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People’s Wine Revolution

A lot of people that try and sell me wine are surprised that, if you hit my schedule correctly, you’re likely pouring samples at my house.  I haven’t found a ton of winemakers that do the same thing, or at least those with multiple wines on their resume scored at 95 points and above.

Thus was my surprise when I opened an email from Matt Reid, who is the newly (or relatively newly at least, this being his second vintage on the job) installed winemaker at Benessere Vineyards asking if we could spend some time together, seeing if his personal project might be a fit for my wine clubs.

Matt comes highly recommended and I’ve talked in the past about what good shape the folks at Benssere are based on hiring an astute and creative general manager Stephanie Grubbs, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw Matt’s background in and around Napa.

If you’re someone who pays attention to classic Napa wineries, or winemakers that work there, Matt’s work at Seavey should be fairly familiar off the bat.  As he said while we sat in his backyard, dog running around like crazy (and seriously, the dog is the best catcher of tennis balls, I’ve ever seen, many of which go Willie Mays style over his back shoulder) the Seavey property is a strong profile and tasting through the wines he made there, along with the winemaker before as well as after, it’s a great job to have.  Frankly I think that undersells it a bit, as an example the ‘07 Cabernet he made was scored at 96+ points.  Matt’s worked as the custom crush winemaker at Failla Wines, as well as working at Gallica which put him at a label made by Rosemary Cakebread, which for anyone who drinks any wine, is no small addition to a resume. All in all, he’s certainly a winemaker in demand and presumably would have his pick of any number of jobs in and around Napa.  After all, only so many winemakers walking the earth currently have a resume that includes the types of critics scores that we’re talking about here.  Plus, Matt comes across as a personable and frankly, nice guy, who would be easy to work with.  In the era of wine industry ego’s that apparently we’ve entered into, that counts for something as well.

Alas, Matt has a different vision for his future and his future winery than many others.

People’s Wine Revolution came from what is an increasing fact within Napa Valley: the people making the wine, can’t afford to buy it, even when offered a significant industry discount. According to Wine Business, which publishes an industry survey every year about salaries within the wine industry, winemakers earn about 80k per year.  I asked myself, at that salary level, how many bottles of wine might I be paying $100 for?

Not many.

That’s where People’s Wine Revolution comes in.  Matt along with his wife Marcy Webb want to craft the type of award winning wines they’ve always worked with, but at a much lower price point.  Marcy’s an industry veteran as well with Franciscan and Chalk Hill on her resume, so this is truly a family affair and not a singular dream of one member of the family.

Right off the bat, a few things struck me about People’s Wine Revolution and helped me to make a quick determination that this was a label, brand and story that I wanted to support.  First and foremost, this is the full time time for both Matt & Marcy.  Look, every winemaker has side projects, but they are usually just that, but through some good negotiating, Matt will continue making the wines at Benessere, without as large of a time committment, leaving him ample time to continue building People’s Wine Revolution.

Having the extra time will surely come in handy.  There are so many fixed costs associated with wine, one of the only differences between a seriously expensive bottle and the $10 bottle at Safeway, is the cost of the grapes.  For that reason you’ll see PWR producing Grenache, Syrah and other Rhone varietals, but you won’t find a Cabernet, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir on the list.

Another way to find cheaper grapes, is to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for small gems in larger regions.  An example, the People’s Wine Revolution Zinfandel is sourced from Mendocino County instead of Dry Creek Valley, which is both closer and more highly thought of…..but would carry fruit that would cost at least twice what the Poor Ranch Zinfandel does.  That’s why a PWR Zinfandel can continue to be priced at $18, while an equivalent bottle from Dry Creek Valley, would run well into the $30’s.

At the same time though, what winemaker after winemaker tells me certainly is true, wine is made in the vineyard, so simply finding cheaper fruit won’t produce high enough quality wine for the folks at PWR to be happy.

Speaking of that Zinfandel, Poor Ranch is a unique spot in Mendocino as it was planted in the 1880’s and hasn’t ever had irrigation.  That’s a pretty unique proposition both in terms of age, but also in terms of irrigation.  Most within the industry firmly believe that less irrigation makes for better, in fact, much better wine.  The vines feel more stress and produce less fruit because of it.  Given that growers typically sell their grapes by the ton, not by the acre….they have significant financial inventive to water their vines and water often. Pretty clearly, the vineyard site is a hidden gem.

Another great example of saving money is that the only Napa Valley vineyard represented is Syrah-a grape that could be planted directly next to Cabernet Sauvignon and be sold for about a fifth of the price. I’ll challenge anyone to find another single vineyard Napa Valley wine, of any varietal, white or red, that’s priced under $20. Wine Enthusiast gave the wine a 91 point score, another completely unheard of metric at this price point.  To put that more in perspective, I ran an analysis of the Syrah’s in a recent issue of Wine Spectator and found the average price for a 91 point wine was $46.

As you might expect, the problem is that finding those unique sites does take time and while some like the Saisun City Petite Sirah vineyard comes from a previous job, there’s a ton of work to be done in finding lesser known vineyard sources that produce phenomenal fruit.  Of course, there’s a lot of competition for those sources between smaller wineries and winemakers and when you add the fact that established brands have a tendency to buy out contracts when word gets out about a better quality/price ratio in a vineyard….things can get tricky over the long term.

All that being said (if producing consistent 90+ point quality wines was easy, I wouldn’t have a job) I like their chances at People’s Wine Revolution to carve out a niche for themselves and create a new winery that reminds people that this stuff is suppose to be fun and add to our enjoyment of life, not be stressful and frustrating.

This is about as exciting of a project that I’ve seen in some time both because of the people behind the label, but also because of the wines being produced.

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Santa Barbara County Cabernet Sauvignon

Every week there are a few choices if you want to drink wine and chat about it on Twitter.

