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.

The 2012 Wind Gap Nellessen Vineyard Syrah


At the Wind Gap tasting room in Sebastopol I tasted the 2012 Syrah. I love this Syrah. At the time I thought it was the best Syrah I’ve had so far from the 2012 vintage. I bought a bottle to taste at home over a couple of days. It more than lived up to my first impression.

This is a decidedly cool-climate Syrah, it’s almost as if Pax Mahle made a carbon copy of a savory Northern Rhone Syrah. It’s got that tobacco, pepper and bright plum thing going on big time, there’s a green element reminiscent of celery and it’s all couched in fresh plum and blackberry fruit. All of that carries over to the mid-palate which has great acidity and juicy freshness. The tannins are present but the wine doesn’t completely dry out the palate. A great wine with food but also very drinkable on its own.

The most striking thing is how little oak influences the wine and how little it tastes “Californian”. I know California is known for ripe fruit and it’s not as if we shouldn’t embrace that part of this great wine-growing state but I think there’s a place for cool-climate Syrah here and this is one of those. I put it into the group of the Peay La Bruma, Failla Estate, the Arnot Roberts Clary Ranch, the various Ant Hill Syrahs, MacLaren Wines Judge Family Vineyard, and the recent Red Car vintages for being a textbook examples of cool-climate Syrah.

On day two the wine is a little more open and some of that savoriness has given way to rich plum, although the celery and pepper is still right there in the background. The mid-palate is softer and fuller and the finish a tad less tannic and reminiscent of fresh blackberry. This is a wine that I think will age beautifully and I wish I’d bought a few bottles to put down.

Pax doesn’t often make wines from the Nellessen Vineyard that end up with their own bottling, the grapes are usually mixed in with others and added to his Wind Gap Syrah but I’m guessing that in the abundant 2012 vintage the fruit was begging for its own vineyard designation.

It’s such a pleasure to drink a wine that is so true to the Syrah’s motherland in the Northern Rhone and it’s further proof that California’s diverse climate is a proper home to all of Syrah’s diverse permutations.

The 2011 Edmunds St. John Fenaughty Vineyard El Dorado Syrah


It’s time to highlight one of the stars of California Syrah. Steve Edmunds has been around for a long time in California and he’s always made wines in a rather low alcohol, “European” style. He never succumbed to the big, rich, oak influenced (read Parkerized) craze of the mid 90s and mid 2000s. He therefore missed out on perhaps a decade of publicity. As the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward a more terroir-driven style of Syrah, Edmunds St. John enjoys favor among the cognoscenti. For followers of Syrah in the New World though, Steve Edmunds’ Syrahs never really went away, they’ve always been wines to enjoy for their pure, unadulterated character.

Edmunds makes wines from the Sierra foothills (among other areas) and the truth is that it’s been a little hard for me to put a finger on Syrah from this appellation. Sometimes it seems cool-climate and sometimes it seems to produce rather big and bulky styles of Syrah. In fact, some of the biggest Syrahs I’ve ever tasted have been from this region. Luckily with Steve’s wines I don’t have to worry about that dichotomy, he prides himself on letting the vineyard speak for itself and his grapes are picked at a time that retains their freshness and, once fermented, they aren’t subjected to any new oak.

The wine: Green peppercorn on the nose with some blackberry, plum, and honeysuckle aromas in the background but that peppercorn is unmistakable. It’s a warm and inviting smell for me because it invokes memories of mom’s cooking and home. This wine definitely benefits from time open in the bottle, like all cool-climate Syrah. It seemed a little thin yesterday after first opening but after a day on the counter the mid-palate had really fleshed out and the finish is less abrupt and more full. The tannins are in control and the acidity is present but nicely integrated. The finish tastes of strawberries and balsamic. A really delicious wine that makes me feel very happy and privileged to taste it.

By the way, if you’d like to learn even more about Steve Edmunds, perhaps more than you ever wanted to know, check out Levi Dalton’s excellent podcast.

