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Aselstine Family Cellars Carignan

Aselstine Family Cellars Carignan

I hadn’t considered doing another Aselstine Family Cellars wine, but sometimes this stuff comes up and saying no doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In essence, it’s a similar idea to the last Aselstine Family Cellars wine that I created-a winemaker with some extra juice unloaded it onto me, by the barrel.

It’s funny looking back, I was so damn excited last time.  I think this might actually be a better wine, more on that in a moment, this time it was a little less dramatic.  I’ve been working on something of a side project called and the day that this Carignan was bottled, we were filming for that.  The idea is simple, put winemakers on tv, even if its only the internet to begin, to tell their stories.  Text is cool after all, but 75% of bandwidth is now used to stream online video in America and that share is only set to increase. Anyway we were on the bottling wine, filming some of what happens for what’s called b-roll (the stuff you show as people are talking, in lieu of looking at their face the entire time) and then it hit me, this is another one that I’m putting my name on-so it’s in some ways more important than other bottles I ship and in many ways, less.

This Carignan comes from a single vineyard up in Mendocino County.  Mendocino roughly begins where Sonoma ends.  It’s kind of a wild place to be honest.  I have a few friends who grew up in various spots around Mendocino, certainly some had a suburban upbringing like I did, others though grew up shooting at cans on a few hundred acres.  Country living isn’t something that many folks picture when they think of California, but this is one spot where you can still find it.

Really though, I think one of the important things to note is that a wine like this might only be possible from Mendocino. Carignan if you aren’t familiar, can be spelled with a trailing “e” or without, as I tend to do so.  Simplicity maybe.  Sometimes I’ll tack it on without realizing because attention to detail might not be a strong suit.

For most vineyard owners, in the 80’s when the first huge run up happened to grape prices in Napa Valley and Sonoma (if you can remember back that far, Merlot and Chardonnay were the clear winners) if you had a field of Carignan, you probably pulled it out entirely, or grafted it over to Merlot if you had picked a winning rootstock.

Carignan is an interesting grape. It actually might be the most maligned grape in wine.  It’s been responsible for the French “wine lake” as well as huge overproduction in Spain.  If you aren’t familiar with the wine lake, vintners in France got a little over confident in the industry about a decade ago.  Since French law puts severe restrictions in most growing regions that you’ve heard of in terms of amounts of production and the grapes that can be produced, they responded by planting literally hundreds of miles of vineyards in Southern France as the climate and geography get warmer.  The result there was the same as it has been in California’s Central Valley and in Spain, MASSIVE amounts of wine.  There are times when Carignan can produce 10 tons per acre of land, consistently year in and year out.  All it needs is abundant sun and water.  The wine lake almost tanked international wine prices and it got bad enough in France that the government had to start paying farmers to pull out their crops.

So how do I think this is a serious wine?

Aselstine Family Cellars Carignan Back LabelGetting back to Mendocino, these vines never got pulled out.  If you’ve learned anything from being in one of my wine clubs, I hope that it’ll be this: literally the best indication of the quality of a wine is the amount of grapes produced per acre.  Less grapes = better wine.

Older vines produce less grapes.  Less grapes makes for a more densely flavorful wine in your glass.  It’s funny I talk to winemakers and these old vineyards are something of a fascination for certain types of winemakers.  The little guys, the guys making a thousand or so cases per year that are paying for everything out of pocket etc.  A few of them have these old maps, generally from the St. Helena public library which is truly an outstanding and lesser known wine resource, they open them and try and compare where plantings once existed to what’s been built.  Sometimes a housing development left some of vines around, mostly not, but it only takes a few.  Sometimes they’re in a significant enough state of disrepair to make the fruit cheap enough to warrant a long term lease and then plenty of time literally reteaching a farmer, how to farm wine grapes.

Anyway, I’ve come to think of Carignan increasingly as a grape that many in California might substitute for Cabernet Sauvignon every so often, if they only knew it existed.


