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Culler Wines: A Classic Name Exists

Every so often, I run into some news which seems important enough to pass along in this space.  I’ve been writing a bit about the history of Napa Valley, both the environmental movement, growers vs vintners and the names and wineries which helped to make the valley what it is.

During a bit of research I found myself on the Culler Wines website and found that famed winemaker Karen Culler was taking a break from winemaking and potentially walking away to spend more time traveling after 30 years in the business. I’ve only run into one Culler Cabernet Sauvignon, but this was classic Napa from a winemaker with what looks like an ecclectic mix of wine offerings.

In any case, bon voyage Karen, I can’t do her send off justice myself, so I’ll recommend you read it here.

PS-the line at Bouchon has gotten pretty brutal

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PWR Newsletter

A couple of strange aspects to this shipment.  First, you’ll notice both bottles of wine come from the same winery, I think this is the first time we’ve done this at theExplorations Wine Club level in over 2 years.  Secondly, I’ve written about the winery, People’s Wine Revolution, after I first met with winemaker Matt Reid, so some more information on the project at which has a lot more information on the project and why I felt it was important enough to handle two bottles in this shipment.

Some brief information, winemaker Matt Reid is a highly accomplished winemaker at spots like Seavey and Benessere (where we were introduced) but he noticed a few things.  Even at severe discounts (and the discounts that winemakers receive might make all of us blush), many of the people making wine in Napa, can’t afford to buy it.  Thus, his People’s Wine Revolution where he tries to bring outstanding, Napa Valley $100+ quality, to wine being sold for about $20.  Of course, that means you won’t find Pinot or Cabernet being made with his label, those grapes are simply too expensive.  Instead you’ll find Rhone based varietals like Viognier and Grenache.

Grenache from Lodi: I have to admit that Grenache is my favorite grape and I’ve been called something of a fiend for cool climate versions of the varietal by those in the business that know me well.  Lodi isn’t exactly known as a cool climate destination, it’s actually pretty damn hot during the summer months. Lodi has been making a lot of improvements in the quality of fruit that it produces and some of it,. runs afoul of what we’d expect in California.  First, it’s a top down approach with the AVA setting pretty stringent standards on how grapes can be grown, especially in terms of sustainability. The Lodi sustainable program is a strict set of rules on how farmer’s need to go about growing their grapes, down to making suggestions of improvements or as they term it, areas of concern.  One thing I find interesting, there’s a small beetle that’s on the endangered species list, yet exists in and around vineyards.  It doesn’t hurt the vines, but does get destroyed with fertilizer, or when cover crops are completely removed.  Lodi is to my knowledge, the only growing region in the world that uses elderberry bushes as part of their cover crops, or end caps to help give this beetle a place to live.  It might seem like a small thing, but if you read the history of Napa Valley or even the Russian River Valley, these seemingly small concerns and details, when they’re handled well, seem to build on themselves as time goes on.

If you’re not familiar with the Clements Hills designation on the bottle, that’s a sub AVA in Lodi, located in the furthest southeastern corner of the AVA.  It gained it’s own AVA status because it’s simply wetter and hotter than much of the rest of the larger AVA.  I’ve talked about it some in regard to the challenges faced in Arizona and elsewhere, but when you have a really hot environment in which to grow grapes, one way to combat that, is to plant at altitude.  Most the grapes in this Grenache come from higher altitude plantings, many are planted at 1,000 above sea level, or higher. The wet conditions also allow either dry farming, an unheard of practice in the San Joaquin Valley because of the heat, but a sustainable one.  Both of those factors come into play and you’ll note a much, much higher level of acidity than you might otherwise expect in this bottling. We haven’t done much from Lodi, but a bottle like this does make us wonder if we’ve missed some interesting wine along the way, especially when you have a fairly unique set of terroir and a world class winemaker.

