Two Syrahs from Dierberg Winery in Santa Barbara County

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.

Two Impressive Syrahs from Fields Family Wines in Lodi

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 Syrahs from Two Shepherds Winery

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.

Model Farm 2014 Sonoma Coast Syrah $45.00, 12.6% ABV, 97 pts

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.

Drew Family Wines Syrah Tasting

On a recent trip to the Anderson Valley I had the opportunity to check in with Jason Drew at Drew Family Cellars. Jason happily decided to mark my visit by basically pulling out every vintage (except for the 2010) of Valenti Syrah for us to taste. I’ve been a big fan of Jason’s Syrah for a long time and I count his Valenti Ranch Syrah as one of the best domestic Syrahs I’ve ever tasted. As you can imagine it was a special experience.

The Valenti wines are made with some whole cluster, native fermentation, and neutral oak. The vineyard is located in the Mendocino Ridge Appellation. Because the grapes are in a cool-climate area they are sometimes picked as late as Jason can wait before the rains. Other times, in warmer years, they are picked in order to retain acidity. Jason likes wines with acidity and energy so the wines reflect that both stylistically and also because of the simple practicalities of the vineyard.

Here are the wines in the order we tasted them:

2009 Valenti Syrah, olive and blackberry character with a tad of baking spice, this is a wine that is ready to drink right now. 30% whole cluster and 13.8% alcohol.

2011 Valenti Syrah, A cool vintage that brings out even more Northern Rhone character in the wine, more minerality and a more austere wine for sure. This wine is 100% whole cluster because Jason liked the looks of the stems that year and also felt like the thinner skins on the grapes meant that they could take on a little stem tannin and not be over the top.

2012 Valenti, this was my favorite of the tasting because it had all that ripeness and accessibility of the 2009 but combined with the cool-climate character of the 2011. It’s a red-fruited syrah with a savory meatiness to it also. 40% whole cluster

2013 Valenti, more herbal character than the previous vintage but a tad more open on the palate. The drought year led the grapes to have a thinner skin so the wine isn’t as tannic as previous years.

2014 Valenti, very fresh fruit and bright with olive and some drying tannin. This was a thicker skin vintage. There’s a thread of energy in these wines that I think defines Drew’s style of making wine. The wines have a lift in them that’s unique for a lot of California syrah.

2015 Valenti, More pepper, again with a black olive aroma and a touch of baking spices.

2016 Valenti, still in barrel has aromas of fresh smoke, and that characteristic olive character. Jason’s excited about the ’16 vintage.

We also got to taste two vintages of the Perli Syrah. This is a tad richer Syrah from a warmer Mendocino Ridge site that sees 50% new oak from a large puncheon.

2014 Perli has less acid in the mid-palate than the Valenti. There’s an interesting aroma of blood orange mixed with fresh blackberries and white pepper on the finish.

2015 Perli is more mineral-driven, with aromas of stone fruit, and again less acid but good tannic grip.

2016 Perli, still in barrel was still going through malolactic but has a beautiful core of blackberry.

If you are into Syrah (and you probably are if you are reading this blog) Drew Family Syrahs are a must try. Valenti Ranch is a special site and although there’s a fair amount of vintage variation on these wines, there’s an undercurrent of minerality, black olive, and blackberry that carries through every vintage. Thanks Jason Drew for taking me through the vintages. It was a special treat. I’ll be writing more in-depth tasting notes for a few more Drew Family wines soon, so stay tuned.

Thanks for the time and the tasting Jason Drew. 

Two bright and juicy syrahs for warm weather and two dark and brooding ones to warm you on a winter’s day

The Syrah lineup from Waxwing (not pictured 2014 Flocchinni vineyard)

2014 Santa Cruz Mountains Lester Family Vineyard Syrah

The Lester Family Syrah has that earthy-green peppercorn-savory aroma that I’ve come to expect from the vineyard, but also an umami element that is different this vintage that I like quite a bit. On the palate the wine is very pinot-like, not too tannic but with good acid lift. This vintage seems to have upped the elegance factor for the Syrah. It’s such a food friendly wine too and I could see this working well even a tad chilled for a warm day. 93 pts

2015 Santa Lucia Highlands Tondré Grapefield Syrah

A straightforward Syrah that’s just plain delicious. Appetizing aromas of beautiful blackberry with some savory bacon fat mixed in. Nice dryness and lift on the mid palate and finishes without much tannin. Very reminiscent of a St. Joseph Syrah and like the Lester Family I could see this wine going with many different types of food, especially in the summer. This would be a great backyard party wine. 92 pts

2014 Flochinni Vineyard Syrah Petaluma Gap

The Flochinni Syrah doesn’t depart from previous vintages in that it’s a wine with healthy tannins and a characteristic meaty side. Once described by Jon Bonne as having feral aromas, I tend to agree. There’s lush blackberry and plum here on the nose too. It’s a wine that will reward with time in bottle to mellow the tannins, more of a winter’s Syrah than the previous two. Located right off of Lakeville road, next to the famed Syrah vineyard Griffin’s Lair, Flocchinni gets the cooling wind from the Petaluma gap and that cool-climate character shows here. 91 pts

