Aug
14

“A Taste of Purity”

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Wine, like most of our lifestyle choices, is greatly influenced by what’s currently in fashion. In this case, we are undoubtedly speaking of BIG, opulent, loud, demonstrative, impact wines, done with a bigger the better mentality. A 100 points says it all. Well, that is not what this specific tasting is about…..at all. In fact, one could say, the exact opposite.   The wines for this tasting, celebrate finesse, intricacy, nuance, balance & most of all purity. From all of the wines from around the world, we have settled on 4 of our absolute favorites from this category. FOUR. I suggest this is a golden learning opportunity about the “other” side. Be cautious. Once you start tasting these kinds of wines, it is hard to go back to “lumberjack city”.

2014 Quenard Gamay Noir “Chignin”–a wonderfully delicious, pretty, naked red wine grown on steep, rocky,  hand built terraces high in the foothills of the French Alps.  100% Gamay Noir, supposedly the same grape variety that is used to produce Beaujolais red wines, but because the vineyard’s aspect is steeper & at higher altitudes with limestone scree soils, this results in a somewhat differently nuanced wine without compromising the extreme deliciousness normally associated with this grape variety.  I think of this wine as being lighter, more airy in weight too with a very different kind of pretty perfume.

The Savoie is a picture of fairy-tale perfection: snow-capped peaks, green rolling hills, wildflowers, and cold, sparkling mountain streams. This idyllic region hugs the western Alps, where Michel Quenard farms twenty-two hectares of vineyards along the steep, terraced slopes of the Coteau de Torméry around Chignin. The limestone scree that dominates this vineyard land has brought great diversity to the soils, and consequently, the wines.  His cuvées go beyond the simple “eclectic” that categorizes wines from the region; whether they are quaffed or savored, they are all unique revelations that reflect the complexity of their terroir and the fine artistry of this master vigneron”.  Kermit Lynch

 

2014 Hans Wirsching Scheurebe Kabinett Dry “Iphofer”–such breathtaking purity done with finesse, intricacy & sophistication.  In the old days, because Riesling would normally ripen only 2 or 3 vintages out of 10, German scientists searched & experimented with different crosses that would offer Riesling nobility, BUT ripen earlier.  Scheurebe was one of the more successful.  Now, however, that Riesling essentially ripens almost every vintage, the need/demand for Scheurebe seems to be dwindling.  Having said that, THIS to me is the finest Scheurebe I have yet to have.  I love its sublime, wonderfully nuanced perfume & minerality AND how remarkably light & airy it is on the palate!  WOW!

 “Now in its 14th generation, the Wirsching family has been making wine since the 1630’s!  This mild climate and the long growing season allow the vines to absorb the minerals contained in the gypsum keuper soil and allows for a long ripening season”.

 

2014 Manni Nössing Muller Thurgau “Sass Rigais”–an absolutely riveting, wonderfully transparent, minerally standout grown high up in the Dolomites.  The Muller Thurgau grape variety is another example of a Riesling cross that became quite popular in Germany, PRE-the string of warm vintages.  While I would candidly say that Paul Furst of Franconia produces the top example of what this grape variety is capable of, I would also add this bottling as a close second.  I just love its absolute purity & amazing precision.

Manni Nössing runs his small winery amid the towering peaks of the Dolomites. His vineyards benefit from the mountain climate and steep slopes of glacial deposit that make up the Valle Isarco, the narrow valley to the northeast of Bolzano that is known for its fresh, aromatic whites“.   Kermit Lynch

 

2013 Brégeon “Gorges”–The ideal way to end such a tasting!  a VERY intriguing, minerally white, aged for 18 to 24 months on its lees in underground glass cuves  First of all, yes, these vines grow on a very unique soil in a very unique climate & that is the real core of what makes this wine so individualistic.  To that, I would also say that the Brégeons add their touch to making it that much more memorable–wild yeast fermented & then aging the wine in subterranean glass line cuves for 18 to 24 months on its lees.  Yes, complexity & mouthfeel in a very different & VERY patient way, without taking away from the wine’s innate, delicate purity.