Viognier from Dry Creek Valley: This is a 100% vineyard designate wine, from Salem Ranch. Salem Ranch is an 8 acre vineyard and being located in Dry Creek Valley, it’s mostly Zinfandel, as you probably expected.  There’s a single block of Viognier that the farmers like to have on hand, much of the time for blending, but Matt takes enough to make just under 300 cases per vintage. Having a single block Viognier at this price point, yes even for a more obscure grape like Viognier, is about half the price of what you’d expect. If you aren’t familiar with Viognier, it’s a white wine grape from the Rhone Valley.  It’s been used in blends from the region for generations because it offers some of the best aromatics of any white wine grape.  In the Rhone, you’ll see it blended with Marsanne and Roussane, although there’s a movement afoot in Sonoma for more single varietal Viognier’s.  The grape is finicky which helps explain why so many people haven’t planted it over the years.  Too cold and it molds.  Too hot and the alcohol level gets out of control and then you lose the aromatic qualities that people enjoy about the grape.  In that way, Dry Creek is a nice spot to grow the grape and prices for the grapes are kept under control because there aren’t many winemakers looking for it…..yet.

I hope you enjoy this look into a winemaker looking to make affordable, world class wines.  I can’t stress how unique Matt’s perspective is, I’ve met literally hundreds of winemakers who have had jobs at wineries that you’d recognize based on name alone and it’s only a handful that don’t want to copy that exact same business model. People’s Wine Revolution, it’s a unique project and one that deserves our attention and support.

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Trentatre Rosso Wine Review: Trader Joe’s

Our second review of a wine from Trader Joe’s, as well as a few places on the web to find more information about Trader Joe’s wine selections:

Hi, guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures.

First a happy Tuesday for everyone. I’m joined today by something that has not shown up in a wine club shipment and will not because this is a Trentatre Rosso from Trader Joe’s.

I talked a few weeks ago, and I talked about the desert wine guy and his blog and some of the other spots around the web that talk about good cheap wine. Trader Joe’s is definitely a place that does a good job.

I was quoted in a article a few weeks ago and talking about how Trader Joe’s does a really good job on the bulk market. Sometimes big Napa wineries have a little bit of extra juice that they would like to have go away quietly, and Trader Joe’s had bought a Sauvignon Blanc that sold for $25 or $30 bucks at a name winery, and they had in the store for $4.99 under a different label. That’s a good example of what they do, and one of the ways that Trader Joe’s can deliver value.

I thought I would take a couple minutes and talk about some of the stuff that I’ve come across at Trader Joe’s, and this is a good example of that. The Trentatre Rosso, it’s Italian, and my Italian is not that great, but it’s good enough to be able to read the back of the bottle, which is in English, and it says that it’s … Trentatre is 33, and the reason for the name of 33 is quite simply that it’s a blend of 3 grapes in equal portions, Cabernet, Merlot and then Montepulciano, which in essence is Sera. You have a Cab, Merlot, Sera blend. If it was made in a different section of Italy, this is made in southern Italy, so you wouldn’t call it a super Tuscan because it’s not from Tuscany, but it’s the same general setup. This is something that I found, and we look for easy drinkers in our house just like everybody else does. There’s a couple good spots on the web if you’re interested in learning a little bit about what Trader Joe’s has, how it gets there and what’s something that’s good to buy versus something that you might be a little more disappointed with.

Jason’s Wine Blog (although he isn’t updating any longer, it’s a great historical resource into Trader Joe’s wine) is one of those spots that I’ve been reading for a while. If you’re looking for bottles of wine under $20 bucks, Reverse Wine Snob does about a good job as you could possibly do. I think John is a nice enough guy over there to help people out along the way too.

