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Jul
27

PINK Wines from around the Mediterranean

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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 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?

 

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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There was also Syrah/Shiraz from Australia to consider.

In the early 1980’s, for instance, I was drawn to another supposed Syrah based red–the 1975 Penfolds Grange Hermitage from Australia.  Unlike its Shiraz based peers & neighbors, this was one of immense power, concentration & grandeur that was truly monumental & full of mojo, vinosity & character.   It was really impressive to say the least & had the stuffing with quite the swag.

On another occasion, when looking for an appropriate wine to take to a BYOB red wine tasting I was attending in San Francisco, I remember trading one bottle of 1966 Chateau Haut Brion & one bottle of another wine in exchange for only one bottle of 1971 Penfolds Grange Hermitage.  Yes, the price was stiff & a very considerable expense for me, especially at that time.  As it turned out, however, the tasting featured quite THE line up of top caliber red wines from around the world from vintages 1966 to 1971 & this wine fit the theme so perfectly.  I could therefore see first hand how this wine would fare amongst the more familiar standouts.  There was also quite an impressive list of top echelon tasters attending & I could witness everyone’s candid reaction to this relatively undiscovered wine (at least in the U.S. at the time), since all of the wines were served blind.  What a line up & tasting this turned out to be!  I was really taken with the ’70 & ’71 Chateau Petrus & ’66 Chateau Latour.  Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  But I also remember being especially taken by the 1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva “Monfortino” & my bottle of 1971 Grange Hermitage.  Both were truly like no other wine I had had previously.  I did not, however, find any aspects of either the 1971 or the previously tasted 1975 Grange that reminded me of Northern Rhone Valley Syrah (not that it should’ve).  It was quite another interesting genre of what this grape variety has to offer.  This tasting clearly showed to me, though, that Grange was definitely the wine that would open the door & usher Australia onto the world class stage of red wines.

I was, at the time, working at the Kahala Hilton Hotel & for a Food & Beverage Director who was originally from Australia.  (Since the hotel was part of Hilton International, we were fortunate to work with professionals regularly from all over the world). Interestingly, we also had had another Food & Beverage Director just a few years earlier who came to us from a sister property in Australia. I am very thankful for all of the knowledge & wines they both shared in helping me better understand & appeciate what was happening wine wise Down Under, especially on the “boutique” front. This really was quite the opportunity!

While I appreciated many of the wines from this new found niche of wines for me, the next real WOW bottling came years later & a winery named Henschke from the Eden Valley.  These wines floored me upon first taste & I remember both the 1985 (& later the 1986) “Hill of Grace” & “Mt Edelstone” like it was yesterday!  Where Grange offered bodacious, mega-intense, luscious fruit, the Henschke wines, in comparison, were much more about vinosity (old vine-ness) & savoriness on a more masculine, muscular frame with lots of saddle leather, cigar box, roasted chestnut, smoked bay leaf, charred sandalwood nuances.  I was later astounded to find out “Hill of Grace” was planted in the 1860’s, 1958 being the first release & Mt Edelstone was planted in 1912 (on its own roots).  Stephen Henschke oversaw the winemaking & his wife Prue was the viticulturist responsible for the care of these ancient vines.   What a talented combo & what a duo of standout wines!

The “Grange”, especially those back in the 70’s & 80’s, & the “Hill of Grace” bottlings are still the two shining stars for me EVER out of Australia even to this day.  Collectors over the years have pointed all of these much higher rated wines & those that are even harder to get.  But I find them not as interesting & not as “game changing”.

Grange to me, at least in the old days, was like an orchestra rather than just the horn section (just as I have heard & noted about old time Barolo, which was made from several sites rather than being a single vineyard, where the sum of parts was profoundly more complete & moving than each part individually).  The core was profoundly vinous & must have come from their elaborate scope of old vine sources AND a myriad of areas, soils, climates & terroirs.  To that base note, the Penfolds team layered it & added nuance through tireless, very detailed blending….just as one would add the string section, percussion, etc to the horn section.  An orchestra sound–layers upon layers & something to behold.  Another simple way to understand what I am trying to say is–in the music of the Beach Boys, there were the simpler, catchy, sing along songs like “Help Me Rhonda” & “Fun, Fun, Fun” AND then there was “Good Vibrations”, a tune seemingly comprised of 4 to 5 songs smashed into one, using 10 guitar tracks & 7 piano.  Epic, game changing!  Or the Beatles with “She Loves You” compared to the much more complex work on “Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band” album.  Grange was grand!  It was something to behold!  There has been no one peer to even come close.

