Uncorked Ventures Blog
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.
Bluxome Street, in many ways, helps to represent the future of winemaking in California. Owned first and foremost by growers, the winery is based in San Francisco’s trendy and upcoming SOMA neighborhood. Well before SOMA became tech’s new foray into the city(currently tenants like Twitter, SalesForce & Airbnb call SOMA home) SOMA was home to the original California wine industry. Before the devastating 1906 earthquake & then Prohibition, SOMA was home to close to one hundred active and working wineries. Grapes were grown in Napa and Sonoma of course but winemakers chose to locate in the city because there were a lot of people and an inordinate number of them, thanks to the gold rush and resulting boom, had money to spend.
Not much has changed. Sure, there’s still counterculture elements to SF and taking the MUNI across town still might cause me to have to cover my 3 year old’s eyes at some point, but SF is gentrifying in some places, all the while building nicer and nicer where only mechanics and warehouses existed previously. That’s about where Bluxome Street is located.
Perhaps more importantly than it’s location is what is being produced. Bluxome Street is focused largely on Pinot Noir, which isn’t surprising given the pedigree of winemaker Webster Marquez. A native Virginian, Marquez went to school in Virginia and then spent two years working at a winery in Virginia, before coming to California and finding a job at Williams-Selyem. That’s proven to be a breeding ground for new winemakers in California, especially those focused on a more austere and acidic profile of Pinot Noir, but Marquez’s story began to really take shape when he helped to found (with 2 partners) Anthill Farms. If you aren’t familiar with Anthill Farms, the Wall Street Journal has said it is helping to redefine California Pinot Noir and the winery has up and inordinate number of times in my conversations with winery owners and other winemakers. From the much acclaimed Mike Smith who crafts Myriad and Quivet to Chris Maybach (yes, of the wine and of course, car fame) everyone I know who has been in the industry for some time, is enamored with Anthill’s wines.
Bluxome is the natural off shoot of that, same style, same winemaker, easier spot to sell wine.
I say this is where winemaking is moving because urban wineries have an easier time selling wine than those based on a cloudy, foggy, cold hill somewhere in western Sonoma County where these grapes are grown. Putting on our marketing hats for a second, I’d much rather have a tasting room in San Francisco with its 16M visitors than the few hundred thousand that make it into Sonoma, wouldn’t you? Of course with Bluxome, there’s a ton of care and concern with their winemaking and while the industry (me among them of course).
Previously featured in both of our high end red wine clubs, Bluxome Street represents exactly the typeof wines and wineries we love to find, ship and talk about.
Lastly, the Hurst Vineyard site is generally referred to as Truett-Hurst which is part of the “middle reach” of the Russian River Valley, meaning this is still dry river bed, but occasionally heavy rainfall can inundate the vineyard to this day. It’s also one of the few vineyards in the RRV not only picked up hand, but picked bunch by bunch with multiple passes through each. Quality is the sole concern here and it shows through.
Groundwork Grenache Rose
Ok, so I know there’s a percentage of you out there that HATE Rose. Please bear with me, this isn’t what you think.
Let’s start with some basics, this Groundwork Grenache Rose is made by winemaker Curt Schalchlin whom I met over a few glasses of wine at the Berkeley standout Bartavelle which has become something of a go-to meeting spot for me. His label, Sans Liege is literally a one man show. Curt does everything. Manages vineyards, thus the focus on only central coast vineyards and nothing in northern California (not that there aren’t enough choices in Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, among other lesser known spots) since he wouldn’t be able to get to those vineyard consistently enough to manage them properly. Of course, there’s back and forth inherent between growers and vintners, since the two groups often cannot even agree how grapes should be sold. Growers want to sell grapes by the ton, winemakers want to buy them by the acre. Part of the continuing issue is that growers (well at least the less scrupulous among them, yes, there are a few) will water the grapes hanging on the vines in the last days before they are picked. That leads to two issues, first that they get paid more. Second, the wine ends up being worse because it’s watered down. Of course, winemakers and vintners aren’t innocent in the whole affair either: take the wine market back in 2009 as an example. A ton of Napa vineyards had long term contracts between growers and vintners, sold by the acre. Big, awesome vintages happened in 07 and 08, only to see the wine market collapse aftermath of the financial crash. Vintners walked out of contracts, leaving growers holding the bag so to speak, they vowed that they’d never go back to selling by the acre (winemakers tend to keep yields super low in an attempt for higher end wine) because if contracts don’t hold up, they’ve cost themselves a ton of money.