“Brégeon is part renegade, part crusader, and full-blown terroirist. Over the years, he has become an ardent defender of the Muscadet-Sèvre-et-Maine terroir, the most highly regarded of the four appellations in the Pays Nantais. Thanks to his deep understanding of the nuances of the land, he plays the game much differently than the region’s caves cooperatives and negociants, who produce en masse and lose the subtlety of the appellation. For seven years, he worked for his family’s domaine before setting out on his own in 1975. When his father retired in 1989, he gave his remaining vineyard land to Michel. Today, Michel farms seven hectares of vineyards in clay, silica, and gabbro soils. Gabbro is old, blue-green, volcanic rock, rarely found in vineyard land. Formed by magma eruptions under the ocean floor”.  Kermit Lynch

Categories : General, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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One of the big, happening banners being waved in our local food and wine industry is to BUY LOCAL and rightfully so.  A profound question/statement once asked by a friend is how can we buy 10% more local food product.  He noted that could translate into 100’s of millions of dollars that stay in our State economy.  If we do it well, he further added this could also help move us towards self-sustainability as a State.  It could also help a farmer actually make it, financially.   All, good things.

Along those lines, I was recently reminded of yet another opportunity to support local.  The Kauai/Oahu Chapter of the Chaine des Rottiseurs (a very celebrated international food and wine society) held a dinner at VINO recently spearheaded by current Bailli, Kathryn Nicholson who requested to pair our foods with the wines from MauiWine, Ulupalakua Vineyards.  The group had apparently visited the Maui based winery & vineyard late last year & decided to do a dinner featuring their wines.

I was astounded to find that this Maui based winery has been around for 42 years!  And, despite the challenges of so many obstacles seemingly endlessly popping up, this winery has strongly and almost stubbornly persevered.  When one considers, for example, that their estate grown vines do not typically have a true dormancy period (sleep time in vine language) that would be like me staying up 24 hours a day.  I need sleep and rest and so do the vines.  That is just one of the countless challenges MauiWine and its unbelievable leader, Paula Hegele have worked through for 42 years!    

They currently have 6 grape varieties planted—Syrah, Malbec & Grenache for red wine & Viognier, Chenin Blanc & Gewürztraminer for white wine.

Each of the first five wines listed were featured at this group’s VINO dinner.  I watched in fascination as these connoisseurs ooo-ed, awed and nodded their heads in approval with each taste of wine.  We knew that if any of these wines were not good, we certainly would have heard about it & quickly.  Winery spokesperson, Joe Hegele was there to color commentate the experience & answer any & all questions.  I would readily say, people left appreciating & enjoying a whole new niche of wine they had not considered before.

A couple of weeks later, I and two other VINO teammates were on Maui visiting our newly opened, sister restaurant, Shearwater Tavern, in Kihei.  In the late morning, the Tavern chef team took us up to visit one of their core farms who supply their produce—Maui Nui Farms up in Kula.  It was a very insightful experience to say the least & we were clearly reminded how hard these farmers work & we walked away with an even greater respect for what & how they do & of course their product.

We decided to then go to Maui Wine because we were so close to the vineyard & winery.  

Their 23 acre vineyard of various parcels is located roughly at 1800 feet elevation with rich volcanic soils and an absolutely breathtaking, panoramic view of Maui’s southwest shore, including Molokini Island.  One gets a strong sense of place while visiting the vineyard that’s for sure. 

On this visit, the wine which caught the eye of VINO General Manager, Ann Taketa, was the very pretty, delicious, uplifting, pink sparkling wine, which they label as “Lokelani”.  The grapes come from California, but the wine is aged on the lees (part of the process of how the French make Champagne) and then bottled right there on their Ulupalakua site.  We were all so mesmerized looking through the green colored bottles and its floating lees, as it would slowly mature and increase its complexity during the lengthy process.

Ann was so impressed, she is looking to feature Lokelani by the glass at VINO, just as Managing Partner, Ivy Nagayama is looking to also do at both Sansei Waikiki and DK Steakhouse.

Yes, just another way to support local!  You can help too, by checking out their wines.

 

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Aug
13

Syrah from Washington State

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As you may have heard, I just came back from wine country in Washington state. Yup, eight days of walking the most revered vineyards and talking story with some of the real leaders of what’s happening there. (I am so thankful to all who made the trip so interesting and insightful.)

Early on, Riesling had its heyday.  Since then & now Cabernet Sauvignon based red wines is the most highly acclaimed.  For the future, however, it seems Merlot & Syrah is on the rise there.  On this recent trip it therefore turned out that Syrah was more of the focus for this trip.

We found their top Syrah renditions are unlike those encountered from California, Australia or France. One of the characteristics we really liked was the savoriness each offers.  That’s what inspired this tasting!   We tasted wines from three of the trip’s standout producers….all served BLIND, just for fun. How often do opportunities like this come about? We suggest you jump on the bandwagon early, as this train is ready to just take off.  Tasting wines from these 3 standout wineries will hopefully give you a glimpse of what all of the fervor and hoop-la is about.