Anyway, Trentatre Rosso, I think it’s a good example of what they’re doing in Italy and how Italy has become relevant again in the wine industry. It’s thought of as this old world producer but in essence, everything in Italy has changed in the last 25 or 30 years. They came up with some new standards for quality to improve the quality of what they’re offering. They’ve also planted a range of international grapes. Italy has a huge challenge, and it’s a challenge you see in Spain and Portugal and a few other places as well. Americans don’t traditionally order wine that they don’t think they can pronounce. It’s one of the reasons why Riesling is not as popular as Chardonnay even if it’s the same equivalent. Restaurateurs that I talk to here in San Francisco will tell you that if it’s a cheaper Riesling for the same score, if they are putting scores on their menu, which I hate if they do that, but a lot of folks do, more people will still order a Chardonnay because it sounds more familiar, they’re more used to drinking it and quite honestly, they know they can pronounce correctly. The Italian grapes really suffer from that whole setup so Trentatre, I don’t even know if I’m saying it 100 percent correctly. That’s another reason why Prosecco is not as popular a champagne. The Italians have to fight that and one of the reasons they’ve been able to fight that a little bit is by creating these super Tuscans where they plant international grapes, and then they blend the international grapes with a native grape that grows in the area. You see it most often in Cabernet and Sangiovese, but this is Cab, Merlot, Montepulciano, so you’ll see it across the board. Then when they do that, they’re able to create a trade name. Trentatre is a trade name, not an actual name of a grape or a region or whatever. I think that’s helping them along the lines.

If you’re somebody who is looking for a good, easy drinking bottle of wine for $15 bucks or so that hits the Cabernet, Merlot spot, quite honestly, vineyard space in California is expensive, and it’s the entry level price point for Cab and especially for Pinot in California, it starts to hit into the $20 range. It becomes a little less enticing. You’ve see Washington step into the void a little bit there with that slower price point in the $10 to $15 range, and I think you’re going to continue to see Italy, Spain and some of the other warmer weather producers in Europe try to nudge into that market as well. I think for the wider wine industry, that’s fine, that’s a good thing, and it’ll continue to create pressure for California to keep prices in reasonable levels, which is sometimes easier said that done. In any case, hope you enjoy a bottle of wine every once in a while. Trader Joe’s is definitely on our list. I should be on your list too. If you have a few minutes, Jason’s Wine Blog, Reverse Wine Snob, they do a good job talking about what’s going on at Trader Joe’s, what’s new and what’s worth it to buy and what might not be.

In any case, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures, hope everybody is having a good week.

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Wine at Disneyland’s California Adventure

wine vines grow at Disneyland's California AdventureA few weeks ago, I had the absolute joy of bringing my 4 year old son to Disneyland for the first time.  A little background, my wife and I both grew up about an hour south of the Disneyland in northern San Diego County, so we’ve both experienced the park on at least a dozen occasions.  Well, she might have been there hundreds of times, but no matter the number of visits, there is something about the original Disneyland to those of us that grew up around it, that seems like a right of passage. He’s still at the age where things are magical and seeing the whole thing through his eyes for the first time was a special experience.

My son was finally tall enough to ride the rides that wouldn’t scare the life out of him and some of the ones that might (more later), he was adventurous enough to enjoy them and he was completely, utterly, without a nap under any circumstances…so he’d be awake enough to not only enjoy the hotel, the hotel pool in the afternoon and of course, everything at the park.

A quick note on hotels near Disneyland, the Disney hotels (there are 3 of them, the original Disneyland Resort, the high end Grand California & the Paradise Pier) are still the nicest places to stay, in large part because of the added benefits.  You’re in walking distance of either the park itself, or a monorail station and you’re granted an extra hour in the park through their magic hour program.  I know an extra hour doesn’t sound like much when the park is open 13 hours as it is 9am-10pm during the off season, but when there’s so few people around that you can simply walk onto rides….that’s a great advantage.