2015 Yorkville Highlands Halcón Vineyards Syrah

Like the Flochinni this is a bigger, richer, and more tannic Syrah than the first two wines. Usually wines with an ABV above 15.2% aren’t my thing but this wine works. It’s pure and delicious, which I think is helped by the fact that it hasn’t any new oak. Blackberry, major minerality and a hint of citrus, and yeah, there’s heat there but it isn’t anything that throws the wine out of balance. This is the first vintage of Halcon that Scott has made and I think the wine represents the vineyard well even though the fruit is a tad riper than I normally like. 94 pts.
These are impressive syrahs and they give you a great sense of the versatility of the grape. Scott Sisemore’s Waxwing Wines in Belmont, CA continues to be the best little winery you’ve never heard of. He continues to make delicious wines, mostly Syrah, Pinot, and Riesling. And the Riesling is something you have to try; it’s some of the best domestic Riesling I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.

Blind tasting Californian and French Syrah dinner

If you had told me in 2012 when I started this little blog that there might come an evening years later when I’d be invited as press to a dinner and seated between celebrated Syrah winemakers Pax Mahle and Adam Tolmach, I would have told you you were crazy. But so it was on May 11th at the Hillside Supper club in San Francisco.

The dinner was put together by Paul and Jackie Gordon of Halcon Winery and included five other legendary Syrah winemakers: the aforementioned Adam Tolmach of Ojai Winery, Pax Mahle of Wind Gap and Pax, Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Bradley Brown and Brad Friedman of Big Basin, and Michael McCullough representing Drew Family. Wine writers in attendance were Patrick Comiskey of Wine and Spirits, Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle, William Kelley from Decanter, Jim Gordon of Wine Enthusiast and Mike Dunne from the Sacramento Bee. Other attendees included master sommelier Chuck Furuya, and Alan Rath who contributes quite a bit to Wine Berserkers.

syrah dinner across the table

Syrah-heads gathering:  Pax Mahle, Patrick Comiskey, Bob Lindquist, and Adam Tolmach

The Gordons had put the dinner together as an extension of a dinner he had been a part of in France organized by the great Northern Rhone wine writer Jonathan Livingston Learmouth. The dinner was held as a culmination of a trip that Paul, Jackie, Adam, and Bradley had made in the spring of 2016. In that dinner Northern Rhone winemakers were asked to rank the California wines made by the attendees and the results were published in Decanter Magazine.

syrah dinner

Our second flight of six

The task at hand for our group was to blind taste six California Syrahs and six French Syrahs, rank them and say where we thought they were from. This was obviously a challenge for all of us but the results were rather interesting but also difficult to generalize. Here are the wines’ rankings according the group in attendance.

1. 2013 Wind Gap Nellessen Vineyard Sonoma Coast
2. 2013 Halcon Alturas Yorkville Highlands
3. 2012 Jamet Côte-Rôtie
4. 2013 Gonon Saint-Joseph
5. 2013 Drew Mendocino Ridge Perli Vineyard
6. 2013 Ojai Santa Maria Solomon Hills
7. 2013 Andre Perret Saint-Joseph Les Grisieres
8. 2013 Big Basin Rattlesnake Rock Santa Cruz Mountains
9. 2012 Allemand Cornas Les Chaillots
10. 2012 Clusel-Roch Vialliere Côte-Rôtie
11. 2013 Clape Cornas
12. 2012 Qupe Sawyer-Lindquist Edna Valley

The main shocker of course is that the Qupe and Clape as wines from such well-respected Syrah houses would rank at the bottom but I guess somebody has to be last. The other surprise for me is that the Wind Gap and the Jamet which have a lot of similarities in their cool-climate fresh and savory profiles would end up on the top of the list but perhaps that shows how a group of Syrah aficionados can appreciate Syrah with a bit of a wild side. The other wine in the top three, the Halcon, just seemed like such a complete and balanced wine and showed beautifully that evening.

jamet bottle shot

One of the highest-scoring wines and such a treat to get to taste it.  All olive and bramble, delicious.

Some of the wines towards the bottom of the list were a tad more tannic and blocky, which may be why they didn’t show as well in a blind tasting setting. They simply need more time in bottle. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch and the rankings were hard for all of us to complete and commit to, especially in two different flights.

As far as my own rankings went they were actually pretty similar to the group’s ranking overall except that I had the Gonon as my number one wine (which makes sense as I love Gonon even though I didn’t actually know I was tasting Gonon).

pax and michael

Michael McCullough (Asisstant at Drew Family) and Pax Mahle, who, by the way, is damn good at blind-tasting Syrah

As far as how we did deciding if a wine was from the Northern Rhone or California our guesses were all over the place with nobody out of the group doing particularly well perhaps showing that the lines of high quality balanced Syrah have become blurred between the two countries. As French wines have gotten cleaner and more modern, California Syrahs have gotten more elegant and are also being made in vineyards that allow Syrah to express some of it’s savory side.

syrah dinner group

Adam Tolmach, Esther Mobley, Alan Rath, Jackie and Paul Gordon

Overall the tasting was certainly a highlight of my five years of blogging and I thank Paul and Jackie Gordon and all the winemakers who participated.