2013 Gramercy Syrah “Lower East”–We are so impressed with what Gramercy Cellars and co-winemakers, Greg Harrington and Brandon Moss, are doing in Washington state through their wines. Theirs is a true pursuit of transparency, texture and & balance. The 2013 is 100% Syrah, which combines the freshness and acidity of Minick and Upland Vineyard, sitting at 1300 ft in the Yakima Valley, with the funk and meatiness of the rocks at Stoney Vine and SJR Vineyards in Walla Walla.   16 months in oak, only 10% new. 93 points.  Just so you know, this bottling is typically the entry to their world of Syrah.  With the 2014 vintage Gramercy released at least FIVE different Syrah bottlings–“Lagniappe” (a blend of Red Willow, Forgotten Hills & Minick vineyards)….”Columbia Valley” (northerly Oldfield, Olsen, Old Stones & Les Collines vineyards)…..”The Deuce” (Les Collines & Forgotten Hills vineyards)…..”Forgotten Hills”” (100% from their Forgotten Hills estate vineyard)….and “John Lewis” (100% Les Collines vineyard Block 46).  Each are well worth checking out……for different reasons.

2012 Reynvaan Syrah “The Unnamed”–There is no doubt Matt Reynvaan is one of the top winemaking phenoms of Washington state. This 95/96 pointed Syrah is produced from grapes grown “In the Rocks” estate vineyard & grapes grown in their vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountain (co-fermented with Grenache Blanc), which showcases very different character in the wine than that of Red Mountain and the other iconic Syrah sites.  Matt’s wine style is along the lines of those from Cayuse–very lavish, generous, rich, opulent, warm, VERY savory…….with lots of swag.  I noticed Matt did not produce this bottling in 2015.

 2012 Force Majeure “Collaboration III”–A 97 point rated stud! For this vintage, the 100% Syrah grapes come from the highly revered Ciel du Cheval vineyard of the Red Mountain appellation and crafted by Mark Ryan McNeilly & Mike Macmorran both of Mark Ryan winery.  This wine really is a stud–masculine & immense with lots of fortitude & mojo…..along the lines of a Syrah crafted by a Cabernet winemaker.  As I have noted on a previous post, with 2014 & on, Force Majeure will be focusing on making wines from their estate Red Mountain vineyard–which was planted in 2007 on the hillside above Ciel du Cheval & the Col Solare vineyards………AND with Todd Alexander (former winemaker at Bryant Family in Napa Valley) at the winemaking helm.  Yes, we will be witnessing a new era for this winery.

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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Jul
31

2015 Nichon Semillon

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In all of these years of being in the wine industry, I cannot recall having a Semillon which really stood out.

Well that all changed when we tasted the 2015 Nichon Semillon a few weeks back.  This 100 case lot of 80% Semillon & 20% Sauvignon Blanc is yet another remarkable, totally ingenious wine project of superstar Master Sommelier Richard Betts.  The 60 plus, own rooted vines are planted in the deeply sandy soils of Vine Vale, within Australia’s Barossa Valley.  Betts writes to us–“way beyond organic or biodynamic to a style that we refer to as feral. Yup, it’s wild and full of wildlife (read: gigantic spiders, etc.) The vines are pruned, the grapes are picked and other than this, nothing else occurs – no plowing, no water, no pesticides, no herbicides, did we say no plowing?  whole cluster BASKET pressed…Barrel fermented in second use french barrique. (We get used chardonnay barrels and ferment and age in here.) then aged entirely in second use French oak for 12 months. There is NO malo, no fining, no filtration.  Did we say no plowing?

 

We are continually amazed at how fast the craze for pink wines has exponentially taken off here in the Islands.  Finally!   Yes, it is seasonally the time to start enjoying pink wines & here are four VERY unique renditions well worth checking out!

Elvio Tintero Rosato–This small, family owned and run estate has been around since 1900 and we initially fell in love with their effortlessly light, fizzy, wonderfully ethereal Moscato, but in just the past few vintages, we have also become quite fascinated and enamored with their other “country” styled wines. Here is their fizzy rose—mostly Barbera, with a tiny bit of Moscato and Favorita juice blended in to get the bubble making started. Because of the unique way they produce this wine, it cannot be vintage dated.

 

2015 Maestracci Corse Calvi “E Prove”–Thankfully today, roses come in many different styles and colors and the diversity is so welcome. Here is a darker colored more masculine one from the remote and rugged Isle of Corsica. Produced from equal parts of the two most intriguing, indigenous grape varieties of the island—Nielluciu and Sciacarellu. This rather hearty, very flavorful rose somehow captures the character and fortitude of the wild countryside that surrounds the vineyard.

