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Wonderwall Pinot Noir Edna Valley 2015

Wonderwall Pinot Noir

Wonderwall Pinot NoirSo I think the most interesting aspect of this Wonderwall Pinot Noir Edna Valley 2015, by far, is the location.

So I lived on the Central Coast for 5 years and I thought I knew the region pretty well.  After all, between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, there’s a number of small towns, but with only one real way to get from one region to the other along the coast (the inland valley isn’t really relevant when you sell wine for more than $20 per bottle, so I can discount the 5 and stick to only spots off the 101).

Then I started seeing more and more Edna Valley Pinot Noir and I had to take a minute to find where the Edna Valley was on the map.

A couple of years ago, grapes grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands started getting sold for increasingly ridiculous price points, so many small vintners were forced to look for cooler climate Pinot Noir elsewhere.

Enter the Edna Valley which is located just to the east of the Santa Lucia mountains and the Pinot fruit that everyone started bidding up.  So it makes sense and it makes even more sense when you realize that this is a valley that runs east-west instead of North-South.  In wine grape growing that’s incredibly important because the cool winds off the ocean, the fog, get to take a straight shot into your vineyard.  The folks on the central coast would argue this is California’s coldest winegrowing region in large part because it’s 5 miles from the coast.  If I’m being honest about it, sure if you’re grading an entire AVA that’s likely true.  But, the true Sonoma Coast is significantly colder, like bring a jacket to the beach during the summer cold, borderline miserable during the winter.  Edna Valley isn’t miserable at any point, the central coast is too Mediterranean for that, but this is hardly Santa Monica, Del Mar or Coronado.

So what was the 2015 vintage like? This in many ways, thank God for vintners, was the peak of the drought. The vintage was considered to be both early and light.  For cooler climate varieties like the Pinot Noir and say Gewurztraminer, that’s quite ok. After all, most of the reason that people are looking toward these varietals and these spots, is for their acidity.

But, there was a very real problem: the general lack of fruit. For most of the folks that I work with, they’re too small to own their own vineyard, or if they do, it’s only a few acres and they’re still buying a significant portion of their fruit elsewhere.  While the big boys have largely changed from buying grapes by the ton, to buying them by the acre-for the smallest players growers aren’t making that change.  Quite honestly, they’ve been taught hard lessons, sometimes smaller wineries and winemakers don’t pay their bills on time, or at all.  So they’ll only sell them fruit by the ton, after all, at least they can still control the farming then and sell the fruit elsewhere if someone backs out at the last minute.  What this all means, if you’re buying fruit by the ton and if a vintage is down 50% from it’s normal levels, the biggest contracts get the fruit first and the little guys, might not get fruit at all.

All that is to say, these “entry” level Pinot Noir offerings (and yes, unfortunately entry level prices for Pinot are about $20 in California, we simply cannot grow all that much fruit on any given acre) may be tough to come by in 2015. As a sourcing issue for a wine club, that can be an issue, so I was happy to jump on this and get it out now.

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Rutherford Dust Society 2014 Release

the fountain at Inglenook

Last week I was able to attend a Rutherford Dust Society release of their 2014 wines.

For those that aren’t familiar, Napa Valley is really a collection of a number of smaller AVA’s, each with its own set of positives and negatives. When it comes to negatives though in Rutherford, success and the fact that literally everyone seems to love these wines, has caused the prices to join Bordeaux in the stratosphere here at home and abroad.

In many ways though, Rutherford is what made Napa into what it is today.  It’s home to Mondavi, perhaps the best known winery in the world as well as a number of other historic names, like Inglenook which hosted the event last week.

Inglenook has a long, long history that follows much of what’s happened in the wider valley itself.  Originally planted back in the mid 1850’s, give or take, there were vines settled on the site by 1879 at the latest.  The winery shut during Prohibition.  It was a quality leader until a number of corporate interests bought the property, more so for the name than the land, using it sell cheap wine across the world.  Finally, thanks to the Godfather series of films, Francis Ford Coppola over the course of almost two decades put the various parcels back together, creating what still might be the classic Napa Valley estate.

the fountain at InglenookWhile it was fun to walk around Inglenook, there’s a very real and palpable history there, Rutherford tends to overshadow all.  In the wine world, Rutherford Dust refers to a certain taste that people tend to identify on the finish of its wines.  Some describe it as cocoa, or simply chocolate.  Others and I fall into this category, notice a certain dusty tannin on the finish of these wines.  It’s exemplary and consistent irregardless of what happens during the vintage at question. Neighboring AVA’s don’t boast the same flavor combination at finish.

Before I forget: 2014 was a great vintage.

