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Myka Cellars Pinot Noir Central Coast 2014

Tondre Wines on the Central Coast of California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a damn massive region.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Field Recordings Foxie

Field Recordings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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Vellum Wine Craft Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012

Vellum Wine Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we have in your glass?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Karah Pinot Noir Estate 2012

Karah Pinot Noir Estate 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karah Pinot Noir Estate 2012

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

Of course, it’s Napa.

What about Zinfandel?

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

Does anyone care about Merlot any longer?

Will anyone buy Syrah?

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

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

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Wonderwall Pinot Noir Edna Valley 2015

Wonderwall Pinot Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014

Singer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon The Song 2014 Front Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Sommelier Files review:

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

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

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

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Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014

Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014 Front Label

As part of our high end wine clubs this month, I give you the: Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014

Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014 Front LabelOk, before I go any further….they do grow wine in Marin and Wine Spectator puts this at 94 points (which I’ll add likely throws into the top half of the top 100 for the upcoming year) but here we go.

I originally met winemaker Jon Grant largely by chance. Before I go on, Jon has worked at a number of name wineries in and around Napa Valley, including Plumpjack and Corison. Ok, so back to the story: I was helping every Tuesday at a custom crush facility called Vinifiy in Santa Rosa during harvest.  Basically, I’d drop my oldest at school, drive the hour north and walk in the front door to see who needed help.  The second time I was there, much like they treat the interns, I was asked to help with what the winemakers knew was a crappy job, but I didn’t.

Jon makes wine under a couple of different labels, this Couloir brand and a brand called Straight Line as well.  That day he had some fruit coming in for his Straight Line Tempranillo from Lodi. You don’t have to be socially gifted to notice the snickers coming from other winemakers, but it’s Tempranillo and this was Sonoma, so I thought it pretty normal.  Custom crush, reminds me an awful lot of a fraternity house, or a college dorm most of the time.

It turned out that they were laughing, at both of us, because they had gotten a quick glance at the truck as it was coming into the parking lot.  You see, grapes are often harvested when it is coolest, often at about 3-6am in the morning under huge lights that are dragged into the vineyard, or via miner lights worn on each pickers head. So the grapes show up at the winery around 10am, usually pretty cool.

What you have at a custom crush, where many winemakers work using the same equipment, is often a line of winemakers sitting outside, waiting for trucks to come in. While they often can tell the varietal that’s falling off the truck over the speed bumps, it is impossible to tell what vineyard it is.  So they chat, meanwhile everyone gives the grapes the eye test.  Is this fruit they’d want next vintage?

It turns out, this vintage of Tempranillo was problematic.  Tempranillo evidently doesn’t usually work well in the destemmer (the machine which separates the berries from the stems) because the bunches of fruit are so tight, but this looked especially bad.

It was.

Couloir Pinot Noir Marin County Chileno Valley Vineyard 2014 Back LabelThe destemmer basically did nothing.  Well, it got the long strands off, but the berries went into the destemmer in large bunches and came out of the other side much the same, although they were at least broken down into jacks (the small part of the stem which holds 4-6 berries together).

At a custom crush, you only have access to staff during the time you’re using the machines during harvest, so the 6 of so folks running the destemmer did the best that they could picking out berries.  But it was tough to see any real progress.

Eventually the next ton of fruit came in and everyone moved along.  Which left Jon, on his hands and knees picking out the jacks.  I ended up spending about 6 hours doing the same with him. This is the hard part about a small winery, especially one at a custom crush.  There’s no extra staff, there’s no way to put off tasks.  Sometimes winemakers simply have to roll up their sleeves and do about a day’s worth of manual labor, before the grapes heat up.

In any case, then and there I saw a winemaker truly interested in the craft.  A lot of people would have thrown up their hands and simply said, screw it.  This is hard. It’s pointless.  Plus I could just make the Tempranillo and say it was 100% whole cluster this year.  No one would know any better, or say anything and I’d be home for dinner.  But that wasn’t what Jon did, instead he picked out jacks until he got the Tempranillo down to 50% whole cluster, which was his target based on his experience and how he thought the vineyard had been shaping up during the growing season.