This week, I took part in an interesting and largely misunderstood aspect of the wine trade: Cabernet Sauvignon in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Vintners Association has been among the most aggressive and effective at marketing itself online, from it’s continued focus on events like last night, or bringing a few hundred bloggers to the Santa Ynez Valley last year for the Wine Bloggers Conference.

One reason I think it’s likely they’ve taken this stance is the great number of different varietals being grown in Santa Barbara County. Unlike say Napa Valley, they aren’t in a situation where they can hang their hat so to speak on a single varietal, even one as famous as Cabernet Sauvignon.

Instead a quick of geography has provided vintners in Santa Barbara County a tremendous opportunity to grow almost anything they want, along with giving them the challenge of finding a way to market what very well may be world class cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as outstanding Syrah and after last night I should add, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Having attended UCSB myself, I might not be the most impartial observer here but Santa Barbara vintners challenge and opportunity all stems from their coastline. As the only stretch of east-west coastline in California and the Santa Ynez Mountains which dig all the way to the beach itself (we used to be able to sit on the beach in 70 degree weather and then drive 20 minutes to snow in the foothills during some fall months) there’s a huge difference in temperatures as you move closer to the ocean.

In fact, with the coastline and mountain ranges coming together, you literally can watch the fog get swept in between the mountain range in the evenings, something the locals refer to as “turning on the ac.” For grapes, that’s pretty clearly a good thing. We’ve talked about the importance of diurnal temperature differences in this space before because it allows grapes to gain sugar content with the sun during the day, but to regain acidity at night, creating a more balanced wine that is still very much fruit forward. Katie Gassini shared the following image from their vineyard in Happy Canyon which I think shows the fog leaving first thing in the morning. Her family farms in Happy Canyon and has a tasting location in downtown Santa Barbara. This was my first interaction with Katie, but she’s pretty clearly a personable and interesting member of the wine trade. We’ll have a look at the Gassini wines for an upcoming shipment as well.

For vineyards closest to the beach growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay makes a ton of sense. Heck, Sideways made Pinot Noir famous in Santa Barbara, but there’s been high quality Pinot being grown in the region since the 70’s, well before it was popular elsewhere. Growing Syrah, Cabernet and other Bordeaux varietals has been a more recent focus for a wider number of vintners.

The Happy Canyon AVA was approved in 2011, while Ballard Canyon was approved in 2013. In essence Syrah plantings sit directly west of the town of Santa Ynez, while Cabernet plantings sit directly east of it. Both AVA’s are contained in the wider Santa Ynez Valley AVA. I have had experience with at least a dozen Syrah’s from Ballard Canyon, both through my continued appreciation of Stolpman Vineyards, but also many of their neighbors such as Beckmen, Larner & Saarloos & Sons. There’s plenty of world class Syrah being grown and attention is starting to be paid to these growers and vintners.

All that brings us to Cabernet Sauvignon which was the point of last evening’s chat. I received two bottles to taste during the chat, a Westerly Cabernet Sauvignon 2010and a Happy Canyon Vineyards Barrack Ten-Goal 2010. Both were Happy Canyon AVA’s, from the same vintage which was fun and again, really well planned by the vintners association. Through two bottles of wine from neighboring vineyards, I feel like I was able to get a good feel for both the style of Cabernet from Happy Canyon, as well as the quality.

The 2010 vintage should be counted as a trying one for Santa Barbara vintners, although to their credit no one brought that up during the chat.  I’ve heard winemakers refer to a death knell growing season as one that starts really cold (which causes many growers to cut fruit, allowing the remaining to ripen more fully) and then has a huge heat spike at the very end.  That’s exactly what Happy Canyon vintners experienced in 2010, but these wines were no worse for the wear.  One of the advantages of the fog leaving early enough in the morning is that ripeness should be achieved even in cooler growing season.

I also appreciated that I received two samples that came from wineries and projects that would fit well in my wine club programs. Both are small production and have limited exposure outside of the Central Coast and their natural market (Los Angeles, which sits about an hour to 90 minutes south). There were other wineries represented during the chat, which shipped two Cabernet’s to different social media personalities to review like Lucas and Lewellen, a winery I am familiar with and like, but has a 400 acre vineyard and a production level too high for me to include in my wine clubs.

To start I came away impressed and the focus on higher acidity Cabernet Sauvignon was evident. These had more acid than what you would find in what you’d consider Napa Valley and even cooler climates within Napa like Coombsville offer a poor comparison because there isn’t as much fruit evident. I’m compared Santa Barbara Cabernet to Napa a few times here, not because I think that Napa is the be all and end all in terms of Cabernet, but because in the market it’s simply the gold standard. When winemakers think of making Cabernet, most often, they think of making it in Napa Valley. That’s one reason I thought the story behind Westerly was interesting because winemaker Adam Henkel spent time on the winemaking team at Harlan Estate and moved to Santa Barbara, to make Cabernet and other Bordeaux varietals there. I also had a joke at his profile picture’s expense during the chat:

Happy Canyon Vineyards carries the pressure and perhaps the honor, of having the AVA basically named after their winery and they carry a winemaker with as big of a pedigree as exists in Santa Barbara County: Doug Margerum. We’ve featured Margerum wines before in our Explorations Wine Club and Doug’s been at the helm since the first vintage of Happy Canyon Vineyards.

As you might expect, near the end of the night, chats are as much as about relationships and personalities as they are about the wine itself. Here’s a few highlights, as well as brief reviews of some of the wines that were shared:

From Dezel Quillen who writes My Vine Spot:

From Please the Palate, an event planning and industry marketing company (I have no affiliation, but the information on their site is both good and approachable)

All in all, it was an interesting evening and a thought provoking look into Cabernet Sauvignon in Santa Barbara County. I can only speak to Happy Canyon, but they pretty clearly have the opportunity to gain something here in the Cabernet market, if they can only convince people to give them that first try.