Quality was incredibly high for the vintage, but this is the first year that the drought came to bear, so you had a slight tick down in the amount of fruit from many vineyards, maybe 10-20%, but that’s just enough of a decrease to increase quality.  If you think about it, a vine has a specific amount of sugar it can impart to berries and having less berries allows each to gain more sugar (well plenty of other stuff as well, but I think you get the point).

Inglenook, like pretty much every winery in the Rutherford Dust Society is focused on Cabernet Sauvignon.  As well they should be, after all, the average bottle sells for well over $100.  Here’s where the estate Cabernet is at currently in the growing cycle.

Cabernet on the vine at Inglenook
Cabernet Sauvignon growing on the Inglenook estate. Pre veraison, July 2017

Ok, so about the tasting itself.  First and foremost, like every wine tasting I’ve ever been to, no one follows the rules.  Seriously, no one.  Events like this are suppose to feature only Rutherford wines, but everyone pours whatever they’ve got.  Normally, it isn’t a big deal, like when someone sneaks in a Washington red to an Oregon Pinot tasting, I often find it humorous.  In this case though, it made things a bit more difficult.  There’s an incredible amount of interest in the Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps more so than any varietal in any growing region anywhere else in America (ok, almost assuredly that’s true) so it’s packed pretty well in there.  Which means waiting, again, that’s completely fine….but the combo of waiting to chat for a second, along with sorting through what a winery is actually pouring, made for a slower process than I had initially hoped.

There was one funny thing about the tasting.  I heard from at least 4-5 wineries that they were the smallest ones in the room.  Often they made a few thousand cases.  Sometimes I can’t help myself.  An old friend was kicking around over in one of the corners: Tom Rees who makes the wine at Pine and Brown.  If you aren’t familiar with the name, Tom makes 4 barrels out of a converted garage in his home in downtown Napa (the maximum he’s allowed to be permitted for, given the Prohibition era regulations still in place).  Yup, that’s it….4 barrels.  It’s a tight fit, but an awesome setup…..but it also made me giggle a bit internally when someone mentioned they made a couple thousand cases and “we are easily the smallest in this room”.

So, outside of Pine and Brown, which I love as a concept and in its execution, here’s two that caught my eye.

So Hewitt Vineyard is another pretty classic name in Napa Valley.  It’s next door to Hewitt Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford 2014Inglenook and has been planted, somewhat on and off because of Prohibition since 1880.  André Tchelistcheff helped change the vines to Cabernet Sauvignon, which again, is about as good as praise can get.

For those that know the meandering highway 29, Hewitt is in essence part of the Provenance Vineyards property and that’s where you can taste the wine.

Depending on the vintage, the wine runs from $150-$300 per bottle.  It’s exactly the type of dark, dense and flavorful Cabernet Sauvignon that you’d expect in Rutherford.



Jean Edwards Cellars: Before I saw Tom in the corner, I thought Jean Edwards was likely to be the smallest guy in the room.  About 600 or so cases are produced every year with winemaker Kian Tavakoli handling the reigns. He was the winemaker at Clus Du Val for 8 years, before beginning to take on these smaller projects.  For those of us interested in the highest quality wine imaginable, there’s a palpable difference. This is one of the wines that makes Rutherford what it is.  At about $90 retail, it’s the type of offering that makes you think that you’re lucky to find a bottle.

All in all, it was an awfully fun tasting.  There’s a ton to like being produced in Rutherford, perhaps even more given the quality 2014 vintage than normally and normally, is pretty great in itself.

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The Future of Pinot Noir in 4 Spots

California Central Coast

Pinot Noir, for some reason, it’s the one varietal that leads to the highest amount of conversation-yes, even more so than Cabernet.  Here’s some of what’s happening in the land of Pinot told through 4 unique growing regions.

Video Transcription:

Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. So today I’m joined by four bottles of Pinot Noir, which are surprisingly hard to get into this shot and still talk with my hands. So we’ll see how long this takes me to probably knock half of these over.

So anyway, a couple questions came up. I had a customer who really likes Pinot, and who actually subscribes to our monthly wine club, but they only ask that they get Pinot Noir. So they receive pretty much any Pinot that goes out in any of the three wine cubs, so that’s kind of a fun one. So they are kind of wanting to know what do I think happens next for Pinot. So here’s the state of the industry now is that you have guys like Bourgogne, i.e. Burgundy, you have the Central Coast, you have Sonoma, and you have the Santa Cruz mountains. Those kind of regions seem to dominate at least the conversation around pinot noir with some other international folks kind of stealing some sales and some conversation along the way too. New England, or New Zealand is a great example of that.

So what happens next? I think it’s fair to say that if you remove Sonoma and Burgundy from the conversation that you could say that those are largely built out. What happens when a wine region is built out around a specific varietal is that if you want to continue planting that varietal you’re having to look in what are considered at the time as less desirable vineyard locations. Sonoma I can speak to much better terms than Burgundy. So Sonoma for the longest time if you look at how they divided the AVA, the Sonoma Coast, and I’ll use that in parentheses because there are parts of the Sonoma Coast that are nowhere at all near the coast. They’re actually east of the 101, which itself is at least 10 miles inland. So anything west of the 101 was considered 50/50 hit or miss. If you went significantly west of the 101 it was considered too darn cold to ever grow.

