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A Visit to Napa Valley

A visit to the Napa valley is a wonderful way to spend the day, especially if you like wine. My boyfriend and I often visit Napa valley as we both love the area and enjoy trying new types of wines. On our last visit we stopped at a local winery that we’d never seen before. We tasted several of their wines and decided to join their wine of the month club. Belonging to this club entitles you to a shipment every month of a variety of wines produced by that windery, and the choice is always determined by what the winery has released lately or considers one of their best wines. My boyfriend is very knowledgeable about wines and often gives wine gift baskets to friends on special occasions. He signed up for the club and we make a visit to the Napa valley each month to pick up his wine club selection, even though the winery will gladly ship each month’s wine to our house. We love to give wine gifts to our friends who also enjoy wine. They are very appreciative as they not only receive a delicious gift but learn about the wine at the same time, since we always include a note with the gift describing the background of the bottle of wine and what kind of “nose” it has. The “nose” of wine is how it smells and tastes, such as hints of black cherry, floral overtones, cedar and blackberry etc. Learning the nose of each wine takes a lot of practice. You have to know how to taste the wine rather than just drink it. This is why you’ll often see wine drinkers swirl their glass of wine, holding it by the stem, then tipping their nose into the glass to take a deep breath. Since smell is a big part of taste, this technique enhances the next step of the wine sampling which is to sip some of the wine. Don’t swallow it right away, but roll it around in your mouth a bit first. For beginners, helps to have a list of the tastes and smells to notice when sampling each wine. One way to get good at this is to attend a wine tasting party with friends. It’s also an excellent time to exchange wine gift baskets to learn about wine from each other. A gift basket should not only include at least one bottle of wine but can also include accessories to wine such as a decanter, a cork puller and aerator. These make the whole wine experience even more enjoyable. With heavy red wines, adding dark chocolate to the gift basket is a great idea because dark chocolate and heavy red wine compliment each other. A sip of wine, then a taste of chocolate then another sip of wine and you’ll find the wine tastes different on the second sip. This is why paring certain wines with certain foods enhances both the taste of the food but also alters the taste of the wine.

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Wine of the Month Club Organization

For wine-lovers who like to take their pass to the next level, joining a wine of the month club can be an enjoyable investment. The original website touts this organization as being established for roughly forty years, and joining online makes things easy. There have been a host of shows and magazines that have featured the wine of the month club organization, and according to the main site, there are a lot of good reasons to join. Those with a taste for wine and culture can join for just over twenty bucks a month, plus the cost of tax and shipping (which ends up being just over thirty dollars). The most expensive membership – reserved for serious wine lovers – ends up being about eighty dollars per month after the added expenses. While this might seem extravagant, wine is more than a mere interest or hobby to those kinds of members. Rather, it is a cultural treasure. Being a member has its guarantees. For example, if a member receives a wine they dislike, they can have another mailed to them without a hassle. This allows people to gain a greater appreciation for wine while still staying in the comfort zones of drinks that they actually enjoy. Wine gifts are another reason to investigate sites like this one. Rather than giving plain old cash or a check, gift certificates for wine can be purchased. Such a present shows the desire to bestow culture and sophistication on the recipient, and there are lots of things that such a certificate can be used to buy! The wines offered on the site vary in subtleties and flavors; there is a wine for every taste. Another wonderful option is to purchase a wine gift basket. While ordinary gift baskets are nice, a wine-themed basket is sophisticated and specific. These baskets are make for fantastic birthday presents, but they can be used anytime: to celebrate a wedding anniversary or engagement, a retirement, a holiday, or the ever-popular housewarming party. They can also be used as the starting point for a nice spread for having company over. On this particular website, customers can browse gift baskets by price, product name, rating, reviews, brand, best seller, etc. There are accompany pictures that show the exact contents of each basket. One of the more extravagant baskets is about a hundred dollars and the included items rest in a reddish woven basket. This wine basket has two wines, coffee candy, cookies, chips, snack mix, sausage, cookies, caramel corn, crackers, nuts, and more. A basket of this sort is impressive, but those who wish to spend a little less have lots of options, too. For just forty dollars, customers can purchase a basket containing wine, almonds, cookies, and candies. Members of the wine club can make dinners based on what kind of wine they receive that month. Certain wines go better with some types of dishes than other wines, so wine drinkers are encouraged to research the foods and recipes that the wines best compliment.