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Anderson Valley: A Question of Scale

Back on April 1st, I had the opportunity to attend a trade tasting for the Anderson Valley Winegrowers, which took place on the Mendocino Coast(in a gorgeous little stretch of coastline in the town of Albion).  As it turns out, my email probably had ended up in the wrong spot of their list because of the tasting was meant for locals in the Mendocino area, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to taste wines from about half of the forty or so Anderson Valley winegrowers.

I was excited about the tasting (if not the 3 hour drive each way) after having some experience with a few Anderson Valley projects.  I first tasted the style of wine being produced in the Anderson Valley through Anthill Farms and their Comptche Ridge Pinot Noir, which has led us to source directly from Comptche Ridge itself (they make about 50 cases of wine per year only, you can read a bit about our experience and thoughts on their wine here) as well as working with Baxter WInery a few months back as well.

In California we’re definitely in the middle of a venable sea change in terms of the style of wine being made.  A new generation of winemakers is coming of age and looking, not for the best Napa Valley vineyard that they can find, but instead for the coolest climate vineyard around. That search has led many to the Anderson Valley, which might be the most Burgundian style growing region in California.  The locals definitely appreciate the style of wine that they make and it’s pretty consistent across all the brands in the Valley.

The drive into the Anderson Valley is worth a mention simply because it’s one of the most remote winegrowing regions I’ve visited in California. From San Francisco you’ll drive north through Sonoma County passing Santa Rosa and Healdsburg and eventually exiting the freeway by the famed Dry Creek Valley.  Then you drive west on a winding one lane road for about 90 minutes.  I went from thinking I was going to be ridiculously early, given I had two hours to make the last 45 miles of the drive, to eventually thinkingthat I would certainly end up being late. There was a period about 5 miles in (which seems to be the slowest part of the trek, that I thought I wouldn’t make it at all….heck one winemaker at the tasting joked that she lived in Sonoma when she first started and the result was listening to plenty of books on tape….yes the radio leaves almost immediately….it is a true valley after all) In the end I had enough time to grab a sandwich at the historic Navarro Market and ended up being right on time.

The drive across highway 128 to Anderson Valley really made me think of the scale of the whole place.  From the lengthy drive, to the huge Redwood groves that the road is cut through, to the size of the wineries in Anderson Valley themselves…..the scale in Anderson Valley is truly different.  The wineries in Anderson Valley made me laugh a bit simply because so many of them are family owned and operated (many without any additional staff, unless they have a small tasting room) so making two thousand cases of wine seemed like a fairly large operation.  I had one winery tell me, they were getting pretty big…1,700 cases.  When I compare that to places in Napa Valley that seem to think 100,000 cases of wine per year is still small and unknown, the sense of scale really becomes almost overwhelming.  In Anderson Valley Goldeneye is probably the biggest name nationally and they pegged their own production at about 20,000 cases of wine, which would hardly even get them a tasting room in the Russian River Valley where the average production is at least twice what Goldeneye produces and probably ten times the average production in Anderson Valley.  While I could  talk about the about Anderson Valley for quite a bit more time here in this space, I thought taking about some of the wineries I met during the tasting on the Mendocino Coast would provide a better example of the types of wines being produced.

Panthea Wine: From Panthea Wine I had a chance to chat with Jess Boss, who owns the label along with her husband Kelly, as well as their toddler in tow.  A 2 person shop they’re making under 2,000 cases per year and Jess was kind enough to give me a partial lay of the land so to speak in Anderson Valley, from a local’s perspective.  I can appreciate the trials and tribulations that a small label like this goes through, after all it’s hard to take a vacation when you don’t have staff right? I came away impressed by both their single vineyard offering from the Londer Vineyard, as well as their entry level Siren offering, which is a blend from 6 different vineyards. I’ve talked about the scale of Anderson Valley before and price points here are worth a mention, at $28 and $38 respectively, they’re leaving some cash on the table in my opinion.  These are both really solid offerings, more Burgundian in style than Sonoma, this is the type of label that wine lovers whom love European styled Pinot Noir, would be incredibly happy to support.

Lichen Estate: Originally called Breggo Cellars and located on a 150 acre former sheep ranch (I can attest to seeing a TON of sheep on my way through Anderson Valley, if you’re looking at buying a few hundred acres in the Anderson Valley, it’s likely a sheep ranch right now) Lichen Estate has been around since 2005 and with ten years in business, it’s one of the elder statesmen in Anderson Valley wine.  That status comes through both in the wine, but as well in their variety of offerings.  There’s some really unique stuff happening here such as their Les Pinots Noirs and Gris

Meyer Family Cellars: No matter what wine region you’re in, there’s always one guy in the room making something different than everyone else.  I always want to find “that guy”.  In the Anderson Valley I think Matt Meyer is that guy, for two reasons actually. First, Matt focuses on Syrah in the Anderson Valley. Cool climate Syrah is totally a thing and might be what ends up saving the grape in California over the long term, these are interesting and complex wines at belie their $28 price point (I saw that $28 intro red wine price point at a number of winery tables, which seems to mean it is a concerted effort at pricing, still incredible given the quality and the fact that if Meyer Family Cellars said Russian River Valley on the label, they’d easily be getting $40 a bottle for them).  Matt’s also a second generation winemaker, which is rare in a part of the California wine industry where the first plantings happened in the 80’s. The first generation focused more on Napa Cabernet, which comes through with an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon that is produced by Meyer Family Cellars.

Phillips Hill Winery: One question that I always ask at tasting events when I spend some time with a winemaker and they seem to understand what I’m looking for, is who else I should spend some time with.  Toby Hill of Phillips Hill Winery was mentioned all three times I asked the question and I came away utterly impressed by his offerings.  With a tasting room right off highway 128, I was surprised to hear that production was under 2,000 cases….especially given some of the multiple 90+ point scores that have come from the property already.  Toby also mentioned that he was high school friends with the owner of Comptche Ridge Vineyards, a winery that largely was my introduction to the Anderson Valley and a wine that our customers will still ask about to this day.

