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Wild Fires and Wine Country

We didn’t think about it last night, but my wife made something of an ominous comment: she said that the warm wine blowing through the Bay Area, directly from the east, reminded her a lot of a Santa Ana in Southern California. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it basically means that the winds, instead of our usual on shore flow off the ocean, which not only cools California, but provides much needed moisture in the air, switched directions.  Winds blowing from the east are generally warm and dry.  It’s the first sign of fire danger throughout the state.

We woke up this morning to heavy smoke at our house.  No ash though, so we knew that the fires were pretty far away. We’ve been through wildfires before.  Too often actually.  One of my first memories of living in San Diego as a kid, was getting sent home from school in the middle of the day because the ash started falling onto school.  Some kids thought it might be snow, alas the innocence of first graders.  I had just moved from New York, snow doesn’t smell. Much later during the Witch Fire, we were evacuated from our home, we went to my inlaws place, largely surrounded by more suburbs and golf courses, it was long considered one of the more fireproof neighborhoods around, with newer developments even designed as shelter in place spots. We got evacuated that next night, only to watch in horror as much of the neighborhood where we grew up was ravaged by wildfire.  Friends parents lost homes and it took almost a decade before the neighborhood was rebuilt.  The character of the place in some ways changed.

After checking the news this morning, it became fairly obvious that we were getting smoke blown to our house from fires in both Napa as well as Sonoma.

At first, the Napa blaze was getting most of the attention, causing evacuations and issues outside of downtown Napa, largely in an area of Napa Valley called Atlas Peak and to a lesser extent, Coombsville.  The fire has also destroyed wineries on the Silverado Trail in Napa already as of 10am Pacific.

Neither of those are major population centers, but it makes me think of friends, especially those on Atlas Peak where the mountain offers only one way up and the same way down.  At points the two lanes offer only access for one car, so I hope the folks at Vinroc and Dos Lagos are safe and sound. I have no doubt that there’s going to property damage and long term issues if the fire burns through Atlas Peak and Coombsville.  I am hopeful though that there won’t be a loss of life.

Here’s some of what it looked like leaving Atlas Peak in the middle of the night:

The fires in Sonoma are much more similar to what we experienced in San Diego.

I want to be as clear as possible about what wine country is experiencing right now: this is a disaster.  People are going to lose homes and businesses, sometimes both. It’s going to be an incredibly long and complicated path back.

The most concerning fire in Sonoma started only a ways from downtown Santa Rosa, south of Windsor.  It’s a place where a LOT of wine is made in warehouses, although many of those are situated west of the 101 freeway because the land tends to be cheaper.  To the east, where the fire current sits, it’s largely agricultural.  Yes, there’s a lot of grapes.  There’s also plenty of other agriculture and tourist facilities. Grapes and vines are going to be lost across wine country over the next week.  But, Santa Rosa is a city of almost 200,000 people with other neighboring cities adding at least that many people as well.  This is going to be a disaster for all of them in one way or another.

Not far down the 101 from where the fire began there’s a couple of hospitals.  Both Kaiser and Sutter have hospitals, on a small hill overlooking the freeway and part of the valley below.  It appears those hospitals had to be evacuated this morning.  We have friends, I definitely have winemakers that I know, living within the evacuation zone.  Some of likely to have lost homes.  One custom crush where we’ve spent a lot of time of late, Punchdown Cellars, is right in the fire’s path.  As it stands now, it’s unclear if it still stands.  The Kmart and Mountain Mike’s Pizza across the street burned at 5am.

Since this is a wine site, you’re likely wondering what a fire means for wine.

Really, we’re talking about 2 different issues.  The first issue is for grapes hanging on the vine and smoke. Smoke taint is a very real issue, nobody wants that in their wine.  The honest answer though to your logical question is that no one knows exactly how much smoke, or for how long, it takes to effect the final wine that’s produced.  I’d suspect, thinner skinned grapes are more likely to take in smoke than thicker skinned versions.  If the wind cooperates, I’d suspect Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon would have this smoky day as a footnote, instead of the first sentence when we talk about this vintage. That is, if the vines survive the fire itself.  As the morning has moved along, that’s seemed less likely.

The second issue deals with wines being fermented.  Thinking of Punchdown, depending on where a wine is in its fermentation cycle, you are going to have punchdowns and other winemaking jobs missed at least today and likely for another day or two afterward.  Less manipulations like that, leads to wine that’s lighter in style. For some wineries that’s an issue.  I doubt most consumers notice that though.

