Taking the Road Less Traveled
Sometimes you come to the fork in the road and you must make a choice as you can't travel both. We've made ours. We decided to take the path less traveled.
The choice was simple: quality or price. There was no hesitation in our choice as quality was the only answer. The market is price obsessed, but we believe there are those that understand you get what you pay for from wineries whose ego is based on what's in the bottle instead of on the ego of the owner. For many there is a deeper understanding that in wine, true quality is not in a label, but in the hearts of the people who craft it. Ninety-five percent of the wine in the world is an industrial product, manufactured based on market research, and the rest is divided between charming country wines and people with a passion to let nature express its beauty through their wines. Oddly enough, many of the world's most expensive wines fall into the first category, not the latter.
Our decision was to move forward and to let something old and comfortable fade away. As comfortable as Stepping Stone was to everyone as the wines got better and better, there comes a point when you have to forgo comfort to obtain excellence. This is especially true in the narrow confines of the Napa Valley, which is a mere 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. This small valley is one of the world's most distinctive vineyard regions and such distinction does not come cheaply.
Our vision is to make dramatic, elegant and complex wines from great vineyards. This means that the value in our wines is not that they are inexpensive, but that they have such an expressive personality, combined with our singular character, that their value is not on their price tag, but on your palate.
So we have decided to take the path less traveled and give up a less expensive line of wines and to introduce a new range of wines made with no concessions in the tradition of our iconic White Label Cornerstone Cellars wines. The one thing we have not left behind is our obsession with offering exceptional values. However, we are a small company and can't do everything. To produce this new group of exciting wines something had to go by the wayside. So this is both the end of an era and and new beginning as we could not travel both paths.
With the 2010 vintage we say goodbye to Stepping Stone and with great pride introduce you to Cornerstone Cellars Black Label selections. Our first release of our Black Label wines is from the 2011 vintage and includes Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. These are not wines declassified from our White Label Reserve wines, but wines produced from specially selected vineyards. While our White Label wines are unabashedly made to cellar for decades, our Black Label wines are selected from vineyards that naturally produce a more forward style of wine that can be enjoyed in it's youth, but will gain complexity and depth with shorter term cellaring.
The roads between price and quality diverged, but not the one between price and value. So we took the one less traveled by, quality, and that has made all the difference. While the reception to raising prices can be frosty, we know that once these new wines are tasted that other path will soon be forgotten.
We are proud and honored to introduce you to a totally new range of wines: Cornerstone Cellars Black Label Selections.
As a winemaker your mind is in the future building, always building, on past vintages. Vintages are experiences, part of a voyage, not just end results. Winemakers have no favorite vintages just treasured experiences and the pain and pleasure of continually second guessing yourself.
The vines are now being pruned in the vineyards and the cycle that is agriculture begins again. In many ways it is comforting to work in a world governed by such a precise metronome. You know how you got here and where you're going.
There are always frustrations though as winemaking is slow motion business - you only get one 'iteration" per year.
What are some of my current frustrations?
- Alcohol levels continue to challenge us. While we have reduced them by more than 1% over previous vintages, we're not quite there yet. I think the sweet-spot for Napa Valley Cabernet is between 14 and 14.5% and for Oregon Pinot 13 to 13.5%. this gives you the depth, complexity and mouthfeel we hope for while still letting terroir show through. It's a tightrope, but we'll get there - we are getting there.
- The cost of doing making wine in the Napa Valley continues to increase and will force wine prices even higher.
- Too many wine reviews are published without ever tasting the wine with food. This is like tasting only the sauce and then writing a review of the whole dish. You can never understand how it all works together.
- The fact that so many sommeliers do not have an open mind when it comes to California and, in particular, Napa Valley wines. They are not all the same.
What makes me happy?
- The limitless potential of Oregon makes it one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. This is a region where you can argue the best vineyards have not even been planted yet. It's a brave new world with no where to go but up.
