My favorite of the Donelan lineup because it is decidedly their most cool-climate Syrah. In a lower elevation vineyard in the Russian River Green Valley area the fog tends to keep the grapes from getting too ripe. Viognier is harvested early and kept fresh with dry ice until the Syrah is ready and then co-fermented. The wine is stored in neutral oak barrels to keep with the Northern Rhone theme. It’s a floral/meaty/smoky/umami wine that accentuates the savory side of Syrah. In a blind tasting it would be hard to pick this wine out as a California Syrah. 96 pts.
Donelan has been predominately a Syrah house for many years but they also have some delicious Pinots and Chardonnays. At a recent tasting at the winery I especially enjoyed the Tripp’s Block Perli vineyard Pinot and the Genevieve’s Block Chardonnay. I generally don’t like Chardonnay but this one had an enjoyable bracing acidity.
As far as the other Syrah, I enjoyed the Cuveé Keltie which is a nice middle ground for those that like a balanced California Syrah styled wine. Not too ripe, and not too savory. Donelan’s benchmark wine is the Obsidian Vineyard Syrah from a, now mostly destroyed by fire, vineyard in Knight’s Valley. It’s a well made wine for those that like the big, ripe, in-your-face iteration of Syrah. The vineyard is being replanted with Syrah so this wine will be off-line for a few years. I only took quick tasting notes on those wines so I won’t score them here.
As Donelan replants their flagship vineyard they also welcome in new winemaker, David Philbin. Philbin has been working with Pinot and Syrah at Relic Wine Cellars in Napa. Every since the Pax/Donelan break-up, Donelan has become a breeding ground for young talented winemakers. Tyler Thomas and Joe Nielsen have moved on to other projects but I’m hopeful that Donelan Winery will continue the tradition of letting their diverse vineyards dictate the wines they produce.
2016 Dierberg Santa Maria Valley
Winemaker Scott Sisemore ventured farther south to bring in this fruit from a premium Santa Maria Valley Syrah vineyard. There’s under ripe blackberry here and ripe strawberry, with an undercurrent of minerality. There’s a bit of meat and mushroom there too. Built to age with great structure, acid mid palate and grippy tannins, this ain’t no jammy Syrah and it’s delicious. There’s a pleasing grip and structure here that’s frankly often hard to find in a lot of California Syrah. I would put this up with some of the best Syrahs I’ve had from CA. 97 pts.
2016 Lester Family Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah
At 14.3% ABV riper than I’m used to from the Lester Family and that makes it a bit more smooth and easy drinking than previous ones. It has less of the green peppercorn I’ve come to associate with the vineyard and more red and black fruit. 94 pts
2015 Syrah Petaluma Gap Flocchini Vineyard
Here’s that Flocchini signature feral aroma mixed with blackberries and lots of earthy gravel. The word is that a lot of these grapes are getting grafted over to Pinot and Chardonnay with just a little Syrah left. I don’t know very many wineries making Syrah from this vineyard and frankly Waxwing is the best last chance they have. So, if you like restrained European Syrah and you want Syrah to continue at this vineyard seek it out. 94 pts.
2016 Flocchini Sans Soufre
A surprising entry from Waxwing and a bit of an experiment on the part of winemaker Scott Sisemore. He says, “The wine tasted fresh and clean (not oxidized ) at every tasting so decided to go ahead and bottle without an addition. Maybe wines would not allow for this as they’d start to taste tired or oxidized and would need to be “cleaned up” with an SO2 add. The Flocchini never got to that point so I was confident I could get it into bottle without an add.”
This wine accentuates the feral side of Flocchini with more barnyard aromas but it isn’t anything crazy. If anything, the wine tastes more European than the 2015. On the palate it’s balanced, with that bit of that barnyard coming through at the end. There’s a bit of off-putting aspect to the finish but in general this is a very good “natural” Syrah. 90 pts.
The Workman Ayer de facto is 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache
Beautiful fresh plum on the nose with hints of caramel and a bit of herbal aroma. There’s some stewed fruit aroma too and anise coming through. There’s decent acid on the palate. This is a Syrah that leans more Southern Rhone than Northern Rhone. I’d love to see just a little lower alcohol to perhaps bring out a bit more complexity but that’s more of a personal taste. In its current state it’s a crowd-pleasing Syrah that’s not over-oaked or overblown.
Workman Ayer is the project of Michel Ayer and his wife whose last name is Workman. Michel started off in the wine business out of college and spend a few years in Napa working at wineries. He then decided to go to law school, while always keeping the idea of a winery in the back of his mind. He made his first vintage in 2010.
All the wines are made in the town of Buellton in an industrial space. The Grenache for the blend comes from Thompson Vineyard in Los Alamos. I’d love to know the location of the Syrah vineyards but Ayer says that due to non-disclosure agreements the exact location of the vineyards can’t be revealed.
This wine was provided as a sample for the purposes of review.
2014 Happy Canyon Star Lane Vineyard Syrah $40
This Syrah reveals itself as a warmer climate wine with a bit of reduction that blew off and evolved into a milk-chocolatey nose and aromas of stewed fruits and pie. It’s a big wine that gives a punch of alcohol on the finish. This is the type of Syrah meant for steak or bbq. 89 pts.
2014 Santa Maria Valley Dierberg Vineyard Syrah $65
As easy as it was to discern that the Happy Canyon was a warm climate Syrah it’s equally easy to tell that the Dierberg is firmly planted in the cool-climate camp. There are aromas of meat and fresh fruit and also a hint of reduction. It’s an elegant and fresh version of Syrah and it’s just my style. 94 pts.