There’s been some debate about how much smoke taint effects wine that’s being fermented. Other than a vintage in Australia about a decade ago, it isn’t like we have a ton of research in that regard.  There has already been some talk about fining and filtering that can remove smoke taint, but the effectiveness of that is often debated.

I’ll keep you updated, but this is a major tragedy for wine country.

There’s hardly an area in the North Bay that isn’t going to be effected today.

I’ll try and keep this updated throughout the course of the week.

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The Ever Changing Map of Drought

Long term drought

It’s a word that most wine drinkers think of, as a terrible thing for wine: drought.

But, in reality when I ask winemakers about drought, they shake their head.  For the first year of a drought, the vines hardly seem to notice.  In years two and three, the quality of the fruit grown actually increases as the vines cut production a bit.  Really, we’re trying to reach some level of vine stress to start, drought does that without growers and vintners having to try.  Many in fact, say that a 3 year drought is a very, very good thing for their business.  After all, it isn’t until much later that vines start making harder choices.

I saw an article on Cornell’s wine site (they’re one of a handful of Universities in America looking to expand their viticulture department, much the same that Calpoly San Luis Obispo built out their department a decade or so ago). It talked a bit about the current drought in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region and the implications.

Of course, in California we’re well aware of drought and it’s implications over the short and longer term.  Heck, I grew up in San Diego affectionately called a coastal desert.

We’re far from a drought here locally in the bay area though.  We’ve had a near Monsoon level of rain over this winter and much of California is officially out of drought already, or will be as the snow pack melts over the spring and summer (the Sierra snow pack by some accounts is 220% of its normal level, leaving California, at least Northern California, without much in the way of water concerns for 5+ years).

As mother nature would have it, the Finger Lakes now are concerned with drought. The Finger Lakes is in New York, so this was surprising to me at first, but then again, wine is generally grown in slightly warmer inland valley’s, next to large bodies of water….so drought is possible everywhere.

I’m sure everyone in the midwest and on the east coast is sick and tired of hearing about California’s drought, but if you’re a wine drinker we should think of drought as a common sidekick to the industry.  As it leaves one region, it’ll always find its way to another.

Lastly, from an online wine club perspective, do I pay attention to this type of stuff?  Perhaps surprisingly, yes.  There’s a very real combination of the early years of local drought and better wine.

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NY Times 20 Reds Under $20

Hobo Wine Company Camp Cabernet Sauvignon Front Label

The New York Times, like most newspapers, tends to like these kind of pieces, but they recently published a list of 20 wines, under $20 for the season.

I’m not as big of a seasonal wine drinker as some and the statistics that I’ve seen show that most folks aren’t either (there isn’t a discernible difference for anything other than sparkling wine sales).  But, these type of articles do drive some clicks.

I brought this one up, because there’s a familiar face there.

Hobo Wine Company’s Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma showed up in my Explorations Wine Club back in July/August of this year and now is getting itself some well deserved national attention.

My only small gripe….I counted that thing at $18 and suddenly it’s $19.99? In all seriousness, it’s a good honor for a small producer, especially one making the best known grape in America, from a region that every wine drinker would easily identify.  That combination usually leads to higher prices per bottle than this sub $20 target that Hobo is consistently hitting with their Camp line of wines.  Honestly, I’m happy for Kenny to get the attention, it’s well deserved!

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Pinot Gris Virus in Napa Valley

Pinot Gris Grapes

There are few things that scare winemakers, vineyard owners and growers more than a new virus that effects vines.

Grape vines, are especially vulnerable to new disease, largely for two reasons.

First and foremost, vines tend to mutate incredibly quickly.  Anecdotal evidence tells us this to be true, after all there is a Pinot Noir clone called the Calera clone…..Calera wasn’t planted until 1974.  So a small Pinot Noir vineyard can gain enough genetic diversity in the space of under 40 years, to be considered a new strain of a plant.  In the agriculture business, I’m told that’s pretty remarkable. I’m going to be writing about what used to happen in vineyards and what happens now, in the coming days.

Secondly, too much of the wine industry is a monoculture.  If you drive up highway 29 through Napa, you see rolling hills, trees and other stuff planted, even some of the signs of civilization.  Drive other parts of the state (think the parts making the cheapest wine imaginable) and you’ll notice something different.  These are factory farms.  Not a hair is out of place.  If you think about it though, what if you were a pest that liked eating grape vines? A good spot to be right?

What’s Scaring People?

In the case of this year, something called Pinot Gris Virus has found its way to Napa Valley after propogating itself in Italian vineyards over the past handful of years.

