At the Bordeaux 2015 release and tasting, I spoke to a winery that was espousing their new, tulip shaped concrete fermentation vessel.
I realized when my partner and camera guy in a side project asked about it, that not everyone is familiar with the new wave of concrete fermentation vessels.
Here in America, they’re relatively new and they’re only now popping up in custom crush’s and similar venues, while a few French inspired wineries like Bonny Doon have been using them for a decade or so at this point.
So why would a winemaker be interested in using a concrete egg to ferment wine?
Ok, so let’s talk about the main choices for fermentation and aging and how they relate to concrete and I think you’ll see the general point.
In terms of flavors, concrete is utterly and completely inert. In that way, it’s more similar to stainless steel than it is to wood (which I think is well known and accepted to impart a range of flavor characteristics to wine, including oak and buttery flavors that sometimes, you’d like to avoid).
In terms of acidity and balance though, a concrete fermentation egg, allows for the wine to breath in the same way that wood does naturally. Think about a piece of wood and your concrete driveway when it rains, both are somewhat porous and allow some transfer right? Compare that to stainless steel which pools all the water in its entirety.
So basically concrete eggs give you a porous container like wood, but do not impart flavors like stainless steel.
Lastly, it’s also important to note that when a concrete egg is made for a winery, it’s often made with especially thick walls. Those thick walls help to control the internal temperature during fermentation-something always at the top of mind for a winery.
Ok, so yes, my wine clubs only deal with wines made in California, Oregon and Washington State so why am I spending an afternoon in downtown San Francisco tasting through 2015 Bordeaux upon their US release?
Fighting confirmation bias?
Yes. Mainly….IT’S BORDEAUX.
Look, I really do believe in the wines that are produced on the west coast, but anyone even half interested in the wine industry has to enjoy the tales and the wine that come out of a region basically responsible for the wine trade as we see it today.
Almost all of the varietals that we find important, either are native to, or gained prominence in France.
Here’s a general rundown of my notes from the event, while I’ll leave the tasting note stuff to others who actually sell the stuff and would theoretically be more interested in taking those detailed notes, instead I thought giving some general impressions would be fine in this space:
Buy all the Sauternes you can. Today. Seriously. Do it now.
2015 by all accounts was a very, very good vintage. Perhaps not on the level of 2009 and other immaculate vintages in terms of quality, but that’s nitpicking. The wines are excellent.
Perhaps just as importantly if you don’t have any futures purchased (more on futures in a future column) this is a larger than average vintage.
As you might expect given the larger than average vintage, yes 2015 Bordeaux was a pretty warm summer.
Harvest came late, into October or even mid October for many.
I was struck by the acidity that was inherent with these given the late pick date. I normally don’t like to make Napa vs Bordeaux comparisons, but it seemed relevant here.
I found it somewhat strange that many were so happy to get the warmer vintage. So often people on the French side of the Napa vs Bordeaux debate talk weather and how cooler is better. It was interesting to see the trumpeting of the warmer weather. (I know, warm and hot are different, but I found the optics interesting seeing we were in San Francisco)
I liked the Merlot based blends better than the Cabernet. I think this may be a bit of confirmation bias seeping in, given Napa and other California Cabernet tends to be thicker in terms of mouthfeel and Merlot, despite it’s many downfalls here locally, does produce a very full feeling wine, even if the tannins don’t always match up.
The Metreon at City Center in San Francisco, is a GREAT venue for a large wine tasting like this. Not good, GREAT. If you’re planing a tasting for close to a thousand people with almost 100 wineries, this is the spot, especially when the weather is good.
Balzac Communications are a wonderful group of people to work with. They understand where everyone is coming from and Michael runs a tight ship, but seems to make everyone coming to the event feel like they have someone in their corner. I don’t find many wine marketing companies engaging, but these folks do an excellent jobs across a wide range of clients and needs.
It’s amazing the type of access a video camera gets you, even if its a 1 man crew.
I wish I had more time to delve deeper into some of the differences between the different regions that were present. I appreciated that the wineries were grouped by region, that seemed appropriate.
It was an awfully fun tasting. If you live anywhere close to the event in the future, it’s worth a visit.
Back in 2011, I was a kid. Barely 30 and starting a business that I don’t think I had any business doing at the time. I didn’t know enough about life, about ecommerce, about myself, about wine. Amazingly, we survived. In some ways, it’s more unexpected than you might realize. Our competitors largely fell into one of two buckets: those that existed pre-internet as mail order wine clubs, or those with significant storefronts. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of venture capital backed wine clubs.
