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.