The results to infected plants range from bad, to severe. Leaf motting is the most common (in essence the vine ends up deficient of nutrients), leaf deformation (can lead to many issues, including burned fruit since leaves are trained to block the sun from fruit), delayed vine growth (a serious issue when it normally takes 5 years to get a plant online in the first place) and then reduced yield (presumably without the normal uptick in quality).

How’d Pinot Gris Virus Get Here?

According to Wines and Vines, Pinot Gris Virus is transferred by a small pest, called the erineum mite:

The erineum mite has historically been considered a minor grape pest in California, but its presence has been reported more frequently in vineyards in recent years, including in Napa County and in Central Coast wine grape regions. Erineum mites feed on the underside of grape leaves in spring and summer, causing the leaf to produce blister-like galls on the leaf’s upper surface. Although this is primarily a cosmetic issue on leaves in mature vines, in younger vines, high mite pressure can lead to defoliation.

In essence it sounds like a known pest, has either newly become a vector (or in terms of the animal world, you’ll call them a reservoir like bats and Ebola as an example) meaning that the mite carries the disease, but does not suffer any ill effects, or at least no short term ill effects from the disease.  When the mite feeds on the vine though, the disease gets imparted to the vine itself.

Every major wine region in the world has a period of quarantine for vines coming in to be planted.  Unfortunately, even with that practice in play, a pest or two does make it through from time to time.

Why is it called the Pinot Gris Virus?

Grape vine diseases are generally named after the varietal in which they were first discovered. Pinot Gris Virus was originally found in Italy, on a planting of Pinot Gris.

Why Should you care?

Outside of the standard stuff, like people investing so much time and effort into a vineyard only to have it destroyed by a mite….basically disease for vines in today’s world is a major, major problem and something as simple as Pinot Gris Virus if it propagates well in America, would single handedly increase prices for the varietal because it would shorten the average life span of each vine.


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Santa Barbara County Wine Ordinance

California Central Coast

If you’re at all interested in the wine industry and its effect on local communities, the Santa Barbara Independent and their story of a local wine ordinance being denied is well worth a read.

A little background.  I went to school in Santa Barbara and lived there for about 5 years, so the region still feels extremely familiar to me. I also count Los Olivos, as among my favorite wine tasting destinations anywhere and Los Olivos is truly at the heart of this debate. Plus, we saw what happened with the Santa Barbara wine scene before and after Sideways happened, so the locals have some greater knowledge than most about how tourist dollars can find new homes, sometimes suddenly.

Ok, so Los Olivos is a small, small town of about a thousand full time residents that sits about 30 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara.  It’s rural and before the wine industry found it, there was little more in town than a coffee shop and a restaurant or two.

Things have grown significantly and the reason why I like tasting there, is exactly where the concern from residents comes in.

There are about 30 tasting rooms in the small town, a wine shop, that same coffee shop, a handful of restaurants and art galleries. Things are growing and with the influx of tourists, there is a rather large push, mostly from outsiders to provide other tourist facilities.  Fess Parker has a hotel, but that’s outside of town and removes the ability to taste while walking from your hotel.

Almost everyone I know in the region, at least 10-15 winery owners or winemakers thought this ordinance which sought to both stop new tasting rooms, but also to curtail larger scale development would pass, at least by the thinnest of margins. We’ve seen similar ordinances, much more strict in fact passed in Napa Valley among other spots in Europe and beyond.

Personally, I don’t think throwing the breaks on a bit, is a bad thing.  But, there’s a need for more tourist oriented facilities.  The locals are concerned about losing their rural way of life, but there hasn’t been any complaints about the tax dollars being brought in to this point.

Plus, there’s a huge push to make sure that traffic is safe.  Wouldn’t creating a truly walkable downtown to house most of the tasting rooms help to accomplish that?

Overall, this seemed too restrictive in a region that is far, far from built out on any reasonable scale.  I hope future versions of the Santa Barbara County supervisors board can come up with a reasonable plan that ensures Santa Ynez Valley feels like Santa Ynez Valley, but that accepts that tourists and tourist dollars need places to sleep and eat.

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Beaujolais Nouveau: A Quick Primer

Vineyard in St Helena

Vineyard in St HelenaOne of the most exciting times in the wine industry is when Beaujolais Nouveau is released every year.

If you aren’t familiar, Beaujolais Nouveau is made from Gamay grapes in the Beaujolais region of France and for every vintage, is the first wine released. The wine sits in bottle for only about 6-8 weeks or so after harvest, so it’s released incredibly early in comparison to well, every other wine made anywhere else in the world.

