Thursday, September 18, 2014

Underground Cellar

I received an e-mail to my blog address from Brian at Underground Cellar asking if I'd be willing to share the latest news about his venture with my readers.  

First of all I had to take a look at their web site to learn what they were about since I was not familiar with them. After doing some reading, as well as signing up on their site, I think it is a worthwhile site to write about. Note that the e-mail said they had "something special" for me if I chose to include them in this blog but that has nothing to do with their inclusion; for all I know they could be sending me a dead fish through the mail. 

Underground Cellar ("UC") has an interesting concept. Each day they offer a small selection of wines (four for today as I write this) for purchase. The interesting part is you select the bottle you want to buy but are then automatically given a chance for a random upgrade to a more expensive, and theoretically a better wine for that same price. 

For example, here is a screen shot for one of the featured wines, a 2009 Lake Sonoma Estate Zinfandel:

This particular wine is $21, shown above.  Once you order and pay for it, however, you just might be the recipient of a random upgrade to one of the higher-priced bottles.  

Unlike those discount hotel sites that don't tell you what hotel you are bidding on until you buy, UC lets you know what the other possibilities are, and also tells you your odds of receiving an upgrade. 

Above, it shows you that if you order the $21 bottle, you have a 38.69% of getting the more expensive Seghesio Zinfandel instead.  The different upgrades are listed - see the screen shot below.

Yes, interesting concept, I'd say. Is this a legit site?  It seems to be. They have reached the $1 million mark in seed money, including an investment by Shark Tank celebrity investor Barbara Corcoran.  The way the site operates will appeal to the gambling nature within us by taking a spin for an upgrade.  I like that idea (although what happens if you really really want the original wine and not the upgrade?). 

The option is available to defer delivery by having your wine placed in "Cloud Storage" - a temperature-controlled facility in Napa Valley, until you decide to have it shipped. You can order as little as a single bottle.  Shipping on six bottles is a flat $5 per shipment and a case earns you free shipping.  Therefore you could make several single bottle purchases and have them held in Cloud Storage until such time as you have a case, and then get free shipping.  The Cloud Storage is also very helpful for avoiding shipping in hot weather. 

Are the wines any good? You can see for yourself from the above that these are credible wineries with good reputations.  I looked at previous offerings and these not mystery wineries. My only comment is that some of the vintages are not current releases and some are releases from several years ago (such as the 2007 De Loach Zinfandel listed above) but assuming they have been properly stored, the buyer is getting the benefit of aging without having to pay extra for it. UC guarantees customer satisfaction, and they say the wines come straight from the winery so it sounds like a safe deal.  My Google search didn't reveal anything negative about them. 

Probably the best thing to do is visit their site and check it out yourself.  It's easy to understand what they are doing and it costs nothing to register, then see what is offered each day.  I signed up. I haven't bought anything yet since nothing interested me but I'm curious to see what comes up as time goes by. 

There is also a member forum but I have to say right now it seems pretty lame as not very many people participate and those who do seem to be the same ones in most of the threads. Someone from UC actively participates, though, which speaks well of their desire to be helpful. My two cents - the layout also looks too AOL-ish for me. 

As for the actual operating site - I think it's worth visiting and registering. It's like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

power outage

The other day a planned power outage notification came in the mail from Southern California Edison.  Naturally the first thing I thought about was how this would affect the wines I keep in my three little wine coolers, especially given the hot summer we've had here in Southern California. 

The outage was scheduled for tomorrow - September 17th, from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm.

Today when I got home from work, I discovered that SCE pulled a fast one and had the power outage today!  I thought that was pretty crummy of them to do this and not let anyone know so that they might prepare for it. Now, I am only guessing/hoping that today's outage was what originally was planned for tomorrow.  When I called SCE the customer service assistant was clueless.  She said it made sense that today was it, but tomorrow's outage was still showing on her schedule and had not been canceled. She told me to call back tomorrow.  

Well duh, I might as well just wait and see if it happens or not if I have to wait until the day it is supposed to happen. That really ticks me off.  I hope that today was the planned outage because two days in a row with temperatures near 110 is ridiculous to have an outage on purpose. The house was 93 degrees when I got home. 

Guess what?  I just checked SCE online and now it says that the power outage will be rescheduled: "Certain conditions have caused this outage to be rescheduled."  

Hmm.. maybe the "certain conditions" are that IT WAS DONE TODAY AND CAUGHT EVERYONE BY SURPRISE!!!  I imagine people must have protested an obviously bad idea of depriving residents of electricity on one of, if not the hottest days of the year so they sneakily did it today to catch everyone off guard. 