Henschke, on the other hand, to me was Jimi Hendrix.  Jimi was so spellbinding–his sound & skill was distinctive AND so personal, heart felt & soulful.  I would be spellbound even if he played a solo guitar rant.  There truly has been no one else like him.  He really didn’t need an orchestra or even a band behind him.  He could stand out on his own.  That is Henschke “Hill of Grace” for me.  Only one vineyard, but the resulting wine was all about vinosity, was soulful to the core & heart stirring in its delivery.

I must also add, however just to be clear, I am speaking of Grange & Henschke of the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s here.  The prices of the current releases are just too prohibitive for me to even think of splurging.  I did, for example, fortunately have a 2009 & a 2012 Grange not that long ago & I will say, these are a VERY different kind of wine from those I remember having back when.  Today’s certainly have the stuffing, vinosity, mojo & character, but somehow I think the soul orientation has waned.  (Each were served blind & I know had been stored right).

The next BIG wave of “Thunder from Down Under” for me, was spearheaded by wine importer Dan Philips, who seemingly came out of nowhere & created a tidal wave of “must have”, artisan Australian wines. His company, the Grateful Palate, had a real cool “look”, schtick  & a well selected portfolio of mainly lavish, hedonistic, Old Vine Shiraz.  The wine media, especially the Wine Advocate, helped fuel a frantic, shark feeding frenzy for his wines & developed a cult like following–with wines from Torbreck, Dutschke, Henry’s Drive, Chris Ringland, Trevor Jones, Shirvington & later his own Marquis Philips (with partners Sarah & Sparky Marquis).   Sometime in the early to mid 2000’s Sarah & Sparky Marquis parted ways with Philips & founded their own Mollydooker wine label, starting I believe with the 2005 vintage.  The Mollydooker wines just exploded, taking off like a rocket, with immediate hype & fervor most wineries can only dream about getting.  There are still no signs of their “show” slowly down.  I had recently heard, though, that big personality front man Sparky is now out (divorced) & Sarah has taken over the reins herself.

On the other front, Dan Philips just kept his ball rolling & continued where Sparky left off, using the BIG name Chris Ringland as his winemaking “face” for the wine world to see.  It seemed to work for a couple of years, but inevitably the whole “Grateful Palate” operation just seemed to ride off into the sunset, although I heard there was a brief stop in Italy (for Philips) & Spain (for Ringland) along the way.

Our next real interesting Australian Syrah maestro we encountered was Serge Carlei from Victoria (with vineyards also in Bendigo).  Serge produced wines with real mojo, intriguing vinosity & layering, all done in a much more sensible style–suave, well textured & balanced, without the extreme showiness, flamboyance & decadence often seen during Australia’s 1990/2000’s heydays in the U.S..  They had a different beat, were much lighter on their feet, easier to enjoy without compromising complexity, vinosity, integrity or mojo.  I don’t think it a coincidence that Serge was recognized as one of Australia’s top Chardonnay & Pinot Noir specialists prior to his Syrah bottlings, & is probably why I was so enamored by his wines.  A Syrah crafted by a Pinot maker?  I often wonder why neither he nor his wines ever got too much international superstardom?

Our search for really good Syrah from Australia continues.

We recently had a Grenache from fellow Master Sommelier Richard Betts under his Sucette label.  90 plus year old, own rooted vines, 25 to 40 stems….this was some kind of Grenache & one that was truly memorable.

If someone, in this day & age, can come up with something this superb, imagine the possibilities with Syrah?

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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I realized early on, I am by no means a skilled writer, but, because of this recent envious Syrah tasting I attended in San Francisco, I just wanted to jot down some of my thoughts & experiences with Syrah, while the juices were flowing.  At least all of the reminiscing will make me smile.

