Some notes on the 2012 Piedrasassi Syrah releases


My love for the Central Coast’s Piedrasassi Winery is well documented. I won’t go too deeply into it here except to say that Piedrasassi is doing pretty much everything that produces the style of Syrah I like. They’re committed to cool climate Syrah and the wines are usually under 14% alcohol and aged in large neutral oak barrels with some stem inclusion. I stopped by the other day to talk with Melissa Sorongon, a partner in the winery with her winemaking husband Sashi Moorman, to check in on their 2012 releases.

The following are my initial notes on their four upper end Syrah releases. I’ll post more extensive notes on each of the wines down the road after they get some time in bottle and I crack them individually.

Piedrasassi’s least expensive of their upper-end Syrahs is a blend of three vineyards. Moorman went into his Syrah project with the idea that he would be mostly blending from different vineyards to make the perfect blended Syrah. Yet, as the project has developed, Melissa and Sashi began to see that some of the vineyards that they were sourcing had such expressive individual signatures that they just had to have their own vineyard designations.

The Piedrasassi Syrah at 13.5% alcohol is a blend from three vineyards, Presqu’ile, Harrison Clarke and Sebastiano. There’s still a bit of green character (not a bad thing in my opinion) on this wine at the moment, probably due to the stem inclusion. There’s a full mid-palate on this wine though, nice blackberry and plum and a brambly quality. Although it’s a full wine it has an elegance too. It’s a nice cool-climate Syrah but with a tad of California richness.

The Santa Maria Valley Presqu’ile Syrah is a tad higher in alcohol at 14% and has an energetic lift to the mid-palate with savory tannins and a beautiful elegance on the finish.

The Santa Ynez wine is from the Sebastiano vineyard. It’s bright and chalky with sweet plum aromas and sweeter tannins on the finish. Again, the mid-palate has a wonderful lively texture to it.

The Rim Rock Vineyard Arroyo Grande Syrah is more of a floral Syrah with a Cote Rotie elegance and a bit of Cornas heft. It’s a generous Syrah but tightly wound with a nice bright finish.

I asked Melissa why the wines, even though they are from individual vineyards, were named after the larger appellation from which they come. Melissa said that this was a conscious decision to bring more attention to the larger areas of Santa Barbara County rather than individual vineyards. She likened it to the story of the Bien Nacido vineyard which has become world famous but few people know that it comes from Santa Maria. Sashi and Melissa want people to know about Santa Maria as a whole, not just the vineyard sites.

All of these wines are elegant and bright and could last for many years. I have all three bottles in my “wine cellar” and I’ll be opening them in the next couple of years to give more attention to each wine in separate, later posts.

Can you #keepsyrahweird in Lodi?

When one thinks of the hip winemakers of CA, the image of Ryan Sherman doesn’t automatically come to mind. To be clear, Ryan is no Matthew Rorick or Abe Schoener, he has no visible tattoos or scarves but Ryan is doing some hip stuff.  His label, Fields Family Wines, where he works with owner Russ Fields, is making Syrah in a Zinfandel-centric appellation and it’s damn good.
Ryan Sherman
Ryan showing off the 2014 Rosé (which is also really crisp and delicious by the way).
Centered in the Mokelumne River Valley, in the deep sand and somewhat cooler climate, Fields Family Wines is a small estate that’s mostly planted to Syrah.  Originally, winery owner Russ Fields wanted to pull out the Syrah grapes and plant Zinfandel, but Ryan, who had developed a love for Syrah at wine dinners in his early profession as a pharmaceutical rep, made it his goal to convince Russ that good Syrah could be made from the grapes.  Russ is now convinced.
Fields family tasting
The tasting line up for the Lodi trip.  Below are notes for the 2012 Syrah.  The 2013 was still in barrel. 
There’s a pleasant funkiness and interest to this wine that belies its warm climate roots.  It’s also surprisingly fresh on the palate with a bright finish and a mouth-filling texture.  Zero oak is coming through on the nose and it has a pretty floral aroma mixed with salty plum and ripe blackberry.  This is Syrah as it should be.  It’s not a cool-climate area but Ryan is achieving cool-climate character with this wine.
Ryan thinks a low frequency in racking helps preserve a freshness in the wines.  He also picks earlier than his counterparts and uses very little new oak.  He’s moving towards using even larger puncheons to minimize the wine’s exposure to oak for future vintages.
   field family puncheon
Ryan’s experimenting with these big oak puncheons or foudres. 
On my recent visit, I got to try the 2013 in barrel and I’m excited by the elegance and floral quality of that Syrah. Keep your eye out for some whole cluster Syrah from Ryan in the future and he’s even got an orange wine that I didn’t get a chance to try.  Fields Family Wines are still in their early days and Ryan’s open mind and willingness to experiment only bodes well for the future.  This is definitely a winery to watch for me.
Who knows, given these wines, we might be seeing Ryan dressing like Abe in a cravat soon?


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.