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Finding a Wine Club

If you’re interested in finding a new wine club-especially if you are looking online there are a few things you should know about.

First, not all reviews are real.  That’s pretty simple right-if you pay commissions, people will rank sites in a certain order to receive those commissions. It’s called affiliate marketing if you’re interested.  It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either!

Anyway, while I don’t love what Google and other search engine’s do on a regular basis, I do realize that they give us a pretty good idea about what’s out there in terms of available wine club choices.  Start there and then move on to other social media and in less than an hour, you’ll reasonably know about every wine club available anywhere!

Facebook is another good to place to check, but Wine Spectator and other industry magazines also have pretty extensive lists available of the different wine club choices.

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Viento Riesling Underwood Mountain Vineyard 2007

Viento Riesling Underwood Mountain Vineyard 2007

Every once in a while, something interesting comes in-that makes you smile.  In this case, an aged Riesling, from a producer that I know….from a vintage that I trust.

Before we go on, I’ll mention off the cuff that Wine Spectator scored this at 91 points.

It’s an excellent example of Riesling in Oregon. You’ll note that unlike the Finger Lakes in New York, there’s no scale on the bottle denoting if there is any residual sugar in it or not (in essence, there is no sweetness scale).

This is the way I tend to like my Riesling’s-it’s said to be “off-dry” meaning that there is some residual sweetness-but that’s partially due to the grape itself, as well as being part of the winemaker’s choice.

It also reminds me that perhaps this shows my age a bit.  Over the past few years there has been a rise of sweet wines, as well as semi sweet wines such as this. Those markets are heavily influenced by millennials, really one of the first generations that grew up with things sweeter than juice around-after all 2014 marks the 10th year of declining soda sales (  and if you believe that some things that happen in Berkeley before the rest of the country: we have an additional tax on soda in play that has cut down on sales more significantly locally than almost anything else has done.

Anyway, it all means that millennials are more likely to order a sweet wine than were any previous generation.  The wine industry also typically finds that once drinking habits are established, they stick around.

Ok, ok….back to the wine.  The folks in Oregon are known for allowing a greater amount of earthy type flavors to be imparted into their wines, than are the rest of the winemaking world.  That means that they aren’t about to be caught dead making a completely sweet Riesling.  Maybe that’s one of the rationale for not using the scale, largely becoming standard on grapes and wines that can swing wildly in the amount of sugar left over in your wine….but I wish everyone would use it. It’s one of the few labeling tactics that would actually make it significantly easier for consumers over the short and long term.

As an industry, isn’t that something we should be working toward doing?

I’ll also take a moment and talk about Riesling.  If you’re a new member to our Explorations Wine Club and you’ve only bought wine at grocery stores and wine stores, without much help before….this might be the first version of the varietal that you’ve ever tried.

Riesling is one of the few grapes native to Germany, a country where the grape gains it’s greatest influence in the lush, cold Mosel Valley.

When we first opened Uncorked Ventures, our Explorations Wine Club was not limited solely to California, Oregon and Washington State.  Instead it was international. Given that our higher end wine clubs were both focused exclusively on Oregon, Washington and California….it made for a marketing challenge and while we weren’t the smartest guys in the room….we listen well when multiple people make the same suggestion repeatedly. From winemakers to customers, everyone simply told us to stick to the west coast, where we actually knew people-

Back in the old days, one of the first wines we shipped was a dry Riesling from the Mosel Valley and when we were talking to the winemaker, he had sent an image that really struck me (he didn’t take it, but instead showed us that this is how it’s done where he lives.  Retired and even elderly people work harvest in many parts of Germany. The vineyards are also incredibly steep and frankly, dangerous. Parts of the Mosel Valley don’t have much top soil, instead there are rather large rocks, boulders almost that will, on occasion, break off and roll down into the river.  But, where you have grapes struggling for ripeness, rocks are a good thing.  They suck in heat during the warm days and spit it back out in the cold evenings, helping to not only prevent frost, but according to the locals, help the vines reach a better and more acceptable level of ripeness.

That example of a good, affordable and yes, semi-sweet German Riesling stuck with me and I’ve been looking for something similar to this day domestically.