Thus, the focus by most small scale winemakers on vineyards that they can manage and relationships that they can nurture, face to face.
Curt makes his wines down on the central coast and features grapes from some of the most intense vineyards in the region. From Alta Colina to Bien Nacido, there are high scoring wines coming from these vineyards each and every year, usually made from Syrah-or other deeper, darker wines.
The Rose in your glass is made from Grenache grapes and here’s the story behind Rose.
Winemakers usually have one of two reasons for Rose if its made by accident and a third, if they actually want to make Rose. First, they have a red wine that doesn’t quite get ripe enough, so they “bleed” off some Rose to make sure the remaining wine that is left, is significantly dense enough to be interesting. In essence, they’re making a stylistic choice for their wine, no matter the vintage.
Secondly, a grower has a section of the vineyard that they simply cannot get ripe, or something goes wrong, or simply the vines are new and not established enough as of yet. There’s a vineyard issue.
Lastly, you have a winemaker who wants to make Rose.
They make it somewhere between a white and red as far as process, which is evident here. When you taste Curt’s Rose, you’ll notice that it tastes like a light bodied red wine, that’s the point and that’s why I can ship it.
I’ve shipped at least one of the first version of Rose-it’s acidity in a glass and I don’t mind it. Curt’s Rose falls into the 3rd category though and it’s the only type of Rose I’ll ship these days.
I get it, outside of SF and NY, Rose simply isn’t too popular. This type of Rose would play anywhere though. Think of it this way, if this were a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from a cool vintage, you might end up somewhere like this.
That’s the beauty with warm vintages, warm weather vineyards and a winemaker who actually wants to make a Rose.
Yeah, I know it’s pink in your glass. Don’t assume though before trying it, It’s not quite as pink as you think, this is a light red. I hope our Explorations Wine Club members enjoy an interesting look into a wine style that's only now coming into vogue across the country.
It seems like quite a number of years ago, which would make many of our parent’s generations blush (ok and likely quite a number of our customers as well, so no disrespect meant at all, my wife was happy to find a job at a school a few years ago, where she plans on working until retirement), but in terms of a startup, 4 years is probably an eternity that I had a chance meeting with Jeff Mathy of Vellum Wine Craft.
When I first started Uncorked Ventures, I was living in San Diego (my brother in law and business partner Matt lived here in the Bay Area) so large scale wine events were both rare and without a doubt, major events at which to make connections and meet people. One such event that does come to San Diego is Family Winemakers.
Family Winemakers offers three large scale tastings in California every year, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. San Diego, as you might expect ends up being something of the red headed step child of the bunch, offering about half the number of wineries at present as SF does. Part of it is the distance, part of it is the smaller market and quite simply, San Diegans don’t buy as much wine, or as expensive wine for that matter, as do Angelino’s, let alone those in the Bay Area.
The set up for Family Winemakers is that from 1-3pm the trade is only allowed in for tasting and the room is virtually empty. From 3-6pm, the general public is allowed in after paying $75 or so. It’s in the top 2 large scale consumer tastings around (Rhone Rangers is the other), so people are ready and the wineries quite honestly, don’t look forward to that section. They pour a lot of wine, don’t sell a lot and deal with a percentage of people who are there with the express purpose of “getting their money’s worth” so to speak.
Anyway, members of the trade (and a friend of two that I’ve gotten in over the years) have talked about how you get accustomed to the lighter crowds during the trade only house. At that San Diego Family Winemakers tasting a few years ago my wife and I were walking around after the consumers came in (which also leads to lines and less opportunity to talk and that’s the fun for me at these events, hearing people’s stories) and we saw a guy, by himself….with a single wine.
Jeff had dressed the wine up a lot, wooden boxes and a large format bottle on the table, but he was standing there by himself while a “name” winery next to him had a line at least 15 people deep, so my wife (who I think I can share here, is a counselor and she fits the stereotype, she felt bad for him and suggested we head over there, since the guy was young, by himself and was wearing a suit jacket, thus trying to impress or at least taking it seriously). We chatted with Jeff for a minute, tried the wine and after tasting wine from 25+ wineries that day, his story and the wine his winery had produced, dominated our conversation on the way home. To me, that made it pretty clear that Vellum was a winery we would need to work with.