So there’s an attention to detail here.

So you’re wondering, why this wine?

Not just the score, although I think that’s commensurate with the quality of the offering.

Instead, I wanted to feature a wine from Marin County. I have yet to do so.  Marin is the small formerly agricultural region directly after you cross the golden gate bridge from San Francisco.  It was once the dairy belt for the Bay Area.  No longer.  Now, it’s multi million dollar houses, although they’ve kept much of the open space (something I still am amazed by growing up in the suburbs of San Diego where open space was basically non existent).

Over the years, the last few dairy farmers have made one discovery: grapes bring in, a crapload of money per acre.  Especially Pinot Noir, given Marin is a cold growing region. For a long time, people didn’t think they’d be able to grow grapes in large part because Marin is close to the beach. It’s darn close to the famed Petaluma Gap, just on the southern side as many of the famous vineyards in Sonoma are to its north.  In any case, it’s foggy and salty much of the time.  The soil, is more sandy than many want to admit, or want to admit can grow grapes.  Really, that’s because if we can grow Pinot Noir in sandy soil, than the entire spots that we choose vineyards in the state, might have to change.

There’s about 200 acres in total planted across Marin, so this is largely an undiscovered swatch of land.  Plus, the locals are wealthy, so the wines made here often don’t leave the local restaurant scene.

I figure that spending a day doing some back breaking labor might have helped my chances at bringing this one to you as part of my wine clubs. It also fits pretty much perfectly into what I want to do, as only 8 barrels were made, or 194 cases.

Ok, so there’s been a lot of talk from Sommelier’s about this wine and some of Jon’s others being incredibly close to Burgundy, or Bourgogne as they want us to call it. I don’t know if I buy that, largely because in Burgundy, grapes really do run the risk of not ripening.  I’ve yet to find a Pinot Noir grape grown in California that didn’t ripen. So that’s pretty different and those results do really end up in the bottle.

So here it is.  A ton of people have spilled more ink than me about the Sonoma Coast, what amounts to the Sonoma Coast and what doesn’t.  The AVA guidelines suck and don’t tell us much about the wine in the your glass, this is another good example of that phenomenon.  Marin east of the 101 is highly populated and warm.  West of the 101, it’s largely open space and cool.

I think for what I’m looking to do, this was the right place to start.

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Knez Winery Pinot Noir Cerise Vineyard 2014

Knez Winery Pinot Noir Cerise Vineyard 2014 Front Label

Knez Winery Pinot Noir Cerise Vineyard 2014 Front LabelThis Knez Winery Pinot Noir Cerise Vineyard 2014 was a fun one on a few levels.  Here’s what I told my wine club members about it:

I’ve handled a number of wines from the Cerise Vineyard over the years, for good reason, this might be the best Pinot Noir vineyard in the state, that you’ve never heard of.

Before I go on,  Antonio Galloni from Vinuous (he’d the dude who was suppose to take over for Robert Parker at Wine Advocate, before things got weird and he started his own site) has scored this single vineyard Pinot for the past three years: 94 points in 2012, 94 points in 2013 and finally, 95 points for what’s in your glass now.

It’s truly one of the best Pinot’s made anywhere for the 2014 vintage.

“Dark red and purplish hued fruits, wild flowers, mint, spices and rose petal notes meld together in the 2014 Pinot Noir Cerise Vineyard. The Cerise is deceptively medium in body, but it packs serious intensity. Expressive, floral-infused aromatics give the Cerise its inner sweetness and perfume, while beams of underlying tannin give the wine its shape. This is another superb wine from Knez. “

Ok, so let’s talk about where Cerise is located.  The Anderson Valley is technically Mendocino, but it’s a damn hike from my house.  Basically, you drive north past Healdsburg and the Russian River Valley, then cut across to the coast.  It’s a wild, wild spot.  Part of the allure for the locals is that you not only lose cell phone reception at points going across the valley, but you even lose the radio in its entirety.  Winemakers that I know whom live in Santa Rosa joke that when they source fruit from Anderson Valley, they buy themselves a few books on tape to help pass the time.  Podcasts are also popular.