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Fausse Piste Vegetable Lamb Pinot Noir 2014

Fauste Piste Pinot Noir

Yeah, yeah I know.  Weird label.  Weird name.

So some background, I’ve hit on wines from this vineyard before, the Momtazi Vineyard (there’s also some fruit from a smaller, lesser known site called Johan). Both are farmed biodynamically and organically, which is something we should spend a few moments on.

I think most consumers these days are pretty accustomed to the rules governing organic farming.  Some major regions like Sonoma have stayed away from chasing the designation, in large part because it can tie your hands a bit.  There are times when powdery mildew creeps in, or when a certain pest becomes overwhelming that a grower might want to make damn sure they’ve taken care of the problem.  Rightly or wrongly, although they often argue the point, vineyards aren’t as ecologically diverse as a forest and that type of monoculture is ripe for pests (they’ll better than corn fields though).

In terms of biodynamic farming, there are some theories which seem spot on according to basically everyone I speak with.  Burying cow horns and letting them partially ferment in the ground, then digging them up and spreading the resulting compost…..seems like a next step in the evolution of a self serving system.  Other stuff is taking away winemaker control though according to many, such as picking on a specific day.  Winemakers basically rage against that concept, yet are happy enough to schedule a crew a day or two after their intended pick date if no other alternative exists.

Winemaker Jesse Skiles is an interesting guy.  He calls himself a cook first, winemaker second.  He’s also a millennial.  That’s something I notice in large part because of my own age.  I started my business when I was about 30.  Signed the final permits in the hospital when my son was born after a 6 month process with alcohol-beverage-control (yes my wife is as supportive as she sounds).  All told, I’m right on the border of being a millennial or not.  I hope I can take some of the positive aspects of the culture and add in some of my own.  Yes, work life balance is important. I bring all that up because, there aren’t that many people a handful of years younger than me sitting in the winemaking chair for their own brand yet.  That’s changing because I’m getting older, but also the industry is beginning to skew a bit younger on the winemaking side of the ledger as well.  It’s a good thing, newer perspectives are always a positive in an artistic endeavor.

So Fausse Piste means something along the lines of red herring, or even the lack of success in its native French.  Skiles sees himself as much more than a standard American winemaker, in many ways he sees the Rhone Valley as his natural spot and a natural accompaniment for what he’s trying to accomplish.  A wild ride of restaurant careers led him to the Culinary Institute in New York, back to Oregon and then to Washington before he eventually had a winery and restaurant sharing a 2,800 square foot space in Portland.  I’ve seen a lot of small spaces over the years, but this might take 2nd place (Tom Rees makes Pine and Brown in downtown Napa out of a converted 1 car garage, a setup no one should ever enter into).

Fauste Piste Pinot Back LabelSkiles heart still stays with the Rhone’s.  But, I do so damn many of those and at times, people want something more expected.  Enter an Oregon Pinot Noir.  He’ll tell you, this is a more food friendly wine. In part I agree, but I also think it’s important to note how darn acidic this thing is.  That’s partially winemaker choices, it’s partially simply Oregon Pinot, but it’s also farming practices.  We know a few things about different farming practices and how they help control what happens in the winery.  Using native yeast as an example, lowers alcohol content given equal amounts of sugar.  In this case, organic and biodynamic farming tend to increase acidity, compared to conventional counterparts in the same regions. While people that spend a lot more time with wine grapes than I do, can argue over why at length, I think there’s one fairly certain conclusion. A well managed, organic or biodynamic vineyard often leads to healthier plants overall than does a conventionally farmed one. Healthier plants tend to have berries with both, more liquid inside of them as well as higher sugar content (think of a sweeter strawberry as an example). Those things added up, should produce a more acidic wine.  Really, the acidity that we all taste is the ratio of tannin (skin) to acid (juice).  Some berries have thicker skins.  Some berries are smaller (this is largely dependent on location, mountain berries are dramatically smaller).  But vineyard practices might move the needle 10-15% in one direction or another.  If you’re encouraging acid, you can let grapes hang longer on the vine, perhaps creating more easily distinguishable tastes.