Always released on the 3rd Thursday of November, Beaujolais Nouveau is also one of the few wines in the world made consistently with Carbonic Maceration-a process that has fermentation happen in a carbon rich environment, instead of the oxygen rich environment in which we normally live.

With little tannins and plenty of fruit, it might be the antithesis of the average French wine, but for those interested in how each vintage is shaping up, there’s nothing quite like a first look like Beaujolais Nouveau.

For us at Uncorked Ventures, it isn’t like we can ship a Beaujolais Nouveau.  After all, we only work with California, Oregon and Washington wines in our wine clubs.  That being said, a number of regions are producing their own versions of Noveau wines these days including Italy, Spain and some now in America. Bedrock Wine Company has one that is incredibly highly thought of, Broc Cellars has another one.  There’s a handful and quite honestly, this is a pretty clear growth area in the state.

But, having a handful of American made Noveau wines isn’t the same as an entire region dedicated to the varietal and winemaking style.  In that way, Beaujolais Nouveau will likely reign supreme in the carbonic maceration game, for another few generations at least.

Winemakers like the idea of making Noveau.  It’s different and it makes harvest a bit more interesting given that you’re making at least one wine in a radically different manner. Plus, November is a slow time of year, so getting to release a wine right before Thanksgiving is pretty fun.

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Charles Smith Wines Sells to Constellation Brands

red devil Merlot

I’ve talked about Charles Smith Wines quite a few times in this space.  I think the brand is emblematic of not only what’s possible in terms of high end quality for Washington wine, but that it also helps to show that Washington is going to be California’s main, long term, wine competition in America.

So, this morning I woke up to news that Charles Smith Wines has sold to Constellation Brands.

The sale price is reportedly, $130 million dollars. It’ll include pretty much the widely distributed stuff and this deal will absolutely let them continue to increase distribution and the amount of wine being made under each label.

Like most of these sales, for Charles Smith himself, not a lot will change.  The back end of the winery was all of 7 people, so they clearly needed some more sales support and winemakers are notoriously adverse to trying to set up businesses.  Instead, you can take a HUGE chunk of money, no longer have to worry about sales or marketing and focus on only making wine.

Really, if you were a winemaker, wouldn’t you sell?

For my wine clubs, it’s another nail in the coffin in terms of being able to offer Smith’s wines, but that’s ok.  The secondary part of this deal is that Smith should be consulting for a number of Constellation’s other brands and typically once a winemaker begins to consult, they take on a range of clients.  I won’t be surprised to see his name pop up with some smaller or even brand new producers in Washington State in the coming years.  Those are the folks we’ll gladly be shipping shortly thereafter.

It’s another sign of the times, it’s good news for Washington wine, at least over the long term and that’s all ok in my book.

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Jackson Family Wines Purchases WillaKenzie

willakenzie logo

willakenzie logoAs usual when it comes to all things Sonoma, the Press Democrat had the story first.  Read about their thoughts on Jackson Family Wines purchasing WillaKenzie here.

There’s a few good reasons why Jackson Family Wines continues to gobble up high end wine brands throughout Sonoma as well as, increasingly, Oregon.  To start, it takes quite some time to buy property and get an estate vineyard up and running. About 5 years or so in total, at a minimum and for extremely high quality Pinot Noir, the process may run slightly longer than that.  So the outright purchase of a winery, especially one of this size which includes an established winery, 100 acres under vine and more, can make more sense financially for a large company than buying the vacant lot next door for a fraction of the price.

Really though, these acquisitions are all about 2 things.  First, Jackson Family Wines has the staff to manage multiple wine brands at once.  This is literally what they do best. Some of the brightest and most efficient people I know within the industry got their start managing brands for some of the largest wine companies on the planet.

Second (and really the most important) this is ALL ABOUT distribution and sales.  Larger brands are able to produce sales in ways that smaller ones simply are not. From combining sales with distributors, to simply getting these upmarket brands into their current distribution partnerships, the ways to increase sales for Jackson Family Wines when they bring on a new property, is hard to understate. Especially when it comes to the dog eat dog world of restaurant placements, and specifically the battle for by the glass restaurant placements, the big boys have a huge advantage.  WillaKenzie’s Pinot Gris program is perfect for this and I’d suspect, will show up at a restaurant near you in the near future.

