perhaps the first time I had absolutely no idea how to account for a wine monetarily, within a wine club shipment.  Pax Cellars is allocated and this Russian River Valley Syrah from Castelli-Knight Ranch is not available commercially when I’m writing this. The winery even declined to provide pricing information for me, although if you take the time to register for an account with their website, you’ll have the opportunity to buy a few bottles.

Pax Mahle might be the most sought after winemaker in Napa Valley these days (ok, we’ll consider Phillipe Melka busy with his 16 projects in this scenario) , in large part because he’s been able to build Syrah into a brand by itself. Originally brought into the valley to help run Dean & DeLuca’s wine program, Mahle stated this label back in 2000.  Things got a bit weird in 2008 when some of their business partners wanted to sell and the label only just came back into existence a handful of years ago.  I’ve been accused of being a secret Francophile, or worse by members at this club level who would swear that I am only concerned with cooler climate fruit, so I decided to swing exactly in the opposite direction, with a Syrah of all things.  

The Castelli-Ranch vineyard offers a good example of why people originally loved the Russian River Valley, soil’s good, water table is reachable and there’s plenty of warmth and sunlight. Pax calls this vineyard a “fruit bomb in waiting” during private conversations, but loves this vineyard.  I think part of the love for the vineyard is that he’s bought all the fruit and been responsible for farming decisions here since 2001.  In essence, even without ownership, this is the wineries estate vineyard.  Mahle takes this experience seriously, going so far as to buy an acre or couple tons of fruit from neighboring vineyards if they train their canopy’s in a different way, really doing anything at all to find how different decisions, or as he often says, lack of decisions, affect the final produce in your glass.

Anyone who wants to experience Pax Mahle’s wines, should start here. I originally was acquainted with Mahle’s work though a vineyard on the Mayacamas Mountains that provides him some fruit for his Agartha label, called Audelssa. Maybe it was a memorable 45 minute drive up the hill for us to reach Audelssa, but the Agartha wines represented everything that California ever wanted with Syrah.  I was told in no uncertain terms, if you want to experience the original, get a bottle of the Castelli-Ranch. Of course, for many his work at Wind Gap is now the biggest and best expression of his talents, but there’s something that reminds me of unbridled joy in this Syrah.