Oregon doesn’t have the retired harvest hands, but the struggle for ripeness that has helped to shape Riesling and Mosel together, epitomizes Oregon Riesling as well. It isn’t quite as cold, but the chances of multiple 100+ degree days in much of Oregon’s wine country, is minimal at best.

That means the Riesling here, might be a bit less mineral infused than its German counterparts, but it’s also perhaps more familiar since it isn’t so strikingly acidic.

Lastly, I’ll mention that even for Oregon….’07 was pretty darn cold. If you take a moment to read about the vintage online, people hate it.  Well, consumers hate it.  Wine reviewers hate it.  Hell, the wineries take time to try and defend it….basically while saying that yes, they kind of hate it as well.

Everyone’s talking about Pinot Noir though-not Riesling.  Here’s the main difference; that vintage in 07 was marred by a huge rainstorm in September that ruined a bunch of fruit and left winemakers with some impossible choices elsewhere-at least in terms of Pinot Noir.

For Riesling, the grapes had already been picked and were happily fermenting before those September rains began.

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Zerba Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Zerba Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

So this is interesting right? I mean, how often do you find a wine aged about a decade, or longer by the winery?

Zerba’s an interesting winery.  Those who have been a wine club member for a while know that while my wine country visits during the regular year often tend to focus on California both because there are more logical targets, after all 90% of American wine is still made in California, but also because Napa and Sonoma are day trips and a bit more focused for me (and quite honestly, less night’s away is easier on the family, already dealing with some of the issues that come with a startup). The last two summers I’ve spent a week in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and then a week in Walla Walla Washington, Zerba’s been in both places.

That’s more unusual than you might expect.  After all, it’s about a 6 hour drive from the Willamette Valley (think an hour south of Portland) to get to Walla Walla which if you aren’t familiar, is in eastern Washington state. It’s like a winery having tasting rooms in both San Francisco and Los Angeles simultaneously, all the while believing that they really do belong in both spots culturally.

Additionally, as it turns out, a wrong turn when going into the eastern reaches of Walla Walla, has you end up in Milton Freewater, Oregon.  That’s where Zerba is based.

I think the Walla Walla location fits their style and before you start thinking that these are Oregon guys, playing with Washington fruit-the Columbia Valley AVA deserves a mention.

The Columbia Valley is named after the Columbia river, which creates the border of Oregon state and Washington state pretty close to the Idaho border on the eastern side of both states, however wine growing regions are not often divided quite as easily, as are states.  A river makes an outstanding state border, but a wine region might be better divided by the valley that the river has created over millennia.

Zerba’s really a Washington winery in terms of style, but quite honestly, the Oregon sides of the border are built up more so than the Washington sides of the border in the region, pretty much exactly the opposite of what you find in the western portion of both states, where Oregon has sleepy beach town’s that no one has ever heard of….while Washington has Seattle.

So more important perhaps? What’s in your glass?

There aren’t critics scores for this 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, but the 2004 vintage in the Columbia Valley was considered quite good overall by Wine Spectator (they score it as a 89 for the vintage as a whole).  It’s partially available because the 2005 is considered a once in a decade vintage, so there’s more interest by buyers and collectors there. We’ve also pushed the envelope a bit here.  The 03’s that I tasted, are starting to lose some appeal.  The 05’s are more expensive than I would have liked for our Explorations Wine Club.  This retails, when new for about $28 and seems fair after a decade of cellaring.

I know I’ve mentioned the fact before, but 98% of wine is consumed within 48 hours of purchase and given how quickly phone calls tend to come when people receive their monthly wine club orders, I don’t doubt that fact any longer.

That being said, age and wine go together well.  I won’t go into the chemistry, that aspect might interest me, but I know that chemistry isn’t nearly anyone’s favorite class-better generally avoided I’ve been told….but let’s say there are a number of compounds inherent in well made wine that work well together over time.  The wine loses some of it’s hard edges and becomes more of a single entity instead of separate composite parts-smell, mouthfeel and finish.

I’ll continue to look for examples of wines like this-because I think it helps to show why people who age wine, do so because of the results that they receive.

Here’s the rub though: wine ages best at about 50 degrees and 70% humidity.  There have been studies showing that wine refrigerators don’t do as good of a job, as does a natural cellar-or at least one large enough to walk into.

