In California, by comparison, the evolution & progress forward has been slow for the Syrah grape variety. It has been like anxiously waiting for the sun to finally rise, but seemingly in slow motion & seemingly an eternity. I often wonder if the process also took so long in the Rhone Valley.
By the late 80’s, on the California front, I already was working with the wines from Qupe & winemaker/owner Bob Lindquist. His wines at that time were quite delicious, intriguing, well textured, balanced, food friendly & I loved selling them & then watching people’s faces smile from their pure enjoyment. While these wines certainly deserved a place on a winelist, Bob’s real shining moments of glory really started when his custom Z Block hillside planting (planted in 1992) started coming into its own. OMG, what a profound difference!
While I also tasted & appreciated the efforts from Joseph Phelps, McDowell, Edmunds St John & other prominent Syrah-ists, of the time, to me, Bob Lindquist & his Qupe Syrahs really stood out the most. In the early 90’s there were a couple of estate Syrah bottlings from Bryan Babcock which also caught our attention. Where Qupe crafted more elegant, refined, suave & well balanced renditions, Babcock’s were much more masculine, hearty & ruggedly structured.
Then, in the 90’s, we found & fortunately jumped early on to the bandwagons of Alban (1989 “Reva” Syrah) & Sine Qua Non (1992 “Black & Blue”, actually custom made by Mike Havens) before the HUGE hoop-la & prices really escalated. These were/are standout bottlings, whose prominence & superstar status has stood the test of time & are still today some of the most prolific, revered, sought after wines out of California. It certainly must have something to do with their focus & commitment.
Others certainly have tried to replace them as “king of the mountain”. Even the media lavished high scores to newer generation Syrah producers such as Lagier Meredith, Shafer & other Napa Valley star wineries & while these wines are highly lauded, none of these Napa Valley-ers has yet to challenge or dethrone Alban & Sine Qua Non.
As it turned out the challengers are today really coming from the Central Coast of California.
Let’s start with Adam Tolmach & his Ojai label. While I certainly appreciated the bravado & thunder that Alban & Sine Qua Non profoundly offered, the Ojai Syrahs had really caught our fancy more because of their mesmerizing transparency, intricate touch, wonderful texture & balance. While I liked the Ojai Syrah bottlings from the early 90’s, I was especially much more enamored with their Bien Nacido Vineyard bottling from 1995 on (with the advent of grapes from Z Block, the newer, custom, hillside plantings of Bien Nacido vineyard, coming on line). This bottling of Syrah has today really come into its own, starting with the 2004 vintage & as the vines got older. (The 2010 which we sampled recently at a “Young Sommelier” tasting was really a homerun!) Finally…a Californian grown & produced Syrah, which truly moved me!
(It was those relationships with Lindquist, Tolmach as well as Clendenen, Babcock & Whitcraft which cemented my keen interest in the wines of the Santa Barbara appellation, which is still quite active. It had something to do with long growing seasons, marine soils & true mastery of winemaking).
I should also mention Randall Grahm & Bonny Doon here as well. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, Randall was much more renown for his Grenache based “Le Cigare Volant” bottling than his work with Syrah. That changed with his 1995 Bonny Doon Syrah, which featured grapes grown in the heralded Bien Nacido Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, the same vineyard source used by Lindquist at Qupe & Tolmach of Ojai. The 1995 had a real gamey, rustic, provocative edge, which was a big step forward from his previous Syrah bottlings. He was quite proud of the wine & deservedly so. Randall’s biggest contribution, in my opinion however, was his remarkable talent for producing wines which would appeal to a wide spectrum of wine palates AND through his clever bottle packaging & amazing clever writings/marketing, he took Syrah & his other Rhone varietal bottlings, to a whole ‘nother, wider audience of wine drinkers. He certainly was one of the real champions/crusaders of this niche of wines. Thank you Randall!