Handley Cellars: Milla Handley is something of a founding member of the Anderson Valley.  Truly one of the first female owned wineries in California, Handley received her viticulture degree from UC Davis (where else?) back in 1975. Time at Edmeades and Chateau St Jean (under famed winemaker Richard Arrowood) prepared her for her own project, which opened in 1982. One thing we chatted about for a while was the organic certification of her estate vineyard, which came at no small expense in terms of either money, or time.  Most small wineries (and yes, despite the 30+ years in existence, this is still a very small production winery) don’t take the time or spend the money to achieve the certification.  The aromas of the Handley Gewurztraminer will literally blow you away and it’s worth it to find a bottle of Milla’s Gewurztraminer for that reason alone.  It’s a unique look into a white wine that deserves more attention than it currently receives.

There were at least another dozen wineries there, that deserve a mention in this space, but then again there’s the issue of space.  Anderson Valley is well worth a look based alone on thequality of the wine being produced, but there’s also in an interesting spot where the wider wine market is coming straight into what they do well, cool climate varietals made by smaller, family owned wineries.  Those are exactly the type of wineries that our customers expect to find in our wine club shipments, so you can expect to see some of these names show up in upcoming months.  This was perhaps the most impressive industry tasting I’ve attended in the past two years and I’m greatly looking forward to learning more about the Anderson Valley in general, the wine in peculiar and to gain a greater understanding why so many simply nice and considerate people started their wine journey’s in one of California’s hardest to reach valley’s.

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The Best of Wine Travel on the Web: April 2015

One thing I’ve realized, my customers pretty much love spending time in wine country.  That isn’t surprising, after all that’s pretty much my favorite part of the job as well. That being said, while many of our customers will reach out to plan part of their vacation, we can only help with the trips and regions that we cover.  Since we love to travel, here’s some of the best wine related travel articles we’ve run into online of late.

Go Nomad: Gets Sonoma right by featuring Healdsburg, if only they’d update their winery list with some smaller names or the new addition of what’s being joking referred to as “Pinot Alley” by the locals. That being said, this is easily one of the best portraits of Healdsburg that I’ve seen online in some time.  While you might go for the wine, the centralized town square feels like you’re stepping back in time, to a simpler time in American history.

Traveler’s Digest: Is one of the first one’s to recognize something that’s been percolating the wine industry for some time: the rise of urban wineries.  I wasn’t aware that there’s an urban winery on an inland off Hong Kong (90k people in about a square mile seems insane to this quasi-urban Bay Area resident where we have about 13k people in the same amount of space, a density that scares our family and friends from the suburbs in Southern California).

The Lost Girls: Get mostly everything right about a trip to wine country.  One thing they should add though that most people aren’t aware of: winemakers actually enjoy having people say hello and make appointments.  Planning a trip with specific stops is fun, but spending an hour with an interesting and engaging winemaker will likely be the the part that you remember most about your trip.  Winemakers also tend to make wine at more than just one winery (almost all make something for a label owned by themselves or their family and are happy to share).  Oh and yes, wine shipping laws continue to get better, but also continue to suck for many states.  My apologies if you live in Utah, you’re never getting wine from anyone, anywhere….ever.

Delicious Baby: One of the first blogs to let out the secret in downtown Napa….this is where the families actually live and yes, there are facilities that cater to them.  From some of the better parks in the Bay Area to Scientopia, there’a actually a ton more to do for the preschool set in Napa than most people expect.  Oh, and as you might expect, even at a kids museum…..there’s some damn good food.

Dave’s Travel Corner: Does a good job explaining the rising foodie scene in Paso Robles.  Some background, I went to UCSB and Paso Robles is a pretty good stopping spot between Santa Barbara and the Bay Area….a drive I made at least a dozen times.  When we started drinking wine more after college, we were surprised that the little sleepy town had as much good wine as it does.  Of course, an earthquake spurred some development downtown after we had moved, but there’s a ton to appreciate about Paso Robles. Dave does a good job showing Paso is more than just wine and if you happen to have a husband or wife that doesn’t drink wine and only enjoys beer….Paso might be a better vacation spot than some better known wine regions within California.

This Boundless World: Exposes a clueless wine shop owner that hates Sideways (yes, Pinot sales went up immediately after the movie, which coincided directly with the virtual death of Merlot, RIP to that grape in California) and gets Paso Robles exactly right.  Unlike say Napa, Sonoma or even Santa Barbara, there isn’t as much of a local media in Paso, which in large part still feels like a small farming community, that just so happens to focus on grapes.  That leads to a lot of tried and true advice from people who have spent only a few hours in town, that misses some of the best wine in Paso which is often being made by small wineries.  Focusing on Rhone varietals probably hurts their marketing efforts as well.  After all, have you heard of Marsanne and Roussane?

Travel Pulse: Covers a Sheraton study that shows people are 3x more likely to want to pick up a glass of wine on vacation when compared to either their smartphone, or incredibly their spouse. Not surprisingly, the results have given Sheraton a new clear mission: provide better, more interesting wine.

As We Saw It: Finds one of France’s truly hidden gems: Colmar.  At the center of Alsace, it’s also the ancestral home to one of the world’s most misunderstood grapes (maybe because we simply can’t pronounce it, let alone spell it in English) Gewurztraminer.  Worth a look for the images alone on their post, As We Saw It describes Colmar as perhaps being Belle’s home in Beauty and the Beast…..I couldn’t agree more.  Pretty amazing stuff.