- The growing appreciation of wines with a more balanced, restrained style is exciting. While for the most part this reawakening of taste has not enlightened old-school wine media yet, new wine media is all over it. The old guys better wake up or get left in the dust.
- The growing recognition and excitement around rebel, back-to-your-roots winemakers in the staid world of the Napa Valley.
- The exciting, exploding community of wine lovers on social media. Finally small wineries can actually have a marketing edge over corporate wineries. After all, real people are a lot more fun to have a conversation with.
- What I am happiest about is how far we've come with our wines. They are so, so much better. Uplifting wines that are refreshing and elegant.
While I know I will always think we can do better no matter how great the vintage, these are wines I am proud of sharing with anyone.
Do over? Not really, each vintage is a new beginning. How lucky are we?
Click, click, click, click, click, click. The sound of my cycling shoes rachetting is unmistakeable. Gearing up to sell wine for the day I have one thing on my mind. Will San Francisco’s notorious wind be a friend or foe? In my backpack are 5 sample bottles. A selection of Cornerstone, the Stepping Stone Artistry Series, and a bottle of Rocks! Leaving the tasting room at 10:00 am, the morning chill still has yet to be replaced by our unseasonable afternoon sunshine. I look forward to the rays warming my arms while in the frigid city. I’ve got a big day ahead of me. Ride down to Napa to catch the route 29 bus which will take me to the Bay Link ferry. From there I head to San Francisco to visit a selection of restaurants and wine stores. Perhaps a stop for a late lunch and then back to the Ferry Building by 5:00 or face missing the 6:15 connecting bus to downtown Napa. I will say, selling wine on a bicycle in San Francisco is considerably easier and siginificantly more enjoyable than driving. The city is only 47 square miles. Any point can be reached within 30 minutes and an incredible advantage is gained by not having to scour the streets for parking.
Traveling out of state has yet be difficiult. I’m fortunate that all of my distributor partners have been extremely accommodating to my latest challenge. Getting to the Oakland Airport has been the largest test. Napa has a single airporter that leaves a few times a day and one needs to coordinate their flight so everything syncs. From the new airport to my hotel is not difficult at all. In larger cities, I’m looking at you Philly and New York, public transportation is easily navigated. When in doubt, cabs are easy to find. I’m also fortunate that our distributor’s sales reps have been great about driving to sales calls.
Is it possible to successfully conduct outside sales while not driving? Yes. Is it easy? Well I wouldn't say its convenient. That would be a stretch. It is fun though. Can one make new restaurant and retail placements relying only on their two legs and the use of various public transit systems? Absolutely. In the last three months I’ve made by the glass placements at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Larsen’s Steakhouse in Valencia, Redd here in Yountville, The Napa General Store, Vino Volo at the Oakland Airport, Fig & Thistle San Francisco, Eiko’s Restaurant in downtown Napa and Cole’s Chop House. What about other restaurants and their wine lists you might ask? Absolutely. Just a few of the places you can find our wines locally are Sens Restaurant in San Francisco and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Redd Wood in Yountville has our 2010 Cornerstone Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Just a mile up north, Mustard’s Grill is carrying our Cornerstone Sauvignon Blanc. On these "warm" winter days, if you’re looking for our award winning Corallina Rosé of Syrah, you need to travel no further than Brix.
The last three months conducting sales to the trade without personally driving a car has been interesting to say the least. My primary mode of transportation around the Napa Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area has been on my Cervélo. To go the distance, I’ve utilized BART, The VINE, and the Bay Link Ferry. Using a bicycle for transportation is nothing new; in fact, the German Laufmaschine built in the early 1800s was the first type of bicycle built. Outside of San Francisco, tell people you're riding a bike for recreation or exercise and no one blinks an eye. Ride your bike for work and everyone loses their mind. The looks on my customer’s faces when I pull a half case of wine off of my back can be priceless. Riding my bike is relatively quick and easy. The floor of the Napa Valley is flat. Over the 30 miles you’ll ride along the Silverado Trail from Napa to Calistoga, you’ll climb 1000 feet in rolling hills. If you take highway 29, the slope is even more gradual. As a cyclist, one only needs to battle the headwind traveling north to south after 2:30 PM.