Well the market has kind of caught up to that. It may be global warming a degree or two has helped, but in reality what’s happened is that the market has started to accept an increasingly acidic Pinot Noir from Sonoma. So these folks that maybe came into the game late, or had more of a financial incentive to have to buy it closer to the coast as opposed to inland and kind of areas where people thought it was a better place to go, they’ve had the markets come into their laps. So you will see some of that happen. What’s considered a less desirable vineyard location today might not be a less desirable vineyard location tomorrow.

The Central Coast, the one thing that they have that other folks kind of at the table here don’t have is they have enough space. So you’ve seen if you drive the 101 say Santa Barbara up here to the Bay Area, the most profitable vineyards in the state of California are the ones right along the highway. Those are not the highest class, highest quality vineyards. Those are the ones that produce a lot of grapes that can create a lot of $20 and $30 Pinot that’s actually really darn good. So you’re going to see continuing building out of vineyard space like that.

Santa Cruz mountains almost reminds me more of Burgundy than of any other American wine growing region because it’s damn hard to plant there. It’s hard to get grapes in. It’s hard to get grapes out. It’s hard to get approvals for planting. You can’t cut down a Redwood tree an put a vineyard in. You can’t cut down an oak tree, et cetera, et cetera. So this is really going to be a piece meal kind of thing in the Santa Cruz mountains. You’re going to see folks that have the incentive to do so, and they do based on prices that you can get this big basin bottle is close to $60, although well worth every penny if you want a kind of world class Pinot from your backyard. So you’re going to have smaller vineyard sites on the mountainside, and you’re going to have people really having to do it by hand. There’s not going to be any huge scale vineyard projects. Although, I guess we said that about Alice Peak and we were proven wrong.

So in any case four distinct Pinot Noir destinations. If people want to know hey what’s the future of Pinot? Pinot sales continue to grow, however each region is really something in and of itself. I think it’s hard to make broad generalizations because every, kind of in every space you have some unique kind of qualifiers that happen. In Sonoma it’s these less desirable vineyard locations which have become more desirable, which in some ways has just allowed the industry to expand. Santa Cruz it’s really hard to expand it based on how vineyards have to be planted. Central Coast is exploding, but it’s not necessarily exploding with the type of highest quality fruit that people got the know from Santa Barbara, so that’s going to be something the industry is very careful of, especially wine makers don’t want to be known as a cheap Pinot destination. They want to be known as the Pinot destination. So how do they encourage higher end plantings. Lastly, Burgundy is Burgundy. It’s the ancestral home of the varietal, what are you going to do.

So once again Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Hope you guys are having a good one.

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Changala Winery

Changala Winery

Changala WineryChangala Winery is a family project, owned and operated by Jean and Heidi Changala.

What they’ve created can feel a bit like an oasis in over priced and often, standard tasting room.  There are winery dogs, which are always fun to have around.  There’s also plenty of seating outside, bocce ball courts as well as, a corn hole.

The tasting room is shared with Kaleidos Winery, itself a smaller producer and the two do a nice job at giving guests the opportunity to not only drink some wine, but to pair dessert wines with actual, desserts like cupcakes and yes, chocolate!

Another positive: their Willow Creek Cottage. Changala Winery is ahead of the game a bit here already up and running on Airbnb for $250 a night, which unfortunately for many of us, still counts as an outstanding deal in wine country.

Of course, without good wine though, nothing else matters.  There’s a lighter touch evident here from start to stop, but it’s the varietal and blending choices that gives us some insight into the happenings at Changala Winery.  They make a Cabernet SauvignonSyrah blend which you won’t often find.  They also grow Touriga Nacional as a stand alone bottling, also blending it with Cabernet.  Unlike much of Paso, you can find plenty of Rhone’s, but also plenty of Bordeaux varietals which is a longer discussion in and of itself, where Paso goes from here is up to some debate (Cabernet tends to grow amazingly in town and there’s a ready made market in a way that Syrah can’t touch)

How Changala Winery fits with Uncorked Ventures: It’s always nice to find smaller, family owned and operated wineries in well known wine regions.  In this case, Changala Winery features a tasting room only open Friday through Sunday which gives the entire operation and air of size and exclusivity, without being pretentious.  As part of one of my 90 point wine clubs, I think Changala Winery would be a great fit.

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Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014

Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014 Front Label

Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014 Front LabelAnother one from shipments this month, folks in our red wine clubs are receiving this Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014

I’ll get to some information on the winemaker, but first, a word on where the wine comes from: Coombsville.

