2012 Spicerack “Punchdown” Syrah

spicerack 2012

It’s just so great to keep in touch with an old friend. I try to get a hold of a Spicerack “Punchdown” Syrah in every vintage. It’s one of the first cool-climate California Syrahs that I tried and I love it so. Back when I was transitioning from bigger, richer wines to more elegant ones, the Spicerack (along with the Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah) had this zing of acidity and a sort of crunchiness that really turned me on. These wines were a direct contrast to the big Shirazes that I’d had from Australia—wines that I had liked initially but had grown tired of. The Spicerack was just the change of pace I needed and it began a love affair with cool-climate Syrah that is obviously raging on to this day.

The Spicerack is the project of Jonathan and Susan Pey who also make the Pey-Marin Pinots and the delicious and well-priced Forager Pinot. All their wines are made in a minimalist style, with the utmost attention given to the fruit in the vineyards.

Salty black olive and high toned aromas of lavender dominate this wine, with hints of meat and insect (yes, I know #keepsyrahweird) in the background. On the palate there’s a richness and fullness that belies it’s cool-climate tendencies and, in fact, there is some warmer climate fruit in there from the Alegria Vineyard in Santa Rosa. But it’s still full of great acidity and, like past vintages, kind of a crunchy mid-palate which probably comes from cooler Syrah vineyard in the Carneros region of Sonoma. The finish has just enough tannin to be balanced for drinking now. It’s a beautiful wine and one that I’m happy to revisit. It’s the perfect choice to introduce people to cool-climate Syrah but it also has the complexity to pique the interest of the true Syrah aficionado. And its acidity and tannin will allow it to age for quite a while.

The wine only sees about 10% new oak which in my opinion let’s the fruit and savory aromas really shine through.

Like seeing an old friend, it was really a pleasure to spend some time with the Spicerack and I’m glad to see it’s still doing so well. Just as I remember it, this is a wine that’s the best ambassador for California cool-climate Syrah.

2012 Les Vin des Amis Domaine A. Clape Syrah ABV 13% $30

le vin des amis

If you know anything about Northern Rhone Syrah, you’ve probably heard of Auguste Clape. He’s a traditionalist in an era where modern wine techniques have reached even the stalwart traditionalists of Northern Rhone. And his wines are spectacular. The wines are aged in neutral oak foudres and cement, made the same way they’ve been made for years.

The Vin Des Amis is from de-classified fruit from the Clapes’ Cornas vineyards. The wine, from 40 year old vines, has all the Northern Rhone character you could ever ask for.

This is clean, totally unadulterated cool-climate Syrah. If you want to know what true Syrah smells like, get this wine. It’s a little pricy but worth it to get a sense of what Syrah is really all about. There’s a bit of celery, along with earth, minerals, pepper, plum, blackberries and olive tapenade. The mid-palate is light and smooth with a slightly tannic finish that dries out the mouth. No hint of oak at all. Just a wine that tastes and smells honest and simple. But simple in a good way.

If you don’t have the budget for Clape’s higher priced Cornas wines, you can still get a taste of the Northern Rhone in all its glory with Vin Des Amis.

Keep Syrah Weird: The 2010 Samsara Melville Vineyard Syrah 14.2% ABV

Have I told you how I felt about Patrick Comiskey’s speech about the state of American Syrah at the opening of the Celebrate Walla Walla wine event in June of 2014? If you follow this blog or follow me on Twitter with any regularity, you already know, I loved it. Patrick really nailed something that I’ve been trying to put into words since I started the blog. He makes the point that at its essence Syrah, when grown in the right places, has a wild character. Its flavor profiles are weird sometimes and that’s how we need to think about Syrah. It’s exactly this dose of strangeness and uniqueness that the wine world needs. We are no longer craving overripe, overly smooth and inert Cabernet, we are craving wine that makes us think and makes us salivate to learn more and that’s what Syrah does. That’s what makes it so dang intriguing and why, after tasting Syrah on a weekly (usually more) basis over the last five years, I keep coming back for more.

Based on Patrick’s speech, Ryan Sherman of Fields Family Wines in Lodi came up with the idea for the hashtag #keepsyrahweird. I’m happy to say we’ve even had shirts made. I love the idea of embracing Syrah’s inner strangeness and twisting it on its head to make it positive.