2014 in many ways was when we started seeing the drought come into play in California vineyards for the first time.  Yields were down, but the nice thing for vintners, the quality was still consistent.  Vines were stressed from a lack of water, but Napa, much of Sonoma and certainly Mendocino weren’t as affected as say Paso Robles was.

In Anderson Valley, rain is always on everyone’s minds.  There is always concern that a long and unnecessarily cool growing season will lead Pinot Noir to be hanging on the vine into October-exactly when the rains start to show up in force, ruining crops and entailing so many late night emails to distribution lists, asking for any help that we can give to help pick.

Knez Winery Pinot Noir Cerise Vineyard 2014 Back LabelIn 2014 though, there was rain in February, the perfect time because it’s before bud break.  Then it was a long, warm growing season.  That warmer than average season allowed an early harvest, so literally vintners weren’t left with a care in the world.  Combined with lessening yields, it ensured that vintners sourcing fruit in the valley, had an outstanding set to work with.

Ok, so there’s one last piece of information here.  If you were to make a list of the most important names in California made Pinot Noir, you’d without a doubt have Kosta Browne on that list. The 38 acre Cerise Vineyard was purchased by Kosta Browne a few months ago.  Here’s what the Kosta Browne folks had to say about the purchase:

Scott Becker, president and CEO of Kosta Browne, told Wine Spectator the decision to purchase Cerise Vineyards was less about the zip code and more about the pedigree of quality. “What excited us was the energy of the place,” he said. “It checked all of our boxes for making wines that reflect the place they come from, from the extremely cool climate to the soil, elevation and southwest-facing exposure—it offers us something distinct.”

I’ll take a minute here and mention that you’ll read about how Cerise is either 38 acres, or 60 acres in size depending on the source.  As part of this shipment you’ll also be receiving a Knez Vineyard Pinot Noir, Knez is one of the other properties that sometimes gets included to add to the original 38 acres to get to 60.  It’s a different vineyard, not a different block and I think when you taste the two wines, you’ll see why I tend to keep them seperate.

In any case, for those of us that enjoy smaller producers, this is a bit of a hit.  Knez offered a slightly different look into Anderson Valley Pinot than some others.  Plus, it’s also a sign of the times.

Quite frankly, Anderson Valley has sprung into the mainstream wine consciousness faster than could have reasonably been expected.  There’s an entire range of perhaps a few thousand wineries based in Sonoma, clamoring for more fruit, better fruit etc.  Anderson Valley, if based on location alone, would be a logical starting point.  But, the quality and type of fruit fits into what people are looking for as well.

Larger plots in the valley are hard to come by.  It’s hard to build out vineyards with environmental restrictions, there’s plent of old growth California Redwood sitting around, which pretty much cannot be touched, ever, for any circumstances.  But really, one line sums up the entirety of this sale:

“Fine wine is fundamentally a land game and you must have the best sites.”

For smaller wineries, that’s an ominous assessment is it not?

For me, I’ll try and figure out what that might mean over the longer frame, while enjoying the last vintage I can get from what was one of my absolute favorite vineyards in California.

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Folkway Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Folkway Sauvignon Blanc Back Label

Folkway Sauvignon Blanc 2016

So yes, 2016.  I think I had a Rose go out from 2016 a few weeks back, but this is the first of the white’s I’ve come across.

If you’re not familiar, Rose and many white wines can be released about 6 months after they go into barrel.  It takes a few weeks of course to get bottles filled, labels attached and then for those to be shipped to some central point to be distributed to interested parties.

Since this is the first of the 2016’s, let’s talk about that for a moment.  Many of you know and are likely sick of hearing about the drought in California (just as you’re going to be sick of hearing about the wildfire season coming in October which stands to be truly out of the control) but it does effect what’s in your glass.

