Andrew Murray 2010 Syrah Watch Hill Vineyard $30 14.1% ABV


The story of Andrew Murray Vineyards is a fascinating one. In the early nineties, as an assistant winemaker, Andrew made his first bottle of wine in Australia before he was even legally able to drink. His parents bought some vineyard land in Santa Barbara and started a Rhone variety based winery with Andrew at the wine making helm and even named it after him. In his twenties Andrew was often mentioned in articles about hot new up-and-coming winemakers. As the popularity of California Syrah climbed upwards, so did Andrew Murray’s. He gained a lot of press early on, which was only compounded by his family’s mention in the movie “Sideways”. Andrew Murray Vineyards only seemed to have one direction to go: up. And for many years it did.

Yet, as the fate of Syrah in California went sideways, the Murray family’s winery also changed course. In 2006, with his parents eyeing retirement, they decided to cash out the winery and the family’s vineyards. Andrew kept the winery name but parted ways with his parents (as far as business goes) and carved a space for himself among the warehouses of a former Firestone brewery building in the Los Olivos area. He began sourcing grapes from local vineyards and gradually picked up where he’d left off.

In starting relationships with new vineyard sources Andrew had a chance to add different varieties to his repertoire but instead chose to keep making those Rhone varieties that he and his parents had fallen in love with when they started the winery back in 1990.

Andrew’s first love was Syrah, and so it remains. He loves all iterations of Syrah and is proud of the fact that he has stuck with the variety even in the face of its perceived unpopularity in the last few years.

In emailing back and forth with Andrew it was important to me to nail down some of his thoughts on current alcohol levels in Syrah. I wanted to get a feeling for whether or not he was attempting to dial back some of the alcohol levels in his wine to make them less big and to respond to the growing consumer appreciation for more elegant, nuanced styles of Syrah. I had also read a 2007 Chronicle piece by Olivia Wu that sort of pigeonholed Andrew as the “high-alcohol guy”. The article also mentioned that while Andrew personally liked wines that were of a leaner and more nuanced style, he often met distributors who put pressure on him to make big, hedonistic, fruit bombs which was the style of that time. I asked Andrew about his current thinking and about the 2007 article. I was a little worried if he would be sensitive about the alcohol comment after his wine was so famously denigrated as being too “hot” in its Sideways cameo. Andrew instead was gracious and thoughtful.

“The comments sound so shallow when I read them now…I do not make wines for critics…never have. Not sure why I was being pigeon-holed into being the “high-alcohol” guy…my whites are all 12.5% to 13.8% in the last several vintages…about half our red releases each year are 13.8% to 14.8%…and yes, some dip into the 15-15.5% range. It would appear that my comment about the distributor was more about the people and the pressure around us to make wine of a certain style…and that style (during the time of the article) was bigger and richer was better…thankfully there has been a shift in direction and distributors and customers alike seem to be more interested in wines that just plain taste good.”

In this email and others Andrew wanted to make sure I understood that he makes wine that he feels fairly represents the vineyard. If the vineyard is in a warmer location, he doesn’t have grapes picked too early just to keep the alcohol low. Likewise, in cooler locations he doesn’t let the grapes hang for too long to get them over-ripe. Neither does he use technology to artificially de-alcoholize the wine in order to lower its alcohol content; a practice he says is quickly becoming all too common. In fact, he believes that chasing the current trends of lower alcohol irrespective of site or vintage is just as detrimental as chasing the trends of higher alcohol in previous years. Andrew says, “…in the end, I unapologetically craft the wine in the best and most natural way possible…”

Andrew Murray sent this wine to me as a sample because he thought it was his most cool-climate style Syrah. On first opening I was worried that for Andrew, cool-climate had a different meaning than it did for me. It’s an inky black wine and the color had me thinking that it was going to be Shiraz-like. But it turns out that Andrew was right — this is a wine with a fair amount of acidity and a lot of the cool-climate aromas and flavors.

There’s a dry earth aroma along with some floral, plum, and hints of bacon. Bright strawberry and some brininess also come through on the nose for me. The palate is full but light on its feet with a great little punch of acidity on the finish. Those bright red fruit flavors carry through to the finish, and there’s also a bit of oak but it’s pretty integrated. I’m happy to report that this is a great example of cool-climate Syrah.

This wine is co-fermented with 3% Viognier, which accounts for that deep dark color (see this blog entry from Tyler Thomas, winemaker at Donelan Wines, for more information on this process). It spends 18 months in French oak barrels, 20% of which were new. The Watch Hill Vineyard of the Los Alamos Valley near the Santa Ynez Valley gets a fair amounts of fog.

In an email, Andrew expressed that Syrah is more than just a business for Andrew. “I have worked around the world with Shiraz in Oz and Syrah in Gigondas/Seguret…I love every iteration of Syrah, not just the cool climate ones…but this is my life…I would love to share some with you if would be open to it…” Although I was a bit worried that this wine would be a bit to over the top for me, I’m glad that I was open to it and I’m glad that Andrew was willing to share a bit of his life with me through this wonderful wine.

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