In the early 90’s, the first red wine which started & egged on my fascination with the wines from Paso Robles further north, was the 1988 Justin “Isosceles”, a Cabernet blend from the westside of the appellation. It clearly stood out in a line-up of other Cabernets from all over California. It was partly because of the red rather than black fruit the wine exuded, but more importantly, it was because of the underlying minerality the wine innately had, instead of the gobs of super ripe fruit frequently featured. Needless to say on my next trip to California I made it a point to visit the Paso Robles appellation to check the wine ongoings. After days of driving around & tasting, Justin Vineyards & Winery was my only catch. BUT, I was quite fascinated by the abundance of siliceous clay/limestone/white-gray soiled hillsides–which were heated by the 100 plus degree temperatures of daytime, but greatly cooled by the 50 degree nights. I also remember telling Justin Baldwin at the time I felt this area would be a hotspot for Rhone grape varieties.
In the mid 90’s, I met Matt Trevisan, while he was an assistant winemaker at Justin Vineyards & Winery. He had told me he & a partner were thinking about making their own wine soon. The project was named Linne Calodo, which still produces standout wines to this day. On a subsequent visit, I then met up with Justin Smith, who was to be Matt’s eventual partner, although I did not know at the time. I, in fact, tasted a “home made” white wine at the Smith’s family’s cellar located in the James Berry vineyard below one the houses. It was a blend of Roussanne & Viognier, done by Justin & his father Pebble. This began a long running relationship with Justin Smith (Saxum), Matt Trevisan (Linne Calodo) AND the Paso Robles growing appellation.
There is no doubt, these two are the true standouts of the appellation. I would also say, they both belong on the same pedestal as Alban & Krankl, in the quality of their wines, changing the game & leading the pack.
Matt is a master at blending. He typically has 27 to 32 different cuvees to work with (a complex matrix of different vineyards, aspects, soils, micro climates, grape varieties all which have been harvested at different “hang” times & brix. Furthermore, he has quite a stash of fermentation vessels–several concrete & wood–& in different sizes). I therefore liken his wine blends as an orchestra as opposed to just a horn section. It is a similar concept to what one could find from Cote Rotie, Barolo & Champagne in the old days before the single vineyard phenomenon. His wines are lavish, ripe, though very layered, well textured & deftly seamless.
Justin Smith, in comparison, focuses on more single vineyard bottlings. He is after all a man of the vineyard, so it makes sense. (He however, also has a blended bottling, “Broken Stones”, as well). The Saxum Syrah based wines have such remarkably civilized power, bravado, depth & layering which has certainly drawn incredible fanfare, accolades & a cult like following.
On another of the trips, I was invited to a blind tasting of Syrahs from the area. This was during the Hospice de Rhone Wine Festival time, but ours was just a small, private get together separate from the festival itself. Of the 20 plus wines poured, I was completely taken by what was in glass #7. It really was unlike anything I had had previously. The next morning, my friends & I were on the road to see Glen Rose Vineyard, the vineyard source of wine #7. When we arrived, I was shocked how whitish the soils appeared. Even on the way up to the site, the cuts in the hillsides along the road were “layered” with sheets of all white-gray looking soils. On a later trip back to this vineyard with Bryan Babcock (whose Syrah at the time was one worth seeking out), he was also taken back at what he was seeing. I remember him mentioning at the time, “the vines may have issues with shutting down because of how meager & extreme this site looked“. Bryan & I also on this trip went to check out Heartstone Vineyard & walked the site with owner Hoy Buell. It too was rather breathtaking in its rolling hills of whitish-gray soils. The ball was really starting to roll & this appellation was just waiting to bust out to become a reckoning force in the California wine scene.
After those encounters, I therefore made I believe 6 trips in one year to Paso Robles, just to further dig around & get a better idea of what was happening & what would be coming down the road.
Justin Smith, as it turns out, is & has been a pivotal Paso Robles ambassador for us, as he later opened the doors to several of his consulting/helping out projects (early on in their development) of the region–Denner, Terry Hoage, Villa Creek, Booker & Epoch just to name a few. These provided a whole ‘nother genre of California born Syrah based red wines–lavish, opulent & showy, BUT the limestone/siliceous vineyard soils seemed to greatly add interestingness & surprising buoyancy to the wines.
Further north in California, I also searched for Syrah based red wines. Although I applauded the early Syrah efforts Joseph Phelps & McDowell pioneered, they weren’t really what I was looking for. It really wasn’t until the 90’s that Syrah made a qualitative turn.
