cult wine

Affordable California Cult Wines | Shulz Cellars

California cult wineThis is the third installment in a five part series featuring some Affordable California Cult wines. Their track record, quality, and small production make these collector’s items, but their price tags are what really differentiate them in a sea of overpriced California wines.

Along the west side border of Napa, just off of the Mayacamas mountain region, is the Mt. Veeder region. Responsible for a small fraction of the Valley’s wines, Mt. Veeder doesn’t receive the love and attention that some better known counterpart regions, like Oakville and St. Helena, but it is quietly turning out world class wines from its high elevations. It should come as no surprise, since people have been growing grapes on Mt. Veeder since the 1860’s. Despite the rich history, it wasn’t until 1993 that Mt. Veeder became a formally recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Located north of Carneros and west of Oak Knoll, Yountville and Oakville, the mountain is rugged, steep, and faces the cool Pacific currents. The berries of Mt. Veeder are relatively small due to the cool fog and high elevations, which results in wines of intense fruit flavor and smoother tannins. Of the 15,000 acres that make up the Mt. Veeder, only 1,000 acres are planted to vineyards.  Some of the vineyards are on slopes as steep as 30 Degrees – you could ski down these bad boys!
Though few people know much about Mt. Veeder, it has quietly produced many well known wines, including Hess and Mayacamas Vineyards. Add to that list Schulz Cellars, which was formed in 2005 by John and Michelle Schluz.  Their path to owning a wine company includes significant sales background rather than just a pure wine making background.  John spent 10 years in sales with Franciscan and Michelle spent 5 years in sales with up-and-coming Cliff Lede.  Currently John does sales consulting for a number of ultra premium Napa wineries and Michelle is the Direct to Consumer marketing manager for Arrowood winery and Matanzas Creek Winery.
This winning combination of sales and wine making experience was a recipe for success. The Schulz’s were lucky enough to befriend John and Ashely Derr who own Lampyridae Vineyard, located at about 2,500 feet, near the summit of Mt Veeder. The highest vineyard in the entire Mayacamas range, Lampyridae is Latin for firefly, which is what the lights of San Fransisco look like at night from the vineyard.  This vineyard doesn’t have a shabby background, as it is also a contributing component for Beringer’s (legendary) Private Reserve Cabernet.  The high elevation vineyard produces smaller even more intense fruit with bolder tannins.
So with those two backgrounds in mind, I present to you:
2007 Shulz Cellars Mt. Veeder Zinfandel
This is 100% Zinfandel, aged in 50% French and 50% American Oak (50% of which was new oak) for a total of 18 months.  The alcohol rings in at a tolerable 14.7%, not nearly as high as many neighboring zinfandels out there.  In my last post I talked about the Venge Scout’s Honor.  This wine is almost the polar opposite.  If you don’t like the ripe Lodi style of Zinfandel then you will probably love this wine.  It has a formidable nose of clove and spices, and an intense palate full of cherry, blackberry, and big, chewy tannins. Available for under $30, this wine tastes that much sweeter. And with only 175 cases produced, it’s justified its title as an affordable California Cult selection.

Affordable California Cult Wines | Venge Vineyards

“California Cult Wines” usually connote images of big wigs spending massive amounts of money, bidding on wines at auction. I was lucky enough to attend a tasting that made me rethink the definition of Cult Wine. This is the second installment of a five part series, where I profile wineries making small amounts of incredible quality wines, at very reasonable prices.

Venge Vineyards was founded in 1992 by Nils Venge, who is known as “The King of Cabernet”.  After graduating UC Davis with a Bachelor of Science in Grape Vine Viticulture, Nils took a job at well known Sterling Vineyards. In 1971 he was hired by Villa Mount Eden as their first wine maker.  While there he made the 1974 and 1978 vintages of Cabernet which put Villa Mount Eden on the map. While at Villa Mount Eden, Nils and his father in law bought a 17 acre Cabernet Vineyard right in the heart of Oakville.  The vineyard supplied Villa Mount Eden with its grapes and is now surrounded by other big names such as Silver Oak, Opus One and Groth.  In 1982 Nils Venge became a minority partner with Dennis Groth, and helped form Groth Vineyard.  His skills as a wine maker became well known while he was at Groth, and in 1985 the Cabernet Sauvignon received a 100 point rating from Robert Parker, making it the first Californian wine to receive 100 points. In 1992, Nils took his amazing track record and formed his namesake vineyard, Venge Vineyards.
In 2008 Venge moved operations to the newly acquired Rossini Ranch, a 12 acre cabernet ranch.  Over the years Venge Vineyards has consistently attained amazing ratings.  Check the last 3 vintages of the Family Reserve Cabernet for example:
2005: 94 points, Wine Enthusiast,
2006: 95 points, Robert Parker
2007: 95-98 points Robert Parker.
Only 150 six-bottle cases of the 2007 vintage were produced and at $125 it would seem like a good investment. Not everyone can afford to drop 100+ dollars on a bottle of wine, and luckily Venge produces much more affordable, Cult-quality wines. These are some labels to look out for.
2009 Venge, Champs de Fleur Proprietary White:
The name comes from the French term “field of flowers”, which is what the aromatics of this wine are like.  There are slight lemon grass accents and solid tropical fruit flavors on the palate.  A little bit of passion fruit and lemon drop in the mix, and you’re in for a treat.
The blend is 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 34% Chardonnay, and 11% Viognier, with the alcohol weighing in at 14.5%. This wine was whole cluster pressed and each varietal was fermented in separate stainless steel tanks before being moved to neutral French oak for 8 months. 25% of the wine underwent Malolactic fermentation which adds a nice softness to the finish. With only 675 cases produced and retail price of $25 a bottle, this certainly constitutes as a California Cult wine.
The second extremely good value Venge has to offer is called “Scout’s Honor’ named after Nils’ his dog.  Robert Parker raves about this wine calling it a “superb value” and states that the 2007 vintage is the best yet, awarding it 92 points. The 2008 vintage is currently in pre-release and you can only buy 2 bottles at a time from the website. Again, if this isn’t cult wine, I don’t know what is.
The 2008 Scout’s Honor blend is 66% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, 15% Charbono, and 4% Syrah. Charbono is not common in California, however it is the 2nd most popular varietal in Argentina where it is called Bonarda.  It was aged for 16 months in 60% new American Oak from Missouri. The alcohol is a knock you on your butt 15.2% – wow!  The beauty of this wine is that there is absolutely no heat present; the alcohol is very well integrated. The nose is full of red cherry and licorice while the palate is rich and very ripe with peppery accents. There is also a bit of minerality from the Charbono; very interesting, complex with a nice long finish.  Just over 1,000 cases were produced, and it’s priced at $38 on the Venge website. Thankfully, my favorite local wine merchant has it for $23.99!  If you like the more ripe, Lodi style of Zinfandel but want something with more complexity, you will definitely want to get your hands on a case of this wine.
Stay tuned for three more names to watch for, producing Cult-like quality at prices that won’t break the bank.