It starts with…….I really enjoy a well grown, well made Syrah.

The initial most enlightening renditions for me were from a trio of masters from France’s Rhone Valley–Gerard Chave, Marius Gentaz & Noël Verset.  Although by this time I was well under way with the wines from Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Port AND California, there was nothing I previously tasted that even came close to what I experienced from these majestic , highly personal Syrah based reds.

I became an instant fan!  These created a new standard for me to measure others by.

Each of these producers made wines which were much more interesting to me, AND consistently way more moving than those I tasted from the much more heralded trio of Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Guigal also of France’s Rhone Valley, just to name a few headliners.

My first trip to see these French vignerons was in the cold months of January 1991.  Our list of appointments (made by fellow traveler, Fran Kysela M.S., then the National Sales Manager of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants) included Marius Gentaz (Gentaz Dervieux), Rene Rostaing & Robert Jasmin of Côte Rôtie; Gerard Chave of Hermitage; Joseph Panel of St Joseph AND August Clape & Noël Verset of Cornas, just to name a few.  The weather was quite inhospitable, vineyards barren & even the wine cellars quite cold, despite the lack of a wind chill factor.  We visited, we talked & we tasted each day till well into the dark.  At several of the stops spitting wine out on the floor seemed inappropriate, especially where in some cases there was so little wine in their cellar to sell to begin with.

Our first stop in the northern Rhone Valley, was at the Chez Chave.  Talk about apprehension!  Here was a family who owned & farmed the truly iconic Hermitage hill since 1481!  (please keep in mind Christopher Colombus sailed to the New World in 1492 for goodness sake!)  The family owned roughly 10 hectares , in 7 different parcels.  We met & spent time with Gerard Chave.  (I certainly will never forget this opportunity!)  We started with a tasting of his Hermitage Blanc (roughly 85% Marsanne from 80 to 85 year old vines AND 15% Roussanne, also from 80 to 85 year old vines).  It has taken me quite some time to understand & appreciate this wine.  I previously just didn’t get it.  I was awestruck by the sheer power/intensity, viscosity, bordering unctuou-ality, & reverent vinosity & breed of the ’90 & ’91.  They were both resoundingly masculine AND grandiose each with very different perfumes, tastes & character.  We continued with the ’90 St Joseph Rouge & then the 1989 St Joseph Blanc, which I remember thinking was quite an interesting progression  (I certainly would not question a Master!)   We then proceeded downstairs & barrel tasted through 7 lots from the 1990 vintage–Bessards (80 year old vines), Le Meal (80 year old vines), Rocoules, Peleat (a monopole), Diognieres, Baume & L’Hermite.  Wow!!!! what a huge opportunity!  (I have written an earlier piece on this with more specific notes of each.  please check it out in archives).  We also tasted the 1989, 1988, 1987 & some older vintages of his Hermitage Rouge, all, with color commentating by Gerard while he tasted along with us.  What a day!  I walked away with an even greater appreciation of Chave Hermitage because of this behind the scenes master class.  I have visited this domaine a few times after & always walked away with an even greater understanding & appreciation of what this family does.

In addition, the times of walking Hermitage hill, parcel by parcel, with the color commentating by Chave is truly some of my best memories ever in wine country.  I had previously thought Hermitage hill was all granitic soils.  As was explained to me later by Jean Louis Chave, over time, glaciers collected & smashed different soils up against what was already there.  That is why there are so many soil types found in different pockets.  The Bessards lieu dit, for example, is mainly granitic; Le Meal has river stones; Peleat has more clay/sand; & Baume–pudding stones.   And, these different soils also help create the layering of his red Hermitage wine.  It is therefore a blend, rather than a single vineyard.

We then went on to visit August Clape in Cornas.  They own 5.5 hectares, 50% on the “hill”.  This was also a rustic, very small family owned winery & I loved the strong sense of heritage, culture & family here.  We tasted many wines here, back to 1981 & I was awed by the masculine soulfulness of the wines, which were much more blue collar & rugged than those at the Chave stop.  But, they were still so memorable.

