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Vellum Wine Craft

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.

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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.

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Bluxome Street Pinot Noir Hurst Vineyard 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Wines for July 4th

I hope everyone enjoys a happy and celebratory 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… 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.

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Alta Colina GSM 2011

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the 2011 vintage.  I’ve talked about it before, should we avoid every 2011 wine made in Napa because critics hate the vintage because it was too cold? What does that say for Paso Robles, where this wine was made, also reported as a vintage that was simply too cold to be elegant….BUT then again, this is a region that critics usually say lacks restraint and subtleness that comes with cooler temperatures.  There’s a dichotomy at work here, one that winemakers and people within the industry have a hard time explaining.

Before we go any further, 93 points from Robert Parker for the wine that’s in your glass.

Maybe we shouldn’t assume anything about vintages from great vineyards.

Ok, so how we ended up working with Alta Colina is a better and more interesting story I think.  So it started with a chance appointment about 4 years ago, we were meeting another winery and Alta Colina’s tasting room, just so happened to be on site at their winery.  The owners of Alta Colina, the Tillman family had purchased a couple of hundred acres and was farming it, selling many of the grapes at the beginning, while starting to build their own label.  Initially they hired consulting winemaker Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars (and yes, this is a similar style, bigger, lush and definitely not austere, like not at all) to help them learn how to make quality wine.  Basically the long and short of it is, it worked.  Scores for their first vintage came out and immediately their Syrah and Syrah based blends like this GSM, received 90+ point scores from virtually every major wine critic.

Of course, production was small and sales as people in the business say, was only through the cellar door.  That’s to say, if a retailer or a wine club like us wanted the wine, you’d have to find it yourself and then show up to pick it up.

The Tillman’s daughter Maggie has been our contact from the beginning at Alta Colina, she handles sales, the tasting room, social media and generally wears a ton of different hats in and around the winery.  She told us explicitly, if this were anyone else….the sale wouldn’t be happening.

Over the years Alta Colina has certainly grown, they’re now out of the rented space literally on the side of another winery and have opened their tasting room and winery production facility in their own vineyard. It’s a beautiful spot with over 200 acres, rolling hills and enough sub climate’s and hillsides to keep them interesting in terms of new plantings probably for well over a generation.

What you have in your glass is a 2011 GSM.  It’s a bit different as GSM’s go, largely based on composition.  It’s 43% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre and finally, only 23% Syrah.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is, to be fair, a fan of the style here, Alta Colina is bigger and denser than most, although IMO, this GSM is one of their more restrained offerings, but 93 points for the wine that’s in your glass. Here’s their write up:

93 Points!  Also gorgeous, the 2011 GSM Estate offers a Chateauneuf du Pape-like feel in its kirsch, blackberry, Asian spice and herbs de Provence-driven bouquet. Medium to full-bodied, layered and with beautiful purity of fruit, this is all-around impressive and one of my favorite examples of this cuvee to date. It will have upward of a decade of longevity.  I continue to love what this estate does. The wines have classic Paso Robles fruit and texture, and stay balanced, clean and lively.  Jeb Dunnuck, The Wine Advocate #214, August 2014

I hope you enjoy the look into Alta Colina, perhaps Paso Robles fastest growing wine brand. I mentioned earlier that they grow about 200 acres, that’s given them access to many of the top winemakers in and around Paso Robles.  I find that growers, even if they are perhaps not exactly sure about when to pick, can make some assumptions by the timing of when other winemakers tend to pick grapes from their vineyard. As an example Denner Vineyards is among the best known names in Paso Robles wine and their winemaker Anthony Yount makes a small side project called Kinero (which we LOVE and you’ll receive a bottle from in your next shipment).  He sources some white wine grapes from Alta Colina, he jokes that the Alta Colina folks simply pick their Grenache Blanc exactly a week after he does in every vintage (Anthony +7).  I hope that doesn’t come across to lessen what they’re doing, what I think Alta Colina best represents is an estate that’s really one of the best vineyards in California and a family really taking the time to learn how to make world class wine.  I don’t think there is much doubt that Alta Colina is going to join the ranks of the Paso Robles elite in the near future, the quality is already there, it’ll just take a couple more vintages for the wine trade and wine media to catch up to what consumers already know: these are among the best wines being made in California today.