These days, I know enough. I know where my next sale is coming from. I know a bit about PR. I can market this thing a little bit online and off. I have a decent handle on what people expect in terms of customer service and experience even if providing the perfect experience in a bootstrapped startup that’s down a business partner (don’t worry Matt and I continue to not hate each other, I’m happy he’s happy and I know he’s rooting for Uncorked Ventures to be as successful as we initially expected it to be) is about as tough as you might expect.
I’m thankful to have a shot to really get this done. In 2018, I’m going to give something a try occasionally in this space. Something approaching a real update of what’s happening. People seem interested, so why not?
So what’s coming in 2018? Largely, I view this as the year when I get to find out what I have. Am I insane for thinking I can do this is an ever more crowded field with no real built in advantages? Or are relationships and being a pretty darn good generalist enough to build a business?
So here’s what I’m working on and how the experience will be better in 2018:
Uncorked Ventures branded social media. You’ll see something more corporate on Twitter and Instagram at least. Don’t worry, I’ll still be around on those myself, surely annoying people with a general lack of wine conversation. I’ll also be resurrecting the Facebook page. I don’t really like the platform, but if my mom’s on it, there’s sales and interest there to be sure.
Newsletters Are Going To Be More Official: When Reviews.com mentioned that they really enjoyed the wine club, they mentioned that the newsletters looked to be printed on my home printer. They are. They’ll continue to be. If you’re wondering why, I simply would rather ship better wine and spending 10-15% of the price of your shipment on printing, for the Explorations Wine Club, seems nonsensical. But, they’re going to come with better information and will have a short snapshot of each wine at the beginning as well as an update directly from me about the wine club and my progress at the end.
I’ll have continued website improvements throughout the year. Starting the first week in January you’ll likely notice a much, much faster website. Then, you’ll see redesigned pages and some added functionality. As an example, the wine gifts page is getting a complete, utter re-do. It’ll come with the opportunity to print customized gift message directly from the site.
Gift Baskets. Seriously. I think my friends and family are sick and damn tired of hearing me talk about everything I want to accomplish on the gift baskets side of Uncorked Ventures. Largely that’s due to the fact that I kind of hate the old, tired gift basket choices available everywhere else. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Starbucks and Ghiradelli as much as anyone…..but I want to do something more local, more unique.
Corporate gifts: I don’t think many of you would be surprised to hear that corporate gifts, are quite nice when they happen. I’ll be getting things set up to make this easier on company representatives to order.
The Blog: I’ve done an adequate job here. I’d like to do better. I’m going to attempt bi-weekly long form content, think something closer to my predictions for the future of wine. The smaller goal here is to provide daily content. Some of that is going to be video, that’s pretty simple and not entirely time intensive. I’d like to increase production value on those, even if it’s only slightly. I’ll have a video intro for each wine that shipped as part of our wine clubs, that’s something that I increasingly hear that people like to see/read. I’ll continue to transcribe those videos as well, since I know not everyone always high speed internet available. I’ll also be posting some of what others are writing for the site in this space. If you’re interested, please get in touch: write for us. Don’t get me wrong in terms of the blog, I don’t want to be writing blogs about how to start a book club in order to try and sell more wine or to provide daily updates. I’d rather be more geeky and ask a winemaker about his Carignan.
Ok, there’s a few other things. Winemaker TV continues to progress and episodes are going to start in the middle of the month. While that’s not necessarily directly Uncorked Ventures related, I know you all like to see the winemakers that made the wine that’s in their glass. Video is the future. I think we have a really cool concept and I think there’s an obvious overlap in play here. I’ll assume that you’re interested in tv quality video about the wine industry, until I’m told otherwise.
Thanks for coming along for the ride. It’s going to be an awfully interesting year around here.
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.
While 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.
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 Inglenook 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.
Changala 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 Sauvignon–Syrah 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.
An interesting article over on Mercury News today dealt with how half bottles of wine are likely growing in acceptance, but that the market is being held back for financial reasons.
One thing that no one tells you about the wine industry is that scale does a hell of a lot in regard to profit margins. The difference between paying 15 cents for a cork and 5 cents doesn’t seem like much, but when you add to other savings like for the glass as well as the packaging materials, you might achieve a few dollars of savings per bottle as you scale up.
Half bottles don’t have the luxury of scale and some winemakers say that it costs them about double to fill a half bottle than they’d expect given full bottle prices, ie it costs the same as a full bottle of wine.
I’ve talked a lot about winemakers that make wine that doesn’t fit in our standard sales instruments can struggle for acceptance based on the entire way that the industry is set up and that’s especially true for half bottles.
It’s shame in this case because we also know that the average consumer is more likely to toss out whats leftover in the bottle as opposed to attempting to save it. Or, they end up drinking more than they’d otherwise prefer to.