Probably the most emotional visit for me in all the years of visiting vineyards & wineries was our visit with Noël Verset.  I was already so taken by his wildly rustic, profoundly soulful Cornas wines & meeting him & tasting wines with him, tugged at my heart that much more.  I sometimes hear all kinds of disenchantment with his wines & their flaws.  Get a life!  This was an honest man who made wines that touched us deep inside.  He reminded me of a painter/artist from way back when.  Just went about his business. No frills.  While there the last time, he hinted he would be retiring.  Perhaps 2000 would be the last?  Ha!  I saw some 2003 show up.  Then 2006.  Surprise!  Then there was none.  There will sadly never be another like him or his wines.

It was quite late the night we visited Joseph Panel in St Joseph across the river from Vienne.  St Joseph is a long, thin appellation & therefore has quite the variety of vineyard site topography, soils & growing conditions.  Panel’s was at the top of a hill.  It was cold & even colder because of the fierce pounding wind & what seemed like sleet.  I was hoping it would be warmer in the cellar, but the coldness permeated through the rock floor numbing my feet & then worked its way up.  His estate was 200 years old–7 generations.  I felt like I was hanging out with a farmer rather than a winemaker.  He was a true artisan & I loved his St Joseph reds, as they were so honest, earnest, earthy, feral & full of countryside character.  They also had delicious-ness in a very masculine, savory way without any sense of heaviness.  I was very sad when he retired & his wines were no more.

I was really glad to visit with Robert Jasmin (& son Patrick).  Robert made you feel very welcome.  He seemed gregarious with a big personality.  He looked like he was a true blue collar type, never afraid of getting dirty.  He owned 4 hectares of vineyards, mostly in the Côte Brune & the Côte Blonde, planted to 96% Syrah (mostly Petite Serine from Hermitage) & 4% Viognier.  He proudly told us, he typically uses only about 10% new oak (since 1984) & does not filter or fine (since 1989).  His were big, “down to earth”, masculine, savory, surly wines with the same kind of manliness he had.  I was sad to hear of his passing in I believe 1999.

Marius Gentaz had an old, earthen floor “shack”, which looked no bigger than a 3 car garage.  Marius seemed like an every day kind of guy, dressed simply, reserved, but very articulate as he explained to us the 5 hillsides that comprised the Côte Rôtie, while showing us each on an old map on one the wooden walls.  He spoke very little English, so our traveling companion, Dennis, acted as the translator.  His family could be traced to the 1700’s in the area.  He had a little under 2 hectares of vines, split into 2 parcels.  The vines averaged 45 to 80 years in age & he smiled when he spoke of his Petite Serine vines, which he seemed more proud of & happy with in comparison to some of the “Mauvre” vine selection (tightly packed, BIG berries) he also had planted.  He also had a tiny bit of Viognier planted of which he would blend .5 to 1% into his Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie, depending on what he felt the wine needed.  He was kind enough to open & share with us the ’90, ’89, & some older vintages.  I was absolutely blown away with each.  I had never had Syrah like these before.  Just before we left, he sadly informed us, he thought his nephew, Rene Rostaing, would be making the wines after the 1991 vintage.  OMG, the end of an era.  (as it turned out I think he also made a ’92 & a ’93).

Our next visit, as it turned out, was in fact to Rene Rostaing.  It was in the early evening & quite cold.  I was shocked as we walked up to see what looked like a modern winery, as if it could be in California.  I was further anxious later on the visit after seeing the barrel room, full of new oak barrels.  It was almost opposite of what we experienced at Gentaz.  Rene has 17 different parcels (which included absorbing the Dervieux-Thaler parcels), his prized lieu dit was 1/4 hectare in the Côte Blonde of 80 year old vines.  Rene was very neat & precise & I dared not spit at this domaine, eventhough it was quite late & we were all so tired.  Both his 1990 “La Landonne” & ” Côte Blonde” had sweet, very ripe fruit & with quite noticeable oak presence & grip, despite being only 18 or so months in 25% new.  I walked away remembering all of that new oak barrels & asked myself, what will happen when he takes over Marius Gentaz’s magnificent vines & fruit?

Imagine, these were just the highlights of the trip AND only the northern Rhone Valley leg.  Still, it solidified my fascination with the Syrah grape variety, what it was capable of & insight into the true Masters of the French renditions.