Last: This is being included in a couple of wine clubs in the coming months.  It’s a fun, good wine.

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Patricia Green Pinot Noir Durant Vineyard 2013

Patricia Green Pinot Noir Durant Vineyard 2013

Patricia Green Pinot Noir Durant Vineyard 2013Yup, another Oregon Pinot Noir.  Pairs well with the holidays.

93pts Vinuous (if you aren’t familiar, that’s Antonio Galloni, who at one point was slated to take over for Robert Parker, but had a falling out of sorts with the new ownership of Wine Advocate, only to create his own imminently helpful online property).

I can’t move forward without noting the major story here:Patricia Green, or Patty as literally everyone called her, passed away at the beginning of November, after I had planned to ship this wine. She lived in an isolated cabin and there aren’t many explanations for her tragic death at 62, other than the fact that it doesn’t seem to be related to foul play. To her family and friends: I’m sorry for your loss.

Ok, so some more information about what’s in your glass and how a winery moves forward when their namesake passes on: The winery carries her name, but it’ll continue because it really was a joint project between Patty and winemaker Jim Anderson.

The winery owns 52 acres in the Rabbit Ridge Appelation.  The Rabbit Ridge AVA is totally contained within the Chehalem Mountains AVA.  Yes, the Chehalem Mountain AVA is also completely contained within the Willamette Valley AVA.

What makes Rabbit Ridge different than its neighbors?  To start, the AVA is basically defined by the placing of old ocean flow on the mountaintop. Secondly, there’s some elevation at play as well.

I think the main and most interesting part of the story in this case, is the Durant Vineyard.  David Lett was affectionately titled Papa Pinot.  Only a few years after Lett planted up on Rabbit Ridge, the Durant family did the same.  You can tell that it was a simpler time by one main difference in the Durant Vineyard from any new vineyard.  It’s planted facing south.  These days, everyone plants facing west.  Facing west, as many folks near the coast can tell you, gets you every last few bits of sunlight.  South is probably second best, but it says something about the Durant’s that they were willing to even take the risk given that back in the 70’s (they planted in 73) nobody was quite sure if Oregon would ripen Pinot Noir.  Heck, they wondered if Sonoma could east of the freeway as well.

In many ways, though the Durant Vineyard is like 2 vineyards in one.  First, you have their Bishop’s Block which is the original plantings from back in 1973.  There was an addition planted back in 2000, which creates an entirely different type of wine.  They used clone 115 for that one-showing again that Oregon and it’s clone wars are never ending.

What’s in your glass is a combination of the two. Last, this is going into our red wine club shipments this month.

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Bethel Heights Estate Chardonnay 2012

Bethel Heights Chardonnay

I’m working on a rather lengthy piece on Oregon Chardonnay, both the history of as well as the future.  I thought given my current writings, as well as a few tastings over the summer when I spent some time in the Willamette Valley, shipping an Oregon Chardonnay made a lot of sense.

Ok so then the question became, which one?

Bethel Heights Chardonnay Back LabelTo start, Oregon Chard can be expensive and to get something that I really, really liked, I was having trouble finding someone relevant to pair it with.  I knew I needed to make the pricing work….so a half bottle.  If it’s too annoying, let me know and I can replace it.  I’ve done this in the past, interestingly from Oregon, without incident so I hope you all are cool with it.

So there’s a couple of things that I’ve learned about Oregon Chardonnay. In the industry winemakers OBSESS over clones, consumers even the most ardent, can’t really tell the difference beyond other factors

But, in Oregon the clones being used for Chardonnay really do seem to have mattered.  The grape didn’t really jump off in the state until Dijon clones made their way to Oregon.  

Dijon is a region of France, that’s cold and wet. Oregon’s pretty cold and wet (by comparison, by comparison).  Before that, they took the clones that were easiest to get and most available….stuff from California.  Say what you want about the state in which I live, cold and wet isn’t how it’s normally described.  Also, they attempted the Wente clone more than others.

