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Perennial Vintners: Bainbridge Island

Perennial Vintners

Washington State has produced a long line of internationally recognized companies over the years and Seattle shows it: Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft all call the greater Seattle region home, as does much of the population in the state of Washington. Seattle has been one of the fastest growing cities in the country as a result.  Likewise, Washington boasts one of the fastest growing wine industries in the country as well, despite already being America’s second largest wine producer.

However, grapes aren’t grown much west of the Cascades where everyone lives.  Unlike most wine regions around the world and while there are tons of tasting rooms just north of Seattle……there are few in the city center, but even less grapes around the city.

All told, there’s maybe 50-100 acres of grapes growing in Washington State west of the Cascades.

There’s a good reason for that of course, it’s not so sunny on that side of the state.  You probably think much of Washington has weather like Seattle, but instead most of it has weather like the eastern portion of San Diego County, except with cold enough winters to give them snow (which accounts for the majority of their precipitation).

In Seattle and elsewhere, it’s damp, foggy and relatively cold for much of the year.

Grapes like Cabernet and Syrah won’t ripen there, not even close.  Hell, I was told that Pinot Noir despite ripening every year in Oregon, maybe ripens 4 or 5 times out of 7 on a small island just off Seattle called Bainbridge Island.

I found myself on Bainbridge after an Airbnb rental elsewhere went bad and my family wanted the few days by the beach we had planned. Bainbridge is an actual island and getting there requires either an hour or so drive across a handful of bridges north from Olympia, or taking the ferry from Seattle (yes, your car goes on as well).

The island itself is a pretty beautiful spot.  There are old growth forests and development has taken a measured look at the island thus far, there’s a walkable tourist downtown near the ferry.  All in all, it feels a lot like Coronado(Coronado is an island reachable by bridge and ferry from downtown San Diego, home to what might be the worlds best beaches), which is about as high of a compliment as I can give.

Although this was meant more of a recharge and relax vacation, more so than a business trip, I couldn’t help a few meetings along the way as well.

One such meeting was with Perennial Vintners.

On Brainbridge, there’s only two wineries growing grapes.  First, Bainbridge Vineyards has a handful of planted acres and have been there since the 70’s.  They also have a long and rich history that mirrors that of the island itself.  Home to the first of the Japanese Internment removals, Bainbridge honors that shameful time in American history and it’s something that vintners seem well aware of during normal conversations.

Perennial Vintners is kind of a misnomer.  Vintners implies that there’s multiple people working there and helping.  But really, Mike Lempiere is a one man show.  A former programmer turned winemaker he talked at length about some of the challenges he faces as a small winemaker and vineyard owner in a spot where people are just now trying to figure out what will ripen.

What will ripen is a major, major issue. One of the great parts about tasting at Perennial Vintners is that Mike plans to spend about an hour or so with every guest.  It’s the type of access that normal wine drinkers simply don’t get with many winemakers, especially not those like Mike that are working in major tourist regions.

One of the fascinating aspects of visiting Perennial Vintners is seeing the estate vineyard. In California we take that concept for granted in large part, many dream of buying a slice of land, planting a vineyard and eventually making some wine.

In Washington though, the setup has largely been different, albeit it is beginning to change.  In Walla Walla, Red Mountain and elsewhere land is still relatively cheap by major wine country standards and it’s a heck of a lot easier to have one of the many professional farmers handle grape growing for you.  That’s the setup for most wineries in Washington. Again, Perennial Vintners is different because this is Bainbridge.

Mike’s trying to figure out what works in his one acre section of the island and for lack of a better term, he’s flying by the seat of his pants, with his own economic future at risk.

He’s tried Pinot Noir, but it won’t always ripen through the cloud cover that pervades at least 9 months at year on the Pudget Sound.  Because of American appetites for red wines, he was stuck trying to find something that would ripen.

Zweigelt at Perennial Vintners

It seems he’s largely settled on what might be the most obscure wine made in America today: Zweigelt.

Haven’t heard of it?  Either had I before running into a winemaker in California’s extreme coastal Mendocino that sources it from a vineyard called Trail Marker.  The climates are incredibly similar and while most in the wine industry would say these are sites that are slightly outside of the standard growing areas that we look for, they’re beyond marginal.  So marginal in fact that on Bainbridge or in coastal Mendocino, you’re stuck planting grapes like Zweigelt which ripens a few weeks earlier than Pinot Noir, despite producing a dark and rich wine that American palates crave.  It’s literally a perfect fit for Bainbridge, but you have to educate consumers that yes, Zweigelt is a grape that makes wine, before selling them anything.  Plus, American wine consumers have a long and complicated history, largely centered on avoidance, with grapes they cannot easily pronounce…..see: Riesling sales for an example.