In fact, a few months later Matt and I were on a trip to Napa and had some free time after an amazingly short meeting with the sales director of a winery that I won’t name here, so I called Jeff out of the blue and asked if he could meet for dinner, pick a place in our vicinity and be there inside an hour. Luckily, in Napa this isn’t that strange, nor is the small locals only BBQ spot that Jeff suggested. It’s a red table clothed type of place to the east of downtown Napa, where you’re as likely to see construction workers, as winemakers, as city employees sitting to dinner. Back Door BBQ has been around for 35+ years, but I would never have found it without some advice from a local. Jeff also managed to wrangle his business partner and winemaker for Vellum, Karl Lehmann to our meeting, who if memory serves correctly, showed up fresh from the gym. Like I said, last minute, but I think it’s important to remember those who were willing to literally drop everything to sell a case or two of wine to two guys who were just starting out and really had no clue what they were doing, other than to treat people well along the way.
Anyway, back to Vellum and the story that we’ve heard and learned: Jeff’s an interesting guy (he is the only winery business manager I have ever met to have had a full career as a mountain climber, he can tell you about the time he climbed Everest (twice!) or when he collapsed a lung and as my 4 year old would say, this all happened….in real life) and the folks behind Vellum have become something of friends along the way, so I’ve had wine club members tell me that I might not be the most rational when it comes to Vellum. Ok, but those same wine club members also respect that these guys went out to Coombsville, well before the colder climates in Napa were as popular as they are today. After all, Vellum was a startup too and needed affordable grapes. Ask them today if they would have gotten to this point more quickly with Rutherford grapes and they’d like agree-but Vellum now shows up in fine wine stores in 10 states.
Let’s be clear, before I go on, I love all my customers, some will check scores of wines that I ship, well before opening a bottle. Well, the Vellum wines a few vintages ago, when we first started working with them, were not in the mid 90 point range. For the price, they didn’t seem like a great value when they were sitting around 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. Parker wouldn’t review them and let’s be honest, once you have your bottle open you’ll understand, this isn’t the style that historically scores well in Wine Advocate (again not an issue, just an honest assessment, I like these wines more so than the larger than life fruit that was readily available in Napa over the years).
Then, viola, things changed, the scores came. Wine Spectator LOVES these wines.
Let’s take a moment and talk a bit about scores from major wine critics. Wine Spectator might be my favorite wine rating magazine, largely because they do taste wines blind, with groups of tasters. That’s a good setup, at least, in my opinion.
Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, from my experience seeing a tasting being setup in Napa Valley, tastes wine “blind’ but has the wines grouped by consulting winemaker. In our case, we saw a tasting being set up for Michele Rolland clients in Napa, there’s about 30 of them. But, let’s also be clear….if you know that the wineries sitting in front of you are all Michele Rolland clients and that he helps his clients make what you consider great wine….aren’t scores going to be better than the group of wines that are not affiliated with anyone whose name you recognize?
The new wineries, especially the ones crazy enough to start by borrowing money from friends, family, former professors, while signing promissory notes to pay people back, have a harder time attracting a huge score. BTW, if that isn’t direct enough, Vellum did exactly that to raise cash at the beginning of their business. When I tell other winery owners about it, they simply shake their head….it’s unheard of in Napa where it’s often said that it takes a large fortune to either make, or lose, a small one depending on the quality of the current vintage. Take any winery that you can think of off the top of your head right now and read their story online, you’ll read about what the owner did before the wine business, ie how he made his or her money. That isn’t the case here and a different perspective is something that I think is welcome in Napa and within the wider wine industry.
One of the less talked about aspects of the wine trade that people might tell you over a beer, or two, is that it’s damn hard to get the major critics to review you and even if they do, it’s damn hard to get a score that’s going to help sell your wine. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it also drives some strange decisions as time goes by as far as style and how wineries go after new markets, to encourage reviews.
Vellum has built itself in a one step at a time model, largely based I’d imagine on their funding, but they considers themselves classic Coombsville in many ways. First, there’s a very real European sensibility here. Winemaker Karl Lehmann does have a day job, he’s the assistant winemaker at Storybrook Mountain. Storybrook is known for their Zinfandel and have been called the quality leader of that varietal by Wine & Spirits Magazine as recently as two years ago. I find winemakers tend to fall into one of two categories, they either buy into the art or the science of winemaking. Karl’s definitely the artist, he’s as likely to quote an obscure 16th century poet as he is to tell you about what BRIX the grapes were picked at. Maybe that puts him at the extreme, but I like my winemakers to have a perspective. There’s perspective here, that I think is especially prevalent in their Cabernet Sauvignon. When you open the 2011 in your shipment you’ll notice all the normal flavors of Cabernet, but there’s more acidity here than normal. Too often it seems that to get more acidity, fruit is traded and flavors are lost (after all, you can’t turn off the sun in California) but that is not the case here. Classic Cabernet flavors and more acidity reminds me more of France than it does California, but then again that’s exactly their goal and why they sourced grapes from Coombsville in the first place.