Wente is a winery in Livermore.  While Livermore once challenged Napa Valley for preeminence among Northern California grape growing regions, no longer is that up for debate. The reason? The region is about an hour east of San Francisco.  It’s a warm, inland valley.  It’s the type of spot where you know that the grapes are going to ripen.  Back a hundred or so years ago, that was more important than it is today, at least for many folks.

Anyway, a warmer climate grape clone  in Oregon? Yeah, what could go wrong?

Good for vintners in the region for adjusting to what the market would bear (increasingly more acidity is a good thing) as well as realizing what might be constraining sales of Oregon Chardonnay in the first place.

Don’t take my word for it: 90pts Wine & Spirits Magazine: The aroma on this wine brings to mind warm apples in the sun, the fragrance touched by oak and finely integrated on the palate. The salinity of its texture gives it energy, grip and precision, with enough detail to merit pairing with coq au vin blanc. We’re offering this as part of an Explorations Wine Club shipment (it’s our cheap club)

Lastly, what about Bethel Heights? The winery opened in 1977, largely funded by twin brothers. Now, they have 11 investors and have grown from their initial 14 acre investment, into a 75 acre parcel.  Until the late 90’s they sold fruit to many different wineries, but over the years, they grew their own brand enough to handle all of the wine themselves.  Plus, two of the original owners kids are now intimately involved in the business.  One makes the wine, the other functions as the general manager.

Originally I heard about Bethel Heights from a history book, but also from Randall Grahm.  Randall started Bonny Doon Vineyard and back in the 80’s, he was producing a huge range of wines, including an Oregon Pinot Gris from Bethel Heights.  He still has good things to say about these folks, which only came up the last time I ran into him because I was set to take a family road trip (yes, partially for work) through Oregon and Washington.

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Dragonette Seven 2014

Dragonette Seven

This is a Dragonette Seven from 2014.  Quite simply, it’s one of the best Syrah’s produced in the state every year. I originally met the Dragonette guys about 7 years ago (hold on a second, it’s hard for me to even take that one in…’s been a while!) in San Diego at Family Winemakers.

Dragonette is the story of 2 brothers and a family friend who came together to start a winery.  They also, have a long history of major dental care-at points that I’ve known them two of the owners have had their jaws wired shut and the 3rd underwent such major dental care that he was on a liquid diet for a time as well. Between teasing them over those continued misfortunes as well as my own proclivity to bring a burrito at the wrong time, I have long wondered when you have a partnership of three how this works.  Do the two brothers always side together? Does the friend hold all the power because the brothers always bicker?  It’s a testament to all three men that after about a decade together sharing both business and winemaking decisions communally that I’ve never seen them visibly annoyed at each other, or never had them turn down a meeting because they weren’t getting along.

Dragonette SevenOk so about the wine in your glass. It’s Syrah.  But it’s not “that” Syrah.  In fact it’s sourced from what some of the cooler vineyard sites around Santa Barbara County including some of my old favorites, like Stolpman.  Fermented in neutral oak barrels (neutral oak has been used for a number of years already, so it should either not impart any flavors at all, or impart only a minimum of flavor).  It’s also unfined and unfiltered, so if you have a Vegan friend this is fine to open.

Oh and Wine Enthusiast continues it’s love affair with this version of Syrah from Dragonette.  If you’ve been a wine club member for awhile, you know I don’t abide strictly by scores, after all I’ve seen how these actually happen.  In any case, here’s what the professionals at Wine Spectator had to say:

This bottling, from seven cool climate vineyards, makes a great intro into savory Syrah, showing all that peppery might without shoving it down the throat. Cracked peppercorn is redolent on the nose and palate, with the latter also showing raw lamb and beef char. The sip tends toward soy and leather, but with a core of dried blackberry fruit that’s familiar to most palates. The texture is tightly woven.