So how did Mike come onto Zweigelt? He tested.  Unlike planting say a vineyard in Paso Robles, there isn’t a best practices guide.  He uses a small set of the 1 acre parcel he has for grapes to see what will ripen.  As he walks you through, you get a good sense of the issues at play.  Some of the remaining Pinot vines look fine.  Others look like dwarves.

The white wine side of the aisle at Perennial Vintners is a ways further along.  Like the red wine side of the ledger, Mike had to experiment quite a bit before landing on something that worked.  Pinot Gris was attempted and discarded.  As was Castor.

Think your eyes are bulging at new names yet….the two winners on the white wine side turned out to be Siegerrebe and Muscadet.  Ok, so he can’t call it Muscadet so it’s technically Melon de Bourgogne.

Siegerrebe is a German wine grape that has gained at least some sort of foothold in the Puget Sound AVA, which includes Bainbridge.  Whidbey Island Winery produces one and I’m told there are a few others floating around during most vintages. Siegerrebe often reflects the flavor of a pear, something different than the green apple you might be accustomed to in regard to cooler climate sites.

For my money though, Melon de Bourgogne is the star of the show at Perennial Vintners.  Highly acidic with more fruit than I’m accustomed to in the varietal when it comes from France (basically it comes from the Loire Valley, perhaps France’s coldest vineyard space).

Given the location on Bainbridge and the natural bounty that comes from the island and the surrounding seas of the Puget Sound, this is literally perfect.  Melon de Bourgogne is known to pair incredibly well with seafood in large part because it’s almost all acidity and acts almost like an aperitif in every taste.

The region is known for fish, crab, clams and more.  In fact a trip down to the rocky seashore let my kids (and to be honest myself and my wife as well) see something we’d never seen before. Clams spitting water into the air as the tide went out.

Having a highly acidic white that pairs perfectly with them is exactly why you should be spending time when you’re looking for wine when traveling-finding the small spots like Perennial Vintners.

(Yes, he grows some hops for a friend to make beer)

I spent some time asking Mike about what he’s working on, what he’s hoping to accomplish at a winery that is currently producing about 700 cases of wine per year.  He showed me an old patch of forest right above his tasting room/production facility.  It’s about an acre and he’d love to take the forest out and get grapes into the ground.  Luckily, grape growing is considered agricultural and fits with many of the requirements on the island.  But even cutting down trees for firewood to sell can be an expensive proposition, so he’s saving.  This is the state of small, family owned and owner-operated wineries in America.  There’s always a  push and pull between what’s possible financially vs what you’d do in an ideal world.

Plenty of folks can source fruit from the eastern part of Washington and truck it closer to where people live.  I have no issue with that whatsoever, urban tasting rooms aren’t a fad, they’re good business and they move the industry forward.

But, the part of the industry that everyone loves?  It’s the small winemaker trying to do something himself.  Trying to do something different.  It’s someone with a different perspective.  It’s someone willing to take chances that others simply will not.

Those are exactly the types of winemakers I want to support as part of my wine club.  As a consumer, the next time you find yourself in Seattle-take the ferry to Bainbridge Island.  It’s a gorgeous 35 minute ride from the time you step on until the second you step off.  Then find your way to Perennial Vintners and spend an hour with Mike.  You’ll enjoy the type of access that went out of the wine industry in the 1970’s in most spots in America.  You’ll also learn more about wine and entrepreneurship in that hour that you would doing anything else. If you hit the tasting room at the right  time, you’ll see something fermenting.  For me, it was a raspberry wine.  If you’ve never seen fermentation happening, smelled it and felt it.  It’s a fun part of visiting a real, working winery and not a stuffy tasting room.

Lastly, the wine is damn good.

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Myka Cellars Pinot Noir Central Coast 2014

Tondre Wines on the Central Coast of California

A month or so back, my wine club members received this Myka Cellars Pinot Noir Central Coast 2014

I’ve worked with winemaker Mica Ross a few times over the past couple of years, so I’ll let you in on some of the background before going any further.

First, Myka is a negociant.  That’s a label that’s really not thought of as a good thing often in California, which interestingly, is the opposite of what the general perception of it happens to be where the term was coined, in France.