 

2014 Punta Crena Barbarossa–This is a very unique, darker colored, masculine rose from the hills of Liguria, Italy right on the ocean.This steep, rocky vineyard has been cultivated for well over 500 years by the Ruffino family. The true Barbarossa grape variety is said to be grown by this one family in one village. It is VERY different from what is called Barbarossa in other appellations and, furthermore, this wine somehow captures the essences of the sun baked rocks, wild shrub/herbs surrounding the vineyard and the sea 1000 meters away, down below.

 

2015 Terrebrune Bandol Rose–We now feel this rose is at the head of the class in the category of Bandol and Provencal pink wines. It certainly has something to do with limestone pebble/clay surface soils and the blue limestone/marl subsoils, which gives the wine its vitality and innate freshness! BUT, we should also mention how the intuative winemaking gives the wines refinement, nuance and superb balance.

Categories : General, Rose, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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Jul
22

Wine on the rocks?

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Wine on the Rocks???

A year or 2 ago, while talking with a long time, wise, wine friend, whose palate and vast knowledge I greatly respect, we reminisced about the old days while sipping a favorite red wine from France’s Beaujolais region.  Early on in the conversation, he matter of factly asked for a glass of ice.  I didn’t think much of that, figuring he would use the ice to cool off, as he was obviously hot & perspiring.   When the large glass of ice arrived, much to my surprise, he poured the Beaujolais he was drinking into the glass over the ice!

Yes, I was astounded!  Here was a wine, produced from vines well over 100 years old, organically and biodynamically farmed, whose family had owned for over 500 years and produced as au naturally as possible, being poured over ice and then gulped!  Wine blasphemy?  Shouldn’t wines like this be swirled, sipped and savored?  I think the wine’s family would think so.  I also think most wine aficionados would think so.

After his first gulp, my friend simply let out a big “Ahhhhhh”, accompanied with a big smile.

He looked at me and sensed my obvious wonderment and then added, “Wow, that was good!  Try it.”  I did……AND I liked it.  It was cold, completely refreshing and thirstquenching.  I got it.  While the wine is one of my favorites when served normally, it took on a whole ‘nother personality served over ice.

Now, I am certainly not advocating to do so with all wines, but in cases like this with a  wine whose style is really about deliciousness, lightness on the palate, refreshing and uplifting acidity, serving it on the rocks on an especially warm August day, really did make sense.

Categories : General, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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Here was yet another get together of “Young Sommeliers”–to taste wines, in this case from the Mediterranean basin, BLIND.  Again, not to identify anything except if it is a “good” wine or not…..how much would one pay for it….AND finally, what kinds of foods would you recommend for each.

In addition, the offerings of this category available locally have been noticeably getting less & less.  Yes, getting quite restrictive.  So, here was a chance to share one’s stash.  Here we go!

The first wine– 2016 Marquliani Sciaccarellu Rosé–is one of our favorite pink wines in the world!  We are always amazed at how effortlessly light, airy, ethereal, minerally it really is.  90% is the indigenous Sciaccarellu grape variety with 10% Syrah blended in, all grown in Costa Serena–on the east side of Corsica.  Direct pressed.  Importer Kermit Lynch says it best–“Drinking her rosé is like drinking a cloud. There’s an absolute weightlessness to it. Nothing is left on the palate but perfume.”   Our friend Keith, in comparison, brought 2015 Ameztoi Txakolina Rosé “Rubentis”–a very delicious, thirstquenching frothy Spanish pink-ster.  Thank you, Keith.  The 2015 is a blend of the indigenous 50% Hondarribi Beltza & 50% Hondarribi Zuri grape varieties.  While the wine is not as fresh, zesty & alive as having it there, it still is wonderfully delicious, uplifting & gulpable.  Keith asked me why I poured this wine after the much finer, more complex Marquiliani.  Because the Tzxakolina was lower in alcohol at 10.5 versus 12.5.

We poured the 2015 Gregoletto Verdiso “Colli Trevigiani” next as a reminder of the Italian white wines of old–dry, straw mat/goza smells, stoney, light to medium in body with a distinct bitter almond finish.  Today, the indigenous Verdiso grape variety is not seen too much any more on its own.  It is mainly relegated to a blender, which adds backbone & to shore up the middle to Prosecco bottlings.  Gregoletto is quite renown for his sui lieviti (on the lees) Prosecco bottlings (which appear clouded, somewhat murky) AND also for championing the Verdiso grape variety.  (Incidently, I just discovered that Gregoletto was once named “FIVI Winemaker of the Year”. quite the honor).