A short time later, I was again blown away at a casual dinner held at Square One restaurant in San Francisco, where my long time wine brother, Nunzio Alioto, kindly opened 4 amazing, for me, “once in a life time” French Syrahs–1990 Vincent Gasse Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gallet Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie  & a 1990 Jean Louis Chave Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin”.  Wholly smoke!, this certainly was a night to remember & really fueled my love for such northern Rhone Syrah wines.  It made me wonder, how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?

The wonders continued with samplings of the string of Chave Hermitage–the 1978 & 1983 really being memorable; multiple aged vintages of Gentaz Dervieux, Verset & Clape wines.  Each were WOW, beguiling experiences & I am so thankful to have experienced such treasures, especially with my dear friend Nunzio Alioto & later with the VINO gang.

Furthermore, because of these Syrah epiphanies, I still always keep an eye out for Syrah based red wine that would also ring my bell.

I remember, for instance, noticing a lot of 1982 Gentaz Dervieux Cote Rotie at the KHPR Radio wine auction one year.  The wines were procured by well renown wine auctioneer, Archie McLaren from a collector in Texas.  Jim Clendenen & I stood in the back anxiously waiting for the lot to come up for bid, like two hungry wolves.  We should have been smarter, as we did not have an auction paddle & just held up our hand to place a bid.  Since Hawaii is such a small town when it comes to fine wine, others starting bidding too, because they saw it was the two of us & figured if we are bidding on these wines, they must be good!  I shouldn’t complain, though, as we still got the lot for $35 a bottle, a REAL steal, even though this was in the mid-90’s.   I truly believe that only Jim, myself & perhaps Archie had a grasp of what these wines were or how hard they were to get.  Well, that is certainly not the case any more, that’s for sure.  (By the way, tasting the wine eventually was yet another mind blowing experience.)

My generation was very fortunate to have a visionary palate & importer like Kermit Lynch to sniff out these kinds of “game changers” & expose them to young, impressionable minds like myself.  When more & more small, specialized importers came onto the national wine scene, I realized what separated Kermit from the rest, was his eye for that special artisan, who could connect & realize the true potential of a special site in a very personal way.  Furthermore, many of the selections had a soulfulness to them AND thankfully a wonderful deliciousness & remarkable balance.  Yes, he had/has a gift.  There has been, after all, only one Marius Gentaz & only one Noël Verset, just to name a couple of examples.

Aside from who I considered to be the 3 masters of the time–Chave, Gentaz & Verset–Kermit also championed St Joseph “below the radar” winemaking studs such Joseph Panel & Raymond Trollat & Auguste Clape (& son Pierre-Marie & grandson, Olivier) & later on Thierry Allemand from Cornas.  These are/were truly artisan, profound, rustic, soulful Syrah, done in a style we sadly see less & less today.  And, later on, Kermit would introduced us to Pierre Gonon & Jean-Pierre Monier of St Joseph & Philippe Faury.

Again I ask–how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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Our first winemaker dinner at our Sansei restaurant in Seattle.  Who better to kick start the concept than Master Sommelier Greg Harrington of his own winery Gramercy Cellars?  Thank you to Greg, the managers, the Chefs & the staff for a wonderful evening!

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We continue the tasting with a gang of white wines.  White on, bro!

2016 Palmina Pinot Grigio “Santa Barbara”–Palmina is a project featuring Italian grape varieties grown & produced in the Santa Barbara appellation of California by winemaker Steve Clifton.  (Quite candidly, I am not quite sure who else is still involved with Steve).  The 2016 is markedly different from the previous Pinot Grigio bottlings.  It definitely has a more coppery hue to the naked eye, which reminds me of a more ramato (skin contact) style.  The wine is still tasty, refined, seamless–just with a little more flesh & a bitter almond to the finish.  I would also suggest that it is still greatly & thankfully still way underpriced.  Thank you to Warren for sharing this bottle.   2016 Chehalem Pinot Gris “12th Ave Grill”–Here is a wine “designed” for head wine star, Rick Lily, over at 12th Ave Grill.  As one taster noted–“I love it, because it is so pretty & delicious“.   Can’t argue with that kind of endorsement.  Kudos to you Mr. Lily!   2014 Au Bon Climat Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc “Santa Maria Valley”–This certainly was one of the standout white wines–very classy, elegant, seamless texture AND plenty of mojo in the core.  I also love the superb balance AND mostly what a SENSATIONAL VALUE this truly is considering the price. 