I’ve talked about negociant style wines and how some vintages support their style of winemaking more so than others, but really it’s regionally focused as much as anything.  One of the reasons we don’t have more negociants here in America is that our most famous wine region, doesn’t produce enough wine to create any real secondary market. Napa Valley has a series of rules and regulations that simply don’t allow for anyone to over produce.

Myka is a bit different than many negociants as well.  Instead of looking for finished juice that cannot be sold, he looks for partially finished juice that he can blend.

That blending is a very, real skill. It’s also why you often end up with wines like this one from Myka Cellars: it’s labeled as the Central Coast AVA.

If you aren’t familiar, the Central Coast AVA is one of the largest in the state and in my opinion, tells you little about the wine in your glass. As an example, if you step foot one foot south of San Francisco Bay, that’s pretty much where the Central Coast AVA begins.  It runs south through the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and finally ending as you pass through Santa Barbara and end up in Ventura.  If you’re scoring at home, driving that along the 101 takes about 5 hours in total, without traffic.

It’s a damn massive region.

In any case, if you’re interested in making wine from partially finished juice-you could theoretically grab some juice from Monterey for the acidity, some from Santa Barbara for the structure and finish with some from Santa Cruz for the broodishness. I don’t know where the component parts came from for this wine, but I do know that the Central Coast AVA designation does tell us something.  That something basically is that multiple regions are being put together because if I’m being honest, no one uses the wider Central Coast AVA designation if they don’t need to.

One more interesting part to this story. If you happen to live in London, you’d likely be more able to find this wine than we are here in California.  The story behind that is interesting and better told elsewhere than this space, but suffice to say that exporting wine has been good to the winery.

I’ve talked a lot in my blog space about the struggle for California vintners to hit that magical $15-$25 price point.  I should delve into it a bit here, which also I think helps to explain why more negociants would be good for the wine industry here in California.

First, let’s assume that we’re going to receive 4 tons per acre.  Some higher end vineyards get something closer to 2 tons (ancient vines, those over 100 years old might get a single ton) and the hot central valley likely gets 10 tons.  But, 4 tons is a pretty good bet for a Central Coast vineyard from which people are trying to craft quality grapes.

To plant that vineyard, it’ll cost you about $50,000 per acre to get that done. That’s spread over the course of 5 years and as you might expect, is the heaviest in year 1 (approximately 40% of the total investment).

Moving forward, vintners assume that if they’re doing basically zero work, it’ll cost them $8,000 per acre to farm, at an absolute minimum. Unfortunately, that’s largely driven by the price for water these days-another notch in the belt for dry farming.

Those 4 tons of fruit being produced on the property, in essence gives you 240 cases, or 2,880 bottles of wine.

So just the single year farming costs adds $2.78 to start. Let’s call it a $1 per bottle to service the debt on the initial costs. The cost of the bottle, cork, some of the other winemaking tools and more adds another $1.50.

I know what you’re thinking: that’s not getting us anywhere toward $20 yet.  I should also mention that the distributor that helps the winery sell the wine, pays only half of retail.  So the winery is only bringing in $10 per bottle-but we already have $5.28 in costs.

We haven’t talked about that single largest impediment toward hitting our price point: the cost of the vineyard land in the first place.

To hit our price point here, we’d need the land to be under $100,000 per acre to even consider it.  Again, that’s why we’re looking only at the Central Coast, you can’t touch anything in Napa or Sonoma for anything close to that.

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Field Recordings Foxie

Field Recordings

If you’re new to my wine clubs, or if you’ve been here for a while….don’t despair the white wine’s in your shipments won’t always be as esoteric as this Field Recordings Foxie.  I might even ship a Chardonnay next month to make up for this…..thing.

Ok, so Foxie is a collaboration between Field Records and Hoxie.  The initial makes wine.  The latter, wine spritzers in small square boxes.

First, a quick word on Paso Robles since that’s where Field Recordings is based.  It’s about half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  You’d think that the winemakers in the region might split their time trying to make sales in both cities then, but they generally don’t.  San Francisco’s wine marketplace is still largely controlled by Napa and Sonoma winemakers, with guys from the Santa Cruz Mountains, Livermore, Lodi and Lake County taking their turns vying for attention as well.  It’s a damn crowded market.