I have my warehouse which contains a few juicy parcels set aside for the future, like my oldest son’s birth wine, but that isn’t reality for most of our customers, like it wouldn’t be for my wife and I otherwise.  So, to fill in the gaps so to speak, an aged Cabernet….which I hope you’ll enjoy!

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Methven Family Vineyards Pinot Gris Willamette Valley Estate 2006

Methven Family Vineyards Pinot Gris Willamette Valley Estate 2006

So I’m a really, really big believer that wine, especially white wine, can age much, much longer than most people give it credit for.

Part of that belief comes from experience. Two of the probably 5 most memorable bottles of wine I’ve had since opening Uncorked Ventures were aged, well beyond what would have been considered their upper limits.

First, it was a 1960’s Burgundy.  Not a first growth, in fact the wine blogger that initially opened it said it was priced for about $4 back then….in today’s money, how many $15 bottles have you left laying around for a lifetime? Sure, there was some fruit starting to move the wrong direction, but the nose on the thing was simply incredible. It was a complete bottle of wine and made me wonder, outside of the obvious financial implications, if I should ever drink something young ever again.

Secondly and perhaps more germane to what we’re talking about here, during theRhone Rangers seminar last year, Bob Lindquist from Qupe opened a bottle of Marsanne from the early 1980’s.  Again, incredible nose and a set of flavors that literally wowed everyone in the room. That bottle made me decide to try my hand at a white Rhone blend when I bottled my first, after all, how good might those wines end up being when I’m in my 60’s or 70’s?

I bring that all up because, then you see this Oregon Pinot Gris.  This checks all the boxes of a high end white wine.  First, it is 100% estate fruit and they use some pretty incredible farming practices: mainly that they cap output on the vineyard at 2.2 tons per acre.  To put that number in perspective, Napa’s highest end Cult Cabernet’s sit around 2 tons per acre.  The average in Napa and Sonoma is about 4 tons per acre and in the central valley where cheaper wine is made in California, it’s close to 10.

The winery initially thought this thing would be drinkable through 2010.  I think we can all appreciate that is an inexact science, but having opened two bottles of this now.  Dang, it’s good.

Ok, so a word about Oregon wine back in 2006. This was “the” vintage in Oregon.  Literally any idiot could make great wine according to most.  Pinot Noir in Oregon, much like this Pinot Gris could have gone to 4,6 or 8 tons per acre and still been good.  I should mention that keeping the vineyard output low, gives the fruit more intense flavors and in my experience, a slightly darker color than you might be accustomed to.  When you open this Pinot Gris, it isn’t transparent like many others from Oregon, instead it’s more of a golden honey color.  It’s also almost syrupy, which is something that you do see happen when aging white wine.

Methven Vineyards is owned by Allen & Jim Methven, whom run what seems like a very “Oregon” operation.  They grow blueberries as well as tending bees for honey. If you have kids of your own, the story about how they ended up with their first hive, will make you laugh.  While I have two young kids in my house, the thought of one of them announcing that he was moving, as well as, asking us to take care of his bee hive….sounds about right.

Almost too right.

There’s also a high end Villa on the property with a handful of surprisingly affordable rooms, priced around $200 per night.

Located about 10 miles from my preferred spot in the Willamette Valley (McMinnville) Methven is well worth a visit.  The wine’s quite good and they offer a range of interesting Pinot Noir’s in addition to the white in your glass, as well as the standard Oregon Rose offerings.

If this is your first aged white wine….let me know what you think.  Is it worth the wait?

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Grenache in California

Grenache in California

A few short words about the future of Grenache in California-the first in a series about specific grapes, where they’re being planted and why.

Video Transcription:

Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures and I’m joined today by two bottles of Grenache. Over the next couple days, I’m going to talk about a set of different grapes and how basically, they’re being planted and kind of made into wine here in California. I think we’re kind of seeing two things that I find interesting.

First, as the new vineyards are planted and there are a lot getting planted, but in more established regions, in real estate you’d use the term, “infill development,” but there’s some infill as far as vineyard base going on. There’s also some folks that are you know, trying to save a little bit of money on location and are planting in some lesser known areas. I think it’s really interesting to talk about kind of what they’re planting and why.