Want to enjoy wines like this? Join one of our 3 wine clubs today!

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R Stuart & Co 2008 Autograph Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (375ml-half bottle)

R Stuart Autograph Pinot Noir WIllamette Valley 2008I’m still a bit surprised more wine critics and consumers aren’t all over the 2008 Pinot Noir’s out of Oregon.  That’s the vintage that really should have put everyone into a tizzy, like 1994 or 2005 in Napa Valley, South Africa’s 2003 (that led to their first world wide distribution networks) or even the 2012 Pinot’s from California’s Anderson Valley that literally put the region on the map.

Maybe it’s because, well it’s Oregon, so things may move a bit more slowly and while Portland is a cosmopolitan city and certainly one of the great food and wine capitals of the world, it just doesn’t capture the attention of small town and big city America in the same way that does, say San Francisco or New York.

Ok, so I’ve expressed my general displeasure with vintage hype especially given the size of the wineries that we work with consistently (is one suppose to just forget every Napa Valley 2011 because the critics weren’t happy with the vintage, or can we taste and judge for ourselves?) but this is one vintage, the 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot’s where I think the hype is justified and perhaps even undersold.

Critics and consumers alike enjoy debating how long wine can last. I’ve had two greatly memorable wine experiences, the first occurred at the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2014 where a 45+ year old Burgundy Pinot Noir was opened.  It was reportedly from a great vintage, but the bottle would have cost, according to the winery owner who had it, about $4 today. Secondly was a Qupe Marsanne (that’s a white wine grape, mainly used for blending if you aren’t familiar) at a Rhone Rangers seminar this year, from the 80’s.  Both helped to cement my thought process that perhaps, as a nation we’re simply drinking wines too soon. Perhaps it’s worth it to miss the optimum drinking window in some cases, only to see massive regards from others.

I bring all that up because I’ve seen it written of late that the 2008 Oregon Pinot’s need to be consumed now, that they’re starting to go flat.  Frankly, I flat out disagree and so will you after opening this bottle.  This is a fine time to open one of these, but I’ll take advantage of some of the prevailing wisdom here (and the smaller format bottle) to get my wine club members, something that would go into the mid $40 range based on quality.

My first experience with R Stuart & Co was last summer when I spent a week in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  I stayed in the small picturesque town of McMinnville and low and behold, a few feet outside of my front door was R Stuart’s wine bar.  They originally weren’t on my list of wineries to visit, but with some small bites and a local wine scene that largely closes down at 5pm, I was excited to sneak in an extra stop since they’re open until 8pm. Winemaker and owner Rob Stuart probably should have been on my short list to visit with though based on his resume alone-biochem degree and then a full career in Napa led to winemaker gigs in Washington and then finally at the much acclaimed Erath in Oregon. Eventually, he started his own label.  As I’ve been told by quite a few different winemakers, better to learn your trade on someone else’s dime and then start your own once you’re overqualified.  Stuart is definitely overqualified to produce these small batch wines, but it’s the type of juice that gets people excited.  His background does come through in my opinion in the wine that’s in your glass, these are more dense and darker than many other Willamette Valley Pinot’s I’ve had-still balanced of course, but you lose a bit of the earthyness and add in my cherry cola flavors. I was literally shocked to read that there’s 95% new French oak on these, you don’t notice it, like at all, but that helps to explain some of the depth here.  Wine, no matter what anyone tells you, still likes oak barrels best.  It has for millenia and that isn’t changing any time soon.

Another interesting aspect to R Stuart and the winery’s story is that Maria Stuart (Rob’s wife, but to be clear, she’s had her own career in wine before meeting him and taking on the thankless tasks that come with a winemaker husband…marketing, PR and compliance aren’t as interesting as winemaking I’m afraid) writes simply put, one of the most interesting and insightful blogs of any winery owner that I’ve come across.  Far from only about wine and definitely not one of those overly salesy corporate blogs that we all hate, is filled with recipe’s, stories about the family and generally will encourage you more than anything else that R Stuart does a company to support them.  Writing our newsletters and again for our company blog, PinotMom gives me a few ideas of things I could be doing different, & better.

I hope you enjoy another look into the Oregon 2008 vintage.  It was truly one for the record books and it’s one that we can all enjoy to this day.