When I first opened Uncorked Ventures, about 6 years ago, Coombsville was just getting talked about as a destination for Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s located in south-east Napa, really the end of the wider AVA.  The location puts it comfortably next to San Pablo Bay, perhaps the coldest spot associated with Napa Valley (largely the locals don’t count Los Carneros since its both shared with Sonoma and is largely dedicated to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).

In any case, Coombsville became it’s own AVA officially in 2011, it’s a labor intensive practice that requires not only vintners and growers wanting the designation, but a multi step checklist to show how this specific region differs from others and its neighbors.  Stuff like soil samples are necessities and add to not only the cost of pursuing an AVA designation, but also the time it takes to receive it.

Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014 Back LabelCoombsville showed up on our radar for two reasons originally.  First, it was painfully obvious that this is where the region was moving. Colder weather, darker fruit because of a longer more moderate growing season and higher acidity level in the resulting wine. Second, grape prices in the wider Napa Valley have gone crazy.  Not a little crazy, but really damn crazy.  So smaller wineries and winemakers were forced to get with this trend faster than perhaps they all would have wanted, after all a Rutherford designation still sells a lot of wine, but they were ahead of the curve and the results from critics and consumers has been overall, spectacular.

2014 was the first of the vintages where the drought really came to play.  This was a much, much faster growing season than the 2013 vintage and IMO, despite the continued hype surrounding every Napa vintage, these were a bit less intense in flavor profiles than we’re accustomed to because of the shorter growing season.  Of course, that’s not the worst case scenario and people will surely buy 2014’s without hesitation.  This is also where Coombsville’s longer hang time comes to bear and I think dramatically helps the end result.

Lastly, a word on the winery here.  Barry Singer started making wine the old fashioned way.  One of the things I love about the wine industry is that there are two separate and divergent ways to learn to make wine.  First, folks go through viticulture programs like the one at UC Davis.  Second, a lot of guys like Barry decide that they like wine an awful lot and get sucked into the industry one way or another.  For him, it was the want to learn about wine, so he took a job in a cellar in Napa.  Winemakers are a collaborative lot and there’s always help available.  In that way, a ton of winemakers learn to make wine in an internship or trade type fashion-something that we often bemoan not existing in American society any longer.  These are the folks I often end up working with have an interesting take on the industry as its their second career and are often not bound by the specific process they learned in school.  Instead, they’re more likely to consider themselves artists.  Barry falls into that category.

Over the years, production spaces and production levels have gotten bigger and better.  Production levels have increased to close to 500 cases and the wines are now made, instead of in a Napa Valley garage, at a different, larger, winery that rents some space like a custom crush facility might.

Lastly, there aren’t a lot of major critics scores on Singer Cellars wines.  After all, to have a review done in many publications-you have to have your wine in a majority of their markets.  If you’re making about 500 cases, that’s impossible.

Here’s the Sommelier Files review:

With a balanced mixture of red and black fruits, this playful yet stylish wine is loaded with attractive aromas and bright flavors of red cherry, fresh currants, blackberry, roasted espresso, vanilla, tobacco, and cedar. The luscious texture is further complemented with an admirable burst of vibrant acidity and a long dry finish. It’s a great wine to share with friends, family, and holds up well when opened for a few days too. 140 cases.

Food pairings: Gourmet pizzas, grilled veggies, pulled pork, lamb sliders, beef bourguignon. Overall, a fabulous food-friendly wine—especially for the price!

Lastly, one thing to note on this wine. There’s a certain depth on the finish, see if you can pick up the charcoal notes that I sense at the finish-it’s something that I sense in a lot of good Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a fun wine this Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014.

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Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014

Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014 Front Label

As part of our high end wine clubs this month, I give you the: Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014

Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014 Front LabelOk, before I go any further….they do grow wine in Marin and Wine Spectator puts this at 94 points (which I’ll add likely throws into the top half of the top 100 for the upcoming year) but here we go.

I originally met winemaker Jon Grant largely by chance. Before I go on, Jon has worked at a number of name wineries in and around Napa Valley, including Plumpjack and Corison. Ok, so back to the story: I was helping every Tuesday at a custom crush facility called Vinifiy in Santa Rosa during harvest.  Basically, I’d drop my oldest at school, drive the hour north and walk in the front door to see who needed help.  The second time I was there, much like they treat the interns, I was asked to help with what the winemakers knew was a crappy job, but I didn’t.

Jon makes wine under a couple of different labels, this Couloir brand and a brand called Straight Line as well.  That day he had some fruit coming in for his Straight Line Tempranillo from Lodi. You don’t have to be socially gifted to notice the snickers coming from other winemakers, but it’s Tempranillo and this was Sonoma, so I thought it pretty normal.  Custom crush, reminds me an awful lot of a fraternity house, or a college dorm most of the time.