The 2015 Ciu Ciu Pecorino “Merlettaie” is a very masculine, brazen, virile, strong willed, macho white wine produced from the indigenous Pecorino grape variety which in this case is  grown on the sun baked, bare & steep slopes of the Piceno Apennines.   The intent for this flight was to show tasters white wines which have mojo as opposed to those from cooler, higher altitude vineyards up in the north, which can be much more minerally, ethereal & lighter in weight.  We followed that with the 2013 Clos Ste Magdeleine Cassis “Bel-Arme”.  Clos Ste Magdeleine is without a doubt one of the real iconic wine estates of southern France.  Its stellar white wine masterpiece, Cassis, will be forever the definitive pairing with regional Provencal bouillabaisse.  A few year back they started producing this deluxe cuvee–“Bel Arme”–65% Marsanne, 15% Clairette, 15% Ugni Blanc, 5% Bourboulenc–from the vines planted on the terraced slope, below the Cap Canaille.  The wine is fermented in concrete, sees malolactic & aged on its lees in concrete   Thank you Keith for sharing.    As VINO regulars well know, I am always on the look out for really “good” aromatic white wines.  They are just really hard to come by.  Our latest query is the 2014 Riofavara Moscato di Noto “Mizzica”–a fully dry, masculine, rugged white wine from the southern tip of Sicily & its chalk-limestone soils.  We have been checking out this wine for a bit, but have yet to pull the trigger.

The next wine–2014 Occhipinti Terre Sicilano “SP68”–60% Moscato di Alexandria, 40% Albanello, grown in red sand, chalk, limestone at nearly 1000 feet elevation.  Wild yeast fermented & aged for 6 months in concrete.  This is currently one of the most happening white wines out of Italy & Arianna Occhipinti is truly hotter than hot.  I liked the wine, especially its   savoriness & am really glad we had the chance to try it.  Once was enough.  The 2015 Sigalas Assyrtiko is a VERY masculine, hearty, sun drenched, savory white wine from the Greek island of Santorini.  If I closed my eyes, I would think this is actually a red wine because of its viscosity & abundant tannins.  I often wonder when tasting this wine if Assyrtiko, the name of the grape variety, was derived from the word assertive, because assertive, it really is!  The 2014 Coenobium is a very unique wine–a blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia, and Verdicchio–produced by consultant winemaker, Giampiero Bea.  These “orange” styled wines are NOT for everyone by any means.  This wine, however, has a huge following among the avant guard sommelier community in the big cities across the country.  Most other people, however, would not know what to make of its “oxidative quality that blankets layers of minerals, faint nuttiness & acidity“.  (I would add a real savoriness).  Definitely an acquired taste.  For me, just too much.

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Thankfully, another get together with the “Young Sommelier” community.  On this date, we blind tasted a bunch of wines from around the Mediterranean basin, in search of “good” wine.  This was a REALLY fun opportunity!

We begin with the 2011 Casa da Passarella Dao Tinto.  This really good Portuguese “country” red wine is a blend of 4 indigenous grape varieties–Touriga Nacional, Alfrochiero, Tinta Roiz & Jaen from the Dao appellation.  It is tasty, interesting, flows on the palate well & GREATLY over delivers for the dollar,  What a “find”!  We then tasted the 2014 Scarpone Montepuciano d’Abruzzo.  Over the years, we have found the indigenous Montepulciano grape variety is very capable of making very interesting red wine.   This one comes from “a 5 acre vineyard, planted in 2001 at an elevation of 200 meters (600′) above sea level, in 2001 to all local massale vines of the traditional Montepulciano grape. This region, called the “Colline Teramane” after the nearby mountain town of Teramo, is aknowledged to produce the finest wine in the region. It is the first and only zone in the Abruzzo to be given the Italian government’s highest quality ranking of DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)”.  We found this wine is so very tasty, with interesting mojo & character, while still being UN-heavy, very food friendly & a truly remarkable value.  Consider serving with rustic braised pork or chicken dishes.  The 2014 Domaine Giacometti Patrimonio “Cru des Agriate” comes from a very remote part of the Island of Corsica.  I reminded tasters not to be fooled by the lighter coloring.  We have been quite intrigued with this particular Niellucciu based red wine because of how tasty & provocatively savory it really is.  When considering foods, consider savory, rustic meat preparations.  All 3 of these wines could work with the VINO Roasted Chicken with Tuscan styled beans or Braised Spanish Octopus with ham hock stew.

