2012 Arnot-Roberts Griffin’s Lair Vineyard Sonoma Coast Syrah

griffin's lair arnot roberts

There’s a soft spot in my heart for Arnot-Roberts, not quite to the level of Piedrasassi but I do love these guys. These were some of the first California Syrahs that made me realize how much I liked Syrah when it was done right. They make it from some classic California cool-climate vineyards like Clary Ranch, Griffins Lair, and the recently-acquired famed Que Syrah vineyard near Occidental. Their wines are not without controversy, they pick their fruit on the edge of ripeness and some would say the resulting wines are underripe and shortchange the gift of sunny climate that we have here in California.

I have found their Syrahs to be aromatically enticing, elegant, and perhaps a little light on the mid palate but that’s not anything that causes me any concern. I’d gladly exchange a little depth on the mid palate for an ethereal, elegant style of Syrah. I think their wines fit well into the pantheon of Syrah in California, someone has to be the counterpoint to the blocky, rich style that was so prevalent a few years ago.

Having said all that, the 2012 Griffin’s Lair isn’t missing anything on the mid palate. This is the first time I’ve tried their version of Griffin’s Lair and it has all that aromatic intensity of their other wines but this one matches it on the mid palate too. It’s an inky wine at 13.5%, one of the heftier wines that I’ve had from Arnot-Roberts. On first opening the nose has an earthy, almost dusty, gravelly aroma with some floral accents and fresh plum, black olives and blackberry. It’s a classic Syrah for me, and just plain delicious. Some of Arnot-Roberts’ other wines tend to take a little while to unfold in the glass. This one has a hedonistic quality that I think represents the vineyard well. It’s a fresh wine though, with a core of minerality that makes it unmistakably Arnot Roberts. I’d like to see how the wine ages too, I’d love to try it again in ten years.

Griffin’s Lair itself was planted in 2000 in the Lakeville Road area of the Petaluma Gap. It’s a site most defined by it’s cooling, drying winds, producing acidity in the fruit while also making them intensely flavored. It’s a sweet spot for Syrah and picking before the fruit is too ripe allows for the savory side of the variety to shine. This is one of the better representations of cool climate Syrah that I’ve had from this vineyard.

Waxwing 2013 Sonoma Coast Flocchini Vineyard Syrah


2013 waxwing

Waxwing Wine Cellars is a little winery here on the Peninsula. I’ve written about them a few times and I’ve also been helping out at the winery a bit over the last few years. Obviously there’s a possible conflict of interest here but I assure you I wouldn’t write about these wines if they weren’t some of the most delicious and well made examples of the varieties that I’ve tasted. And I’m not alone in thinking this, Waxwing and its winemaker Scott Sisemore has gotten some good press for a small winery.  Here’s a couple of reviews from Jon Bonne, ex-wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/Is-pink-the-new-white-A-complicated-new-era-for-5501693.php and http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Sonoma-Coast-is-a-sweet-spot-for-Syrah-3464992.php The latter is one of my favorites as it highlights the Sonoma Coast which really has become a sweet spot for Syrah in California.

Scott’s Flocchini Syrah is the first one that he ever made for his own winery. It’s peppery, menthol, earthy on the nose and all couched in blackberry and plum. This wine has all the aromas that make cool-climate Syrah different than your run-of-the-mill California Syrah or for that matter Cabernet or ripe pinot. On the palate the wine is full and finishes with a nice tannic punch that makes it beg for meat or rich cheese. I love this wine and it’s one of the first wines that Scott made that really piqued my interest.

The Flocchini vineyard is run by ex-dairy farmers Andrew and Patty Flocchini. It’s situated in the Petaluma gap right next to the famed Griffin’s Lair Syrah vineyard. Most of the Syrah there consists of the Noir clone which in Scott’s experience produces a rather tannic Syrah with lots of potential for aging. The wines are usually almost too-tannic on release but with a little time in bottle and a little air upon opening they are quite delicious.

Scott has made his latest two vintages with 100% whole cluster which gives the wines a level of complexity that really accents the cool-climate Syrah character. The wines see all neutral oak and are foot stomped and remain un-filtered and un-fined.

Arnot-Roberts 2013 Syrah North Coast

I have to admit that it’s been kind of tough to get into my red wines lately. It’s been hot. Too hot for reds and they’ve bided their time in my little wine fridge while I’ve been gulping down white and rosé waiting for the weather to cool.