Given pricing though and the fact we were planning on 2 days at the park, as well as 4 at the hotel, we stayed off site.  Our hotel choice had a few requirements, first we wanted a good pool.  Second, we wanted to be far enough away to have a shuttle instead of having to walk. That led us to the Marriott which sits just over a mile away from the park, but is a 4 star hotel and offers an awesome place to stay.  We definitely enjoy our trips, my son included and from room service to yes, the pool, the Marriott Anaheim Suites was a great place to stay.  The shuttle picks up downstairs and drops you off a short distance from the front of the park (closer than the parking lots to be sure) and was a real advantage for us. The staff was nice, the room was comfortable and exactly as advertised and finally, room service was great! Oh and the pool was at least 10 degrees warmer than it has to be.  All in all, we’d certainly stay at the Marriott again.

Disneyland is traditionally an alcohol free destination, which I appreciate, it’s a place where you really don’t have to worry about other adults behavior and usually, people despite the sometimes large crowds (that can border on 100,000 people on holidays and around Christmas and New Year’s like the last time we went a few years back) are on their best behavior.  The original park has one main exception, there is wine and beer at Club 33, which is a private, high end restaurant in the park.  I’ve never  eaten there, but they’ve carried a number of wines, including a high end Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon from Vellum Wine Craft that I absolutely love.

walkway to the winery at Disneyland's California AdventureA few years back, Disneyland took over their large parking lot, built parking structures elsewhere and erected California Adventure: a secondary theme park that gives space for another 30,000 people but also has regular alcohol sales.

California Adventure seems at least 10 degrees warmer than Disneyland, but that might be largely because the trees are still growing, the park is still new and that there is a decidedly 20’s and 30’s crowd. As I mentioned, alcohol is allowed and there is a pretty nice beer selection at a number of sites throughout the site, it’s pretty normal to see people walking around on a hot summer California day with a beer in hand.  Having spent plenty of summer days walking along the beach, it’s still a bit of strange sight to my eyes to see a full beer in someone’s hand, as they walk with a small replica of the Santa Monica boardwalk in the background.

Wine is sold largely through their “winery” which I was comped another day at the park (along with my wife) to talk about in this space.  Since I would have anyway, it was a nice addition to our trip.  As I mentioned before, my son doesn’t sleep a ton, so spending another 6 hours in the morning and early afternoon at Disney parks, before taking on the 8 hour drive home, gave us hope for a nap during the ride.  30 minutes was all we got.

In any case, you’ve seen a number of images from the winery at Disneyland’s California Adventure.  First, I absolutely loved that they had real, honest to goodness grape vines growing on the property. It looks like it’s about an acre, but so often people have absolutely no clue what a vine looks like (it’s a hell of a lot bigger than most people expect) any number of vines is a good start.  I’ve long thought that areas with an incredibly large number of tourists (and yes, 130,000 potential visitors per day at Disneyland parks in Southern California, certainly qualify) could sell a ton of wine, all the while educating people a little bit. After all the serious wine drinkers, might spend $100 on a bottle of wine, whereas the regular consumer is buying a $9 glass.

my glass of Oregon Pinot Noir at California AdventureDisneyland and California Adventure share a common trait, first that you’re allowed to basically bring in whatever food you want.  We took advantage of that, largely with snacks and most importantly, water bottles (which we refilled liberally, at free water fountains). Of course, you can’t bring in everything you might want to eat and drink throughout the day, so Disneyland is counting on another $100 or so per day, per guest. That’s my estimate, your spend will of course vary, but given the setup they really don’t gouge you too badly (nothing like movie theatres, sports stadiums or even airports for that matter).

So there’s some good and bad parts about the wine list at California Adventure.  First, the good.  There’s some care and concern going into the list here.  This isn’t a generic list that shows up at most chain restaurants. I’ve complimented Mondavi, Gallo and the big boys in this space before and there are times you should throw them up as part of your list to be sure, but they aren’t a fit everywhere.  For that reason alone, it’s nice they aren’t here-California Adventure is trying to have a bit of a more exclusive experience.