Anyway, that's not why I am writing this post. I wanted to let you know how my wine coolers fared on this 110 degree day with no electricity for 7 hours, from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. 

First off, the fridge seemed pretty well insulated. The freezer, normally at a -2.2 degrees, went up to 12 degrees so the frozen stuff survived.  So did the items in the fridge compartment; the temperature there was about 42 when I got home, which is just a few seconds before power was restored.  Normally it is around 33-35 degrees.

As for the wine coolers: 

The thermometers showed the room got as hot as 96 according to one, and 93 according to two other ones. I tend to think the two at 93 are more accurate. Now that's hot!  

The latest wine cooler, a 24 bottle dual zone Wine Enthusiast brand that has 12 spaces each in the upper and lower compartments, registered a high of 76.6 degrees in the upper space and 70.5 in the lower. The upper space was measured with the thermometer that had the higher room temperature reading than the other two, though, so I am thinking maybe the max was a degree or two lower than the 76.6 reading. It's a thermoelectric cooler.  Normally the top is around 56 degrees and the bottom 55 degrees.

The 16 bottle cooler, also from the Wine Enthusiast is a 4x4 slot single zone thermoelectric cooler. This one hit a high of 65.7 degrees. Normally it is in the 54.1-54.5 range. 

My Vissani cooler, the oldest one that has a compressor, normally shows a mid-56 temperature.  It went up to 64.4 degrees. 

I'm relieved.  While this increase in temperature did no favor to the wines, at least it didn't get warm enough to damage them.  Assuming 76.6 was the warmest any compartment got, that isn't bad at all considering 7 hours without power in 100+ degree outside heat and 90+ degree indoor heat. 

Looks like the Vissani has the best insulation, warming up by only 8 or so degrees, whereas the Wine Enthusiast units ranged from 10 to 20 degrees.  As far as cooling back down, the power came on at a little past 4:30. It's nearly 9:30 and they haven't yet gotten back to where they normally are - not even the Vissani.  They're close but not on the mark. The Vissani is full whereas the others aren't at capacity. Yet. 

The house isn't back yet, either.  The thermostat is normally at 80 degrees and it's 82 in the house with the air conditioning running.  

I just don't want to put these appliances through that test again. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

more on points

The other day I wrote about wine ratings and the point scale.

Today I ran across a nice example of how subjective the whole thing is.  Here is what someone in Cellar Tracker had to say about the 2010 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel (I X'd out the person's moniker):

9/14/2014 - xxxxxx WROTE: 90 points

Didn't seem to age well. OK, but nothing special

So a wine that is merely "OK, but nothing special" merits 90 points?  

I was wondering if perhaps that is because it is the Esprit de Beaucastel that is being rated and thus any vintage automatically warrants at least a 90 due to its stellar reputation?  

Would an "exceptional" bottle of Two Buck Chuck warrant 85 points, simply because it is Two Buck Chuck and thus could never warrant a score of 90 or above? 

Just some food or wine for thought. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Last night my brother in law brought a bottle of 2012 Melville Syrah, Verna's Vineyard to a family dinner.  Despite the less-than-ideal glasses, I thought it was a very good wine. 

Giving it a slight swirl (as much as could be expected given the tiny glasses) and sniff, my nose was hit with the aromas of bacon fat. Lots of it.  

I asked my wife what she thought it smelled like.  

"It smells like grapes."

"You don't smell bacon?"

"No, it smells like grapes."

Then I asked my sister in law on the other side of me what she thought it smelled like.


"You don't smell bacon?"

"Bacon?  There's bacon in this wine???" 

My brother in law interceded.  "Beef blood."  Then he started looking up Parker's rating and review on his iPhone while my sister in law was looking at the wine in her glass.  

I could taste the beef blood in the wine but for me bacon aroma was the most outstanding characteristic. I said this would go great with a steak.  I told her the reason it smells like bacon and beef blood is because instead of people stomping on the grapes to crush them, this winery used pigs and cows. 

Anyway, the only people in my wife's family who drink wine other than when my brother in law brings some to dinner are my brother in law, his wife (not the same sister in law as the one sitting next to me), and me. Generally at least 1/2 the bottles he brings go unappreciated as some of the family mixes the wine with soda, or puts ice cubes in it or even mixes it with tea. 

As for the "smells like grapes" comments from my wife and her sister, it made me wonder if maybe us winos just make ourselves smell things, anything besides grapes, when we sniff a wine.  Or is it that folks who don't normally drink wine just smell grapes because they know that's what it is made from. Or maybe they just don't care.

