In Search of Acidity: The 2013 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting in San Francisco

me at Rhone Rangers

Me at last year’s Rhone Rangers event, just happy to be here.

So, for this year’s Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting I went in with a plan. This year I was in search of acidity and I had a list of wineries that I had researched that just might have the brand of Syrah that I was looking for. The previous year had largely been a bust because I hadn’t done my research and I didn’t focus on one variety. I mean, I tasted some great wine but it wasn’t in the style that I was looking for. Many of the wines were big and blocky and even verged on flavors of port wine. These were not the elegant and balanced wines that I so love to drink with food. I left last year’s Rhone Rangers wondering where these wines were. Had a made a great mistake in trying to start a blog about California cool-climate wines?

Now, it turned out that with a little more research I found a year’s worth of Syrah to drink without much of a problem. And luckily at the very end of last year’s tasting I did find a couple of wineries that matched my style. Ambyth and Two Shephards were fantastic examples of more balanced versions of the grape I love.

Those two successes were enough to bring me back to Rhone Rangers this year and this time I even got to go as a member of the media.

cyrus blogger

Me at this year’s Rhone Rangers event, a man with a plan. 

Here were some of the standouts that I tasted this year in alphabetical order. You’ll notice that I skipped Ambyth this year having done an earlier blog post (link) about their wines.

But first, a word about these types of tastings: I prefer to write about a bottle of wine that I’ve tasted over a period of time, most often over two days. I think this gives me a real sense of what the qualities of the wine are. I hope to spend some more time with wines from the wineries listed below and give a more detailed picture of the winery and the vineyards and people behind it. So, what follows is just a snapshot of the highlights of my day.

Bonny Doon Vineyard

It was a pleasure to finally taste some of Randall Graham’s (THE Rhone Ranger) single vineyard Syrahs. I have been wanting to for a while and always heard that he made a more restrained and elegant style of Syrah, which was exactly what I found to be the case.

2008 Syrah, Alamo Creek, $35
The nose on the Alamo seemed pretty closed down that day. The wine had great acidity and balance on the palate but was very tight and I didn’t get the aromatics and flavor profiles that I normally get from Syrahs made in this style.

2008 Syrah, “Bien Nacido”, $42
The Bien Nacido has a gorgeous floral nose that made me think it had some Viognier in it. It also reminded me a bit of a warmer style Syrah but it was decidedly not jammy. This is a great wine. The body was very restrained and with firm acidity on the finish.

Clos Saron

2008 “Heart of Stone”, $40, and the 2010 “Stone Soup”, $50, Syrahs
Another example of a Pinot-focused producer that also makes great Syrah. Both the 2008 “Heart of Stone” and the 2010 “Stone Soup” wines were brighter styles of Syrah with wonderful savory aromas. The most interesting thing about this producer is that they are in the Sierra Foothills appellation. I look forward to trying more of their Syrahs in the future.

Eric Kent Wine Cellars

I stopped by the Eric Kent table so I could taste their Las Madres vineyard Carneros Syrah. After I had written about the Anaba version I’ve been keeping my eye out for more wineries making Syrah from this special vineyard.

2010 Syrah, Las Madres Vineyard $42 and ’11 Las Madres (Barrel Sample)
Now, as I mentioned in the Anaba post, this is not exactly a vineyard that produces a wine with a ton of acidity but it does have an amazing aroma profile, there’s a savory meatiness to the wine that’s really tantalizing. These wines didn’t disappoint. The ’11 seemed a bit rounder and the ’10 a tad more angular but those fantastic aromatics were there.

MacLaren Wine Company

Winemaker Steve Law and I had a great time talking about cool-climate Syrah. I’ll definitely have to dedicate a later post to Steve because like myself, he’s a bonafide cool-climate Syrah aficionado.

2010 Syrah, Judge Family Vineyard, Bennett Valley, $38
This was my favorite of the bunch. At 12.8% alcohol it was decidedly his most cool-climate in style. Elegant on the palate, high in acidity and with great savory components, this wine was Steve’s attempt at making a California version of a Saint Joseph. And I think he succeeded.