One of the early leads was based upon a tip from a respected wine friend. I then drove to Bolinas, way out on the coast, to visit Sean Thackery, just to see his take on what Syrah could be. As it turned out, his were very unique & idiosyncratic wines–deep, sinister, surly, feral, masculine, brooding–but certainly good enough that we later recommended him, when asked, to David Hirsch of Hirsch vineyard for considerations for Hirsch vineyard Pinot fruit. I just thought that Sean’s mastery with Syrah, might also shed a different light of what Pinot Noir could be. Here was one Syrah, named Orion, which really stood out, despite being wild & wooly.
A short time later, I made a trip to the Sonoma side to visit for the first time Wells Gutherie (Copain). Although he was getting well known for his Pinot Noirs, I initially actually went there to try his Syrah based reds. He had previously worked a stint with Helen Turley & a stage in France’s Rhone Valley, I believe at Chapoutier. As it turned out, we liked the Copain wines, as they were much more worldly in style & Wells represented a new generation of young turks emerging on to the wine scene. He scoured for grape sources & for Syrah even as out of the way as in Mendocino. He was very focused on his wines & his style of wines. Despite the high acclaim & accolades, some people would say, however, the wines were quite masculine, structured, bordering hard & not so delicious. Even so, he certainly was a star in the making. He has since totally found his groove & his wines are today generally considered standouts.
There were, however, a few other winemakers who shared space in his Russian River facility & one in particular, Mike Officer (Carlisle) & his wines really caught our attention. Mike started off as a home winemaker, but soon because of how good his wines truly were, decided to take the plunge professionally….although part time in the beginning. He had a true passion for interesting, old vine Zinfandel (& mixed black grapes) vineyards mainly in the Russian River, but also included the Dry Creek Valley. His wines had lots of mojo, swag, AND lots of intriguing, old vine character. The high scores & acclaim were inevitable & much deserved. As the Carlisle wines just took off, Mike also included some Petite Sirah & some Syrah bottlings along the climb. Like his Zinfandels, his Syrah based reds were manly, unabashed, dense & significant with formidable structure & length on the palate. Mike Officer’s star was definitely on the rise. He knew what kind of wine he wanted to make & he since has passionately & skillfully fulfilled his vision.
On the same trip, we then drove to see Pax Mahle. Back then, I don’t think there was GPS, at least available to me, so I got quite lost trying to locate him. In following his directions, I kept ending up at a winery with some kind of Italian origin name. I later found out he rented space there to make his wines. On this first visit, Pax had 4 to 6 barrels of wine, which were neatly lined up in the middle aisle between their barrels. We tasted through his barrels & I was especially taken by the Lauterbach Vineyard barrel of Syrah. It wasn’t overtly fruit driven or oaky. It had smells of meat, violets, lavender. The fruit was very ripe, but didn’t smell over ripe. It certainly was decadently mouthfilling, but still had structure & balance despite the higher levels of alcohol. This gentleman certainly had a touch! I believe Pax was also a former sommelier once, or maybe a retailer. He had the right understanding & spin on his wines, really knew what he wanted them to be & what he thought they were at this time. He was badass & I left there with my head spinning over the experience. This was a guy worth keeping an eye for. Fast forward to today, his Wind Gap wines are quite opposite in style from what he produced under his Pax Wine Cellars label. They are now much more transparent, elegant, refined & balanced & well worth searching out for. He is definitely in a real zome.
I thought the same of winemaker Ehren Jordan. At that time, Ehren was winemaking partner at Neyers Vineyard & was also working at Turley. Because of his cellar work with superstar winemaking consultant Helen Turley, his Chardonnays while at Neyers were so striking, provocative & highly acclaimed, as was expected. I knew Ehren had done a stint working in Cornas & had a keen interest in Syrah & therefore was anxiously waiting to see what he would do at Neyers with Syrah. While he & Bruce Neyers released some interesting single vineyard Syrah early on in their collaboration, it was actually their 2001 Syrah “Cuvee d’Honneur” bottling which really captured our attention. This bottling showcased a fascination, respect & homage for the way iconic French Rhone Valley Syrah masters like Clape, Verset & specifically Allemand went about their craft (essentially 100% stems, foot stomped, wild yeast fermented & NO SO2). The resulting wine had a much more of savory, soulful edge which for me was a considerable step above most of the other Syrahs out of California at that time.