A Trio of Syrahs from Zaca Mesa

If you are into Syrah in California, you have undoubtedly heard of Zaca Mesa.  It’s been around forever and has, in fact, the oldest Syrah plantings in Santa Barbara (1978). Located in Santa Barbara County near the town of Los Olivos, it’s not exactly cool-climate but it does benefit from cooling breezes off the coast.  Two of Syrah’s biggest proponents in CA worked at Zaca Mesa in the early years, Adam Tolmach of Ojai and Bob Lindquist of Qupé.
As a cool climate aficionado, I’ll admit that  Zaca Mesa wasn’t  on my radar.  I was intrigued to see that all the wines they sent me to sample were under 14% alcohol (The Chapel G’s label read 14.5% but the winery assured me that was actually a labeling mistake and should read 13.8%).  These are wines that I had thought of as being pretty big versions of Syrah but I was happy to have those assumptions challenged.
Santa Ynez Syrah
Santa Ynez Valley 2010 Syrah is Zaca Mesa’s least expensive Syrah and is made from a combination of Estate vineyards in Santa Ynez.  It’s a Syrah that’s on many restaurant lists across the country.  I’ve had it before and haven’t found it very interesting but I was intrigued that the 2010 vintage has an alcohol level under 14%.  It’s a pretty big Syrah with a vanilla and berry nose and a slightly candied finish.  I also got some rich plum flavor.  The mid-palate has good acidity and the blackberry flavors carry through. It’s a big, full wine but it isn’t overblown.  If you see the 2010 on any lists, it’s definitely an option to consider.
Chapel G Zaca Mesa
The 2011 Chapel G was my favorite wine of the bunch.  It has great acidity and elegance with high toned, red-fruit aromas and a hint of something vegetal in the background.  The tannins are sweet but present.  This is a quality cool-climate style Syrah.  It has some savory aromas but really showcases a pure, bright fruit aroma and a full, big, but not too oaky palate.  I  believe it really did come it at under 14% alcohol.
Mesa Reserve Zaca
The 2010 Mesa Reserve was my least favorite of the three.  It’s a style of Syrah that fits the “Syrah only goes with BBQ ribs” stereotype (to be fair, it probably would be pretty darn good with ribs slathered with sauce).  It’s not my style, the oak is simply too present.  It’s more of a creamy, vanilla style Syrah with a strawberry finish.  I  sense some beautiful fresh fruit flavors and some savory elements but it’s hard to parse them out.  This wine sees 62% new oak, so you can see where the oak influence comes from.
Interestingly, when I opened these wines with a couple of other friends who enjoy wine but are not obsessed like me, the Mesa Reserve was the crowd favorite.  It does have a smoothness and ease of drinking that could appeal to the casual drinker.
It was a pleasure to try them all and I think the Chapel G (which is a new vineyard designate for Zaca Mesa) is a wine for Syrah aficionados to seek out.  And I’ll definitely consider a Santa Ynez Syrah the next time I see it by the glass on a restaurant list.
These wines were provided from the winery as samples for review.

Two Older Vintages of Copain Syrah

I was able to get hold of a few older Copain wines from K and L the other day and I thought it would be interesting to see how they are holding up. The winemaker for Copain, Wells Guthrie, had something of a change of heart in the mid 2000s resulting in a subsequent change in the level of ripeness in his wines. I wanted to see how the wines were holding up, especially after my tasting with Fred Swan in which we tasted the 2002 Broken Leg and the 2002 Eaglepoint Ranch. I thought then that they were holding up well. Yes, they had a higher level of alcohol (around 14.5%) than his current wines but they weren’t overly ripe by any means. In fact, I thought they were rather fresh and structured for ten year old wines. The following wines were tasted over a period of a few days.

Copain Hawks Butte

2004 Copain Hawks Butte Syrah 14.3% ABV

On first opening this Syrah was completely closed down and for a second I thought it was corked because of the lack of aromatics. But the wine opened up and, although still not exactly super expressive on the nose, it’s got a rich mid-palate, not jammy but a little stewy, not exactly a fresh fruit profile. I did get some aromas of blackberry, dust, oak and milky vanilla.