It’s in the spirit of this embrace of cool-climate Syrah’s weirdness that I write about one of Samsara’s wines. Samsara is the brain child of Chad Melville of Melville Estates. He makes Pinot, Syrah, and Chardonnay for his family’s label but also has a side project devoted to cool-climate Syrah and Pinot from small sites. You only have to glance at the wall of empty bottles of Northern Rhone Syrah on the wall behind Samsara’s little tasting room in Lompoc to realize that Chad’s serious about making interesting new world Syrah.


Samsara’s winemaking is a very low-intervention style. The grapes are fermented with native yeasts and slowly and gently pressed, the resulting juice kept in French Oak Barrels for 24 months. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

The wine: There’s an herbal element in the background that reminds me of celery soup mixed with day old meat, sweet plum and tobacco. On the palate the wine has a combination of beautiful acidity and softness with lift on the finish and well integrated tannins. Weird, right? And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I urge you to check out the rest of Patrick’s speech here on his blog and of course to search out more examples of Syrah that embrace its wild and weird side.

Two exemplary new world cool-climate Syrahs

The good news is that these two wines are great examples of cool climate Syrah. The bad news is that… wait they’re isn’t any bad news! They’re also really well-priced wines.

Falernia 2010
Falernia Valle De Elqui Syrah 2010 14% ABV

This is the first Chilean Syrah I’ve tasted that decidedly moves into the cool-climate spectrum. It has lovely pepper and olive aromas, with just a bit of meaty aroma in the background. Very little oak, nice acidity on the palate and a bright finish.

Falernia is the project of Aldo Olivier who emigrated from Italy to Chile. The estate is in the northern-most wine region of Chile. Because the region is so far removed from the rest of Chile’s wine areas there’s an absence of phylloxera in the the vines, are all own-rooted.

maimai 2012
Maimai Hawke’s Bay 14% ABV

The Maimai Syrah is one that I’ve had previous vintages of and they were always good wines but this one is a cut above last year’s version.

Fresh blueberry nose, black olives, celery, bitter chocolate, tobacco, bright on the mid-palate, strong acidity and a bit of a tannic bite on the finish. This is a wine that begs for food and maybe a couple of years in the bottle. It makes you salivate for more.

Hawke’s Bay is a great place for Syrah. It’s also a great place for Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc which probably explains why we don’t see a ton of Syrah from there but this area has the goods and I’m always on the lookout for New Zealand Syrah that are easy on the pocket book.

Terre Rouge Syrah and a question of oak

At the 2014 Rhone Rangers event, I tasted wine made by one of the premier Syrah producers in California, Terre Rouge. Winemaker Bill Easton has been making Syrah in the Sierra Foothills for over thirty years and his wines are age-able, structured, and food-friendly versions of the variety I love so. One of the more interesting things about tasting the wines of Terre Rouge is that one can taste Syrah grown at differing elevations. Those “in the know” know about Terre Rouge.

I had an interesting discussion that day with Bill’s right hand man and tasting room manager, Doug Bellamy. Here’s what I discovered in talking with Doug. The least expensive version of Bill’s wine (Les Cotes de L’Ouest) is also the one that sees the least amount of oak. As the price and supposed quality of vineyard sources progresses, the wines see more oak until one gets to the highest level of Syrah that Terre Rouge offers, the Ascent, which sees 100% new oak. My question after the tasting was, if the fruit for the Ascent is so expensive and of such high quality, why would one want to mask it with so much new oak? Why not let the fruit shine through with neutral oak?

Bill’s comment was that the fruit from these higher level sites, like the Ascent because of their aromatic intensity, can handle some new oak and still shine through. As the wines are built for aging, the oak integrates over time adding complexity and body to the wine.

Now, it’s no secret that the subject of oak is controversial among winemakers and aficionados. I tend to come down on the side of neutral oak aging but I’ve had a lot of good Syrah that had as high as 30% new oak. So far, for my palate, I’ve found that Syrah from cooler sites with complex aromas and high levels of acidity seem to be able to handle more new oak than warmer sites. Wines with higher alcohol and less acidity and structure, combined with new oak, have a tendency to become flabby and overly jammy. The reverse, of course, is also true. I’ve had warmer style Syrahs with relatively high levels of alcohol that I’ve enjoyed (I know!) because they’ve had neutral oak.