Wanderlust and Lipstick: Gets wine country like perhaps no other site devoted in large part to travel.  Maybe it’s their location in Washington (perhaps the world’s least appreciated GREAT wine destination) but Trupi get’s it right when it comes to Napa: everyone drives and fights the traffic on HIghway 29, but there’s at least three better ways to get to know Napa.  First, ride a bike through the vineyards.  Second, walk around Yountville, downtown Napa, Calistoga and St Helena among others. But, Napa might be one of the best hiking destinations in California.  Their Napa hiking entry is one of the best I’ve run into.

The Planet D: Covers the Niagara Ice Wine Festival.  A misunderstood type of wine, ice wine is much as you might expect.  Grapes are allowed to hang on the vine well into winter, once the grapes begin to freeze, they are pressed and the amount of liquid that comes from each grape is dramatically lessened. What does make it out, is incredibly sweet though, which has made ice wine a favorite for dessert for millennia in Europe. Niagara is one of the few regions in North America to attempt it simply because it’s damn hard to make and risky (rot often happens and ruin a complete harvest all at once). Like Port and other sweet wines, people typically enjoy Ice Wine quite a bit….if they’re willing to give it a try. Planet D shows why it’s well worth the time to attend smaller festivals like this, from the food pairings to simply being treated well, it’s an interesting and often memorable way to enjoy wine.

Family Travel Magazine: Hits one question that we get pretty often, can I bring kids with me to Napa or Sonoma?  Both are more family friendly than you might expect, Sonoma in peculiar.  Sonoma Square is a favorite of ours (we have a preschooler these days) because of the playground, small pond and more.  I’ve sent quite a few friends and customers to Yountville (it’s part of Napa Valley) with kids and have yet to have anyone tell me they didn’t enjoy their day. Jodi also brings up a good point, high end hotels have heard it all before and if you need a few hours away from your kid(s), those in room babysitting services generally have good reviews, especially if its something like her case, where a wedding wasn’t open to kids.

George’s at the Cove: Low and behold an old standby restaurant in San Diego, actually has a real blog, that reads like it is written by a real person.  Bravo guys.  Seriously, I’m utterly impressed.  I’ve seen plenty of restaurant “blogs” that are really nothing more than a space for the restaurant to announce their next special dinner.  Guys, that’s something to goes on a home page, not as a blog post.  Heck, I’d love to see images of the special meal that you cooked, but not the 2 paragraph fake press release.  Ok rant over because George’s does a great job at blending the complicated pieces of sharing information, as well as selling you on their restaurant (which has truly been one of San Diego’s best for about a generation). BTW, the Bad Religion jacket definitely does give away the Southern California roots, that comes on in the car sometimes and I scare the SF locals.  Anyway, this is an interesting look at how a chief visits Napa.  Of note and something to add perhaps, the lead winemaker at Vineyard 29 is technically Phillipe Melka (perhaps the best known consulting winemaker in the world these days, with all due respect to Michele Rolland and Paul Hobbs) but the day to day operations fall to Keith Emerson.  For George’s, hope they had a chance to say hello because Keith’s a San Diego guy (went to the same high school as I did, Rancho Bernardo) and makes a line of his own wines called Emerson Brown.  He also grew up in the restaurant business, so it would be a good connection….plus he fits into what George’s had to say about Vineyard 29.  Emerson told my wife and I on a visit that he feels as much like a scientist as anything else, Vineyard 29 is probably more science than art….there’s a place for that in Napa I hope.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this look into wine travel on the web.  Plenty of places look like fun right?

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The Best Wine Writing of April 2015

Something new for us here at Uncorked Ventures, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite wine writing on the web.  We’ll cover blogs and independent writing moreso than the large nationally known sites and reviewers, since we find that people paying $50 for bottles of wine are already familiar with Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and a host of other print mags.  Additionally, the blogosphere isn’t constrained by space, or typespace, so you can find more in depth, authoratitive studies of wines, wineries and wine regions.

WineCompass: A nice review of winechat from a couple of weeks back (I talked about it here).  I’m always interested to see people’s responses to chat’s like this and NAME HERE received wine from two classic Santa Barbara names: Bridlewood and Babcock. The Winecompass blog is interesting for a few reasons.  To start it’s based in Virginia, which gives the author an interesting perspective on California wine, as well as a slightly different way of experiencing it.  Plus, he covers plenty of beer in his space as well, truly one of the few places I’ve found online where I can read about truly local craft beer in Virginia.  Well worth a look.

Wine on Six: When of consumers largest complaints is that restaurants and wine bars charge so damn much for wine on their lists.  Wine on Six is based in the UK and does a good job covering that issue in their article about 67 Pall Mall, which is a new on site wine club in London. With a yearly membership fee and a swanky space, it’s much different than my setup, but many of the issues are truly the same: delivering value.  I enjoyed the look into restaurant markup’s in the UK, which I think is an interesting wine market to follow.  First, it’s a massive market and second, it’s been established for hundreds of years, most of which without a high end locally made wine industry.  It’s one of the few markets to carry those two constraints at the same time and continues to be among the most interesting markets in the world because of it.

The Wine Sleuth: It’s spring and the Wine Sleuth is among the first to realize that (maybe it’s still cold for the east coast folks?) and put together a list of the best and easiest ways to pair food and wine in the spring.  From anchovy toast, which might be a tough sell in my house, to chocolate dessert which would be a much easier sell, it’s an interesting and insightful look into what’s possible with classic spring food choices.

Luscious Lushes: Thea always has some interesting stuff and the same is true in April.  This month I enjoyed the article about El Dorado wineries, it’s a region that doesn’t as much respect as some others either in the main stream press, or the blogosphere.  I find the struggles of regions like Livermore, El Dorado and Lodi to gain press an interesting thing to watch and I was glad to see Thea cover Lava Cap, which rightfully is starting to gain a following by grabbing plenty of minerality in their Chardonnay.