It turned out that they were laughing, at both of us, because they had gotten a quick glance at the truck as it was coming into the parking lot.  You see, grapes are often harvested when it is coolest, often at about 3-6am in the morning under huge lights that are dragged into the vineyard, or via miner lights worn on each pickers head. So the grapes show up at the winery around 10am, usually pretty cool.

What you have at a custom crush, where many winemakers work using the same equipment, is often a line of winemakers sitting outside, waiting for trucks to come in. While they often can tell the varietal that’s falling off the truck over the speed bumps, it is impossible to tell what vineyard it is.  So they chat, meanwhile everyone gives the grapes the eye test.  Is this fruit they’d want next vintage?

It turns out, this vintage of Tempranillo was problematic.  Tempranillo evidently doesn’t usually work well in the destemmer (the machine which separates the berries from the stems) because the bunches of fruit are so tight, but this looked especially bad.

It was.

Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014 Back LabelThe destemmer basically did nothing.  Well, it got the long strands off, but the berries went into the destemmer in large bunches and came out of the other side much the same, although they were at least broken down into jacks (the small part of the stem which holds 4-6 berries together).

At a custom crush, you only have access to staff during the time you’re using the machines during harvest, so the 6 of so folks running the destemmer did the best that they could picking out berries.  But it was tough to see any real progress.

Eventually the next ton of fruit came in and everyone moved along.  Which left Jon, on his hands and knees picking out the jacks.  I ended up spending about 6 hours doing the same with him. This is the hard part about a small winery, especially one at a custom crush.  There’s no extra staff, there’s no way to put off tasks.  Sometimes winemakers simply have to roll up their sleeves and do about a day’s worth of manual labor, before the grapes heat up.

In any case, then and there I saw a winemaker truly interested in the craft.  A lot of people would have thrown up their hands and simply said, screw it.  This is hard. It’s pointless.  Plus I could just make the Tempranillo and say it was 100% whole cluster this year.  No one would know any better, or say anything and I’d be home for dinner.  But that wasn’t what Jon did, instead he picked out jacks until he got the Tempranillo down to 50% whole cluster, which was his target based on his experience and how he thought the vineyard had been shaping up during the growing season.

So there’s an attention to detail here.

So you’re wondering, why this wine?

Not just the score, although I think that’s commensurate with the quality of the offering.

Instead, I wanted to feature a wine from Marin County. I have yet to do so.  Marin is the small formerly agricultural region directly after you cross the golden gate bridge from San Francisco.  It was once the dairy belt for the Bay Area.  No longer.  Now, it’s multi million dollar houses, although they’ve kept much of the open space (something I still am amazed by growing up in the suburbs of San Diego where open space was basically non existent).

Over the years, the last few dairy farmers have made one discovery: grapes bring in, a crapload of money per acre.  Especially Pinot Noir, given Marin is a cold growing region. For a long time, people didn’t think they’d be able to grow grapes in large part because Marin is close to the beach. It’s darn close to the famed Petaluma Gap, just on the southern side as many of the famous vineyards in Sonoma are to its north.  In any case, it’s foggy and salty much of the time.  The soil, is more sandy than many want to admit, or want to admit can grow grapes.  Really, that’s because if we can grow Pinot Noir in sandy soil, than the entire spots that we choose vineyards in the state, might have to change.

There’s about 200 acres in total planted across Marin, so this is largely an undiscovered swatch of land.  Plus, the locals are wealthy, so the wines made here often don’t leave the local restaurant scene.

I figure that spending a day doing some back breaking labor might have helped my chances at bringing this one to you as part of my wine clubs. It also fits pretty much perfectly into what I want to do, as only 8 barrels were made, or 194 cases.

Ok, so there’s been a lot of talk from Sommelier’s about this wine and some of Jon’s others being incredibly close to Burgundy, or Bourgogne as they want us to call it. I don’t know if I buy that, largely because in Burgundy, grapes really do run the risk of not ripening.  I’ve yet to find a Pinot Noir grape grown in California that didn’t ripen. So that’s pretty different and those results do really end up in the bottle.

So here it is.  A ton of people have spilled more ink than me about the Sonoma Coast, what amounts to the Sonoma Coast and what doesn’t.  The AVA guidelines suck and don’t tell us much about the wine in the your glass, this is another good example of that phenomenon.  Marin east of the 101 is highly populated and warm.  West of the 101, it’s largely open space and cool.

I think for what I’m looking to do, this was the right place to start.

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When Vintage Matters and When It Doesn’t

easter island in Chile

One of the issues with being a small business…..sometimes you forget stuff. Like posting this from like 7 months ago.  Here’s some idea about when vintage matters and when it doesn’t.