Relying on my bicycle and various forms of public transportation has certainly been an eye opening experience. I used to take driving for granted. Now I truly look it as a privilege. I look forward to this experiment being over in just about a month’s time. Until then, if you see a cyclist on the road, be kind and give them plenty of room. We hate getting buzzed, at least while riding.
Thanksgiving is just a few days away. My turkey is thawed and awaiting its initial brine before being cooked for the family. The Cornerstone Oregon 2010 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and 2011 Chardonnay have been dropped off at my mother’s house so they are at cellar temp before dinner. For good measure, I’ve included a few bottles our 2012 Corallina Rosé as I find rosé to be one of the most versatile wines for the Thanksgiving meal.
My challenge this year? How to cook a 24lb turkey for a room full of foodies... Listening to Science Friday on NPR last week, Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks, Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, offered a few ideas that I’m going to try out.
The USDA recommends cooking the bird to 165 degrees Fahrenheit for safety reasons. 165 is an instant kill temperature, where at that temperature for just few seconds any and all bacteria dies. Other temperatures will also make for a safe bird, as long as holding times are taken into consideration.
At 160 degrees, you need to hold the turkey for 30 seconds. At 155 degrees, you need to hold at this temperature for 1 minute. You can listen to the whole Science Friday story below via the provided link for more information. Cooking the turkey at a low temperature prevents muscle fibers from becoming tough, thus resulting in a tender bird.
If you want to cook your turkey low and slow, one can get their turkey down to a safe internal temperature and the desired juicy result, as long as you hold the bird at 150 degrees for 5 or more minutes. Allowing the turkey to rest for another 30 minutes should allow the internal temperature to reach between 155-160 degrees.
Jeff recommended cooking the turkey legs and breasts separately. This is due to to the muscle composition of each part being comprised of different fibers with differing proteins and connective tissues. While this takes away from the ascetic presentation of the turkey, you gain the advantage of being able to cook the legs in a way that is more conducive to their proteins and connective tissue (higher in collagen). The breasts are also able to be cooked in a manner that is beneficial for their fast twitch muscle fibers. Serious Eats recommends cooking the breasts to a temperature of 145 degrees.
There are various methods that people use to determine when a turkey is cooked. These range from seeing what color the meat is (different shades of pink, which influenced by a number of factors) to waiting for the juices to run clear. All that really matters is temperature and holding time. Be safe and use a probe thermometer.
This year I am cooking the turkey for 23 people. I plan on cooking the legs and breasts separately. The legs will be done via confit while the breasts will be roasted. All served with a generous glass of Cornerstone Oregon 2010 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
To listen to the Science Friday segment which inspired this post, please click here. Always remember to trust your own judgement and be careful if anyone pregnant or with a compromised immune system is at your Thanksgiving table. -Alex
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Winemaking is a journey with no end. You set goals, but as you achieve them you just have higher aspirations. The more you achieve, the more you know there is to achieve. With the two Cabernets you have we are now releasing we have achieved a goal we set for ourselves, but now our vision for what we will achieve in the future is even sharper.
Our first goal was to craft wines with elegance and finesse while still honoring the power, which is an accurate expression of Napa Valley terroir. It was also our goal to achieve wines with appropriate levels of alcohol. We do not simply want to have low alcohol levels for the sake of that alone by following some pre-set recipe, but to produce wines from grapes harvested at just the right moment, the moment that defines that vintage. We don't want underripe grapes anymore than overripe ones. Perhaps the most important thing to us is having acid levels that make the wines refreshing, even in their youth. What you will not get from us are wines suffering from the "big wine" syndrome so favored by certain well known critics. What you will get are wines that fire up your saliva glands with the zesty acidity required to truly compliment cuisine. If you like massive, oaky cabernet with 16% alcohol (no matter what it says on the label) with high pH and residual sugar you won't like these wines and we can live with that. Our first goal is to make wines we love to drink and our second goal is to find wine lovers who agree with us. We are not interested in making wines that try to satisfy the broadest range of consumers possible.