The question of how oak integrates is also a controversial one, and I’ve heard vociferous arguments from both sides. Some people have said that oak simply does not integrate while others have argued that it most certainly does. In my own experience it’s been difficult to tell because I’m not tasting an older wine side-by-side with the earlier version, so it’s hard to see how it’s changed.


Incidentally Terre Rouge has a beautiful tasting room.

Bill wanted to prove to me that the new oak used on his Syrah integrated over time so he invited me up to the tasting room near Plymouth, CA to taste some older vintages. Unfortunately the only weekend we were available Bill was not, but my wife and I were left in good hands with Doug Bellamy. Doug poured the 2005 and 2008 High Slopes Syrah and the 2005 and the 2008 Sentinel Oak. Both wines see 30% new oak and both vintages were bottled and picked in the same way. Each wine had an alcohol level of 14.5%.

I’ll start with the Sentinel Oak:

My first impression of these wines was that they are rich and restrained. I know it sounds like an oxymoron but that was the feeling I got. The oak lends a power to the mid-palate but the fruit has good acidity and tannin.

The 2005 was more of a cooler climate style, great acidity, and the oak definitely seemed more integrated. It was a tad drier and more tannic on the back end. Beautiful wine with classic plum and black olive Syrah character.

As the name implies, The High Slopes Syrah comes from more elevated vineyards in the foothills region. The 2008 was fuller in the mouth than the ’05 and the oak did seem a little too present for my palate. The 2005, on the other hand, was more my style. It invoked the Northern Rhone with its salty olive and tobacco character. Bright and fresh aromas of plum and apricot, mixed with gravel and hints of red meat. Fresh on the palate too, a lively finish with sweet but mouth-drying tannins and a tiny bit of heat coming through. Elegant and powerful. Oak is present but integrated.

Thanks to Doug Bellamy for a very instructive tasting.

So, the answer to the initial question. Yes, oak can integrate over time (at least in the Terre Rouge wines) and if you are a winemaker who makes wines meant to age or to be held back upon release, maybe it makes sense to use some new oak to soften the tannins in Syrah and lend body to the mid palate. Most consumers don’t hold their wine back before consumption though so I’d argue, as much as I loved Bill’s wines, it seems somewhat of a esoteric approach if you don’t expect the wine to hit its stride for ten years. I admire that in Terre Rouge though and obviously with thirty years in the business it’s a model that hasn’t exactly hurt their bottom line.

I’d like to add one more wine to the discussion:

terre rouge les cotes de louest

The Terre Rouge Syrah Les Cotes de L’Ouest Syrah which is their least expensive and their Syrah that’s meant to be enjoyed earlier and sees no new oak. I love this wine. In fact, I love it just as much as the 2005 High Slopes but for different reasons. It’s fresh and smells and tastes of unadulterated Syrah. It has pepper and savory black olive aromas that are so cool climate Syrah. I love its lift of acidity on the mid-palate and its clean, fresh fruit profile.

So I guess the bottom line for Terre Rouge wines for me is, if you buy the upper echelon bottlings, WAIT. In the meantime drink a lot of their widely available Cotes de L’Ouest.

Two 2010 Central Coast Syrahs from Piedrasassi

I have to admit that I have a real soft place in my heart for Piedrasassi. I love their aesthetic, the distinctive little bottle, the simple labels, the rustic, yet modern, tasting room. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, I could have sat talking to Melissa Sorongon, who’s the wife and partner of Piedrasassi’s winemaker Sashi Moorman, forever. With my favorite indie rock playing on the tasting room sound system, the mid-afternoon sun pouring through the windows, Melissa talking in reverent tones about cool-climate Syrah, I was in my happy place. And, just to put things totally over the top, Melissa also serves delicious homemade bread and olive oil with the tasting.

Homemade bread, marcona almonds, olive oil, great conversation and great Syrah.  My happy place.  