A short note, it no longer comes from seven vineyard sites.  Originally it did, but they didn’t change the name once they whittled down the sites.  If you’re wondering why not? Marketing wines is damn hard and they already had a few excellent scores from this blend.  They thought it was fine because the point of the wine hadn’t changed.  It’s still a cool climate Syrah from Santa Barbara County and it’s still sourced from a number of sites.

So why cut it down? Mostly because as Dragonette’s profile has gotten bigger, they both have access to better and better fruit but on the central coast there’s a lot of bigger vineyards.  Stolpman is about 250 acres and still feels tiny in fact.

But, the reality is that as Dragonette has had a series of these positive scores come in, they have access to the same vineyards, but those vineyards are more likely to make more of their best fruit available to them.  It’s a cycle that continues to repeat itself.  Good scores lead to better fruit.  Better fruit leads to better scores etc etc etc.  A positive feedback loop of sorts.

All in all, this along with Larner’s estate offering, continues to be among my favorite Syrah’s produced in this region of California. It’s nice to have the critics on board.

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Last Summer Grenache

This isn't sand

Last Summer Grenache 2015

So Jennifer Bartz is a new name to pretty much everyone, plus this is Grenache so there’s that…..those that have been wine club members for a while understand my appreciation for the varietal, especially on California’s Central Coast.

A few things.  First, I thought the name was a good one.  Largely it makes me consider what we were doing as a family at this time last year, a crawling baby around the park and beach isn’t necessarily as much as it sounds.  Additionally, the bottle made me consider that summer’s suppose to be warm and the one thing that I am always reminded of living in the Bay Area, on this side of the hill in the east bay, near the Bay and the city of SF, it’s foggy and cold until 2pm or so when it finally burns off.  Growing up in San Diego, the utter lack of warm sun along with decent beaches, is something to deal with.  Of course, it’s also exasperating that so many in the Bay Area don’t realize how much worse their beaches are.  After all, this isn’t sand:

This isn't sandSo about this wine.  Yes, it’s Grenache and this fits quite a few stereotypes happening on the Central Coast.  There’s perhaps a few good reasons for it, but the Central Coast has long been home to a larger number of female winemakers than has the state as a whole.  Let’s be clear, the lack of women in winemaking jobs is a major issue that the industry needs to deal with, the utter lack of minorities is another major issue.  Frankly, having too many people with the same background doesn’t lead to the diversity of choices and flavor profiles from winemaking choices that many of us might like. To put the whole thing in perspective, about 10% of winemakers in California are female.  But, Santa Barbara, depending on whom you ask, is somewhere between 20-30%. Still too low of course, but it’s a start.

Some of this is changing of course.  UC Davis is the preeminent educational institution for winemakers.  Basically, it’s the entire Ivy League plus the University of California system added together on a single campus in terms of influence, or more. Tracking the number of female winemakers graduating from the program is one thing that we can do quite easily.  In the late 90’s, about a third of Davis grads were women.  Today it’s roughly half. There’s a lower division class where it’s two thirds-which roughly matches college underclassman in general these days-itself another item of concern for those of us with boys at home.

I think finding and educating new female winemakers is important in large part because of the Central Coast’s example.  In Santa Barbara they aren’t doing anything differently in terms of hiring, there’s no special programs to train female winemakers.  But, there’s a history of female winemakers in charge of important and newsworthy projects.  That becomes a recruiting tool of sorts and it’s a draw for other younger female winemakers that are interested in having a complete set of mentors, an important part of making wine.

Jenifer’s experience is another great point in the simplicity of bringing in more people, gives us better wine.  Each label has an image of something she’s seen while traveling.  She’s young and has lived an interesting life already. I doubt there’s many people walking around California these days that boast a degree in Cellular Biology, but whom taught meditation and have spent significant time learning the practice in India. 

Oh and for this vintage she made all of 5 barrels of wine.  That’s of course, not to damn much.  It’s also a nice reminder that finding this stuff before major critics does actually help.  Spectator is going to feature her in September, along with a 91 point score on this-making it quickly impossible to come by. Lastly, monthly wine club members will see a bottle of this Last Summer Grenache soon!

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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.


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… 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.