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Ferguson Crest & Celebrity Backed Wine Projects

I haven’t traditionally been a huge supporter of celebrity wine projects.  Here’s one example, Ferguson Crest, that’s helping to change my mind:

Video Transcript: Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I’m joined with three bottles of wine today and I’ll get to the exact winery here in a second. First I want to take a minute to talk about celebrity backed wine projects. This is one. This is the one that I like and we’re working on an entry on the blog section of the site about our favorite celebrity backed wine projects because there are a few that make really good wine.

Celebrity backed wine projects fall into two categories in my opinion. First is the ones that we avoid and it’s about seventy-five percent or more of them. This is where a celebrity gets approached by a wine company, by an importer, or a by somebody already in the industry saying, “We have this juice. We’d like to slap your name on it, use your PR firm, and use your clout to get it out there, and we’ll write you a check every month.” Those are the ones we tend to avoid or at least we try to avoid kind of at all costs. We definitely do get approached by them and we definitely decline. As a consumer I think the easiest way to tell which projects aren’t very serious, if you look at the winery’s website and you can’t tell who made the wine or exactly where it came from, and by exactly I mean down to the vineyard or at least the AVA. If they are marked kind of California red wine, skip. It’s probably not going to be anything more than the bulk juice that you can get at Trader Joe’s or at Safeway under a brand you never heard of for probably half the price. At least that’s my opinion.

Second of all, you have … You do have celebrities who have significant financial backing obviously based on whatever they do for a living. Much like you have tech executives that buy wineries, you have celebrities that buy wineries or start wineries. They’re able to, in a sense, speed up the process of building a great wine from the ground up based on having some financial resources. Kamen in Sonoma is a great, great example. Kamen’s owned by a guy who’s a screenwriter in Hollywood. It’s one of the few meetings I’ve ever had where I’ve gone a little geeky on stuff. He’s done stuff from the Fifth Element to Lethal Weapon, and then one of my personal favorite movies from childhood, The Karate Kid.

That brings us to what’s in front of me, Ferguson Crest. First, if you know me at all, you know I love Santa Barbara wine. I think it’s unfortunate that the industry down there hasn’t been able to quite capture people’s attention, outside of Pinot and Chardonnay. The wonderful thing, and I’ve talked about different parts of Santa Barbara in the past. It’s the longest stretch of the east west coastline in California and I believe if you take out kind of that stretch of Texas and Mississippi and where they can’t grow wine grapes because it’s too hot, it’s definitely the largest east west coastline with mediterranean style. The mountains go to the beach. They cut back inland. Every mile you that you move inland takes off one degree of temperature. Every hour the sun is up or down takes or adds one degree of temperature. You have Santa Barbara kind of sitting on the coast and that’s where Pinot and Chard are grown, but every … If you move five miles inland, they’re growing some really great Merlot. If you move five miles further inland from that, they’re growing great Syrah. That’s part of the marketing challenge Santa Barbara faces.

They’ve tried to divide up, there’s Ballard Canyon AVA, there’s a Happy Canyon AVA, and there’s kind of all this kind of marketing that goes in behind it that we’re in there trying to figure out how to explain this to people because Santa Barabra is one of the few areas, in my opinion, that’s really capable of growing both classic, varietally correct, world-class Pinot, Cab, and Syrah kind of in one larger AVA. Ferguson Crest sits pretty far inland. It’s called Santa Ynez Valley. It’s a region that I know pretty well. If you go to Los Olivos, Solvang, Fess Parker is one of the bigger names. We’ve done wines from wineries that have tasting rooms in the Santa Ynez Valley. Just off the top of my head, Dragonette, Blair Fox, Stoltman, and then Tensley.

Tensley is where I knew this was a serious wine. Joey Tensley runs a winery with his family. They make a thousand or a few thousand cases. Almost all of it goes out through the tasting room and the guy is something of a Syrah savant. If you look at Spectator or Robert Parker, you’re going to see any Tensley Syrah scored in to low to mid ninety point range and priced in the $35 to $40 range. It’s really kind of an incredible wine project and Joey Tensley is a winemaker who we kind of follow and we try to find other projects from. I wasn’t aware that he made the wine at Ferguson Crest. I’m just kind of amazed given that it’s a celebrity backed project but it hasn’t got that much attention. I should mention Ferguson Crest … This is Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. This is her family’s winery. She tells a great story on the bottle about how she grew this thing with her Dad in the backyard and how [inaudible 00:04:40] growing grapes to make wine. I think it’s actually really well put together.

Going from left to right, my least favorite to my favorite bottles. We start with the white that they make. The Viognier is kind of mid to upper $20 range. For us, ourexploration’s wine club, it’s the cheapest that we offer. It averages just $20 per bottle. That doesn’t give us a really easy landing spot for a mid $20 white or above because then we have to have a $20 red which people are happy with the inverse but not the higher expensive white. Its floral notes, and I think it’s a variety that if people had more experience with, they’d like better. I think it’s something that just kind of struggles to sell in most markets, even here in San Francisco. People have moved to Granache Blanc and some other Rhones a little bit more than Viognier. It’s great on the nose. I don’t know if the kind of the acidity and the backbone of it kind of hold up for a lot of people. This is a really well made wine. It’s just not a variety that people are familiar with and it doesn’t fit in our wine club.

Second, Syrah. I like the Syrah and it’s a classic Santa Ynez Valley Syrah. Joey has a lighter hand with these than a lot of people do and I think that comes through in this. I think the outstanding kind of star is the Fergalicious wine, which I feel funny even almost saying that. It’s a blend. It’s still over fifty percent Syrah. It also has Merlot and Grenache. I think it does the best job about taking Syrah, which can be over-the-top, almost in the line of a [inaudible 00:06:05] and then scaling it back down with the other varietals. I think it does probably the best job that I’ve seen in a while, actually, at showing kind of how Santa Barbara can grow all of these different grapes and grow them well. Then put them in the hands of really what is a world class winemaker and you allow him to create a blend with it. You end up with something that’s retail price $40. I think Spectator, off the top of my head, gave it ninety-two points. I think that might be a little underscored. If it said Napa on it, they’d have a couple more tacked on.

I think it does a great job of expressing what is Santa Ynez Valley and what is possible here in this growing region that most people have never heard of. Even the people who drink wine consistently, they’ve heard Santa Barbara county but they also associate Santa Barbara county only with Pinot. I think that’s something that’s going to start to change. I think wineries, like Ferguson Crest, are doing a good job about trying to change that. I think that you’re going to see an increasing number of wines that come out like this. Syrah, we’ve talked about a lot in this space, it’s not something that sells easily for wineries no matter how damn good it is. I think using … We refer to it as a trade name when you give it a name that has nothing to do with the varietal that’s inside of it and then you create a blend every year based on what you have coming in from the vineyard. Fergalicious is something that I think you are going to start to see that’s out there that’s in fine wine shops. I mean, I think that it’s something that on a restaurant wine list, especially in L.A., it’s going to do incredibly well. There is kind of that celebrity culture there.

In any case, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Celebrity wine projects, be careful what you have. Check, see if they have a real winemaker. If they have a real winemaker and they’re willing to tell you some bit of a story, they’re probably pretty darn good because there’s going to be financial backing behind it, both from the celebrity themself and all the kind of hangers-on in the industry. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and I hope you’ve enjoyed our short talk about Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Barbara in general.

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