Video Transcription:

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Adventures (edit: dear transcription folks, this seems like one you should get correct #justsaying), so I hope everybody’s having a good start to their week. Before we go any further, obviously, this is Chilean wine, it’s not the thing that’s going to show up in one of our wine club shipments, but I thought interesting … I’ve talked a lot about, I don’t think that it’s as important as some in the wine media and wine trade would tell you to focus exclusively on vintage when you’re buying wine, at least when it comes to domestic stuff. I think in large part, if you’re buying from smaller producers, there is something to be said as consumers that we accept that there is a sense of place that is inherent in the wine industry for vintages and for places where the stuff is grown.

If Napa has a cool year like 2011, does that mean that we avoid all Napa wines, no matter how small the guys are and no matter what that means for the long-term health and industry? I don’t believe that and I don’t think the average consumer believes that either. I think that good quality wine makers can make good wine with kind of substandard vintages, at least good enough that you’re not going to buy and put it in the cellar for thirty years, but that’s not how the average wine drinker drinks wine in the first place.

I think we have to get ourselves back into reality about how much vintage matters for the average person buying wine, and it’s frankly not as much as I think the wine trade will lead you to believe. That being said, I think when you’re dealing with international wine it is good to pick and choose. This is a 2013 Chilean Cabernet, I’m not the biggest Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon fan, I think they get too ripe and too overblown, it’s California Cabernet in the 80s which was kind of a wild, wild west of the more oak and the more ripeness you can get, the better. I think that the industry, thankfully, has moved away from that.

2013 though, in Chile was about the coldest growing year that they’ve ever had. At least in the past decade or two, it’s about the coldest it’s been. They said that even early ripening grapes, like Sauvignon Blanc didn’t actually get ripe all the way. That’s pretty much unheard of in most of South America, and it’s definitely unheard of in Chile, but when it comes for Cabernet Sauvignon, and if you’re somebody who likes a little bit more acidity, and a little bit more hang time on the vine, this was a vintage where you can buy a ten dollar bottle of Cabernet and you can say, “Wow, that was actually quite good,” and that was more as far as the style that I like, this was more consistent.

I think that’s where vintage matters and it doesn’t matter. I think we talk a lot about how as a wine trade we need to support smaller producers and everyone wants to know the story of the guy making the wine, but then again, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t want to support smaller producers but only in the best vintages. I think you have to choose to support your local winemaker, your local wine production facility, or wine region. Then I think when it comes to international stuff that’s being piped into the US market, and some of this stuff, Montes is definitely somebody who does this, wine made specifically for our market, I think it is okay to pick and choose and I think we should. I think we should hold international folks to a higher standard because the jobs aren’t staying here in the United States and they’re not supporting people that live down the street from you, or across the street, or next door.

I think, especially as we get to more and more urban tasting rooms, I think that becomes easier, but I think as a wine trade, and as a wine industry, and as consumers, we need to make smart, kind of reasonable choices about when we say, “Hey, vintage really matters and I can’t buy a 2011 Napa Cabernet,” but what does that mean for a Napa Cabernet producer that only produces five hundred cases? Do you want them to be able to produce a 2013? Then maybe we should … sure, buy less, and try it and see what it comes out. I bet you you’re going to be surprised. The average wine consumer does not sell their stuff for multiple, multiple years, the average bottle of wine is consumed … Or ninety-eight percent of wine is consumed within forty-eight hours of purchase and that probably sets up to what your habits are as a consumer in your household, I know it does mine.

Yeah, I think that’s about where we are as an industry. I think we can decide to treat international producers and our local stuff differently, and quite honestly I think that’s okay. Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Adventures, I hope you guys are having a good start to your week, and not a good fit for a wine club or a gift basket, but that’s okay too. I think it’s instructive to sometimes try stuff that’s out of our normal range. I never want to be somebody who, I end up with a case of confirmation bias and I think that wine should only taste like that that’s made in California or California and Washington, or California and Washington and Oregon, or what have you.

International folks produce good wine, this is an incredible value at ten dollars, and that’s kind of one of those things where I think knowing a little bit about the vintage helps a lot. This is a vintage that was panned internationally, but for most American wine consumers, this is going to be a better fit than what they get in the probably subsequent vintages from Montes. Mark Aselstine, Uncorked Adventures, hope that everybody’s having a good week so far and we’ll talk to you soon.


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Only the Educated Can Make Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?

education and the wine industry

Perhaps a bit of a negative look at the increasing prices, as well as, the lack of space in Napa Valley as well as other high end wine regions.  Here’s what happens when only the fundamentally rich, or historic?

Video Transcription:

Hi, guys. Mark Aselstine, with Uncorked Ventures. So I’ll hold this up. This is a Singer Cellars, and I’m gonna flip it around for you. Hopefully, you don’t get too dizzy. One I think this interesting thing is, is you’re seeing this more and more now for these days. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. So right about there. I don’t think Singer … Well Singer is important. And we’ll talk about Singer in a few kind of upcoming minutes here, but there are a few other things that we should talk about in terms of Napa. I wrote a little about it yesterday.