This is not the balanced, elegant style of Syrah that Copain is known for nowadays or, after a decade of age, it’s not showing that way. It’s got very present oak and a glycerine richness that I wouldn’t expect from a Wells Guthrie wine of the present. There’s a tad bit of alcohol coming through on the finish also.

I can sense a balanced wine in there somewhere but it’s not quite there in the 2004 version of the wine. It makes me wonder if this is what Guthrie noticed when he tasted through his wines and had the epiphany to change his style to a more “old world” Syrah style. If it was, then I think he made the right choice because this wine just doesn’t have the structure and freshness that I would have expected and the oak is simply too present.

2001 Eaglepoint Ranch

2001 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah 14.4% ABV

This wine is definitely more balanced than the Hawks Butte. It has a text book cool-climate kalamata olive character mixed with some nice floral and meaty aromas. Yes, there’s some blackberry, bright cherry and salty plum fruit there but it’s in the background and it’s the savory aromas that really take center stage. The mid-palate has some nice juicy acidity and the tannins are relative smooth in the background. This is a wine that begs for cheese or salty snacks. It’s my style of Syrah and again makes me wonder what happened to Eaglepoint vineyard and why there are very few vineyard designate Syrahs coming out of there.
It’s hard to make a generalization based on two bottles of wine from different vineyards but it’s easy to imagine that Guthrie saw that the mid 2000 versions of his Syrahs simply weren’t holding up well over time. Newer vintages of Guthrie’s Syrahs are coming in under 13% ABV so you can see that he made a substantial shift in style.  I also question how much new oak was used on the either the 2001 or the 2004 and how much that affected the structure of the wine over time for these two bottles.  I would guess the 2004 Syrah saw more new oak.  It could also be that the natural acidity of the Eaglepoint Ranch wine that gave it more structure and cool climate character.  As seems typical with wine, after tasting these vintages more questions were raised than answered.

These wines were sold back to K and L by a private party from a personal collection. It was a rare opportunity to taste the older vintage Syrahs and I’m glad I pulled the trigger when they popped up.

Pining for a trip to the Northern Rhone: Two 2010 Saint Joseph Syrahs

It’s no secret that this blog has been mostly focused on California, a few years ago I started writing about Syrah from other parts of the world but, probably because I live in California, that Golden State focus has endured. I believe that wine is really more interesting when you know its context and although I enjoy wines from the Northern Rhone, I have yet to make a trip there. I definitely want to go in the near future and make that pilgrimage to Syrah’s birthplace. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying the gorgeous French wines available here in the States and hope that will provide enough interest for these posts.

St. Joseph is the lighter more playful side of the Northern Rhone. The wines go with lots of different types of food (even fish). They are generally less tannic, less big, but perhaps just as serious as wines from Hermitage, Cornas, or Côte-Rôtie.

domaine courbis

2010 Saint-Joseph Domain Courbis ABV 13%

Beautiful honeysuckle aromas on the nose mixed with some earthy tobacco aromas. There’s a sweetness on the nose that translates to a very dry mid-palate. This is what I love about St. Joseph. It has floral aroma but great acidity makes it super food friendly. We had it with some homemade carne asada tacos and it worked well. The finish is not too tannic but there are tannins there.

The Courbis grapes are de-stemmed and the wine is aged in neutral oak casks.

etienne becheras

2010 Etienne Becheras Saint-Joseph Le Prieure d’Arras, Rhone, France ABV 13%

Again, an elegant wine that smells sweet but finishes dry. Not as dry as the previous wine but also has beautiful acidity on the mid-palate. There’s just a gorgeous sweet plum aroma on the nose that is so cool-climate Syrah. The tannins are there but they exist in the background and this makes the wine, like most Saint Josephs, very versatile with food. This Syrah would pretty much go with anything you’d serve a Pinot with. It’s light and easy to drink but it’s not an insubstantial wine, it has a lot of complexity and interest, again very similar to Pinot.