Second of all after Phylloxera … I guess a little bit of history here. When we first started planting grapes in the United States for wine, we used exactly what they have in Europe. We brought root stock and grafted on Merlot, Cab, Pinot, etc., and it started growing and everybody said, “Great, we have a wine industry.” Then, a few times in our history, Phylloxera hit. Phylloxera is a teeny tiny pest that affects grape vines. It is native to North America. The problem is, European root stock does not have any defense to it from natural means and as you might expect, continuing to kind of irrigate and spray grape vines forever doesn’t seem like a very good idea when you can simply put in good old American St. George’s root stock that probably grew the Concord grape juice that your kid drank this morning and then graft on the Cabernet Sauvignon on the top and call it a day.

The Europeans have actually had to do that too, because as we found out more and more, the world is flat, and so pests can travel on boats, ships, airplanes, etc. and they have kind of invaded Europe at different times, too. I think it’s interesting to talk about if people are grafting on different grape varieties on the top of the vines that are kind of well established, what are they choosing?

Grenache is something that’s winning right now, a little bit in California. It’s not winning in kind of the traditional Napa Sonoma sense, but I think these are both two good examples about seeing where Granache is going and what’s being tried. I love cool climate Grenache, but there’s not a lot of that happening, unfortunately, yet, but there is some warm climate Grenache. So, Cinque Insieme, this is a Dry Creek Valley version. Dry Creek is known more Zinfandel as you might expect and know, but there is some kind of outside plantings going on there. This Granache is a good example of that Cinque.

These guys, if you’re familiar with Wells, Gunthrie and Copain, these are some of the winemakers and some of the team from Copain. Copain used to have a custom crush facility and these guys ran it. This is one of the lines that came out of this custom crush facility that then has become in essence, Cinque Insieme. So there … Kind of 25 cases or so were produced. We’ve shipped it to both of our red wine clubs so far and it’s something that we get a good response with. It’s kind of an interesting wine and I think it’s an interesting story, too.

Rhapsody, is quite honestly one of my favorite versions of a grape that we’ve done and I think all three of our wine clubs have ended up with a version of this at some point. This is R2 Wine company. Drew Huffine is the wine maker up there. I had a chance to sit down with Drew and bought a bunch of wine from him after what I will admit to be an avocado toast and breakfast here in Berkeley.

Rhapsody is actually more of a blend than a straight Grenache. I think this is 54 percent Grenache according to the back with Mouvedre & Carignan. So I think it’s kind of interesting to note, because it issues Syrah and adds Carignan instead. It’s a different flavor profile than you might expect from kind of a standard GSM blend, because they have substituted one grape for another on the Rhone version. I think that’s kind of two things where you’re seeing warm climate Grenache being planted. One, if you’re in an area where they grow zin really well but you don’t feel like waiting 35 years for your Zinfandel to be called “Old Vine Zinfandel,” with any statement of truth to it. Some people are trying Granache.

I areas where they are already growing Rhone, but you are already seeing increasing amount of plantings of it. I’ve talked about Syrah a lot in this place. I don’t think Syrah makes bad wine by any stretch of the imagination. However, consumers seem to hate it. Wine stores can’t sell it. We can do it because we can tell the story and we can get it out to people in a way that they’re going to try it and set it up for success, but the average wine store and the average winery simply can’t do the same thing and even if you look at the oldest guys, they’re largely devoid of Syrah because it just doesn’t sell that well. I think carignan is the most natural offshoot if you don’t want to grow Syrah, but I do think there’s going to be plenty of Grenache plantings that go in, too.

This is Santa Ynez Valley, in Santa Barbara, which I’ve talked a lot about over the past few days and week and I think Santa Ynez and kind of the wider Santa Barbara growing region is going to be one that profits from this wider look into the wine industry where it’s more than just Cabernet Sauvignon. Although Santa Barbara does grow some good Cabernet, the nice thing about it is that it’s not 100 dollars a bottle, it’s closer to 25 or 30 in large places.

Once again, I think Granache you are starting to see increasing plantings of it. You’re seeing it because it grows well in warm climate conditions. There’s some natural off shoots. If you don’t want to wait a ton of time for your Zinfandel vines to mature, you can plant Granache and get something good five years down the line. If you like Rhone varietals, but you know that you can’t sell Syrah because nobody can, you might try Granache instead.

Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Hope that everybody is having a nice week.

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Field Recordings Neverland Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Field Recordings Neverland Cabernet 2013

So we’ve worked with a number of Field Recordings wines over the years, this is a special one for me for a few reasons.

To start, I really, really like the Grassini Vineyard.

During a wine chat on Twitter (yeah, yeah I know….but it’s actually my favorite social media platform) I had a chance to try a range of high end Santa Barbara Cabernet’s.  People that have been in the wine club for a while know that I went to UCSB and that Santa Barbara suffers from part of its own success when it comes to growing grapes.  I’ll save the gory details, but in essence the California central coast is the longest stretch of east-west coastline in North America (along the Pacific Ocean of course). The mountain ranges literally run into the ocean, meaning that the cool breezes from the Pacific turn into something resembling air conditioning at about 3-4pm every day.  Fog and clouds are as ubiquitous in the late afternoons and evenings as is the bright sunshine that has made the French call SB, the American Riviera. Anyway, that’s a good combo for growing grapes and SB can grow almost anything.  Pinot and Chardonnay grow best a few miles from the coast.  Go slightly further inland and the temperature rises about 1 degree per mile traveled, so Cabernet is king.  A few more miles inland and you start seeing Syrah.

Santa Barbara hasn’t always been able to accurately explain what the wine region is all about, after all-are people really going to believe that you can grow pretty much anything you want?

Over the past decade, Santa Barbara has tried to rectify that marketing challenge by allowing an increasing number of sub AVA’s.

Grassini Vineyard is located in Happy Canyon.

You might be wondering, what would make a canyon be happy….I was.  As it turns out (and the application process to have a new AVA approved, requires this type of research) that the locals during Prohibition used the that exact name, Happy Canyon, to describe the canyon…..because it was the site of the only working still. No word on exactly what type of moonshine was being made, but I’m guessing there was an element of excitement that went with hiking into the canyon for your weekly allotment….of course, beggars cannot be choosers either right?

Grassini Vineyard was planted in 2002 and opened their own commercial winery in 2010.  Field Recordings has been making this single vineyard version of their Cabernet for about that same length of time.  Please note the difference in price points between the two offers-Grassini is a great fit in our high end, Reserve Selections club.  Field Recordings makes a nice fit for our Explorations Wine Club members.

Lastly, one other thing deserves a mention about Happy Canyon.  There’s an exclusive side to living in Santa Barbara that isn’t talked about in the main stream press, or really anywhere.  In college I saw it, living with surfers, who were always after that next exclusive and epic break (the same reasons that make Santa Barbara a nice place to grow grapes, make it a nice spot to surf… a pretty thick kelp bed tends to keep the big fish a bit further off shore than they’d otherwise be, although as we found, fishing around sea otters is a pointless endeavor), we noted that just a bit to the north there was both a solid surf break-as well as, a group of large farms….only accessible by private road.

Unfortunately for the landowners, what we lacked in money, we made up for in creativity and a 10 foot Zodiac was purchased and became the center of some of our favorite stories.  Like the numerous times we’d be out too far, past the kelp beds, only to see the motor die. Hey, we were in college and the “boat” wasn’t exactly lightly used.  It was old.  Then we’d paddle back in for hours. At least after the first time it happened, we also set off with oars.  Using a surfboard  and your hands to paddle a Zodiac, isn’t much fun.

It seems that landowners in and around Happy Canyon, like those farmers, aren’t the biggest fans of visitors.  Reportedly many of which are wealthy in their own regard, they raise world class race horses on their properties-so many wineries that grow grapes in the region have tasting rooms elsewhere.  Grassini Vineyards is one of those, with an urban tasting room in Santa Barbara.

Really, I don’t think that’s the worst set up for a wine region.  Dealing with the traffic in and out, along with the challenge of getting people there in the first place, is largely replaced by marketing yourself, along with the city where you’re based with an urban tasting room. To me, that’s always seemed like a better prospect, make yourself part of the existing tourist infrastructure and everyone benefits.