And kind of … One of the interesting things happening in Napa is that Napa is becoming a monoculture. And not a monoculture as in there is only grapes being planted, because that’s been happening since kind of “the mid ’80s.” But only Cabernet Sauvignon is being planted. And most of it is due to price.

And it’s both price that people will pay, but also price that winemakers will then pay based on what they can sell bottles of wine for. So if you’re a grower, and you can sell Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for $7,000 per ton, you’re going to do that instead of say Cabernet Franc; which might get 25,000 at the high end. So there is a huge kind of difference. And so increasingly we’re seeing almost entire vineyards either grafted over to Cabernet. Or kind of stuffed, pulled out, and then planted the Cabernet. Or in essence you know everybody is migrating as quickly as they can to have only Cabernet in their vineyard.

Napa for a long time was much like Bordeaux, it was blends. It was always Carbernet based ed, and it wasn’t Merlot based. Kind of as much. And there wasn’t that much of this side of the river versus that side like they do in Bordeaux. But you know you would see 75% Cabernet, 20% Merlot; and 5% Petite Verdot, or something along those lines. You’re seeing less and less of that. And that’s both winemaker choice. That’s both what the vintages are giving them, but then there’s also you know kind of just a factual statement of, this is what is available. And so this is what we can make wine out of. As an industry, we don’t know what that means.

Personally, I get a little trepidation from it. Because I don’t feel like it’s necessarily a safe or a good growth mechanism for Napa, which is an area that I really do like. So it is kind of one of those things were it feels almost a little bit like an inflection point. And I think it feels a little bit like an inflection point for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, I think the main inflection point is will people continue to buy 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Or at some point is this going to turn into Merlot where people are like, “Well I like it, but not like this other thing.” And then you’re stuck. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I think there is a more interesting aspect to this too.

And the more interesting aspect to me is that … So Napa is so damn expensive, that to get grapes or land in Napa you’d have to have a lot of cash. And if you’re somebody whose made a lot of cash, you go through an entire hiring process when you hire your winemaker. And most of the time you end up with somebody who … If you think about how resumes are set up, the wine industry is no different. Unless if you’ve had a lot of experience as winemaker, and multiple high scoring ventures, etc., etc. If you’re looking to get your first job.

And your first job is really what’s important here. ‘Cause you move up. You’re you know assistant winemaker, or barrel master, or you know cellar master. And you kind of ding, ding, ding, ding up smaller winery. Medium sized winery. And then you know either exclusive winery, or a kind of larger production with folks. But the easiest way to get that first wine making job is with something on your resume being education. That’s like anything in life. Right?

So that first job … Almost all these folks come from UC Davis. Fresno State has a very nice viticultural program. Increasingly Cal Poly San Luis Obispo being thought of as Davis’s equal, perhaps down on the central coast. And you know there is a certainly quite a … There is a handful of other ones. In New York they have programs. Washington State has a handful of them themselves. Oregon as well. But you know you’re really talking about maybe 15 wine making programs, of which Davis is thought of as the Ivy League. And everybody else is probably a step down. And that’s just the God’s honest truth. At least what perception is.

So increasingly in Napa what you’re having is, you’re having only people educated at Davis are able to make Carbernet Sauvignon. Because if you’re a start up winery with some winemaker making your own label, you can’t make Cabernet because you can’t afford it. So that’s an interesting thing to me; is do we want the only takes on Cabernet to come from people that went through the most formalized wine education process. Or do we want it more open? And do we want people that have come into this as a second or third career?

Quite honestly those are the people that I usually work with the most. It’s how I got into the wine trade. It’s a second career for me. And so it’s people that I probably function better with, ’cause they remind me more of my own story like all of us. So in any case, so that’s the question. And I don’t think there is an answer. So once again, the Singer Cellar is something that’ll show up in a wine club shipment soon. Hope everyone is having a good one.

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Monoculture in American Wine Regions

Bud Break

My favorite industry source, Wines and Vines had an interesting article on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon prices. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon owns the entirety of the valley these days.

They’re high.  Really. Really. Damn. High.

Much along the same lines, in Sonoma, Pinot Noir drives the bus.  

I can’t help but think, what happens in a wine region that has become something of a monoculture.  Quite frankly, it’s foolhardy for anyone with a vineyard in Napa Valley to grow anything other than Cabernet.

Given a standard Cabernet vineyard, you might make $7,000 per ton selling Cabernet. If you grew Merlot, you might get $2,000 of that these days.

Who in their right mind would grow Merlot or really, anything other than Cabernet in that scenario?

