9 November, 2015
Uncorked Ventures Wine ClubComments : 4 Posted in : Carignan, Food, Grenache Blanc, Other White Blends, Pinot Noir, Product Reviews, Red Wine, White Wine, Wine on by : The Gourmez
The world of wine is huge. Finding a wine you enjoy often feels like searching for that proverbial needle in the haystack. If there’s one thing my recent Finger Lakes wine bloggers trip taught me, it’s that there are whole regions of wineries that wine writers like myself have barely heard of, much less sampled in any quantity.
Much like staring down the shelves of a bookstore, where do you start? Luckily, there are guides on such journeys, and I’m not talking sommeliers. I’m talking wine distributors, like Bliss Wine Imports, that have owners dedicated to doing the dirty work to find amazing wine for you—okay, not everyone would consider buttering up winemakers to be dirty work, but seeking out and getting to know winemakers is a lot more effort than most wine procurers undertake. Bliss specializes in European wineries, spending months meeting winemakers at their cellars, touring their fields, and sampling wide ranges of bottlings. Such intensive methods are ways to gain winemakers’ trust and gain access to the hidden treasures they keep out of the public eye.
While Bliss is doing exceptional work, we also have someone who employs a similar spirit of discovery and deal-making right here at home: Mark Aselstine of Uncorked Ventures. Mark started his online wine club business with his brother-in-law, Matt Krause, a few years back. In addition to successfully navigating the murky waters of a family business, Mark and Matt have navigated the landscape of the wineries of California, Oregon, and Washington.
Uncorked Ventures offers their diamonds found in the rough straight to consumers through their wine clubs. You may be surprised, but a lot of wine importers and retailers never do more than place a phone call or send an email to winemakers before purchasing their bottles, having face-to-face encounters only with their customers. That can lead to run-of-the-mill wines filling real or virtual store shelves, and how are we to know the difference? As Mark put it, “What if we tried the inverse of that, if we actually met winemakers and folks in decision-making positions at vineyards ourselves, and being an Internet-based company, we didn’t meet our customers in person?”
Uncorked Ventures is the result. Over lunch at Berkeley’s Bartavelle, I chatted with Mark about the company and his goals for it. I also had the good fortune to try out four of the wines that have featured in their wine club shipments over the past few months. Obligatory disclaimer: Good fortune means they were provided to me as samples. I’d readily drink all four of them again, which is an admittedly higher satisfaction level than I’ve had from the two online wine clubs I’m already part of. Here are my brief thoughts on each:
Ranchero Cellars 2012 Carignan
A humid Friday night at the mini-golf course, where dandelions grow between the lavender bushes and wet leaves spiral to the ground. Easy fun, and you’re old enough to appreciate how complex that can be to pull off.
Kinero Alice 2013 Grenache Blanc
Trying a new-to-you dish from a favorite cuisine and realizing you’ve been camped at the entrance to the treasure trove for years. Annatto, green peppercorn, stewed pineapple, mealy pear, and roasted lemon make up the primary notes. That’s not even mentioning the Fun-Dip nose!
Portalupi Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013
I’ve had a lot of delicate pinots lately, and this one smashes right through them with a denser body that allows the classic cherry, vanilla, and cinnamon notes to flourish. Like moving into a crescendo from the prelude.
Aselstine Family Cellars Stony Peak White 2014
As you can see, this one bears Mark’s name on the label, a compromise when the winemaker decided they didn’t want to use their own name (I know it, but I’m not sharing!). Except for a conflict of interest, I can’t imagine why that would be, as I love it when wine takes me on tasting adventures like this one did. Mark contributed by heading out to join in on a few blending sessions.
Quince and apple lead into the light, acidic, lemon-lime finish…or do they? A second sip pops with leafy minerality, ending in a quick flush of fruit. It’s a bait-and-switch; you’ll never know which you’ll get and you’ll never be bored.
That’s a line-up to be proud of, and each month, club members get mystery wines of similar value that the website describes as “High-scoring wines & wines that would score highly… if they weren’t such a secret!” You can set up monthly, bimonthly, quarterly or even one-time-only shipments. Each shipment contains two bottles and costs $40, $95, or $195 depending on whether you join the Explorations, Special Selections, or Reserve Selections club. Uncorked Ventures sends out 400–500 shipments every month.
Another thing that sets Uncorked Ventures apart from other online wine clubs is its gift baskets. Currently, they offer a chocolate-focused basket, a wine equipment basket, and a local foods basket, which also contains chocolate. Each basket comes with one or two bottles of Uncorked Venture wines, depending on your preference. The baskets are available for order, but Mark said they’ll be redesigned soon, as TCHO chocolate, the primary gift-basket product, is set to expand and won’t be as easily available for smaller orders like his. Look for city-themed baskets to arrive soon, with products all from Oakland, or Berkeley, or San Francisco, and so on.
So, is Uncorked Ventures for you? If you love the idea of having wines appear that you can trust will be satisfying without actually knowing what they are until you open the box, then yes! As I told Mark, I’m that sort of wine drinker myself, always trying something new rather than returning to old favorites. His customers love the element of surprise so much, they invariably choose to wait and see what the next shipment brings rather than order additional bottles of something they already loved. That’s not great for offloading stock, but it’s a good testament that these wines will stoke your curiosity.
Let me know what you think if you try them out! I’m sure Mark, who was a pleasure to chat with, would love your feedback too.