Of course, none of this would really mean anything if I didn’t love the wines. They are, without question, up there in the echelon with the best Syrah I’ve had in all of California. This is my kind of Syrah; picked at the correct ripeness (for my palate), minimal intervention and neutral oak.

Piedrasassi is one of the many projects of Pinot and Chardonnay expert, Sashi Moorman. Melissa and Sashi set out to make California Syrah that could go toe to toe with the Northern Rhone styles of Syrah that they loved so.

On a recent trip to London to help Jon Bonné promote his New California Wine book the couple were pleased when wine-knowledgable Londoners remarked after tasting their wine, “You must love Cornas.” Melissa likened it to an aspiring musician receiving a compliment that invoked his biggest influence.

A few years ago, Rene Rostaing’s son Pierre was looking for an internship. He ended up at Piedrasassi and Moormon and Sorongon relished this new connection with one of the Northern Rhone’s famous wine houses. This new relationship also fueled a motivation for Moorman. He wanted to make a wine that he would be proud to present to the Rostaings. After the 2010 vintage, they had turned a corner in their farming, picking, and winemaking decisions that they feel has now allowed them to reach that pinnacle.

They are looking for wines that represent vineyard sites that have a concentration and depth but with a modest alcohol level, lift and energy on the mid-palate. They don’t want heavy wines but they also don’t want wines with overwhelming acidity. I guess the obvious word to use here is balance and it’s a cliche but that’s what they are really looking for, balanced wines with the concentration and power of wines from the Northern Rhone that are also food friendly.

But their wines are not without controversy. Some in the region think they are are undermining the very nature of California wine and its ample ability to ripen grapes, by picking too early. The naysayers see the wines as too lean, and too “old world” when they should be embracing the “new world”. I think there’s a place for all styles and that diversity is what California should embrace. For my palate, I will throw my lot in with wines that dance with lightness, acidity and verve on the palate and that’s what these wines offer.

piedrasassi 2010 central coast

The 2010 Piedrasassi Central Coast Syrah 13.9% ABV $42

Day 1:
On the nose, there’s some celery and bacon fat, sweet plum that verges into jam but virtually no hint of oak keeps it light and fresh on the palate. There’s a lot of energy here and fresh fruit blackberry flavors. The tannins are extremely integrated even at this stage but the acidity means it will age for much longer.

Day 2: Still retained some strong acidity after a night on the counter. Has a deeper umami character today, kind of mushroomy but still with the meaty, plum aroma. Really a gorgeous wine.

2010 piedrasassi rim rock

2010 Rim Rock San Luis Obispo County Syrah 13.2% ABV $65  (Yes, the bottles look exactly the same, you’ll have to take my word for it that the wines inside were different.)

Day 1: The Rim Rock nose bears a little similarity to the Central Coast with its blackberry, plum, and bacon profile but there’s also some green peppercorn, bright raspberry, BBQ smoke, and on the palate, a lot more acidity. No hint of alcohol. This wine is built for aging, the tannins are more pronounced.

Day 2: Well, even after a day on the counter the acidity is still there big time but it’s beautifully integrated into a wine that has become more open and inviting. Other than an intensification of the flavors and aromas, this wine really hasn’t changed a whole lot, it still has the same meaty and fresh fruit flavors, all mixed together with savory elements and no hint of alcohol or new oak to throw it off balance.

These are honest Syrahs and they are indeed wines worthy of standing up to the Northern Rhone. The aren’t dismissive of California’s ability to ripen fruit but they nod towards Syrah’s birthplace with their savory and lifted profiles. I can’t help but be excited for what’s on the horizon for the Piedrasassi label and I hope that they are but the beginning of a trend towards “balanced” Syrah on the Central Coast.