This wine is made with indigenous yeast fermentation and aged in various sizes of neutral oak barrels. The grapes are de-stemmed.

If you like Syrah, you need to check out wines from St. Joseph. They are often in the lower price range (both these wines retail for under $30) in comparison with the other star appellations in the Northern Rhone but they are beautiful, elegant expressions of Syrah. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to pining for a trip to Syrah’s ancestral home.

Checking in with Maclaren Wine Company: Steve Law Has a Syrah For You

I’ve been meaning to stop by Steve Law’s new tasting room in Sonoma for quite a while so, on a recent trip to Sonoma to visit my mom, I made it a priority.

I love to talk Syrah with Steve, he has first hand knowledge of the Northern Rhone having lived there for years for his work. He’s also committed to making Syrah in a restrained style that’s food friendly.


Steve’s at home and happy in his new tasting room right off the Sonoma Plaza.

Steve generally has a few lower alcohol styles of Syrah that are right in my wheelhouse but he also has a couple of bigger Syrahs from warmer sites. Even those are made in a restrained style.

Although I tasted all of Steve’s Syrahs that day I’ve decided to highlight my absolute favorite:


The Atoosa’s Vineyard Bennett Valley Syrah (ABV 12.7%)

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve made some recent forays into slightly bigger styles of Syrah. Although these have been delicious wines, with their full mid-palates and rich fruit, I must admit that I’ve been excited to write about a wine that is truly cool-climate. Well, I found one in the Atoosa’s.

I was a bit worried when I found out that Steve was no longer making one of the best California Syrahs that I’ve tasted, the Judge Family Syrah, but the Atoosa’s really fills the void. It has that same savory Northern Rhone character that the Judge has. I’d say this one tends a little less towards St. Joseph and a little more towards Cornas because it’s a more reserved and slightly more tannic version of Syrah (although it’s not really that tannic).

As many of you know, cool-climate Syrah isn’t the type of wine to reveal all its charms upon first opening. It’s reserved and needs some time to open. With some time in the glass it revealed beautiful aromas of sweet plum, pomegranate, black olive and tobacco. On the mid-palate the best way I can describe this wine is that it’s crunchy. There’s this sense of a crunchy pomegranate or a crunchy apple with a nice lift of acidity on the finish. There are some tannins on the finish too but they’re integrated and not harsh.

I LOVE this wine and I’m so glad that Steve found a good replacement for the Judge. If you love Syrah and you haven’t had any of Steve’s you owe it to yourself to search them out.

Steve’s other Syrahs are equally delicious, if not exactly my style. I’ll discuss them briefly from my tasting notes on the day of my visit:


The Syrah lineup.

The 2011 Samantha’s Vineyard (ABV 13.5%) is a Russian River hillside site. It’s a nice Syrah with a fuller mid-palate but still good acidity. I got some cigar box aromas on the nose along with a bit of eucalyptus. Nice lift on the finish.

The 2011 Drouthy Neighbors (ABV 13.5%) is Steve’s Syrah blend from his different vineyard sites, 50% Samantha’s, 33% Atoosa, and 17% Stagecoach. It has a good core of acidity and lots of blackberry aromas. Again, the low tannins and high acidity make it super food friendly.

The 2011 Stagecoach (ABV 14.2%) is Steve’s biggest Syrah. It sees some new oak (20%) and therefore has some vanilla aromas on the nose. There’s a gorgeous mouth feel to this wine but it’s definitely a more blue fruited style, a Syrah that kind of fits that stereotypical Syrah and barbecue ribs pairing.

Except for the Stagecoach, all of these Syrahs see only neutral oak and are made with a technique that Steve learned from his time in the Northern Rhone that uses a lower pressure on the bladder press to minimize tannic extraction and make a more elegant style of Syrah.

Whatever your preference, Steve has a Syrah for you.