Really the only group who might be able to handle keeping other grapes in the vineyard, would be a winery with an estate vineyard.  At times your estate wine program grows what they know damn well will be nothing other than blending grapes.  But, if your winemaker hits on their blends consistently and those tend to go for the highest prices and keep the most consistent style year to year, it behooves you to make very sure that there’s enough of those blending grapes sitting around.

But, if you’re just a grower?

You graft vines over. You pull older ones out.  You get your vineyard over to Cabernet as quickly as you’re able to (after all, it still does cost you about $50,000 to get a single acre of vines online, grape growing isn’t a cheap endeavor).

What happens to regions that become monocultures?

Frankly, we don’t know. In the wine industry, we tend to look at old world wine regions to see how they do things.  In Bordeaux and really the rest of France, there are strict laws governing what grapes are in the ground. Bordeaux is known for blends and most vineyards have at least 3 of the 5 main varietals planted in the vineyard.  In Italy, it’s much the same, with the added focus on keeping a wider array of varietals because Sangiovese and Barbera take a long time to mature, while Dolcetto matures immediately. In Spain, Portugal and Germany there are blends and ying and yang wine grapes, some that need time, others that can be released immediately.

If you ask me to guess? I think vintners in Napa Valley and their counterparts in western Sonoma county will be concerned over both the long and the short term.  There’s been plenty of recent examples of regions where a specific varietal got decimated during a specific event.  As an example, Walla Walla lost a complete crop of fruit because of hail very late in a warm spring.

Not all grapes have bud break at the same time. Cabernet has bud break later.  That’s generally a damn good thing, you don’t lose an entire vintage like Walla Walla did.

But, it also ripens later.  If it has bud break a week or two later, it might ripen 6 weeks later.

In Napa Valley, hanging on the vine is a good thing.  But, October brings something that can kill off both the amount of fruit, as well as, the quality. Rain. In some years, it’s pretty nice to have some over ripened Merlot to add to your under ripened Cabernet Sauvignon to get to your normal mix, right?

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Using Scores to Sell Wine: Hate It, But Here’s How To Do It

Using Scores to actually sell wine

Well, how do you sell wine? For many of us, we’d love for folks to have a conversation with someone knowledgeable about what they’re buying.  But, it’s the 21st century.  I’m a realist.  So that doesn’t happen, much, if ever.  So wineries use scores to sell wine.  Usually they don’t do a very good job of it though, luckily for those of us who really have an uneven relationship with scores themselves.  Here’s an example, if you wanted to grab some easy sales, of what you might do-branding be damned perhaps.

Video Transcription:

Using Scores to actually sell wineHi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. So if you can see that little label there on the top it says 91 out of 100. That’s kind of what made this wine interesting to me. This is a French wine. It’s a combination of grenache and syrah. It was imported into Oakland. Quite honestly I don’t think many of the mechanisms here matter all that much, but I did think this little Robert Parker sticker that they flopped onto this was a good example of what happens when you have an international winery that has a very, very limited amount of space here on the label. How do you convince American wine consumers to drink your wine if you’re French but you’re not from one of the major regions that people are actually going to recognize. This sticker might be one of the reasons.

There’s a couple things that go on here. First, there’s a number of us that hate the fact that scores sell wine so much, but we also have to be realistic that we live in the 21st century. Most wine is sold on premise. It’s mostly consumed … Something like 98% of wine is consumed within 48 hours of its purchase. Almost all of it is sold without a face-to-face conversation between somebody who knows what’s in the bottle versus somebody who’s looking for something. Still, having a good local wine store and talking to people and getting some understanding about like, “Hey I really like that. Can you suggest something similar” is kind of in my opinion a good compliment to something like I do with my wine club where I’m trying to educate people about both individual bottles of wine that show up but also wine regions and styles and all that kind of stuff that goes into it. That’s why we write such lengthy Wine Club newsletters from scratch.

In any case, if you’re going to be realistic about it as a winery that people aren’t going to able to sell this for you, how do you sell it on the bottle? Unfortunately, one of the main … maybe the main reason or way that people buy wine is by points. A lot of our friends simply go down the wine aisle and they buy the first 90-point wine that they see for the cheapest, or a 98-point wine for 20 bucks or under kind of thing. That’s where this falls in, and I think it’s, if we’re being realistic about it, you need to sell wine to be able to stay in business, and so this is a French winery that in this case did this right. Although I don’t love the idea of flopping scores on every single bottle because I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to do that, I do think it does give you some idea about what the quality in play is. There are at least a reasonable expectation of what’s in the bottle that’s going to be actually good and drinkable.

In any case, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I don’t love scores. We don’t post them for everything. I don’t think that all the scoring done is completely appropriate with how it’s done. I think spectator does the best job if you’re interested because it is blind and there is more than one person, but in any case, I think it’s something that consumers can learn a lot from. So once again, Mark Aselstine. Have a good one.