We started of the next flight with the 2012 Domaine Barral Faugeres.  Didier Barral is one of the revolutionary winemakers of southern France.  This Carignane red wine blend bares the sun baked rocks, wild herbs/shrubs of the wild countryside surrounding the vineyards.  Some would say the severe rusticity comes from his style of winemaking, others will say its the soil.  Me, I say a combination.  I can remember a day, when each of his bottles tasted different, (which by the way, I think is a good thing).  The main attribute I found compelling was how delicious this wine is & I would therefore definitely buy it again!  The 2011 Riofavara Eloro “Sciave” is Nero D’Avola (grape variety, organically farmed) in the southern tip of Sicily.  This was the very first Nero d’Avola that has caught me fancy.  It is manly & wild in its core, yet statuesque, well mannered, well manicured & quite provocative.  I will definitely be buying this wine again!  I bought the 2011 Le Piane Vino Rosso “Mimmo” at a wine store in Seattle.  This masculine, savory, well structured blend of mostly Nebbiolo with some Croatina & a tiny bit of Vespolina hails from the extreme Boca growing region of northern Piemonte.   Yes, the wine is interesting & sheds a very different light on what Piemontese red wines can be.  Furthermore, at $25 a bottle I would say it provides really good value.  I am so glad & thankful to have tried it, but once was enough.

The final flight of red wines started with the 2011 Domaine La Tour Vieille Collioure “Puig Ambeille”.  Collioure is an appellation in southern France, right on the Mediterranean, close to where the Pyranees mountains dives into the Mediterranean near the French/Spanish border.  The steep terraced hillsides are schist, all of which is constantly pounded by La Tramontagne, a fierce, relentless wind.  Normally, the La Tour Vieille Collioure reds are Grenache dominated, “Puig Ambeille”, however, is more about Mourvedre & its masculinity, thick skin & dark, virile core, still, with surprisingly deliciousness combined with a wonderful savory edge.  Thank you Chris for sharing.  In comparison, the 2010 Domaine Tempier Bandol “La Tourtine”, another southern French Mourvedre based red wine (though from Provence) had much more vinosity, character & pedigree, but in a very rugged, hearty, heftier, coarse, bordering belligerent way.  It certainly was a wine to be reckoned with.  Thank you Brian for sharing!

What a fabulous night!  Thank you all for sharing!!!

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I should also mention that Syrah is making great strides up in Washington state.

We did a dinner this past January at our Sansei Restaurant in Seattle with Master Sommelier Greg Harrington & wines from his Gramercy Cellars.  Greg is the type of person that looks to excel at whatever he does & has the kind of mind & determination to pull it off.

Since the dinner was held in January, we started working on the pairings in the Fall, months before using wine samples Greg had sent to us.  We all were very taken with his wines, as they were quite provocative, transparent, seamless, well textured & balanced & definitely some of the VERY best we have had from Washington state so far!

What an event!  (you can view the menu & some pictures of a different post–“A Dinner with Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars”).

During the course of the dinner, Greg talked about all of what he sees, understands & believes in what’s happening in Washington wine country.  His wines then clearly re-enforced what he was talking about.  It really was quite the experience.  I knew that night I needed to go visit.

The trip was planned.  Unfortunately Greg would be out of town at the time.  Long time friend/sommelier at the world renown Seattle based Canlis Restaurant, Elton Nichols, however, thankfully put me in touch with winemaker Morgan Lee of Two Vintners.  What timing!  Morgan was going to make a vineyard trek around the time I planned to be there, so we hooked up.

Up to this point in my observation, the Eroica Riesling project certainly had gained prominence, as had the Cabernet & Merlot based red wines from producers such as Andrew Will, Cadence, Doubleback, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole & Seven Hills.  The media certainly had been going gaga over Quilceda Creek, Mark Ryan & Leonetti AND for quite some time.  I was therefore quite surprised that while Morgan made Cabernet & Merlot, his true passion was Syrah.  This was NOT at all what I had expected.

Up to this point I was fascinated with the Syrah based red wines from Gramercy first & foremost, as well as Force Majeure, Reynvaan & Cayuse, just to name a few.  I was even more thankful then tagging along, knowing Morgan was so Syrah enthused & that we would visiting Syrah vineyards.  AND, so serendipitous.

I always feel I can sleep, eat & taste wines at home, but I can’t see vineyards in Hawaii.  So, I was so eager the first morning.  Typically all of my attention is seeing, walking vineyards, hopefully with the respective winemaker.