Folkway Sauvignon Blanc Front LabelA little talked about side of the drought was that, in Napa it wasn’t nearly as bad as advertised.  Drought in Napa Valley meant about 20 inches of rain for the year, instead of 32. Hardly a death spiral, even when most grapes have relatively easy access to ground water (the Napa river is mostly underground).

On the central coast though?  A different story.  This is where drought has hit and hit hard and 2015 seemingly marked the low point.  Paso’s yields have been decimated, some growers have said that the vines simply stopped growing fruit, yields down 90% by some accounts.

2016 was the start of the comeback.  Enough rain came down for some folks to say that it was a pretty boring vintage.  It was cooler than average, but that’s ok when you’re literally fighting for survival.

It was a long and slow season by all accounts, with one expected thing happening in Santa Barbara that most outside the region, forget.  September brought a heat spike that caused quite a few vintners to harvest earlier than they would have wanted to.  After all, raisins don’t make for good wine.

Ok, so next Sauvignon Blanc.

First, I think it’s fair to say that there are really four tiers of white wine grape plantings in California.

The top tier is Chardonnay, by itself and it isn’t close.

The next tier, as you can see below includes Pinot Gris (it’s the white wine version of Pinot Noir, but you probably drink it when it’s called Pinot Grigio), Sauvignon Blanc and French Colombard (in California, let’s simply call this a bulk wine grape).

California White Wine Grape Plantings 2015

The third tier of white wine grapes in California includes some lesser known names like Gewurztraminer.  They’re grapes which are hard to find still, but they have backers from higher end winery names.

Lastly, there’s grapes that basically don’t exist….which I’ve included on the chart in my personal favorite Grenache Blanc.

So if you’re planting a vineyard and want to put in some white wine, you’re basically asking yourself, is this a good site for Chardonnay?  If it is, you’re done.

What if it isn’t though?  Or what, if like my wife, you don’t love the varietal?

The answer if the vineyard is warmer, like this site in the Santa Barbara foothills usually means Sauvignon Blanc now in California.  Colombard isn’t a serious choice.  Pinot Gris likes it cold (and if you have a cooler site, you’ve planted the whole damn thing to Chardonnay) and the others are filler for most.

That warmer planting can lead to a wine that holds up to some oak, loses some of the trademark acidity it gains in Bordeaux.  There’s more melon flavors and less grass.

Personally, +1 to that.

Lastly, this is a Santa Barbara Highlands vineyard. It says that it’s Santa Barbara, but this isn’t SB.  It’s about 60 miles east of the ocean.  This isn’t the foothills.  It’s the mountains.  Elevation has shown to help create acidity of course, but this is a WEIRD place.

It gets about 10 inches of rain a year in total.  In fact about half of that comes from melting snow.

This isn’t what you pictured when you thought of SB was it?  To me, this isn’t Santa Barbara.  I think of the beach, of the fog, of the wind blowing in the cold air off the Pacific Ocean, the kelp bed.  What I don’t think of, a mountainous desert that is fed by a river.

Folkway Sauvignon Blanc Back LabelIt’s also HUGE.  Almost a thousand acres of vines in total, this is hardly the small parcel that many of us think of.  It’s big enough to be one of the very few vineyards in California where mechanical harvesting can take place.  That’s something that is incredibly common in Australia and elsewhere in the new world, but in California? Unheard of.  Partially that’s because some of our best vineyard space is situated on hills and mechanical harvesters work best on flat ground.  Plus, some of our rows are close enough that mechanical harvesters simply aren’t a possibility.

All in all, you’ll read a lot about the Santa Barbara Highlands vineyard, but as a winemaker said during an interview a few weeks ago: sometimes you meet expectations and sometimes, you play off them.  When it comes to SB wine, the highlands vineyard is often playing off of them.

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1850 Zinfandel Amador County 2014

1850 Amador County Zinfandel 2014 Front Label1850 Zinfandel Amador County 2014

Zinfandel is considered by many people, California’s native son grape.  That’s an interesting concept for a few reasons.