2015 Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc “Santa Ynez Valley”–I have been a huge fan of this bottling for a few vintages, as it showcased the very best attributes of what Sauvignon Blanc can be in California–elegance, refinement, class with sublime, earth driven nuances.  Quite candidly, however, I was a little disappointed with this particular wine.  Although it still showed much of the characteristics I had previously admired, it was rather lackluster, disjointed & kind of a “plain Jane” on this night.   I think it was mainly due to following the previously tasted Au Bon Climat wine.  It still was quite good & undoubtedly dwarfed the New Zealander that followed–2015 Petit Clos Sauvignon Blanc “Marlborough” (from Clos Henri) with much rounder edges, seamlessness & a much better finish.

2015 Cambiata Albariño “Monterey”–Such subtle & enticing perfume with seamlessness & wonderful flow on the palate.  We have really been working hard to find such fragrant, aromatic grape varieties, as they provide a very different compatibility when pairing with foods.  This one is from our wine friend Eric Laumann, using vines grown especially for him down in Monterey.  In addition, this wine really does over deliver for the dollar.  The sad news is, there was apparently only 205 cases produced.  I am not so sure what to say about the 2013 Matthiasson White Wine “Napa Valley”.  Winemaker Steve Matthiasson has developed a huge following, especially among the sommelier scene.  We therefore had big expectations for this wine, because the core is Ribolla Gialla, an Italian/Slovenian grape variety (vine cuttings from Josko Gravner) which Steve is especially high on.  It was unexpectedly & unfortunately quite underwhelming on this night (forward, hollow in the middle, no core to it, & oaky/alcoholic & bitter in the finish).  Maybe it was due to shipping or storage, which was undetermined, because no one said they brought it.   It was still a treat to try.  

2013 Melville Viognier “Verna’s Vineyard”–the first commercial Californian grown Viognier I tasted was a 1986 from Bill Smith of La Jota up on Howell Mountain.  The next, shortly thereafter was one from Calera.  Because of its wonderful perfume & aromatics, it seemed to really catch on & lots of people were planting it.  It was en vogue.  The challenge for me, however was finding “good” ones.  I remember trying one in the early 90’s which was organically grown in the Russian River appellation.  It was exotically perfumed, as expected, thick viscous, luscious, BUT flabby, quite hollow, noticeably alcoholic & bitter.  The following year the same winemaker contacted me again, with much eagerness over his new rendition.  The grapes came from the same vineyard, but he noted harvested at way lower brix to retain the acidity & freshness.  In both cases, I just felt, this quite fickle  grape variety really didn’t do too well in his spot.  I have found that this exotically scented grape variety seems to do especially well in the marine soils & cool growing confines of Santa Barbara county.  Here was a stellar example–enticing, uplifting perfume, the weight of a Chardonnay grown in the same vineyard, an interplay of exotic & minerality, seamlessness & lovely, captivating deliciousness.   Thank you Micah for sharing. 

2014 Folk Machine Chenin Blanc–Chenin Blanc did not have such a good reputation over the years in California.  There were far too many that would lacksidasically grown & made.  Along came former skateboarder Kenny Likitprakong who found some very interesting Chenin Blanc sources, the first from down south in the Santa Barbara appellation & more recently from the old vine Norgard Vineyard on the Talmage Bench in Mendocino in 2010.   I believe these vines are more like 36 years in age.  While this wine does not have too much resemblance to the Chenin Blancs of France’s Loire Valley (& so it should be, by the way.  This is California after all!), this particular bottling is a fairly good drink & certainly much better suited for the dinner table than most Californian Sauvignon Blanc bottlings I have tasted.  The 2015 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier–was kindly brought to share by one of Hawaii’s top sommeliers.  He routinely buys this at the wine store for under $13 a bottle & feels he really gets his bang for his buck.  Thank you for sharing!

Categories : White, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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