LA, is it’s own market and what works well in SF, doesn’t always work well in LA.  SF is hyper or uber focused on the small production, lighter side of the wine trade. That stuff plays well in LA, like it does in most big American cities, but isn’t the be all and end all that it is here.  LA is an easier Rose sell and is easier to sell your dense, jammy wine than is SF.

I bring that all up because Hoxie is based in LA, so a meeting or finding each other wasn’t quite as far fetched as you’re thinking it was.

In any case, winemakers like trying new things, especially things that they enjoy themselves.  No, they’re not making beer, although they drink plenty of it (after all, when your entire car and generally your being smell like grape must for months during harvest, you probably don’t want much to do with fermentation for as long as possible). But this outside the box stuff? Cool.  Most are cool with it and really interested.

Part of the reason they’re interested in it, is both mental, but also financial.  Mentally I know a few winemakers that just want to do something different every year.  Many scratch that proverbial itch by sourcing a couple of tons of a weird grape.  Others, by some other form of artistic endeavor.  But, then sales come into play as well.  

In most established wine regions there are hundreds of tasting rooms. What to grow in many of these regions, isn’t much up for debate any longer, we’ve long found a good general idea of what grows best where-with some small exceptions of course.  As an example, in western Sonoma County you better like Pinot.  In Napa, Cabernet.  In Paso Robles, Rhone’s.

Doing something like this Foxie, which really for our purposes is a take on Rose, gives you something different to offer.  It’s the same reason why wineries want their winemakers to make a dessert wine.  It sells pretty easily out of the tasting room. It’s also different and gives everyone something else to talk about.

Depending on your palate, this is along those same lines, or I’ve taken it one step too far.

Maybe.

Like I said, I’ll reign it back in the coming months.  But it’s summer.  You all always tell me when I ship a Rose, either “it’s not a red!” or “it’s not a white?”.

So I thought I’d challenge everyone a bit and try something new.

Oh, I think this is rather refreshing on a hot summer day.

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Vellum Wine Craft Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012

Vellum Wine Craft

This month, a few select members of our red wine clubs received a Vellum Wine Craft Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012

2011 in Napa Valley was the vintage that separated the men from the boys according to pretty much every winemaker I know.  It was cold.  Damp.  Those with young, active,  kids said it was annoying.

The good part? As we saw in the last few vintages, sometimes rain helps.  2012 didn’t have any, but it did have pretty much idyllic growing conditions.  Long and warm gives every winemaker the opportunity to take the fruit they’re given and decide on a direction.

At Vellum, Karl follows the lead of the folks that really taught him to make wine.  Not those at UC Davis, but instead his first true winemaking job in the industry: Storybrook Mountain.

Storybrook if you aren’t familiar with the history, is one of the couple of dozen Napa Valley wineries which date to a number starting with a 18.  IE, the 19th century.

Like many others, it was abandoned and finally rehabbed during the golden age of innovation in Napa, the 70’s. Known for Zinfandel, Storybrook was one of the first properties where acidity took precedence over structure.  Still does and that rings true at Vellum.

Karl’s winemaking journey is formed largely by his time at UC Davis.  Like every single graduate of the acclaimed viticulture program, Lehman produces wines that are structurally perfect. Davis though since it’s weight in the industry is something akin to the entirety of the Ivy League and UC systems put together onto a single campus, also opens a crapload of doors.  Almost every corporate door is open to its graduates, so I think it says something about a winemaker that decided to venture on his own so early in his career.  Most don’t and that leads to the fracture of those with viticulture education experience and those who learned to make wine as a second career.

So what do we have in your glass?

Most importantly, we need to talk about this vineyard.  It’s a single vineyard, but one without a name. Yes, those still do exist in Napa Valley.  Not Rutherford though. Plus, when you borrow money from friends and family using promissory notes like Vellum did to start, you’re not buying Rutherford fruit.

Back about a decade ago, if you wanted to start a Napa winery on a budget, there was only one spot to find fruit.  In southernmost and easternmost section of the valley was a smaller region that the locals called Coombsville.  For decades, winemakers said the region was too cold to grow good wine grapes.  Small landowners in the region grew grapes still, after all they were the closest to downtown Napa and why shouldn’t they be involved in their county’s namesake industry, but many, like this vineyard made them into jelly.

Over the years, yes, Napa’s a bit warmer….but consumer tastes have changed more quickly than our weather.  These days, what was considered light and overly acidic a decade ago, now is in the mainstream.