First and foremost, the grape is thought of as native to California because of spots in the Sierra Foothills, that heady region as the Bay Area slowly morphs into Sacramento and the long flat river delta plain, before climbing into the Sierra’s.  But, that’s not nearly where most of the grapes in the state are grown.

Secondly, Zinfandel itself has it’s share of a checkered history. For years, vintners in California and their Italian counterparts argued about whether Zinfandel or its Italian cousin, Primitivo were the parent of the variety.  There were quite a number of silly theories thrown around and I don’t know that I ever got on board with how Zinfandel would have gotten from California’s mountainous regions to Italy’s northern border around 1865.  People are innovative, but that’s a trip that asks a lot.

1850 Amador County Zinfandel 2014 Back LableOf course, the folks at UC Davis have the final answer.  Through genetic testing (the concept is the same that we use for human DNA) it’s fairly evidently that Zin and Primitivo have a common ancestor, in fact they’re both clones from a Croatian grape called Crljenak.  It seems that cuttings of Crljenak were transported to both Italy and California around the same time period, about 150 years ago. The current versions are closely enough related that European vintners can use the terms interchangeably, while different enough that the American government considers them separate grapes. It’s been said that the Primitivo grape ripens a bit earlier, but really the entirety of the differences is less than you receive from some basic winemaking choices, like at what Brix you pick the grapes.

Ok, so to be clear-there weren’t fields of wild Zinfandel growing in the California Sierra Foothills when miners showed up.  Today though, it’s been said that the grape has been grown long enough that sometimes, just sometimes, if you know where to look, you’ll find an old field or a few scattered vines growing wild.  That’s a pretty fun thing.

The Old Sutter Creek General Store is Now a MuseumAmador County is an interesting spot in itself.  It’s a spot where the huge tech and entertainment booms that have carried our state’s economy over the past few decades, has largely left untouched.  When I was there last summer, I was surprised to see small towns that we learned about in California history-down to a few old buildings and often a post office.  But, things are changing.  Wine brings a load of tourist dollars.  There’s grapes being grown and these small towns are picturesque and offer low rents-exactly the type of spot where artisan businesses tend to flourish.

Zinfandel, for all its faults, is still home here.  Every winery I stepped into, grew the stuff. Some of the winemakers LOVE it. Others, HATE it.  Some pulled it out to put in their tasting rooms. Others, were looking for ways to plant more.

In many ways, that helps tell the tale of Zinfandel.  When it grows in a warm enough spot, it’s dense, not overly tannic but has plenty of alcohol to go around.  It’s pretty good with a slice of pizza really.

Thinking back what’s getting on two hundred years, that’s the type of wine that I might have wanted after panning for a day, in water up to my knees, in 100+ degree heat.  The Foothills weren’t the spot to make something complicated.  Life was complicated enough.

Really, that’s where the burgeoning wine industry in the Sierra Foothills has some choices to make. Do they chase the lower alcohol cooler climate stuff that’s all the rage in San Francisco restaurants, New York wine stores and Austin bars? Or can they be happy making some consistent with the varietal itself?

When I was there, I was slightly fascinated by another of their issues.  Zinfandel, unlike basically every other wine grapevine (maybe Cinsault and a few others) continues to produce grapes, seemingly indefinitely.  There are patches of Zin, producing grapes having been planted 150 years ago.

I wondered, how does this work for the region to grow?  People plant now and then, 6 generations in the future they have a cool vineyard?

That’s one reason there’s a lot of Barbera being planted.  It’s similar in characteristics, its Italian origins let it stand up to the heat and it comes online in about 5 years.

I’m rambling a bit, but let’s just say that it’s interesting that a new winery has chosen to release a Zinfandel, even if they’re based in historic Sutter Creek.  I think you’ll agree, this fits the standard Zin profile.  It’s higher in alcohol, ripe and juicy.  Since I’ve been accused of only shipping austere wines in my wine of the month clubs, I thought this might be a nice respite for folks looking for something different. Sometimes, things shouldn’t be so complicated-enjoy with a slice of pizza or a steak on the BBQ!