Who knows. But I did think it was a nice bottle of wine. Good complexity, balanced with a firm backing of acidity, a long finish and nice weight/texture.  I'm glad my brother in law brought it. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

changing direction, part three

In part two, I mentioned I had made a list of wineries to check out from ones mentioned in Jon Bonne's book, The New California Wine

Some of the producers made wine available to purchase only to those on their mailing list, and many of those had wines available by allocation only, at certain times of the year. 

I put my name in on several of these mailing lists; for some, I had no real clue how much the wines cost but I figured when the time came, I'd find out. Just recently, I did find out and talk about sticker shock - I wasn't prepared for some of the prices I saw when notified of my allocations. 

For example $160 bottles from Kongsgaard.  Mind you, I am not complaining or being critical since prices are all relative and who's to say what any bottle is "worth." I wasn't expecting such a high tariff is all. Yesterday Favia released their wines.  Bottles for $145, a bit less than Kongsgaard.  I scratched those two off my list.  I had raised my wine budget but that was far above the ceiling I set. 

One winery released their fall lineup and I logged in to see my allocations. I was met with a statement that I had no allocations at that time.  Oh, well. Again, not complaining because I understand the spoils go to the loyal, repeat customers and that's how it should be. Maybe next time they'll have something available. 

There were also a few wineries to whom I wrote with questions and never received a reply. I won't mention who they are, but I scratched those off the list as well.  They were just simple questions, nothing touchy or requiring a detailed answer so as to why they never bothered to respond is beyond me.  Now that, I'm complaining about.  How hard is it to reply?  The vast majority of wineries sent back a response. 

I think I ended up with a pretty good list.  Darn good, I'd say. Next time I'll start mentioning the wineries and what made me either join their wine club or, if they don't have a club, to place an order. Most of them I've never even sampled any of their wines but they just sounded good. I can't wait to give them a try. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

the point spread

Do you use some sort of rating system or scale to score the wines that you have tasted?  Like for example, a 100 point scale like Robert Parker and others use, or maybe a 10 point or 5 point scale, or letter grades or just something like Outstanding, Excellent, Very Good, etc. 

Much has been written about the utility of a 100 point scale - such as, how can you really define a difference between an 88 versus 87 point wine?  That's a good question. 

On the other hand, any sort of scoring system is going to be subjective and one person's "A" or 94 points might be a "B" or 87 pointer to someone else.  

I will often look at the tasting notes that are posted in Cellar Tracker to get an idea of what people thought of a certain wine or winery and I find it to be quite helpful.  It uses a 100 point scale for rating wines and, despite the issues about how fine a gradation can you really assign when scoring a wine, I find that scanning the scores tasters assign will give me a good rough, overall assessment as to what people think of a wine or winery.  A bunch of scores in the 90's seems more promising than ones in the 80's.

What I've noticed, however, is that the majority of scores in Cellar Tracker seem to fall in the range of the high 80's to low 90's.  Not even a 10-point spread, but less. 

So even though a 100 point scale is in use, most of the scores seem to be around 86 or 87 to 92 or 93.  What's the point of having such a wide scale if only less than 10% of the range is used?  

One might argue that the wines being tasted are all uniformly good and thus the narrow range of scores.  Could be, but to me there is often little correlation between the notes themselves and the scores, with some folks finding a wine to be just awful and thus meriting "only" an 87. Or a wonderful wine being scored a 93 or higher if it's a Cabernet but the same sort of positive remarks eliciting only an 89 if it is a Rose, because a Rose just can't be as complex or intellectually stimulating as a Cabernet. 

On other sites I see the use of word ratings, such as "outstanding," "excellent," etc., but then there is also the use of "+" or "-" appended to show that something is a little better or little less than the word rating.  

As for me, if anyone really cares which they probably don't since they don't read this blog anyway, I use a 100 point scale and have to laugh at myself because my ratings are usually as narrow as the ones I mention above.  I guess I am part of the group.  A decent wine rates somewhere between 86 and 89 and if I really like something then it gets elevated to the 90's. 

So then why do I use a 100 point scale?  Got me.  Maybe because giving a really good wine a score in the 90's seems the most impressive way to acknowledge it?  

Friday, September 5, 2014

changing direction, part two

In my last post I mentioned how the gift of some very nice bottles of wine from my son and daughter in law influenced me to up my own wine budget.  Around that same time, I received an e-mail from Tablas Creek Vineyards announcing the they had recently inaugurated a couple of new wine club options, that of red only and white only. 

Several years ago I belonged to their wine club but canceled.  It had nothing to do with their wines, as they are still one of my favorite wineries, but that the prices were going over what I wanted to spend. 