This is an ideal opportunity to segue from Neyers wines to the true mastermind behind the wine project–Bruce Neyers. I first met Bruce back in the late 70’s/early 80’s while he was still at Joseph Phelps. Even back then I was fascinated with the way his mind worked & I therefore always had uku-zillion questions to ask him, especially regarding Riesling & Syrah, since I was such a fanatic of these 2 grape varieties (which were 2 of Phelps’ wine specialties back then). It was a thrill to taste through their bottling(s) of each at the same time. My next really significant meeting up with Bruce occurred when he took over the reins as National Sales Manager for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants in the early 90’s. I had already been to France a couple of times & visited many of the wineries he would now be representing. He therefore was someone I could talk to for ages about Syrah & the wines of the Old World at length & in detail. He could also better explain to me the Neyers transition of Syrah in the New World, based upon what he saw & learned on his many trips to the Rhone Valley, especially given his deep relationships with, what I would call THE Syrah “Masters”. He became the yoda of Californian wine.
The next VERY noteworthy Syrah under Bruce’s watchful & insightful care, “started in the mid 90’s, when the revered Sangiacomo family developed their Old Lakeville Road” vineyard using budwood from the three primary red wine vineyards in the northern Rhône: Cornas, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The 12-acre parcel was divided into three blocks, and each is harvested and fermented separately. From these three components, we created a blend which seems to have characteristics from each of the appellations. The vineyard is located in what is proving to be one of the most favorable spots for Syrah in California“, legally labeled as “Sonoma Coast”, though much closer to Petaluma & therefore greatly cooled by the ocean winds from the Petaluma Gap. When I first tasted the 2006 Neyers Syrah “Old Lakeville Road”, I was quite stunned. Finally….another Californian grown & produced Syrah with potential to move me. The different, subsequent vintages of this bottling had its ups & downs. Sometimes it was good, sometimes memorable. Was it the extreme winemaking or the uneven-ness or the moodiness of the imported vines & resulting grapes which caused the disparity? Or perhaps a combination of both? Whatever the case, these wines clearly showed how much better vine material could greatly elevate quality. As time went along, however, it became clear that the vines were not happy to be there & slowly faded into the sunset, with 2012 being the last bottling. Yes, it was a mere flash of brilliance, but it certainly fostered the dream of what could be.
Although it took some time to get my foot in the door, I also worked hard to get the wines, Syrah based & otherwise from Les Behrens, who was then the winemaker/co-owner of Behrens & Hitchcock. I especially liked his “Alder Springs” bottling. When I later tasted a stellar “Alder Springs” Syrah from Pax Mahle, I made it a point to drive north, right outside the quaint town of Laytonville near the Humboldt county line to visit Stu Bewley & walk his Alder Springs vineyard with him. The burning question & subsequent search was to find a Syrah that really would ring my bell. This was heralded as one of those spots that could provide something noteworthy.
I should also mention the work the Peay is doing out on the true Sonoma Coast & their efforts at championing “cool climate” Syrah. Yes, the wines are SOOOOO very different in aromas, character, structure & physiological maturity & deftly provide a whole ‘nother perspective on what Californian Syrah can be.
I also was at the time quite intrigued with the 1999 Edmeades Syrah “Eaglepoint Ranch”, which was crafted by winemaker “Vanimal”–Van Williamson. At the time Van was producing some very hearty, old vine Zinfandel beasts from a variety of unique, old vine vineyards throughout Mendocino. Interestingly, he also produced some wild & interesting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah AND Syrah during his tenure at Edmeades. I was so taken by his masculine, wild & wooly style of Syrah, which featured grapes grown in “Eaglepoint Ranch”..