After a storied stint at Donelan Wines in Sonoma, winemaker Tyler Thomas started at Dierberg Vineyards in 2013. He had become a bit of a Syrah-star in Sonoma and has since remade himself with mostly Pinot, Chardonnay, and Bordeaux varieties in Santa Barbara. But luckily for us Syrah-heads, both the estate vineyard at Dierberg and the Star Lane vineyard are planted with small amounts of Syrah. Just as at Donelan, with all its distinct Syrah vineyards, there’s a lot of contrast between these two Syrahs. The Happy Canyon is the more warm-climate style and, due to the coastal influence, the Dierberg estate more cool-climate.
The Happy Canyon Syrah was aged in barrel for 20 months with 10% New French Oak. The Dierberg Syrah is aged for 20 months with no new oak as Tyler feels that cool-climate Syrah and new oak are not a good match. This Syrah also has 5% Viognier added and some stem inclusion.
These wines were provided as samples for the purposes of review.
Fields Family Wines Estate Vineyard Lodi Syrah 2014
Cranberry and blackberry-pie nose with savory hints of cured meat and a touch of milk chocolate. The palate belies the nose in that it’s bright and almost citrussy with a pleasant touch of bitterness that evokes orange rind. 93 pts.
Fields Family Wines The Roasted Slope Lodi Syrah 2014
The Roasted Slope is all strawberry and salted plum on the nose, the palate also has good energy and lift that, like the estate wine, contrasts with the big-fruit nose. 92 pts.
The Roasted Slope, as its name implies, is an example of a Côte-Rôtie-style Syrah with about 9% Viognier mixed in with the estate Syrah fruit. The Viognier comes from Gill Creek Ranch right along the Mokelumne River. Ryan felt the Viognier added some acidity to the wine which would account for a slightly more energetic lift on the palate.
Both the wines are impressively “balanced” and I continue to be impressed with what Ryan Sherman is doing at Fields Family. Judicious picking times, and the absence of new oak, make the wines superior examples of Syrah. I wouldn’t exactly call the wines shy but Sherman keeps the fruit just restrained enough to make the wines food friendly and savory.
Two Shepherds 2013 Russian River Valley Saralee’s Vineyard Syrah
Recently released, this wine was aged in bottle at the winery to round it out a bit. It’s a wine that shows the elegant and lifted side of Syrah in the way it looks, smells, and tastes. Few other winemakers in California would even attempt to make a Syrah at 12.2 % ABV but William is not afraid to push the envelop on what’s considered ripe; he often boasts that some of his Rhone varieties are lighter in color than most California Pinot. This Syrah is no exception with its beautiful ruby red complexion. The nose is all herbal and earthy at first but with fresh red fruit aromas coming in to balance the savory aromas. There are some classic Syrah aromas of charcuterie there too. On the palate it’s super energetic and bright and needs to be consumed with salty food that will stand up to the rather bracing acidity. Although not for all Syrah lovers, those that follow this blog will enjoy this wine immensely. 92 pts.
Two Shepherds 2011 Russian River Valley Saralee’s Vineyard Syrah
I took the opportunity of writing about the 2013 to open a 2011 that I’ve been holding on to. This is a fuller version of Saralee’s Vineyard Syrah coming it at 13.5% ABV. When I first had this wine I was struck by how light and bright it was. It has really fleshed out after a few years in bottle and although I enjoyed it immensely then, it’s tasting perfectly now. More fruit forward than the ’13 but it has darker savory notes of dark olives and woodsmoke. The wine tends more blackberry than red fruit but with a core of minerality. It’s energetic on the palate but full, with good round tannin on the finish. 95 pts.
William Allen’s Two Shepherds Winery continues to make some of the most “out of the box” yet delicious reds in California and don’t even get me started on how much I love his energetic whites.
One of the best things about having a blog like this is that it encourages me to take a chance on wines I’ve never heard of and it’s even better when I find out that they’re really good. Obviously this used to happen a lot more when I started this blog but the other day I picked up a bottle of a Syrah I’d never seen before at the Boonville Hotel in Anderson Valley. I was intrigued by the 12.6% ABV as I tend towards those lower alcohol styles of Syrah.
This beauty is a dead ringer for a Northern Rhone Syrah or even a Wind Gap Nellessen or Sonoma Coast Syrah. Olive, bramble, and graceful fresh fruit jump out of the glass. Earth and mineral mixed in there too. Perfectly balanced on the palate, not too much acid or tannin and energetic and full at the same time. Whole cluster deliciousness. This wine definitely surprised me, glad I took a leap of faith. Cool-climate Syrah lovers need to seek this out.
Photos courtesy of Joanna Wells
Model Farm is the project of winemakers Joanna Wells and Sean Castorani. Joanna is also assistant winemaker at Kutch wines and Sean is assistant winemaker at Rhys Vineyard. They are engaged to be married and have been wanting to start a small project on their own, so in 2013 they took a lease on a two-acre Syrah vineyard in the Petaluma Gap. The vineyard hasn’t had any name recognition but it is sometimes referred to as the Fuller vineyard. Sean and Joanna farmed the two acres by hand organically. They do 100% whole cluster and native yeast fermentation, foot stomping and also foot punchdowns. The barrique is 100% neutral oak for 18 months and the wines are unfiltered and unfined.
I’m thrilled to find a new wine that I enjoyed this much and I can’t wait to see how this project and this special vineyard progress under such skilled tutelage.