I finally decided to give a red wine some attention the other day when the weather cooled a bit and I chose the Arnot-Roberts 2013 North Coast Syrah. It’s a wine that’s made from some of the top Syrah vineyards in the state, including La Cruz, Baker Lane, Clary Ranch, Marietta, Griffin’s Lair, and even some fruit from the Que Syrah vineyard, Arnot-Roberts recent acquisition near Occidental, that some say is the coolest Syrah site in the state.

arnot-roberts 2013 syrah

Talk about minerality in red wine, this Syrah has it in spades. It’s bright (it almost vibrates with energy), it’s fresh and it’s delicious. My only complaint is that its a little one-dimensional. It’s all citrussy-bright plum and gravel but little in the way of deep flavors. Being a 2013 might just mean that the wine needs some time to develop. There’s a hint of smokiness and pepper on the nose to counteract all those primary fruit flavors but not much else at the moment.

I like this wine though and I’d probably buy a lot of it if it wasn’t $40. It’s reminiscent of a good St. Joseph, many of which are in that price range, so maybe it’s priced right where you’d expect. In fact, if you’re a lover of St. Joseph Syrah this might be just the wine for you. No new oak, just pure, energetic flavors of good Syrah. As I’m writing, I think I’m talking myself into liking the wine more because, in comparison to the over-oaked Syrah that’s so prevalent, this is actually a great example of what California can (and should) do with Syrah. I just wish it had a little more weight to it. It’s kind of like the new Beirut album, fresh and fun but without a whole lot of substance. And that’s okay because sometimes that’s exactly what you want.

Sólosyrah: Comparing Syrah and Indie Rock Since September of 2015

Radio-Coteau 2005 Las Colinas Sonoma Coast Syrah

radio coteau
I’ve been wanting to try one of these Radio Coteau, Las Colinas Syrahs for quite a while, but I have to admit that the $60 price tag kind of scared me off.  So, when my sister got me one as a gift for my birthday it was truly a happy day.

There was a catch though. I’d always heard these were classically cool-climate Syrahs and the ABV of 14.7% on the 2005 vintage made me a little skeptical.  Well, I’m happy to report that even though the wine carried a tad higher alcohol than I usually look for, it displayed all the cool-climate character that I love so much.

The wine:  Savory plum, gravel, and black olive on the nose.  On the palate, there’s fresh blackberry and also savory flavors that evoke an umami quality.  The finish is all sweet tannins, this is a wine that’s ready to drink and a pleasure to have gotten to try.

Radio Coteau is a small winery located in Sebastapol. They buy fruit from various Sonoma Coast vineyards and also have an estate vineyard near Occidental.  Las Colinas Syrah, blending fruit from various Syrah vineyards around the Sonoma Coast, is a beautiful expression of cool-climate Syrah and one that I’ll keep an eye on for future vintages.  If your pocketbook can handle it, it’s a wine worth checking out.

2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard Syrah

What has now become a winery known mostly for its high-acid, true Sonoma Coast Pinot and Chardonnay, began its story with Syrah. A move up north and an appreciation of cooler-climate styles shifted winemaker Carrol Kemp’s focus toward burgundy and away from the Rhone.  Fortunately for me, Red Car’s Estate Syrah is one that’s sure to stay in their lineup and it’s one of the better California cool-climate Syrahs that I’ve tried, so as long as they keep this one around I’ll be a happy camper.

red car

The 2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard Syrah $55

Salty licorice, savory nose, has a meaty character there too. There’s fresh plum and blackberry that reminds me of summer fruit. This Syrah is very floral too, even though there isn’t any Viognier added. There’s great minerality and tension on the nose, with bitter chocolate aromas. The palate is fresh and light with great lift and the finish is not overly tannic or bitter to my palate.

The Fort Ross Seaview appellation is a relatively new appellation, it’s a subsection of the Sonoma Coast appellation and the beginning of a break-up of that gargantuan appellation into smaller subsections (soon to come…The Petaluma Gap). It’s a northerly coastal appellation that generally produces cooler-climate style of wine but the hilltop vineyards are often above the fog so some of them get more heat. The Red Car vineyard sits at about 1000 ft. above sea level in the hills above Fort Ross and is positively cool-climate because of its proximity to the cooling fog and breezes of the Pacific Ocean.

The wine is aged for 18 months in 27% new oak and the balance in neutral barrels. 2011 was a cool vintage and the resulting wine comes in at only 12.7% alcohol. It’s not lacking for stuffing though, also a wine to revisit in a few years.

Donelan Family Wines: Benchmark Sonoma Syrah

I love checking in with Donelan Family Wines, they’ve been making Syrah for years now, both under the Pax label and now with the Donelan Family label. And they’ve stuck to their guns, sure they make a few Pinots here and there, and some nice whites, but they are decidedly a Syrah house. They’ve had some of the same vineyard sources for over a decade so it’s fun to see how the wines develop and how the new vintages evolve.


Tasting with Joe was a treat. 