Our first visit was to the Ancient Lakes appellation & specifically the Evergreen Vineyard.  Planted in 2001 at 1450 feet elevation, 250 of the roughly 450 acres was planted to own rooted Riesling.  These higher elevations help to mitigate the 80 to 100 degree day temperatures with 50 or so degree nights.  The underlying soils is basalt with top soils of wind blown loess.  Driving & walking around in this large site, however, one could readily see “ribbons” of caliche, a white, marine influenced soil.

I cannot help but ask if you are searching to produce a top quality Syrah, doesn’t this soil & cooler growing climate (cool enough for Riesling) spark an interest to ask more questions, especially in terms of suitability for Syrah?

At least, couldn’t it possibly result in a blending component that would add a whole ‘nother dimension to the resulting wine, aromatically, structurally,  character wise & possibly lowering alcohol.  Couldn’t some one just plant 1 to 2 acres just to check it out?

We also went to see Olsen Vineyard in the eastern part of the Yakima appellation.  The vineyard is roughly 1,100 acres planted between 800 to 1350 feet elevation with a varying 5 to 30 degree slopes.  Eventhough the elevation is high, the vineyard looks pretty flat nonetheless, atop basalt bedrock, 18 inches to 3 feet below the loess top soils.  The vineyard produces wonderful Cabernet & Merlot, but this was also the first vineyard I saw Morgan proudly light up when he started talking about the Syrah plantings. 

While there are other vineyards we visited in the general area worth discussing at length, the next real noteworthy Syrah site was the Boushay Vineyard.  Owner Dick Boushay, one of the state’s most iconic & legendary vineyard-ists started planting Syrah I believe in the early 80’s.  His eyes would sparkle when we spoke about Syrah.  And, later, he spent a lot of time tasting & analyzing the 2 German Rieslings AND the 2 French Syrahs I had brought & opened.  He got lost in the wines.  I couldn’t really tell if he was contemplating something of the past, present or future or whether he was assessing the nuances of the wines & comparing them to what he gets out of Washington state wines.  In either case, he took the wines seriously & very thoughtfully, especially the Syrah.  We all talked for hours.  He is a fascinating man to say the least, who I discovered is really fascinated with the Syrah grape variety, eventhough he grows some of the most heralded Cabernet & Merlot  out of the state.  Thank you for the visit.  Sunset was more like 9pm, as we headed to our hotel.

After my first day, I couldn’t help but think…”boy, the vineyards here are large in size & rather flat“.

While Dick Boushay farms in the Yakima Valley & Rattlesnake Hills, I just found out that he has now also taken over the farming of Klipsun Vineyard in Red Mountain.  His comments on the differences between the appellations, especially with Syrah, was an ideal segue to the next day, as we headed to Horse Heaven Hills.  I had previously had visions of steep HILLS.  As we drove to the top, however, it became again quite flat.  A Plateau?  As we drove further & further, I kept wondering why it was called Horse Heaven HILLS. 

Our first stop, however, was the Discovery Vineyard, a 30 acre hillside site which overlooks the Columbia River.  There is 17 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 acres of Syrah & 1 acre of Petit Verdot.  I am sure we were there to check out his Syrah vines.  One could see that Morgan & his team walked with a different bounce to their step at this vineyard.  He was focused on the newer vineyard manager & this time spent in the vineyard together was totally important, especially with some Syrah parcels & its fruit becoming available next harvest AND the specter of new hillside plantings on the horizon!  Yes, this was a Syrah source Morgan was excited about.  AND, when we later tasted a Syrah from this vineyard side by side with a Syrah from this vineyard that another quite acclaimed winemaker made, Morgan’s superior talent & skill was quite evident.  Even the vineyard manager (who also happened to be owner’s son) could see the blatant difference.  His winemaking fit in well with this vineyard’s grapes & created quite a synergy.  4 1/2 hours later……….time well spent.

Morgan dropped me off in Pasco.  It had been a wonderful couple of days….& countless vineyards.  Thank you Morgan!  

The next morning, I was off to meet up with Paul McBride of Force Majeure to see his new plantings on Red Mountain.   Previously Paul worked with fruit from the highly revered Ciel du Cheval vineyard & a collection of very esteemed Washington winemakers—under what they called “Collaboration Series”.  The Red Mountain appellation has roughly 2000 acres planted, & the 110 acre Ciel du Cheval vineyard was planted in 1974 on the lower elevation, seemingly flatter benchland below.  The Force Majeure estate vineyard is 20 acres located on the slopes above Ciel du Cheval vineyard & even above the Col Solare winery on much steeper hillsides, which they planted in 2007.  The soil is wind blown loess atop volcanic basalt AND has a VERY different aspect than the flatter Ciel du Cheval parcel down below.  Interestingly, this vineyard is planted to roughly 50% Bordeaux varietals & 50% Rhone varietals (6 acres of Syrah), all on their own roots.  As good & highly acclaimed as the Force Majeure wines are today, watch what happens over the next 10 years, starting with the 2014 vintage.  