Plus, Happy Canyon is so new there are going to be growing pains.  There are only 500 or so acres under vine currently.  Part of those growing pains typically come from locals not affiliated with the wine industry, quickly seeing their sleepy country roads inundated with tourists.  In Napa back in the 60’s they saw the writing on the wall so to speak and enacted the Agricultural Preserve.  Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley (of which Happy Canyon and Grassini Vineyard is a part, at the far eastern end) is running into some development concerns along the western side of the AVA-that’s where the small town of Los Olivos has 26 wine tasting rooms and the locals are beginning to wonder, how many is too many in a town of about a thousand people, no hotel and only a handful of restaurants?

Since no one can write a piece about Santa Barbara without mentioning the elephant in the room….Sideways made everyone think the region could only grow Pinot Noir.  That wasn’t true when they made the movie and given some of the investment that the film helped to bring to the region, it’s even less true now. The movie helped to make the Hitching Post famous (the restaurant) & yes, they make their own wine there including all the shades of Santa Barbara: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

I’m a strong believer in the quality of wines being produced on the Central Coast & not only Pinot Noir, but a full range of what’s currently happening.  Increasingly, talented winemakers are finding their way to Santa Barbara (hardly a bad place to live) and Paso Robles instead of Napa or Sonoma.  A different lifestyle in both places yes, but access to grapes from a variety of established and good vineyard sites abounds.

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McCrea Cellars Grenache 2005

McCrea Cellars Grenache 2005

So I’ve worked with a few McCrea Cellars bottlings over the past five years and Doug McCrea’s work continues to be among my favorite’s in the state of Washington. Doug McCrea is an interesting guy, having had a full career as a musician in both New Orleans, as well as, San Francisco, before settling in Seattle and making Rhone varietals.

Founded in 1988, McCrea Cellars was the first winery in Washington dedicated to Rhone varietals.  At that point it’s been said you could buy Syrah grapes….from a guy, if you knew who to ask & you were nice about it.

Ok, I decided to circle back for yes, yet another Grenache (sorry….ok, not sorry) because this is one of the few that I could find with some bottle age.

We’ve talked about it some with wine club offerings at all of our club levels, but wine that’s stored correctly (pretty much the only organizations capable in the United States, are the wineries themselves….I’ve been to the warehouses of large retailers… isn’t the most pretty, or the most organized) takes on a set of qualities that aren’t entirely consistent with the initial offerings.

Take this Grenache as an example.  When you open it, please give it an hour or so to open up.  Like when you get off an airplane, the wine seems to need the chance to stretch its legs a little bit.

You’ll find it’s become almost dainty in its old age, much different than the almost 15% alcohol that is stated on the label.  Yakima Valley in Washington State was the Pacific Northwest’s first AVA and continues to be a trailblazer in many ways.  Not the least of which is the ability to try new things as the AVA has the most acres under vine in the Pacific Northwest, close to 20,000 acres in total.

To put that number in perspective, that’s about half of Napa Valley’s total and almost equal to Sonoma.

Lastly, a quick word on 2005 in the Yakima Valley.  Patience was helpful in a vintage where a scorching hot summer led some vintners to pick early, only to see cold temperatures pervade September and October-allowing grapes to hang almost indefinitely.  That’s part of the reason this wine is so darn dark in your glass, significantly darker than a Grenache from the same set of Yakima Valley vineyards might be during a different vintage.

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Troll Bridge Big Club 2010

I’ve worked with a Troll Bridge wine before, but thought that given our Reserve Selections members were receiving this wine shortly, that it deserved it’s own write up now.

Troll Bridge is at least as much about the owner, as it is the winemaker, which is a statement that I don’t get a chance to make very often.

Owner Allan Ezial is a graphic designer by trade, having formerly worked out of a space on Berkeley’s famed 4th street art and design district, he now works out of the north bay-which makes sense because he has a number of winery clients: many of which are names you’d recognize, namely Caymus.

His connections to the wine industry run pretty deep and over lunch & margaritas at Picante, a long time standout in Berkeley (also one of his favorite old lunch haunts….& since his office has moved, it seems he misses the place) we talked about his vision for his winery and why he decided to make wine in the first place.

A number of years back Allan told the story that he was having lunch with a group of growers in Napa and they were talking about how they wish their vineyards would perform like a couple of the rows or blocks that needed literally zero maintenance throughout the growing cycle.  The specific blocks changed every year, but these high end vineyards always had a few.