Here’s the rub though: everything on the list that I find interesting, comes from Southern Wine and Spirits. I want to be clear about a few things before I go on.  First, I have absolutely no issue with Southern.  None at all.  Of all the major distributors, I really do think they do the best job.  There’s plenty of interesting wines in their portfolio and anyone looking to really expand their business into the 100,000+ case land, wants and maybe even needs Southern to represent them at least in some states. Also from Disney’s perspective, having a singular invoice to deal with would both be nice and likely make me jealous!

California Adventure Red Wine SignThat being said, Southern keeps a separate Northern and Southern California book and the difference does not tend to be kind to the Southern California folks when it comes to smaller production wines.  That’s ok and I’ll make some suggestions about how the buyers at California Adventure might handle that, if you’ll read on.

Here’s some of the wines on the menu when I visited California Adventure that I thought deserved a specific mention:

Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon: Ok, so the menu wasn’t exactly clear about exactly what Cabernet Sauvignon this was, but I can make some inferences given price point.  They’re selling a glass for $9, which makes me certain that what’s here is the Sonoma Valley, Family Estate Series.  It’s a $25 bottle of wine.  Let’s be clear on this point, the average restaurant would be charging at least $14 by my count for a similarly priced wine.  They’re offering, what sounds like blasphemy for a captive audience, a good deal, on a nice wine that would be scored at 90+ points by many significant wine critics. Kunde’s a name that should probably be more recognizable than it is already, but the interesting parts include it’s 100+ year history and it’s size: about 1,000 acres in total.  On it’s 5th (or 6th by my count) generation of ownership Kunde Winery was the 202nd winery in existence in California’s history.

California Adventure White Wine SignArgyle, Oregon: Again, a good deal.  The cheapest Pinot Noir made by Argyle (if you are not familiar, Argyle is one of the classic producers in Oregon) is $40, give or take based on the vintage. If a restaurant has a bottle, they’re charging about $20 a glass, if they have it by the glass at all, not the $12 on the menu here.  If you’re interested, yes, this is what I drank as I sat and enjoyed a glass of wine, shaded by the trees, looking out into the distance and seeing what must be an exact replica of the background of Piston Springs for the Cars movie. Wine Spectator called Argyle the premiere winery in the state of Oregon in 2000 and in the ensuing years since its founding have purchased close to 300 acres of vineyards.

Justin Winery: Justin is a classic name in Paso Robles wine, but admittedly, seeing the Cabernet here instead of something that’s a bit more obscure is a bit of let down.  Justin’s one of the first names in Paso Robles wine to make a name for themselves with Bordeaux styled blends.  Heck, the website and the winery when you’re there in person are really, really clear on that point. One thing I’ve talked about ad nauseam in this space, wine can really run together, even for professionals.  Try and get people to recognize what makes one wine different from another and you run into issues pretty quickly, even esteemed wine critic Robert Parker has admitted as much which is why Wine Advocate is so heavy on tasting notes (they don’t believe people are picking these all out on their own).  One thing that is different and memorable about wine that people can remember and pick out, are the stories behind the vineyards and wineries on a restaurant wine list.  Why not tell the story of someone in 1981 taking a chance on a relatively unknown area of California for wine production and choosing to focus on Bordeaux varietals in that region, whereas everyone else around was focused on Rhone’s? Of course he also doubled down and purchased close to 200 acres to start, which to the locals in ‘81, must have seemed like a crazy endeavour indeed.

Growing seasons for wine, shown at California Adventure and DisneylandOk, so about that Cars Radiator Springs ride. We were all tall enough.  It wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.  Much like Splash Mountain, the ride spends its first moments, lazily almost moving through scenes of the movie.  Then things start to change and there’s a moment in the ride when your “car” pulls up alongside a mirror with drapes, the drapes are pulled back and you “see” your tires being changed. I had some idea what was coming, my son was busy smiling at himself in the mirror.