Another Wine Blog: AWB is among the 10 best out there IMO and this is a good example.  While so many talk about large scale consumer tastings and how fun they are, I rarely end up enjoying them myself.  It’s hard to hear, it’s hot and quite frankly after a half hour, the wine begins to run together. AWB does a nice job at explaining some of the pitfalls of large scale consumer tastings, even when they’re put on by the Languedoc in France.

Wine Folly: Madeline has one of the most interesting sites in wine and probably the only one that does Infographics this darn well.  Really worth a look. I enjoyed the article about Brunello vs Barolo.  Italy is an interesting wine producer simply because the country uses native grapes for so much of its wine.  So many wine regions around the world have moved away from their native grapes toward international varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon and certainly Italy has been successful with their Super Tuscan program (a blend of a native grape, with an international variety) but the backbone of their wine industry is still native grapes: in this case Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.  Personally, put me in the Barolo camp.

Chasing the Vine: Always one of my favorite blogs online because the images are awesome, Chasing the Vine had a series of postcard style shots from Paso Robles.  It’s a blog especially worth your time if you’re in NYC, as Lauren does a nice job at covering upcoming tasting events in and around the city.

Passionate Foodie: Has an interesting take on the single country wine list.  First, yes I agree….I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an Italian restaurant to have only wines from Italy. The one thing I HATE seeing at restaurants, is the exact same wines that are being served at the restaurant next door.  I want restaurants, especially if they’re making a 400% profit on each bottle of wine….to actually try to have an interesting list.  Is that asking too much? Passionate Foodie doesn’t think so.

Vindulge: Mary at Vindulge has one of the most in depth pizza posts I’ve ever seen.  Smoked vs grilled pizza, along with pairing advice and a brevy of interesting images? Sign me up for more posts like this one, even if it’s something of a guest post written by Mary’s husband (extra credit, for the baby Bjorn)

We realize that people who are members of our wine clubs buy wine from others, like their local wine retailer, grocery store, etc.  We also know they likely gather information about the wines we ship as well as other wine information from other sources.  We’re happy to share some of our favorites.

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A tale of 2 wines from Dry Creek Valley:

Dry Creek Valley, I’ll admit it’s a spot I simply haven’t spent enough time  Part of that comes from the fact that I don’t typically drink a ton of Zinfandel, although I’ve had a trans formative experience or two with the grape.  As time has gone by, friends, family and others within the wine industry have realized that I don’t drink a lot of Zinfandel, so they bring what they say, is the best small scale producer of Zinfandel they’ve ever found and have me try it.

Of course, for someone who’s been said to be on a search for lower alcohol rates in wine, Zin may not always be the best choice.

Let’s stop for a quick history lesson on Dry Creek Valley.  As you drive north on the 101 freeway from San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll pass by the town of Santa Rosa, pass a number of turnoffs for western Sonoma County and eventually pass through the incredibly scenic town of Healdsburg.  Then you find Dry Creek Valley, which butts up to the more famous (at least it is more famous these days, with the newly found Renaissance of Pinot Noir, amazingly now rivaling Cabernet Sauvignon in prices) Russian River Valley.  According to Sonoma County the Dry Creek Valley is 2 miles wide and 16 miles long, has one stop light and one deli.  When combined with the world class wine, I’m sure you can see why Dry Creek Valley is becoming a world class wine travel destination. Dry Creek Valley is famous for its Zinfandel of course, in large part because many of the vines have survived Prohibition and compose perhaps America’s longest planted sites of Zinfandel.

Recently, two of the bottles that showed up on my door, perked my interest in the grape once again and both may end up in a future wine club shipment. Yeah, yeah I know…for someone who reads historical fiction and who likes multigenerational winery families…Dry Creek should have been higher on my to-visit list.

First, Saini Vineyards makes both a Zinfandel, as well as an old vine Zinfandel.  Old vine, if you aren’t familiar, doesn’t have any legal ramifications, so producers can get a bit squirrely with what they consider an old vine Zinfandel.  10 years? Heck, if you need some extra sales….throw that on the label.  25 years…getting closer.  50+ years….now I’m interested.

Saini Vineyards has a number of blocks available for their old vine labels, many of the vines themselves were planted in the early 1940’s.  By any measure, a Zinfandel vine planted over 70 years ago should be counted as an “old vine”.

Saini is an interesting case in my continued insistence that customers actually decide if a wine is good or not, based on actually trying the wine.  I understanding wanting your wine club to deliver good value, but there’s something to be said for trying something before making a decision right?  These Saini wines show a very real and noticeable difference between the Dry Creek Zinfandel and their Old Vine versions.  Of course, Wine Enthusiast gives all the wines about the same ratings, mid 80’s, until the 2012 vintage.  Higher in acidity and lighter in style than many in Dry Creek, even when taking into account the old vine nature of what’s being offered….simply not the type of wines that are likely to score incredibly well according to wine critics.

I tend to trust folks whom are 4th generation farmers though like Saini and these wines have been more worthy of your attention than their critics scores would otherwise imparted.  I also feel like folks making under 200 cases of wine in a given vintage, have a tougher time achieving high critics scores than those making a thousand or many, many more. Part of the reason behind that is there are less critics willing to score them. Wine Enthusiast won’t score something that isn’t available to a large percentage of the county, or is from a well known winery.  Startups, or in this case new entrants into the winemaking game, are left with one less choice.

Saini, as I talked about a couple of days ago, did receive a score into the mid 90 point range from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate for their past vintage, a score that’s likely to put the winery on the map so to speak-but do you really believe that they figured stuff out so much from one vintage to another, especially when it comes to vines that were planted more than 70 years ago? In my estimation, those should be more consistent than others, based on age alone.

This is a winery and a wine I think that helps to show why some folks are moving away from scores in their reviews at all and another good example of why I try and tell a story about the choices that come in our wine of the month clubs.

