Tasting Syrah 05-13-17

Two or so years ago, a small group of top echelon Californian Syrah producers visited France’s Rhone Valley, which included a talk story session with some the valley’s top, artisan producers.  Yes, California meets France, looking to discuss how to grow & craft top caliber Syrah.  I would have loved to be a fly on the wall observing & listening to all of that! 

Fast forward to May 11, 2017, the core of the Californian group met again in San Francisco to continue the conversation & moving the sharing of thoughts & information forward.  The centerpiece of the night was a BLIND tasting of 12 Syrah red wines–6 from California & 6 from France’s northern Rhone Valley.  The event was held at the Hillside Supper Club in San Francisco.

The list of attendees included–

winemakers–Adam Tolmach (Ojai); Bob Lindquist (Qupe); Pax Mahle (Wind Gap); Paul Gordon (Halcon); Bradley Brown (Big Basin); Michael (assistant winemaker of Drew, since Jason was in Europe at the time).

media–included–William Kelley (Decanter); Esther (Chronicle); Jim Gordon (Enthusiast); Mike Dunne (Sac Bee); Patrick Comiskey (author of “American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink“); Cyrus Limon & Alan Rath (WineBerserkers).

and me. 

I didn’t even know what wines were actually there!  Some French names had been mentioned in passing prior to the event & I would expect there would be wines from the Californian winemakers present, but all speculation, at least for me.   I believe Paul Gordon (in the middle of the picture) was the true mastermind in putting this event together.  (Thank you Paul!)  Orchestrating & pouring of wines blind was the host restaurant’s “wine guy”, Austin Ferrari, apparently quite the rising star in the city.  (standing up & serving in the picture).  Thank you Austin!

The 12 wines were served in 2 flights of 6…….BLIND.  The tasters were then asked to rate the wines, 1 thru 12.


Here was the group’s compilation of the top 5–

#1 2013 Wind Gap “Nellison”

#2 2013 Halcon “Alturas”

#3 2012 Jamet Cote Rotie

#4 2013 Gonon St Joseph

#5 2013 Drew “Perli”

Here was my list (complete with the tasting notes I had taken)—

#1 2012 Clusel Roch Cote Rotie “Vialliere”–captivating, feral nose–really good pedigree with sandalwood, smoke,roasted green peppercorn, gamey, pepper, bay leaf, savory, musky, classy.  vinous, higher in acidity, less glycerine, lower alcohol.  When asked, I thought this was French.

Tied for #1 2013 Ojai “Solomon Hills”–earthy, savory & classy, though quite masculine in style, dense, immense & quite formidably structured.  raspberry, smoke, earth, pepper, green peppercorn.  moderate plus in alcohol & glycerine. 

#3 2012 Jamet Cote Rotieclosed nose, but more ethereal, feral/rustic, rank andouille sausage, smoke  musk & earth.  Also had pedigree & lots of class.  leaner, more acidity, lighter in color, lower alcohol & glycerin.  When asked, I thought this was French–perhaps Cornas.  

#4 2012 Allemand Cornas “Challiot”–andouille sausage/feral smells–wildly rustic, bay leaf, smoke, lavender, savory, musk, sandalwood, masculine, leaner, higher acidity, lower alcohol & glycerine.  Definitely had a soulfulness.  When asked, I thought this was Cornas.

#5 2013 Wind Gap “Nellison”–ripe red fruit, bordering jammy, smokey, earthy, savory, ripe, forward, power, well structured,  well balanced……stewed raspberry nuances.  Well made Californian, so I thought this might be Ojai Syrah.

Other notes–

While I was tasting the wines, I did not think about whether the wine was from France or California.  My focus was instead on whether it was good or not, why or why not.  I noted my thoughts on place of origin, only because my neighbors had asked.

One of the real missing bits of information I would have liked was how much did each wine cost.  As a wine buyer, one, I believe, also needs to consider quality for the dollar when purchasing.  I believe the Ojai & perhaps the Wind Gap bottlings, for example, was the least expensive of my top 5 list & that certainly would have been a strong consideration for me when looking which of these wines to buy for the restaurant.

Another clarification I need to comment on, is top 5 for consumption when?  I really believed the French trio of my top 5 list–Clusel Roch, Jamet & the Allemand because of the higher acidity levels & mojo would greatly benefit from some additional bottle age & would therefore have really affected my subsequent scoring of each.  While the Ojai & Wind Gap would have also benefitted from additional bottle age, I’m not so  sure if it would have been as much.  All conjecture however.

Also, as promised, I started reading Patrick Comiskey’s newly released book–“American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink” on the plane back to Hawaii.  Although I have read only just a bit, I like it & had a hard time putting it down.  It certainly (at least so far) does a good job of documenting the Rhone varietal based wines history in a very clear, understandable style–from Kermit Lynch to Joseph Phelps to Gary Eberle to Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach & Bob Lindquist to Randall Grahm to what I am currently reading–Steve Edmunds.  Since this all unfolded in the early part of my wine career, it really was so fascinating for me the way Patrick connected the dots & made transitions from one to another, as he moved forward.  Thank you Patrick for your work!

(As a side note, I would absolutely love it if Kermit Lynch would some day do the same kind of writing documenting his journey with the producers from France’s northern Rhone Valley such as Chave, August Clape, Marius Gentaz, Noel Verset, Thierry Allemand, Gonon, Faury AND with Monier, Joseph Panel, Trollat, Rostaing & Robert Jasmin!  Wouldn’t that be something to read!)

I must also thank Paul Gordon of Halcon for putting together this tasting.  It took, I am sure, a lot work, time & energy.  Thank you also to Jason Drew of Drew wines for getting me invited.  I, for one, got a lot out of this experience.

I truly believe there is a huge opportunity for these kinds of wines on our winelists.  Well grown & crafted renditions, for one, can help fill a puka which lies between Pinot & Cabernet.  Yes, we can create a step ladder which will better bridge that gap on the restaurant floors.

Furthermore, Syrah is undisputedly a noble grape variety.  I clearly remembered how floored I was tasting my first Chave Hermitage & later Gentaz Dervieux Cote Rotie & Noel Verset Cornas back in the late 80’s.  Each completely astounded me in terms of pedigree, transparency & soulfulness.  They really helped open a whole new horizon of wines & possibilities for me.  Imagine 28 years later at this tasting, a Californian born Syrah was a favorite on the compiled tasters’ list, as well as on mine.  My, my, we have come a long ways.

Lastly, it was great to see some long time friends–Bob Lindquist (on the left),  Adam Tolmach (on the right) & Pax Mahle.  And, it was also great to meet a bunch of new wine friends.  Thank you to all!!!

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