From my perspective, sourcing for my wine of the month club does get a bit more tricky when stuff like this happens. From a quality perspective, WillaKenzie was a nice fit before the merger, but the folks that started the brand back in the early 1990’s won’t be involved any longer. The property is still a good fit of course, but I can’t exactly act like I’m providing much of a “finding” service here, given their newly found distribution muscles. A more interesting idea for this stuff, is to watch and see what the owners try and do next.  Generally, the wine industry does not include non compete clauses in these types of transactions in the way that other industries might and given their financial windfall, I wonder if the owners are going to be buying a new piece of property somewhere else in Oregon.  I’ve seen it happen multiple times, but the transition from selling Rosenblum to opening Rock Wall Wine Company is a great example here locally to me.

In any case, for consumers these type of acquisitions tend to decrease choice, much of the time without many realizing it, because they lead to large wine brands taking up increasingly difficult to get spots with the few remaining wine distributors.

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Not to Beat a Dead Horse: But Charles Smith

red devil Merlot

I mentioned it quite some time ago now, that our old friends at Charles Smith were not only expanding production, but also bringing on a new distribution team and that they were aiming to be the new version of Mondavi…..but there’s this, this week from

A taste test of Blind Devil Merlot (a Charles Smith wine) vs Rutherford Hill vs Toad Hollow, one of the largest production Sonoma names these days, said that the cheaper two options were interesting but that Rutherford Hill won the day.

There was a time in my house that this bottle of Rutherford Hill Merlot really did mean something along the lines of a fancy dinner at home.  Sure, we never paid anything close to the $28 that is suggested in the article, but I think you know what I mean.

It’s a fairly classic Merlot from Napa Valley and I’d guess that Red Devil at less than half the cost, is garnering many more sales.

Basically, great for Charles Smith….they’re distributed widely enough now that they ended up in a newspaper article in Cleveland about Merlot.  About 5 years ago, that simply wouldn’t have happened for any Washington wine. But, the long term question is if they can turn the folks buying that $12 wine and turning them into buyers of their $40+ wines that make up the great, long term hope for the winery. Since we shipped a K Vintners (their highest end bottles) in our first wine club shipment, I feel like I should mention this stuff as time goes on.

Yes, Charles Smith continues to increase his profile in the wider wine trade.  For Washington, it’s nothing but a good thing.

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A Wine News Roundup Early September 2016

Wine News

There’s an increasing amount of legitimate media covering the wine industry on a continual basis.  A handful of years ago, the blogosphere was the only spot to really read much about wine and while wine blogs, like ours, continue to grow and put out content, it is nice to have more established journalists writing about wine.  Here’s a roundup as well as a reaction to some of what’s been written of late:

New Wine Regions: This might be the most common new type of wine article being written.  As consumers continue to try and search out locally grown grapes, or at least locally made wine, there’s more and more regions growing grapes and making wine.  Plus, for regions like the Sierra Foothills and Paso Robles, wine has a way of propping up the wider economy.  Wine tourist dollars are simply worth more than tourist dollars for almost any other visitor, Disneyland excluded.  Here’s a wine region in Alabama of all places. Here’s one in Baja California.  When I lived in San Diego, I had a few wines from the Guadalupe Valley by the way….actually quite good and given a solid political and security situation, that’s an obvious growth market for the folks south of the border. Here’s one on Czech wine and before you laugh, it’s a region ripe for growth. First, there’s an incredibly long history of alcohol production in the country and laws to support it, but they also focus on white wine’s only which puts them in a unique position in the marketplace.  Plus, having been to Prague for my honeymoon, almost everyone speaks English giving them a number of logical export markets. Want another Eastern European choice, why not Slovakia?

See what I mean?

Margarit Mondavi Passed Away: This was Robert Mondavi’s wife and was among the leading advocates for a few things that we take for granted in Napa Valley today, stuff like the marriage between wine and art or wine and music.

The Industry is Talking Packaging: If you aren’t familiar, there’s a total movement afoot to put wine in cans and other smaller, or at least lighter packaging.  From a packaging expo in Napa or a note about how millennials simply refuse to conform to standard norms (full disclosure, I’m technically a millennial even though I only made it by 4 months) by actually looking to buy wine in cans.  This is one way that you’ll see the industry start to fight back against craft beer.  The different sizes for beer is one thing that is appealing to almost every winemaker that I know, given that they can account for or stop any differences in quality caused by that packaging.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short roundup of some of what’s being talked about in the wine industry.  I’ll try and make this a standard post every few weeks. Also, I hope you’ll consider a monthly wine club box from Uncorked Ventures.  We’ll teach you a bit about wine along the way.