Then the damn thing takes off like a race car, it’s a really, really fun ride….if you like race cars and roller coasters.  The couple in the seats in front of us and yes, my little guy, didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did. Probably a better ride for a 6 year old in total, but Disneyland brings the Cars movie to life in a way that, dare I say it, only Disney seems able to do.  For at least a five minute walk in any direction you’re literally immersed in the movie.  From the Hollywood style backdrop in the sky looking like the mountains in the movie, to the fact that every building comes from the movie itself, it’s wonderfully put together.

Ok, so last thing about the wine and wider alcohol in Disneyland’s California Adventure. They’re doing a good job, actually quite a good job considering the circumstances that they are afforded, captive audience, limited sales spots etc.  Tasting menu’s look good and there’s plenty of national restaurant chains not taking as much care with their list as Disneyland does at California Adventure.

That being said, I do wish they would give us some more information on the menu.  What vintage is this from? Exactly which wine is this?

Maybe, some people don’t care.  Hell, maybe most people don’t care.  But, if you’re willing to create a list at an amusement park, geared to little kids, but complete with a selection of wines priced at $40 or more retail, then some of your customers care.  In fact, I’m guessing that given the $100 per day ticket price most of us paid, a higher percentage of their guests, than the general public for sure, might be interested in an even more upgraded wine list-or at least some better information about the wines being served.

wine list at Disney's California AdventureIf I could humbly offer some advice to the winery at California Adventure, it would be this.  Give people more information: they want it and in the age of the internet, they’ve come to expect it.

Adding vintages to the wine list is an obvious start, it’s the sort of thing that’s common everywhere, including the most casual of casual restaurants.

Secondly, California Adventure already has quite a few wines on their list, with absolutely great stories.  Try and tell them.  People at Disneyland are willing to play along, we spend most of the time there telling our kids about movies that we try to remember as kids, stuff like my attempted explanation of why Dumbo flies…..wait, I don’t actually remember but my wife did remember, of course, that Dumbo flies because of the size of his ears, not because of magic (let’s be clear, magic is a clearly understood preschool topic these days after Frozen).

Lastly, there’s plenty of great information out there on wines and wineries.  Disney and its parks take their food more seriously than most people expect and the beer list at many spots can be both extensive and well thought out.  It wouldn’t take a full time employee to help create something of a workable list of small production wines at California Adventure and adding a bit of interest and change, even seasonally, would likely help keep annual passholders engaged with the alcohol program (if you aren’t familiar, Disneyland offers an annual pass for locals that runs almost $800 and covers admission to the park, year around)

California Adventure is doing a good job thus far and they’ve created a virtual winery that can really educate people about a significant part of California’s past and its future.

Adding more information about what’s on the list, as well as some more interesting information on the wineries providing it would be a start. During September and October, it’d be fun to see some grapes fermenting on site as well, if you’re growing them, minus well make something out of them right?

Overall I hope no one takes this as overly critical, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found at Disneyland’s California Adventure in terms of wine choices and quality.  They could do better given the clout behind the Disney brand, but it isn’t like they’re dropping the ball here, not at all.

I do wish they’d lead a little bit in terms of quality and storytelling, much like they do for the rest of their business.

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Kermit Lynch Cotes Du Rhone 2013

I’ve read plenty of different rational’s for when and how to talk about companies that are considered competitors and while Kermit Lynch is both a retailer, as well as a wholesaler (yup, exactly like us) the scale and focus of his business is so different than my own, that I don’t feel bad about talking about some of what Kermit Lynch is doing. Plus, what Kermit Lynch is able and wiling to do in bringing small scale French wines to market in America, should be an inspiration to all of us willing to try and do the same.

Video Transcription:

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures.

Today I’m joined by a Kermit Lynch Cotes Du Rhone red wine.

Obviously with it being from another “retail or distributor”, a Kermit Lynch wine is not going to show up in a Wine of the Month club. It also happens to be Cotes Du Rhone which means it’s French but I did think that Kermit Lynch deserved some space for me to talk about in this area on Youtube and both on our site …

So Kermit Lynch started back in the early 70s … I think it was 72. He’s based just down the street from me in Berkeley, California. Quite famously the guy opened a wine shop with nothing more than a positive attitude about sharing really good French wine and Italian wine with people in the United States. It reportedly had about 30 cases of wine stacked on the floor. If I can find a picture of our first warehouse and how we started, that sounds really familiar to me.