The winery recently changed winemakers. Joe Nielsen took over the reins from Tyler Thomas in 2013. He had been assistant winemaker for 4 years so he was very prepared for the transition. I met with Joe in early July to go over the latest releases. Unfortunately, all the following wines (except for the Cuvee Christine and the Walker Vine) are sold out. I include them here for you fellow Syrah geeks so that you can keep track of what’s going on with Donelan and get super excited for the 2013 bottlings.


The lineup.

The 2012 Cuvee Christine 14.1% ABV $48. This wine is meant to be a postcard of Sonoma Syrah, kind of like a journey through the different sides of Sonoma. On the one hand, it’s savory-gravel and fresh but on the other hand it’s fruity and broad with smoky tannins and blackberry and plum flavors. There’s a brightness to the wine that I didn’t expect.

The 2012 Walker Vine Syrah, 13.7% ABV $65, is a richer, rounder, fuller wine but with good acid structure in the mid-palate. It tastes fully ripe and expressive but that mid-palate structure keeps it from being jammy or over the top. 2013 is the last year for Walker Vine Syrah which marks the end of an era for the Pax and Donelan iteration of that vineyard. It will be missed.

The 2012 Kobler Family Green Valley Syrah/Viognier, 13.5% ABV $60. This is my type of Syrah, It’s floral and shows the cooler side of variety. The Viognier is really showing here, elevating the floral aromatic complexity. After that floral on the nose, I get the salted plum aroma that I love on Viognier-added Syrah, there’s crushed rock on the palate and something meaty and smokey there in the background.

The 2012 Obsidian Knights Valley, 14.7% ABV $105. The Obsidian is, of course, Donelan’s flagship vineyard which they, in fact, have recently purchased. This is a big meaty Syrah, and somewhat more blue fruited than the others and sees a little more new oak. It’s a brighter wine than I remember from the last vintage I tasted and has some nice freshness to counteract those big notes of fruit, oak, and tannin.

The 2012 Cuvee Keltie, 14% ABV $90, is a wine that Donelan winemakers have referred to as a “winemakers’ wine. It’s a blend that, as Joe said, develops its singularity from the decisions that the winemaker makes rather than the vineyard. The idea for this blend is to really play up the savory side of Syrah by using whole cluster fruit and aging it in neutral barrels. The result for the 2012 vintage is a rich wine but with a mineral backbone and a meaty side. There’s a fair amount of tannin there too because the blend was made with grapes from smaller berry lots. It’s an impressive wine and one that I’d like to revisit in a few years after some bottle age.

The Kobler Family is Donelan’s most elegant Syrah and, as you can imagine, my favorite because it displays so much cool-climate character. But that’s not to say that the others aren’t elegant and, as you can see from my notes, all the wines possessed a freshness and modest alcohol and oak treatments that I feel lets the vineyards shine. After barrel tasting the 2013 wines, I”m confident Nielsen has the same deft hand with the different vineyard sites that Donelan has made famous through the years.


What I’m always struck with when I visit Donelan is the intense devotion from the winemakers, be it Tyler Thomas or Joe Nielsen, to leaving no stone unturned in order to make the best wines. For example, Joe told me that in 2013 they separated the Walker Vine vineyard into thirteen different lots which they picked at different times. These guys are not messing around and their attention to detail is borne out in the elegant and site-expressive Syrahs in their impressive line up.

S.C. Pannell Adelaide Hills 2013 Syrah

s.c. pannell

Australian Shiraz/Syrah you ask? How could it be cool-climate? Well, after years of hearing about a cooler-climate style of Syrah from Australia but never actually being able to find any, I’m happy to report that it exists! And it’s delicious!

The S.C. Pannell Syrah has cool-climate character in spades. It’s got minerality on the nose, mixed with underlying fresh strawberry and blackberry and an intriguing dark-chocolate note. The palate is full but with good lift (it’s not a cloying wine at all), and it finishes fresh and not-too-tannic. It’s a beauty and I’m happy to have found it. Interestingly, the winemaker calls it Syrah, to differentiate it in style from other Australian Shiraz and to connect it more with the Northern Rhone. There’s an elegance and freshness that I just haven’t tasted in an Australian red and it makes me excited and hopeful that there are other examples of Australian Syrah like this.

The wine is grown on granitic soils in the Echunga vineyard of Adelaide Hills appellation about 1300 feet above sea level. It has 2% Viognier and it’s fermented with about 20% whole cluster. The wine was aged in 25% new oak puncheons and vats for about 12 months. The resulting wine is 14% abv.

It won the Jimmy Watson trophy recently. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s ok, neither had I. Apparently, it’s a huge honor in Australia. Not only is it an honor for the wine and the folks behind it, but I can’t help think that it’s a validation for wineries in Australia who are leaning towards a more restrained style of Syrah.