Allan wondered what could be done if someone bought only these small maintenance blocks and had a wine made with them?

Troll Bridge is the project that has made that happen.

Over the past month or two, the majority of you have received a bottle that I made.  I bring that up here, to highlight the spare no expense style of wine bottle that we’re looking at.  I paid about 50 cents per bottle and an additional 15 cents for the unbranded, completely generic corks. Those prices were lower than normal because I also piggybacked on a longer and larger bottling run, but you get the idea….I bought expensive fruit and then dealt with pricing elsewhere as best as I could.

While Allan didn’t want to share exactly what he paid here, I’m guessing that the etched bottle ran him into the $3 range and the cork a similar price step up from mine, perhaps close to $1.  I know you’re thinking, Mark that’s only a $3.50 difference from yours and this is a $100 bottle.  Ok. That being said though, he’s made similar choices throughout the winemaking and marketing process.

Talking to friends with similar projects, he might not be making a profit of more than a few dollars on his sale to me.  Partially, I bring that kind of stuff up to simply say, finding these incredibly high end Napa projects at this price point isn’t as easy as it initially sounds & yes, Troll Bridge prices are likely to increase as time goes on.

Apart from some great vineyard sources, the winemaker for Troll Bridge is Jon Engelskirger.  Jon’s one of those guys. who has been around the valley for quite some time (and since we seem to exist in 2 valley’s right now, I’ll clarify that I’m talking about Napa instead of Silicon) making wine for a litany of interesting and influential names such as: Silverado, Robert Pepi & Turnbull among others.

If you’re wondering why someone leaves the likes of Turnbull and shows up a smaller project, like Troll Bridge, Jon’s working on his own wine project based out of Contra Costa County.  Contra Costa’s an interesting place.  On one side of the hill that faces San Francisco, it’s damn cold.  On the other, an inland valley is hot enough that Italian and Portuguese immigrants found it among the best spots near SF to plant their native grapes. Jon’s making about 2,000 cases of an interesting mix of grapes in a town called Brentwood, out of a farm that he owns personally.  It seems that even winemakers whose names we recognize, can’t find land to buy on and make wine from any longer in Napa….which is unfortunate.

I think the 2010 Napa Valley vintage also deserves a mention at this point.  I’ve talked about vintage a ton in this space over the past few years.  Basically my argument boils down to this: if it’s a great year, buy wine from anyone.  Anyone can do a good job of making wine in a good year.  If it’s a bad year, taste wine from respected winemakers and choose what you like.  It’s bad practice for consumers, as well as, the industry as a whole to try and avoid entire vintages. If we all do that, the 1,000 case wineries we all love and want to support will simply cease to exist.

Ok, so the 2010 vintage. Was it 2009? No, not even close….it was a challenge.  So here’s the exact way that you get vintners and growers really worried about a vintage.  Start with rain or simply cold weather to get everything started late.  Have cooler than normal temperatures continue throughout much of the spring and into early summer.  Napa wines need to be ripe, so the natural reaction by most is to cut some fruit and make sure that they get opportune ripeness for what remains.

Then, have an extremely hot spell come through during the late summer and early fall. Sunburned grapes (yes it happens and it’s about as bad as you’re thinking it is) don’t make for good wine. But, vintners have to choose to risk the burn to get to the ripeness level that they want.

In 2010, there was some severe heat in late August, but for vintners who decided to hold off picking (most did, the one’s who were impatient ended up with substandard wine, better put into the bulk market) that was followed by what I’ve heard described as a “glorious” month of Indian summer where the grapes added sugar, without dropping much acidity.

All in all, most call it a challenging vintage, but most were also incredibly happy with the results, as long as the growers and winemakers were patient.

The folks growing the grapes for Troll Bridge, as a collective, have been doing this for some time.  It’s been said that farming is one of the most patient of professions and these are truly professionals.

They waited-plus, with the vineyard blocks needing little maintenance, all the more reason to let the grapes hang a couple of extra days right?

All in all, I’m happy to provide what I believe to be an absolutely prototypical Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at a price point that I hesitate to call a good bargain.  But, at $95, this feels right.

Plus, Allan’s someone that deserves our support for swimming up stream here.