Good timing with that e-mail - it was obvious to me that it was time to rejoin their Vinsider's Club, and that's exactly what I did. I'm happy to be back. You can't go wrong with anything from Tablas Creek.

Now wait a minute, in my previous post didn't I say Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were my favorites?  Tablas Creek is known for their Rhone varietals, so what gives?  Well, gotta leave room for some variety, right?  

A couple of other things I did was to check out an online article by the that listed their choices for the 101 best wineries in America, and purchase Jon Bonne's educational and incisive book, The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.

I must confess, my winery education the past few years has come pretty much from looking at the wine selection at Costco.  I was also aware of the established producers but the two sources up there listed a bunch of wineries that I'd never heard of before.  I made a list for further exploration and eagerly went at it, looking at the producers web sites, tasting notes on Cellar Tracker and whatever articles came up in my Google results. 

I came up with a pretty good list of suspects.

More next time. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

changing direction, part one

My son got married in June, and he and his bride honeymooned up in Napa Valley. They had an enjoyable as well as educational time which seems to have started them on the path of starting a small collection.  

I saw them when they returned and they gave me three bottles purchased during their journey. I was familiar with two of the wineries but had never heard of the third one.  I thanked them for their generous gift.

Naturally I had to look up the producer of that third bottle whose label was unknown to me. I was horrified to discover this particular Cabernet Sauvignon had set them back $125.  The other two bottles were no cheapies either, showing prices of $50 and $35. 

Later, when I thanked them again, I also said they shouldn't have spent so much money. They were raving about the Cabernet, of which they had bought a bottle for themselves.  The response to me was to just accept it and enjoy it.  

That's like what my mom would always tell me - when someone gives you a gift, just take it and say thank you. I believe that's good advice. 

So I took it.  Those three bottles are resting peacefully and staying cool in one of my wine coolers. 

That got me to thinking - maybe it was time to up my wine budget a bit.  My son and daughter in law are by no means rich. They're doing okay, and while I don't think they can afford to keep buying $125 or $50 wines (how many of us can?), they figured something was good, so they went for it. 

For several years I've been buying nearly all my wines at Costco.  The selection is small but contains many nice wines, and the prices are great.  I'd been doing very well adhering to a budget with a $20 limit. 

That said, my two favorite varietals are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Costco has some decent selections within my budget but those selections don't change that often and, truth to tell, it gets sort of boring. I figured what the heck, I'm not getting any younger, I can afford to raise the budget, and it's time to get some stuff I REALLY want to get. It's time to just go for it. 

Thus, a change in direction.  More on this the next time. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

hawking wine at Costco

A short while ago I was perusing the wine section at the Costco in Westlake Village.  We were returning from a short and much appreciated vacation and I wanted to check out the wine selection since it was right off the freeway. 

A wine rep approached me as I was looking at the various bottles and told me about how wonderful the Goyette 2011 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon was.  A magnificent wine, she raved.  I asked if it was drinking well now.  "Oh yes, definitely," she replied.  She went on to tell me how this wine was being released prior to some wine publication giving it a really high score after which time the price would shoot up accordingly.  

At that time the sticker said $14.69.  I thought what the heck, I'll give it a try, so I bought a bottle. 

There's no doubt that a high score from an influential critic is a sure recipe for moving bottles and moving them at a higher price.  On the other hand, what this woman told me really made no sense because if a very favorable review was indeed soon to be published then why not wait to release it at that time and jack up the price?  

It's like how nearly every piece of audio gear is a "bargain" because it is comparable to (i.e., worth as much) as gear selling for 3x, maybe even 5x its price.  Is that really the case?  If so, is there anything that is truly priced appropriately? 

Getting back to the wine, I recently popped the cork on the Goyette and gave it my usual four day tasting. 

The rep was right, it was ready to drink.  Was it anything extraordinary?  Not really.  It was soft and smooth on the palate, with some tea, red berries and spice on the palate. The nose did have an interesting component, something sort of like mustard greens or bok choy. That sounds weird but it was very subtle and to me was a plus and not a minus.  Would I buy this again?  Nope, because nothing really stood out.  It was decent, no flaws, but that's about it.

At the Costco where I usually go, every so often there is a rep from Cameron Hughes.  I always think it is unfortunate that he can't offer a sample, same as how the Goyette rep couldn't offer any either.  I also wonder how effective they are and if the cost of paying them for the day is a worthwhile investment in relation to the sales they generate that otherwise wouldn't have been made.  Do they work on commission?  

I do think the "personal" touch of conversing with a rep does help to drum up business but at the end of the day I wonder just how much business that amounts to.