A word about the “Black” that’s part of your shipment. In the 2010 vintage Wine Spectator gave the wine 94 points and called it their cellar selection for the month. Yes, it helped put Vellum on the proverbial map. We shipped that wine well before scores came out and we’re now shipping the 2011 before scores come out for this vintage as well.
I don’t think the ‘11 is as good as the ‘10. BUT, I don’t buy into the negative hype that surrounds the 2011 vintage as a whole in Napa. Yes, it was a damn cold and even a challenging growing season. Are we supposed to take an entire vintage off? What does that say for the long term viability for new wineries, or those without millions of dollars in corporate backing? If you’re willing to actually try these wines, you’ll like what’s here. The French will still argue, to the death in fact, that Bordeaux is more cellarable than Napa simply because there’s more acidity inherent in their wines. Karl’s had the conversation with me quite a few times and is a true believer. Plus, I’ve had at least 10 conversations with various winemakers where they shrug when opening a bottle of their ‘11, only to say…..this is better than people think.
The Black is mostly Petite Verdot, but you can’t sell it with that varietal on the front (after all, when is the last time you intentionally bought a Petite Verdot?), thus the trade name instead: plus it allows them to change the percentage of Cabernet in the blend (typically 15%, but if they cross 20% they wouldn’t be allowed to keep the Petite Verdot moniker anyway. They do something similar for the Merlot that they now produce, that’s another varietal that grows well in Napa Valley, but that consumers won’t buy any longer (thanks Sideways).
Petite Verdot has traditionally been a blending grape in France where winemakers say that the thing won’t always ripen (somehow this seems ok, for Pinot Noir, but I digress) before they run into their significant rainy season (reports are that every few years, a full vintage is lost on the vine). The grapes are used, most often, to add structure to Cabernet blends. The grape in practice also adds color, it’s a dark purple color when allowed to hang long enough on the vine.
The wine will need decanting if you want to enjoy it young, but Petite Verdot does reliably ripen in Napa (like all grapes) and can be allowed to hang well into October. An old winemaker friend Jean Hoefliger (he’s the winemaker at Alpha Omega which sits in Rutherford along highway 29, Jean made a name for himself a Newton before hand) makes a Petite Verdot on his own (a natural idea for a winemaker who says that he wouldn’t drink a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc without burying it in the vineyard for about 20 years), thus is the perspective of someone who grew up with a vineyard in the family and learned to make wine in a European model. His assistant winemaker Henrik Poulson laughs about the project and shakes his head….it’s Petite Verdot, not anyone’s favorite grape. That’s because it’s hard to tame the damn thing, too often these are so big that they’re unrecognizable as wine. Vellum walks the fine line pretty well and I find that the folks with a more European style, along with the California sun can make a nice combination when it comes to Petite Verdot. The Coombsville address, in my opinion, helps keep things under control as well here.
In any case, I hope our Reserve Selections Wine Club members enjoy their look into Vellum Wine Craft this month. A Cabernet and Petite Verdot made in an unexpected style, from a strange vintage, we thought was worth a look.
It isn't quite high season for this type of stuff yet, that typically happens closer to harvest in July, August, September and October, but on wine industry sites I'm starting to run into an increasingly number of available grape postings.
Wine grapes are sold by the ton by growers to vintners (or winemakers, your choice in essence the two are interchangeable in practice).
A customer asked me the other day, how much wine do you get from a ton of grapes?
Generally speaking winemakers will tell you that they receive about 150 gallons of juice from a ton of grapes. Converting those gallons to bottles, you have 750ml in a bottle of wine and therefore 2.378 gallons in a case of wine. That 1 ton of grapes therefore produces right about 63 cases of wine, right around a pallet-depending on how it's being stacked.
In practice, that seems consistent. I have a winemaker friend who takes a half ton of grapes from a historic Lodi vineyard and says he overfills the container a ridiculous amount and produces about 35 cases or so of the wine in question.
Over the coming days and weeks, we'll be answering more of these type of questions to try and pull the veil back so to speak, off the wider wine industry.
As always, we hope you'll consider a wine club membership!
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