In addition, former Ciel du Cheval vineyard manager, Ryan Johnson is also planting at higher elevations up on Red Mountain.  Extreme sites like this are quite breathtaking, but whose to say the resulting wines will be good?   Still, I plan to keep an eye on this project nonetheless……who will get the fruit & who will make the wines.

The next 2 days were in Walla Walla wine country, riding around with Brandon Moss, co-winemaker of the highly revered Gramercy Cellars.  Where Greg Harrington provides the vision, Brandon provides the energy.  Yes, he is a bundle of passion & unbridled energy.  Wow!  I am so thankful & grateful for his guidance, time, insight & packing so much into the 2 days. 

We start off in the “Rocks”, which interestingly actually crosses into Milton Freewater Oregon.  Steve Robertson is one of the founding pioneers/champions of the “Rocks” appellation & gave us a wealth of information–history, geology, climatically, geographically & where he sees everything headed to.  Rising above his 10 acre “SBJ vineyard” (planted in 2007) is the Seven Hills estate vineyard into higher elevations.  Wow, Rocks are everywhere.  Round cobblestones.  His vineyard is on the western boundary & much warmer than let’s say the Cayuse planting.  Even so, because the sites are low lying, they differently are vulnerable to the cold.  I therefore saw so many vines affected by the “killing freeze”.

When I later tasted the Syrahs from this area, I found them to be very unique & interesting–wonderfully savory, generous, luscious & very warm–which is quite the contrast to the minerally, meaty, higher toned, lower alcohol versions made from cooler sites.  Again, one style is not better, just different & therefore a preference thing.  

From there, we drove to the Northfolk area, which apparently is currently one of the new “hotpots” for grape growing, especially for the Rhone varieties.  Our first stop was the Elevation Vineyard” to walk the site with vineyard manager Ryan Driver.  The 15 acres (planted in 2013) is located at roughly 1700 feet elevation with basalt soils & gusting winds (which means NO frost issues to date) which literally pounds the vines.  The eastern slopes range from 110 degrees during the day to 70’s at night.  The Terraces are more in the 95 degree–daytime & 70’s at night.  They planted at least 9 different grape varieties, but its seems everyone is clamoring for the Syrah (Phelps vine selection), planted 3 feet by 3 feet vine density.  This is certainly a vineyard we will keep an eye on.

On this trip, I found this VERY dramatic hillside is for the most part an anomaly in comparison to the other sites I had visited.  Most of the other noted, revered vineyards, although located at high elevations, sway instead & therefore look rather flat to the naked eye.  Gramercy Cellars, for instance draws Syrah from their 6 acre estate JB George vineyard (850 feet in elevation), which is located by the Pepper Bridge planting; their 8 acre estate Forgotten Hills (1050 feet elevation at the base of the Blue Mountains); Les Collines (1100 to 1400 feet elevation); Old Field (Boushay farmed, 1315 feet in elevation) in the cooler Yakima Valley; Minick Vineyard (1400 feet elevation) near the town of Prosser; Red Willow (1100 to 1300 feet elevation) & their warmest site–Olsen Vineyard (1150 feet) in the Rattlesnake Hills.

Furthermore, the soils are more about wind blown loess, often with basalt sub-soils.  In addition, because the vines are own rooted (it seemed like all, although I am not sure), it appears to be a slow process to try & bring in any new vine material.  (I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for the caution).

The point being, the Force Majeure estate & Ryan Johnson Syrah plantings on Red Mountain; the “Rocks”; Matt Reynvaan’s planting at 1600 feet elevation in the foothills of the Blue Mountains & the extreme Elevation Vineyard in Northfolk I surmise are the inklings of a new era in Washington for the Syrah grape variety as the vines get older & older & are followed by subsequent plantings.

This will most likely create other challenges, specifically costs for one.  Imagine buying vineyard sites at today’s prices?  Then the cost of planting meter by meter (or even denser) today, AND on these VERY rocky hillsides?  Then imagine the cost of farming (& harvesting) the radical parcels of the Elevation Vineyard versus the costs for the seemingly “flatter” vineyards?  Where I found the costs for grapes in the more western areas (such as Yakima, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills &  Wahluke Slope) to be surprisingly low in comparison to what I hear from California, the looming question is what will happen in the future?

Stay tuned………

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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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 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?

 

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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