What Kermit Lynch does is what we aim to do in California, Oregon, and Washington. Kermit Lynch splits his type part of the year in Berkeley, here, running his retail and distribution operation and part of the year in Provence, France. The guy actually goes to wineries and spends time with vineyard owners and winemakers and that`s what we try to do.

Lynch, they bring in Kermit Lynch marked wines and they do them from …

This is from the Southern Rhone and there`s a few other ones floating around too. I know they do a rosé that`s really highly liked every year, as well.

The story of this wine is actually kind of interesting and I like it. He found this … The Cotes Du Rhone is kind of a group of villages and often times you`ll see grapes from multiple vineyards kind of put together into this larger operation and it helps with sales because you don`t have individual farmers that have a few acres selling to one guy and you spend all this time on sales and marketing and not as much time actually making great wine and by combining everything together they can get a more cohesive marketing status and going on …

What Kermit Lynch found was they had all this good wine getting made for either family consumption or getting bulked out into the négociant market in France and if you`re not familiar with the term négociant, it`s somebody who creates a wine but doesn`t actually make it.

We have a wine like that coming out soon and in essence you work with winemakers that have some extra juice … you relabel it, you repackage. Sometimes people are good blenders but not good winemakers themselves and that`s how it comes about.

Lynch took this wine and he talked to the folks and convinced them that creating what amounts to the second label from their properties and selling it in America would be a good idea and boom, there you have it, 12 bucks at local grocery stores here at San Francisco bay area.

It`s a classic Cotes Du Rhone … It`s that thick, jammy, bigger that you`d expect from the region and I think it does a great job in showing what Kermit Lynch does, why the guy`s famous, and why he`s kind of a legend in the wine industry.

Like no-one else has … Maybe there`s 1 or 2 other guys now that do it … He actually pounded the pavement for years and years and years. He`s wrote a couple books about his experiences: Travelling Back Water Roads of France.

Those are some of the required reading for us when we started our business and we`ve definitely had some of the same experiences from having to get gas in the vineyard or quite honestly when you seem to be 10 or 15 miles away from driving directions and your seemingly not going the right direction and you`ve turned off the paved road many miles back. There`s some funny stories that come about when you`re driving around agricultural businesses that aren`t quite used to visitors.

In any case Cotes Du Rhone by Kermit Lynch, well well worth it. He does have some distribution throughout wider states and you can find Kermit Lynch and all the stuff online too and the full disclosure and they do a great wine club as well.

The market is the same with Uncorked Ventures and if you`re looking for an easy drinking French Red for 12 bucks, this is it.

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How Much Wine Can Be Made with a Ton of Grapes?

It isn’t quite high season for this type of stuff yet, that typically happens closer to harvest in July, August, September and October, but on wine industry sites I’m starting to run into an increasingly number of available grape postings.

Wine grapes are sold by the ton by growers to vintners (or winemakers, your choice in essence the two are interchangeable in practice).

A customer asked me the other day, how much wine do you get from a ton of grapes?

Generally speaking winemakers will tell you that they receive about 150 gallons of juice from a ton of grapes.  Converting those gallons to bottles, you have 750ml in a bottle of wine and therefore 2.378 gallons in a case of wine.  That 1 ton of grapes therefore produces right about 63 cases of wine, right around a pallet-depending on how it’s being stacked.

In practice, that seems consistent.  I have a winemaker friend who takes a half ton of grapes from a historic Lodi vineyard and says he overfills the container a ridiculous amount and produces about 35 cases or so of the wine in question.

Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be answering more of these type of questions to try and pull the veil back so to speak, off the wider wine industry.

As always, we hope you’ll consider a wine club membership!

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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.