The 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon releases reflect well this vision. They are very different wines telling two distinct stories. We make different wines for that very reason as we find each expresses aspects of the Napa Valley well worth telling. By Napa Valley standards 2010 was a cooler vintage, which means by Bordeaux standards it was a a very good year. It reemphasizes my opinion that the problem vintages in Napa are the hot ones , not the cooler ones. The cooler weather helped us towards our goal to make balanced wines. While the "big wine" folks struggled with 2010, we loved it.
The 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon expresses the personality of three exceptional vineyards: Ink Grade on Howell Mountain, Oakville Station in the To Kalon district and Kairos in Oak Knoll. They weave together to produce a wine that reflects the character of the Napa Valley as a whole. The power and structure of Howell Mountain combines with the rich velvety Oakville Station and both are lifted by the bright aromatics and freshness of Kairos. However, cabernet sauvignon alone does not tell the whole story in this wine. Often I find that cabernet sauvignon on its own has a big start and finish, but can be a bit hollow in the middle. Here is where cabernet franc and merlot come in. A touch of merlot fills that hole in the middle and brings a beautiful silky texture. Cabernet franc is like MSG in a dish lifting and defining flavors. Together they achieve umami, that elusive savory personality that defines great wine.
The 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine of time and place. Sourced from the organically farmed Ink Grade Vineyard on the high slopes on the east side of Howell Mountain. Grown on the distinctive powdery, white tufa soils as contrasted to the red, clay based soils on many Howell Mountain vineyards, this is a firmly structured wine, which we make to express, not hide its richly tannic character. This is a wine born and made to age. I recommend waiting five or more years to let the many layers in this wine to expand and integrate. If you can't wait an hour or two in a decanter will help reveal the treasures still hiding in this young wine. Once again, a small touch of merlot is added to expand the textures on the palate.
Perhaps the most important thing to me is these wines give me the complete experience that I seek in wine: lifted aromatics, brightness on the palate, refreshing flavors and long, layered flavors that go on and on. Most of all they are wines that make me want a second glass. There is no such thing as a perfect wine, but in the fact that these wines purely represent the vineyard, vintage and varieties that gave them birth, I feel perfectly wonderful about them.
The baseball season is long, one hundred and sixty two games. After six months of effort it can come down to one game, indeed one swing of the bat. Months and months of effort can come down to one second.
Baseball, grapevines and winemakers start and end their seasons at the same time and in the same way. Some teams are happy to go home with a .500 season while for others nothing less than a championship will do. Every year we swing for the fences expecting nothing less of ourselves than winning it all.
Our season came to an end almost two weeks ago when we picked our two cabernet franc vineyards in the Napa Valley. As usual, although Oregon and California are neighbors, the vintage experience is very, very different. In the Napa Valley it was smooth as silk. The early flowering in the spring gave us all the time we wanted to ripen our fruit to the very point of perfection. In Oregon the pace was not as relaxed as an approaching storm forced us into high gear to get our fruit in before the rains hit, which we did.
Once again as in baseball, there is more than one way to win the game. The 2010 vintage may have been difficult and the 2012 vintage warm and benevolent, but we made excellent wines in both years. Most importantly we made wines of the vintage, letting the natural character of the wines nature gave us to speak their own minds. Perhaps the biggest difference between big industrial wineries and artisan producers like Cornerstone Cellars is that their wines taste the same every year and ours don't. In baseball "small ball" often wins games, but in winemaking there is only one way to the pennant and that is by swinging for the fences each and every year.
Now as we finish the 2013 harvest, we are releasing the Cornerstone Cellars Cabernets from the 2010 vintage and our Cornerstone Oregon Pinot and Chardonnay from the 2011 harvest, while the 2012's are still resting in their barrels. Each of them tells the story of our dance with Mother Nature every vintage and we are confident you will find each of their stories as compelling as we do.