A short ime later, Van introduced me to Casey Hartlip, the then vineyard manager of “Eaglepoint Ranch”, a vineyard planted I believe sometime in the 70’s/early 80’s (first Syrah planted in 1989), roughly 1800 feet above the town of Ukiah. We subsequently made a couple of trips up to see & walk the vineyard. With the 2001 harvest, Along with Jeff Figone, fellow Master Nunzio Alioto, we contacted Casey to buy 2 tons of Syrah fruit, based upon what we had tasted from Edmeades & Copain. Since this brazen, warmer climate, “mountain grown” fruit had more than enough bravado, we then contacted Pinot winemaking master, Fred Scherrer, to craft the wine for us, hoping he could work his magic to make a much more elegant, suave style of Syrah. That he did! We thought the wine was stellar & definitely along the lines we were looking for. It is still drinking quite superbly to this day. (By the way, Fred today produces some very elegant, suave, classy Syrahs under his own Scherrer label, definitely worth searching for).
Interestingly, at this time, while we were quite intrigued with this wine, another fellow Master, Mike Bonaccorsi, made a comment I will always remember–“If you are interested in Syrah from California, you need to go back & check out what’s happening down in Santa Barbara“.
That I did! Thank you Mike. Back to where the interest & journey for California Syrah really began.
Mike was right. The Syrah scene had really changed in the Santa Barbara appellation. Newer Syrah “finds” included those crafted by Sashi Moorman (former assistant to Adam Tolmach) under the Stolpman label; Jason Drew (former assistant winemaker to Bryan Babcock) under the Drew label; Paul Wilkins (former assistant to John Alban) under the Autonom label & Paul Lato (former cellar rat for Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat) under the Paul Lato label, as well as Greg Brewer at Melville & Chad Melville under his own Samsara label.
One of those wines, the 2003 Drew Syrah “Morehouse Vineyard,” in particular was a true standout for me at the time. (This was a time when Jason was still working down in the Santa Barbara region, first with Babcock & then spinning off with his own Drew label). Because of his tenure at Babcock in the 90’s & Bryan Babcock’s very masculine, dark, manly, untamed, beasty Syrah wines, I had expected Jason Drew to do something similar in style. Boy, was I surprised! His 2003 was so classy, refined & provocatively transparent & intricate, with remarkable layering, savoriness, texture & balance. The 2003 was a special wine, with something extra & unique, something beyond fruit & oak, qualities even the 2004 did not have. I often wonder what ever happened to that vineyard since. (And, as an update, Jason moved his winemaking operation up north in 2004/05, where his home & relatively newly planted, surrounding estate vineyard is located in the Mendocino Ridge appellation. In the meantime, he has been sourcing from various vineyards in the area, & deftly crafting gorgeous Syrahs & Pinots well worth searching out for).
It was quite a few years later that we started to check out the plantings in the Ballard Canyon niche of Santa Barbara county, first with Stolpman in the early 2000’s & then much later (mid 2000’s or so) with the Jonata plantings. I was actually introduced to Stolpman grown wine via the vineyard’s Sangiovese & Nebbiolo crafted by Jim Clendenen. After tasting their Syrah, however, I knew they were on to something even more special. Plus, under the direction of winemaker Sashi Moorman, the vineyard morphed & adjusted their vine plantings, but this time in keeping with what they learned was happening in Italy & France at some standout estates. Coupled with Sashi’s meteoric learning curve, the wines, especially the Syrah based ones, just kept getting better & better. The Estate Syrah typically offers such elegance, class, wonderful texture & balance.
I was then anxious to try the Jonata wines, after eye balling all of the work they put into developing their rolling hills (which we later discovered was mostly sand, instead of the limestone bedrock we saw at neighboring Stolpman estate) into vineyards, while sparing NO expense. I also became a huge fan of winemaker Matt Dees with the first visit & even more so as time goes on. He is totally in the winemaking sweet spot. While my original interest was for their Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc, their Syrah (Sangre) seems to be making the biggest splash so far & is a very masculine, savory, mega-intense stud, challenging for the top spot. I also thought we would see some interesting Syrah being grown at the neighboring Beckman & Larner vineyards, but as it turns out, Grenache seems to be more of their thing.
Where to next?