The second bottle from Dry Creek Valley comes from Rancho Maria.  A more classic Zinfandel in style, it’s thicker, jammier and has the hints of tobacco and smoke that have made the grape an instant hit at summer BBQ’s across the country. Rancho Maria has absolutely nothing in terms of reviews by critics and even the hard core wine lovers on Cellar Tracker have yet to discover it, there’s only a few bottles in people’s cellars and no real tasting notes to speak of.

The vineyard at Rancho Maria dates back to the early 1900’s and offers another true Old Vine Zinfandel experience.

Here’s where I think Rancho Maria becomes it’s most interesting, location.  In the past I’ve talked about location of vineyards being a funny thing.  Paso Robles comes immediately to mind, where the James Berry Vineyard (called one of California Grand Cru vineyards by Robert Parker a number of years ago) often sees prices now approaching $100, or more for its Syrah.  Across a golf cart path, sits the Denner estate vineyard, where the Syrah runs about $65. Does a golf cart path, really take away a full 1/3rd of the quality of a grape vine? Can’t we say the same thing for vines within the James Berry Vineyard then? Of course, like anyone else, I love the stuff produced from James Berry, but all this is to say, sometimes we’re too caught up with names, without actually paying attention to place.

Rancho Maria sits right next to Maple Vineyards, which has made a name for itself over multiple generations as the prime example of what’s possible on Dry Creek Valley’s eastern bench (to compare, think of Rutherford in Napa Valley and the Rutherford Bench that we hear so much about). Maple Vineyards has it’s own set of old vine Zinfandel vines and have become famous for taking farming in Dry Creek Valley to its extreme.

If you ever have the chance, walking through Maple Vineyard will not only make you think differently about how grapes are grown, but probably a bit differently about your back yard garden as well.  The first thing you’ll notice is that there are trees.  Oak trees of course are generally a major issue for vine growth, unless of course you aren’t incredibly worried about total production per acre and are instead focused on great grapes. Maple Vineyards is one of the few vineyards in America you’ll see oaks growing in addition to other trees like olive, which the Italian’s do actively plant in portions of Tuscany as well. Having trees in the vineyard does attract birds, the scourge of gardeners the world over, but not all birds eat berries like in my yard, or grapes.  Some eat gophers and other rodents whereas others eat insects. Maple Vineyards is willing to make the trade off to continue an old world farming tradition in the middle of Dry Creek Valley.  I should also mention, they water their vines for the first 4-6 years of life, depending on the amount of rain that shows up, after that point the vines are left to their own devices and are effectively dry farmed. With 15,000 vines spread over 27 acres, that’s a lot to keep track of.

Rancho Maria has taken a lot of the experience and frankly, wisdom from Maple Vineyard and turned it to their estate project. St George rootstock has been in the vineyard since the beginning, only to have Merlot planted originally (hey it was the 70’s and 80’s after all) which were grafted to Zinfandel in the mid 1980’s when the owners decided that they really didn’t like the taste of Merlot (if they would have made a movie about it, perhaps they could have been household names!).

Overall, this has been an interesting week when it comes to Zinfandel.  There’s a number of Old Vine properties out there in both Dry Creek Valley, as well as elsewhere (say Napa Valley).  It’ll take some time, but these type of wines deserve more of my attention and they’ll find their way into wine club shipments in the coming months.

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Wineries To Know This Week: The Other 46

Every so often, I come across a winery, or a group of wineries that deserve a mention in this space. This week, instead of talking about the wineries that I’ve had a chance to visit in person, or get to know a little bit, I thought I’d feature a group of wineries that exist outside of the established wine producing states (California, Oregon, the state of Washington and New York) affectionately by many referred to as “The Other 46”. I’ll note these all came up during conversations with others in the industry over the past month:

Dos Cabezas Wineworks, Arizona:

I’ve been tasting through Wilcox Arizona, although that’s pushing 5 years ago at this point, but over the past few years I’ve had the chance to taste a few dozen wines from Arizona.  Gruet has made sparkling wine a success next door in New Mexico and it’s pretty clear that Arizona wineries, with their home markets as well as their natural access to the tens of millions of people in Southern California, may soon be thought of as another wine destination by the general public.

Dos Cabezas (that’s two heads in Spanish btw) is helping to lead that charge into wider relevance both through the results of what is being made, namely the El Campo which is a blend of Tempranillo and Mourvedre and is a wine that comes with with Sommelier’s here in San Francisco as a great entry point into Arizona wine, but also because they have an approach that should serve as a template for other wineries in the region.

Let’s face it, Arizona is hot during the summer. One of the few ways a farmer can fight that heat is by choosing to plant at higher elevations.  If you water grapes too much, they don’t struggle and without any struggle, the fruit simply isn’t as good. While dry farming isn’t an option without any ground water, you can see the difference in average daily temperature based on the elevation.  Elgin Arizona where Dos Cabezas has a vineyard averages temperatures in the 80’s during summer months and sits at almost 5,000 feet above sea level, whereas Phoenix which sits at a thousand feet above sea level, averages 104 degrees Fahrenheit in August.

I know we all make assumptions about vineyard conditions based on the state and area on the bottle, but would you be surprised to know that summer temperatures for these Arizona wines is actually equivalent, or even slightly lower than those in St Helena?

Lastly, I absolutely love that the winery keeps a portion of their vineyard to test new grape varietals including those from Spain, Italy and elsewhere.  It’s that type of experimentation that led to Syrah being saved in California, or the planting of the first Pinot Noir vines in Oregon. It makes you wonder, what might Dos Cabezas discover in their high altitude vineyards in Arizona?

Llano, Texas:

A lot of small wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma will tell you that receiving a 90 point score from Wine Enthusiast, or any of the other large trade magazines can be an absolute game changer for their business, they’re also awfully hard to receive if you don’t fit the standard profile.