As you might expect, Fresno is consistently the earliest part of the state to experience bud break and while this “feels” early, it isn’t. Last year, bud break in the same set of vineyards happened about a week earlier.
I’ve talked about some of the issues that can come up with an early bud break, but largely there is concern that once bud break occurs, frost can decimate a vintage. There was some loss in Fresno over last weekend and there are concerns about more happening as weather conditions locally, have been unpredictable at best. As an example, for the first time in 5 years, we had hail at my house yesterday. It’s been a weird, rainy el nino for us in the Bay Area.
Speaking of the rain, I keep asking winemakers about what happens now. We had a pretty severe drought for the past handful of years. Now it rained a LOT. Santa Rosa, in many ways the central town of Sonoma got 52 inches of rain this past year, the most they’ve received in a 12 month span, since they’ve counted it back into the 1880’s.
It’s interesting, but no one knows. This literally has never happened before. Winemakers seem to think that we’ll see a decent crop this vintage and then likely a MASSIVE crop next year. Grapes largely depend on ground water, at least the type of high end grapes we’re searching for in order to fill wine club subscriptions at over $20 per bottle and those type of wines are planted in well draining, rocky soils that don’t hold water for long. So yeah, at least during this first vintage, no one is really clear how a vine is going to respond. In the entirety of winemaking history, we have perfect records over the past hundred or so years and it doesn’t seem like the huge swing between drought and monsoon has happened before. How a plant might respond to something completely unexpected-is to be determined. Does it see the bounty of water and produce tons of fruit? Does it remember the rough past few years and conserves some of its energy?
Nobody knows and bud break is here, so we’ll start finding out sooner rather than later. Quite a few people are interested in finding out.
I thought folks might be interested. So, if you’re buying a case of wine….this matters: Well it shouldn’t, but the concept of the 1st case of wine is very real no matter who makes your wine.
So first, this effects pretty much every winery at some point. When smaller wineries, or even those well known folks that exist in a shared facility, bottle their wine, they do so in groups. Often there will be only a short break between those groups. Larger wineries have some of the same issues, as they bottle multiple wines one after the other.
Here’s what no one tells you. They don’t clean the tubes and pipe parts completely. Sure the $100 a bottle folks take the time, but with margins increasingly being shaved, spending the money in man hours to clean parts seems even less likely today than it did a handful of years ago. Also, production in California, specifically in higher end locales like Napa Valley, Sonoma and the Central Coast has increased over time. But, there hasn’t been an equivalent step up in bottling truck access (only a handful of wineries have made the significant investment to own their bottling equipment, everyone else just rents). The one or two cheaper trucks that I know, are often booked about 6 month’s out. Meaning winemakers are losing control over their wines, based on lack of access to bottling….incredible as that seems.
That lack of time and availability means that when wineries choose what to bottle, they try their best to have transitions that work well. As an example, if the bottling before you was Viognier, you’d bottle your white Rhone blend first, especially if it contains some significant part of Viognier.
Yes, when the transition is from white to red, or vice versa, they do take more time. But, a Napa Valley winery won’t take the time to clean the line completely if they’d transitioning from their red wine blend that contains both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to 100% estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
In any case, bottling is increasingly being seen as a challenge by folks I speak with and I can attest, those are some intense and stressful days for all involved.
If you’re ever at a winery during a bottling run, have a look. Almost universally, someone pulls off the 1st case, writes on it and sets it aside. Most wineries won’t sell it, but use it for trade samples, thank you’s and other write offs.
Every year, I tend to make plans….bigger plans than I can possibly finish for Uncorked Ventures.
Here’s hoping 2017 is at least a bit different. Here’s what’s coming in the new year.
Finally truly expanded gift baskets. I’ve talked about this before and then other projects got in the way. I’ll be offering a cheaper range of gift baskets directly on Amazon, as well as here on the site, in cheaper packaging. Hopefully Amazon will end up offering free 2 day shipping via their Prime program before too long, I know ground shipping cuts down on my sales. Don’t worry the hard wood boxes aren’t going away, I understand that those are a pretty big differentiator to a lot of people.
To start, you’ll see dueling chocolate gift baskets. One will contain products entirely made in Oakland. The other, entirely made in San Francisco.
At some point, likely as summer comes, I’ll have two new wine club options. There will be an Oregon only wine club, as well as, a Washington only wine club. To keep my life at least somewhat manageable, they’ll likely only be offered at a single price point and with a quarterly shipment.