The Ballard Canyon AVA Syrah Seminar from the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference

At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara I had the privilege of attending a Syrah tasting that introduced the wines of the recently approved Ballard Canyon AVA to the blogger community. I feel like a kid in a candy store at these kinds of events.  It’s rare that Syrah gets its own seminar and, much like last year’s Syrah event at the West of West tasting in Sebastopol, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Patrick Comiskey moderated the event.  Patrick is writing a book on Rhone varieties in America and I’ve been wanting to meet him for a long time.  His opening remarks were a reprise of his recent talk at the Syrah conference up in Walla Walla.  He’s an expert on Syrah, and, in general, his ideas about what is going on with Syrah are right on. You can find the full text of his Walla Walla talk here.  To summarize, Patrick blames the declining state of Syrah in America on the fact that it has been planted in areas that haven’t embraced its inherent wildness.  When Syrah isn’t wild it simply isn’t good. It’s dull, jammy fruit and oak, and rather non-descript.

To me, Syrah expresses its wildness best in cool climates. In recent years I’ve had some good examples of “wild” Syrah planted in warmer climates but, in general, I still say that Syrah does best  with cooler climate influences that accentuate its wild, savory side.

And that brings us to Ballard Canyon.  The recently approved AVA is one that will be mostly dedicated to Syrah.  Peter Stolpman, as the elected head of  Ballard Canyon, represents an unparalleled collective of Syrah-based wineries. While not an extreme cool-climate site by any means, its area, like many parts of Santa Barbara County, has a lot of maritime influence.  Comiskey has called it, “a warm spot in a cool place.”  According to geology buff Michael Larner, of Ballard Canyon’s Larner Wines, the soils of the area are mostly sand.  The sand has the effect of stressing the vines which leads to an intensity of fruit.  Beneath the sand lies a chalky limestone soil that lends complexity and interest.  This combination of soil influences, along with windy maritime afternoons which keep temperatures from rising too high, makes for a Syrah of power and elegance.

The following are my notes from a tasting of six wines that the Ballard collective chose to represent the new AVA.  Forgive my lack of detail for some of the wines; I was so blissed out by all the talk of Syrah that I didn’t take the greatest notes. Hopefully, they will give a sense of the uniqueness of Ballard Canyon.

ballard seminar
The first three wines poured and waiting.

Kimsey Vineyard
This is a new project, not yet released, from long-time vineyard manager for the area, Ruben Solorzano.  The wine had some cool-climate character but verged a little too much into the warmer style.  Good energy on the mid-plate though, with a nice bitter chocolate finish.  As in all of these wines, a good combination of concentration and energy.

Beckman is a name that’s synonymous with Syrah in Santa Barbara county.  Their Ballard Canyon Syrah is  2012 La Purisima Mountain Syrah.  I have found most of their Syrah bottlings to be a little too ripe and too big for me and the La Purisima was no exception but it did have good energy and acidity.

Steve Beckman referred to the wine as a combination of cool and warm climates and I think that’s a fair description.  It had some cool-climate character but embraces warm climate while maintaining the structure and acidity of a cool-climate wine.

Stolpman Vineyards
The 2012 Stolpman Originals Syrah ranged a tad more into the cool-climate style than the previous two.  It had beautiful fruit but also this untamed, meaty element that revealed its true Syrah character.  A great wine to represent Ballard Canyon.

The 2012 Rusack Reserve Syrah was a nice wine and many of the people at the tasting liked it but for me it simply had too much new oak.  I got some chocolate aromas and it did have that characteristic of concentration and acidity.

Harrison Clarke
The 2010 Cuvee Charlotte Syrah was a bigger wine but maintained some good acidity.  These wines all have a complexity and acidity behind the big fruit but this was a tad too big.

The 2010 Larner Estate Syrah was too big for me, also. A warmer and somewhat extracted style for sure.  Again the characteristic of concentration and ripeness was there.

The 2010 Sangre de Jonata Syrah was my favorite of the bunch and, unfortunately, at $125 is probably a wine I’ll never purchase.  It had the most elegance of the bunch and had a bit of green character that I like.  Most of the people I talked to disliked it because it had that leafy character. I appreciated its lift, purity, and elegance.

Overall, Ballard Canyon impressed me with the concentration and energy on the mid palate, though I would like to see that dialed back a bit, possibly by picking the grapes earlier.  These are great iterations of Syrah and will do well in the marketplace. They’re a wonderful ambassador for Syrah because of that unique combination of warm and cool climates.  I look forward to seeing how this AVA develops. It’s a step in the right direction for planting Syrah firmly back into the landscape of California wine.