In 2011 the TTB made Coombsville it’s own AVA.  Fruit prices are now only surpassed by the old stand alone Napa names like Rutherford and Oakville. Things in the wine industry change slowly, but when they do change, they tend to take even longer to swing back in the other direction.

So this is classic Coombsville.  I’ve opened bottles of Vellum for other winemakers and they peg it immediately.  It’s the acidity, which is something that is an open debate among winemakers.  Karl Lehman here at Vellum strongly believes that wine ages well, based largely on its acidity.  Others think it’s the tannins.

Aging wine though, is an inexact science at best.  First, it’s damn near impossible to have a true double blind trial.  After all, does anyone really make wine from the same grapes during the same vintage, only encourage acidity in one barrel and tannins in another? What about the barrel differences though?  What about long term storage conditions?

Here’s the kicker-we’re, as an industry, only now starting to actually pay attention to which wines actually age better.  Napa vs Bordeaux is always a hot button topic and it’s imminently more complex than a simple question of acidity vs tannin.  

What Vellum is looking to do is to create something that’s more Bordeaux than Napa….at least in style.  In California that can be damn hard.

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Karah Pinot Noir Estate 2012

Karah Pinot Noir Estate 2012

A few wine club members have received this Karah Pinot Noir Estate 2012

If you ask any wine drinker about the best spots in Sonoma for cold climate Pinot Noir, many would tell you that being inside of, or next to the Petaluma Gap is the correct answer.

For much of that conversation, we owe a debt of gratitude to Karah because it was the first vineyard planted in the Petaluma Gap.

So the winery is technically in Cotati.  At first, when I heard that, I scoffed.  There aren’t any wineries in Cotati.  There’s little more than track homes and a master planned community, which I feel like I can recognize….after all I grew up in San Diego County, which I am pretty sure is where they send planners to see how to design the suburbs.

Then you show up at Karah and you ride up a small hill, look back over the 101 freeway and see….well, almost see the ocean, you feel a cool breeze and I thought, ok, I get it.

So when you hear incessantly about cool climate vineyard locations, people often think that means a lighter style of wine.  After all, less sun, less sugar.  Less sugar, less dense wine right?

In actuality, what ends up occurring is that grapevines end up seemingly soak up every spare  bit of sun.  You end up with something more dense, darker and more brooding than you do in the warmest regions, think the inland valleys of San Joaquin where the cheapest wine around is made.

That’s why the Pinot Noir in your glass is pretty darn dark.

Ok, so another point that I thought was interesting. I end up walking into about 15-20 wineries a month for a tasting, always with an appointment.  Many in Napa Valley as well as Sonoma, talk about how much they miss the old days.  Wine, perhaps much like wider society wishes for a simpler time.  Hell, buying a property on Howell Mountain isn’t that expensive, unless grapes were planted there in the 1800’s.

One thing that they don’t want to go back to…..free tastings.  At Karah, it’s still free.  If you watch Bottle Shock, which I think is a great movie btw, you’ll see free wine tastings.  It definitely feels like something from a bygone era.

Another aspect that I don’t know if I’ve given enough ink here.  We so typically think of Sonoma being only Pinot Noir, but it’s not.  It’s simply not. But, it’s still the tail that wags the dog so to speak.  Have a look at the plantings in Sonoma:

Karah Pinot Noir Estate 2012

So what do you think of Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa or Sonoma?

Of course, it’s Napa.

What about Zinfandel?

The Sierra Foothills, with the 4 oldest Zinfandel vineyards in existence, or Sonoma?

Does anyone care about Merlot any longer?

Will anyone buy Syrah?

I hope you see my point, as far as marketing dollars go, if you were in charge of Sonoma County’s marketing dollars, where would you spend it?

I bring that all up, because Sonoma perhaps more so than any other region, has to choose how to market itself. Pinot is going to take up the most space, largely because of bottles like this one, which I think stands up well to anything you’d get in this price point (sub $40) anywhere in the world…..but that still doesn’t make sales easy especially when you choose a spot for your winery that might be more commensurate with great grapes rather than an easy place to bring in hordes of visitors.

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Wonderwall Pinot Noir Edna Valley 2015

Wonderwall Pinot Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rutherford Dust Society 2014 Release

the fountain at Inglenook

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

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

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

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

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

Before I forget: 2014 was a great vintage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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The Future of Pinot Noir in 4 Spots

California Central Coast

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

Video Transcription:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Changala Winery

Changala Winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014

Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014 Front Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Sommelier Files review:

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

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

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