Llano has a couple of 90 point scores on their resume and they hardly fit the standard profile of small scale and located in either Napa or Sonoma.

Located in Lubbock Texas, the site of Texas Tech and an area that’s talked about a bit in my house to this day since my wife spent a few years there as a kid, Llano is helping to deliver Texas viticulture onto a larger stage.  One thing I appreciate about Texas, is that the state much like my home in California, appreciates a home grown story.  While I’m sure there are plenty of sales waiting for Llano in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and across the state, the winery has shown the willingness to move beyond their home state’s borders.

While Texas grape growing dates to the 17th century and really has a longer and more complex history than we do here in California, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that there was a renewed focus on wine in the state. Llano was the first commercial vineyard planted in the state back in the late 70’s and has been featured at the White House numerous times, largely with the help of George Bush and his presidency. Let’s be clear though, this is no small scale operation, Llano is producing over 200,000 cases of wine per year, an achievement in and of itself.

Interestingly, I’ve heard from a number of people that their Viognier is simply not to be missed. In a state like Texas, which is suppose to be warm, it wouldn’t be a white wine that I’d think to try at first, but they’ve figured something out here with the grape according to most.  Also, they have a charitable relationship set up with Texas Tech University where a portion of the sale of each bottle is given back to the University’s Alumni Association and research into grape growing at Texas Tech.  Given that we could really, really use a wider selection of viticulture programs in America (as much as I love UC Davis, Cal Poly SLO & Cal State Fresno, there aren’t enough spots here for interested kids) it’s a program I hope continues to see more than it’s fair share of support.


I’m going to hedge a bit here and talk about a state as a whole and a great place to find some more information about the wines in the state, along with an explanation about why the winery I was planning to talk about, won’t be my central focus.

Ok, so here’s one thing that people don’t realize about frost and freezing with grape vines.  Cold air from lakes or oceans doesn’t allow the ground to freeze (or at least helps to stop it from freezing), that’s why more water in Sonoma is used not during warm summer months, but for frost prevention in winter. In Michigan that means that grapes are grown within a handful of miles of Lake Michigan.  Much like people discount wines from Arizona and Texas as being too hot, many will immediately think that grapes won’t grow well in Michigan because it’s too cold. That’s simply not true, as I’ve said plenty of times before…..stressed out grapes are good for the quality of wine.

Michigan does produce ice wine before you ask, but I’ve always been more interested in the state because of the moderating influence of Lake Michigan on it’s Riesling, Pinot Grigio and other white wine. Cabernet Franc is talked about some, but quite honestly I’ve yet to find a cool climate version of the varietal that makes sense to me.

I was planning to feature Bower’s Harbor here, which is generally accepted as the quality leader in the state of Michigan, at least by the folks that I know who have been tasting through the state, admittedly that’s not a huge number….. has a better run down on the story than I can have.  I’ve heard that some vintages in truly cold climate states like Michigan will lead to lower than expected production (it’s the opposite issue that we have here in California where sometimes the weather is so good during the summer that the crop ends up increasing 30% or more without much warning, cratering the lower end of the market) but having to source grapes from the state of Washington for their award winning Pinot Grigio must be a tough pill to swallow. It’s also an issue that will likely resolve itself as time goes by.  As the wine industry in Michigan develops there will be more vineyards come online and a better chance for good wineries like Bower’s Harbor to source local grapes if yields in their home vineyards can’t keep pace with the amount of wine that the market desires.  We’re seeing that locally with Sonoma Coast vineyards, which are sometimes having to turn to vineyards on the Central Coast to keep production constant or increasing, so there isn’t anything to be ashamed of here, after all Michigan only boasts about 1,400 acres of wine grapes planted as of 2011.  To put that in perspective, Napa Valley has about 45,000 acres under vine currently. Bower’s Harbor hit what many would consider a growing pain, or the equivalent of a tech company adding users so quickly it had to use an outside agency for customer service since it couldn’t hire people fast enough. They’ll figure it out and as the wine market continues to appreciate more highly acidic white’s as San Francisco is doing, Michigan is going to gain market share.

Three Sisters Vineyards, Georgia:

If you gave me a choice about where to start a new wine region, I’d want to be about an hour outside of a major American city.  Being close allows for day trips for millions of people, thus the creation of a tourist industry, but also allows winemakers and sales folks to venture into the city, to gain restaurant placements and other on site sales placements for their wines.

Three Sisters Vineyards sits just over an hour outside of Atlanta Georgia and the views are absolutely something which will draw someone from urban or suburban Atlanta to the vineyard for a day away from the city.  Three Sisters checks all the usual boxes for a small winery to gain local market share, they’re 100% estate grown and offer a range of interesting wines from international varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay, but they also produce a Vidal Blanc as well as a Cynthiana-Norton.  Cynthiana-Norton is better known as a jam or juice grape, but the wines are often medium in body and higher in acidity than most, it’s a natural replacement for Merlot as the grape continues to lose market share across the country.  Vidal Blanc is a genetically engineered grape typically used for ice wine in Canada and elsewhere, but folks like the Three Sisters Vineyards in the foothills of Georgia are making it into a table wine.  I talked about innovation being important for new wine regions previously here and the development of VIdal Blanc as a table wine grape is something that makes wine in Georgia not only interesting but potentially important over the long term.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a short intro to the Other 46 wine states and some of the wines and grapes that have come up during my conversations over the past month.  There’s a lot happening across the country in terms of wine cultivation and I hope that only continues to grow. While our wine clubs only feature wines from California, Oregon and Washington, there’s plenty of interesting things happening elsewhere. Want better coverage than I can offer about local wine? Check out The Other 46.

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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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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

A 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.

A 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.

Disneyland 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!

That 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.

Argyle, 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.

Ok, 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.

If 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.