I know people love the newsletters and that they contain, actual information about the wines in each shipment. I also know that I’m pretty low on the scale for production value. I honestly, don’t want to spend a lot of cash on a magazine style newsletter, but I’ll be looking for ways to expand what I’m doing in terms of the newsletter’s production value. I’m also always looking for ways to include better information and as time goes by, I hope to add custom made recipe’s and even more information from my winery partners. This will probably roll out slowly overly the course of the year.
Video. I hope people have taken the time to see what we’ve had produced by Sunflower Media over the past few weeks. This was made:
As you might expect, I think this helps explain what I do better than pretty much anything else. I hope to share more information via video in the coming year. I’m not sure exactly how to make this the most relevant for my customers yet, since most don’t access information here via the website as much in their monthly boxes. But, I’m working on it.
The website. Look, I get it. There’s a lot to do here on the website. The header is massive and takes too much space. I’ve got another check list of 100 or so things that I’d like to change about the site. That’s all coming and I hope it helps to create a better experience here for customers. Given I’d had this software for less than a year, I think it’s coming along well enough though.
Speaking of the software, there will be more features available in your customer panel. Basic stuff like shipment tracking numbers are in now. There’s another 5-10 easy additions coming in the first few months of this calendar year. Again, I hope it helps to create a more complete, better experience for my customers.
Lastly, I’ll continue writing here on the blog. But, you’ll see more video of varying production value, as well as, plenty more images from wine country.
As always, thank you so much for your continued support. I couldn’t continue chasing this dream without your patience, support and yes, purchases.
Over the past few months I’ve happened to talk to no less than 5-10 winemakers who run their own vineyard after firing their vineyard manager for a number of reasons. Those reasons run the gamut from needing to save the cash due to what I assume is the most expensive deer fence in history, to basically being scammed for more work by being told there was an aphid infestation, in order to spray some pesticide and get their guys a day of work.
That one time spraying event made me think to write this, largely because of the rules to be called an organic vineyard. If you aren’t familiar to be called and labeled organic there are two spots where a small winery, like the ones we work with for our wine clubs, might run amok.
First and foremost, you have to follow the organic rules for 5 years. For many, the story ends up being the same. They want to be organic. After all, most winemakers have the dream of passing along the vineyard to their kids, those same kids are often running around the vineyard and vineyards make for good digging spots, or they’re at least drinking this stuff regularly and who wants to drink pesticides anyway?
At the beginning though, most winemakers are trained in that, winemaking. So they have a vineyard management company to handle the farming. What happens over and over again, is that at some point the vineyard management company comes up with a crisis. It’s normally at the time of the year that’s both slow and often when the winemaker is traveling. You need to spray immediately, otherwise some pest is going to destroy their entire crop. So they let them spray. Much of the time, their friends tell them later…..classic trick.
If you’re trying to be organic though, you’ve now reset the clock so to speak and it’ll be 5 years before you can even consider going toward an organic designation on the label.
Secondly, the process to receive an organic designation is both time consuming, as well as, expensive. I was talking to a winemaker on Sonoma Mountain the other day, the vineyard is about 5 acres and they’ve been farming organically for about 4 years now. It’s an inflection point of sorts, should they go for the designation? The issue is that he’s a 1 man show making about 2,000 cases of wine per year. Does he really have the couple hundred hours for paperwork and the few thousands of dollars to put in, to have the vineyard considered organic?
Also, what are the long term ramifications of doing so? There are situations, where you are going to need to handle a vine disease either by spraying, or with a whole lot of man hours. I understand that we’d all probably prefer the whole lot of man hours, but what does that say for a one man show? Is spraying once in a great while, with a focus on keeping the vineyard and surrounding land as healthy as possible, a bad thing?
About 2 years ago, I was sitting in a wine cave with one of the old timers in Napa. He owns about 20 acres of some of the oldest vine Zinfandel anywhere in the world. He has planted some Cabernet Sauvignon of course, but really he loves Zin. He was telling me about how things used to work in the valley. He said about 20 years ago, he woke up one morning and saw a creature on literally every vine. Doing something, not eating them, but certainly it was an aphid like pest. So he called “Bob”. Bob as I guessed, was Robert Mondavi who bought some of the fruit for a single vineyard Zin back in the day told him not to worry, that his guys would be up shortly. Sure enough within the hour, a team of 6 of the Mondavi vineyard workers showed up and picked the aphids off one by one, spraying some type of sulfur solution onto the vines in the process. As he said, he would have lost the entire lot without the help and unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way any longer. There’s no one to call and that’s why people have to spray more chemicals than they did a generation ago.
I guess that’s my wider point, having hard and fast rules about much of the wine industry isn’t a good thing. Knowing a bit of the story will help you know if a wine isn’t designated as organic, but is still being farmed organically.