2010 Syrah, Drouthy Neebor, Sonoma County, $35
This was Steve’s blend from his different vineyard sources. Also a very balanced wine, nice acidity and not too blowsy. Drouthy Neebor means Thirsty Friend in Scots.

2010 Syrah, Russian River Valley, $28
This wine is more of a nod to the average California wine consumer. It’s a bit bigger and richer than the others. I liked it but not nearly as much as the previous two wines.

2010 Syrah, Samantha’s Vineyard, $38
A bigger style to be sure but also had good acidity and some savory components.

Meyer Family Cellars

Meyer Family is owned by the family that founded Silver Oak Winery in Napa. The son Matt moved out to Yorkville Highlands with the thought that that small appellation between the cool Anderson Valley and the hotter eastern valleys would be a perfect spot for Syrah.

2009 Syrah Yorkville, $28 and the 2009 Syrah, “High Ground” Yorkville, $42                 Both wines had wonderful acidity and a nice clean finish but not a whole lot of aromatics. They seemed a tad closed down to me, I got a bit of black olive aromas and some plum. I’m keeping my eye on this appellation though, I think there’s a ton of potential here for Syrah.

Paradise Vineyard

2009 Sonoma Coast Syrah, $24
Here was a winery that I definitely had not heard of. I was really pleased to taste their 2009 Sonoma Coast Syrah. This wine had great black pepper cool-climate aromas. It was a bit on the richer side but not over-oaked and not over-the-top. I look forward to spending more time with another bottle of this wine.


Now this is a winery that needs no introduction for anybody that knows anything about Syrah. Bob Lindquist has been championing a cool-climate style of Syrah for years now and it was fun to taste some of his higher level offerings at Rhone Rangers.

His table was a bit crowded and it was hard to find some elbow room to take down any notes but let’s just say that all of the Syrahs that he offered showcased a lot of pepper aromas that I associate with cool-climate Syrahs. They were definitely still California in their body and style, I would say almost a combination of a cooler and warmer Syrah. I enjoyed the wines, and again, will have to spend some more time with them down the road.

Stark Wine

2009 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah, $42
I stopped to taste Stark’s 2009 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah because it was a 2006 Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino Valley Syrah I tasted many years ago that was one of the wines that opened my eyes to cool-climate Syrah. I wanted to check in with Stark wine to taste theirs because for whatever reason they’re simply aren’t many Eaglepoint Syrahs around these days. Stark’s version is a little more on the rich side than I remember but it still had good acidity and some cool-climate characteristics.

Terre Rouge

I was very impressed with Terre Rouge because I have never heard of them before and also because I tend to like Syrah more from coastal areas in California and haven’t had many great examples from the Sierra Foothills. These wines were fantastic.

2008 DTR, $38 and the Sentinel Oak Syrah, $38
Both the 2008 DTR and the Sentinel Oak Syrahs had great acidity and savory components. Even their most expensive Syrah, the “Ascent” ($85) had a core of acidity that brought out the minerality of the wine. Another interesting aspect of these Syrahs is that they are grown on their own root stock which is a rarity in California wine. I’m very interested to explore more of their wines down the road.

Two Shepherds

2011 Syrah, Saralee’s Vineyard, $35
Two Shepherds was getting a lot of action on the day of Rhone Rangers so I only had a brief chance to check in with William Allen and taste his 2011 Russian River Syrah. This is a wine that I tasted earlier in the year and was getting a lot of primary fruit aromas. Not many savory or “off fruit” aromas that time around. This is a great wine that’s made to really let the fruit speak and not be overwhelmed by oak. This time around I was getting some more olive and black licorice aromas. I have a bottle of this wine and will be re-visiting it soon.

All in all, it was a much more successful day at the Rhone Rangers tasting and left me optimistic about the state of Syrah in California. Perhaps, as many wine writers have been saying, we, as a country, really are moving towards a more “balanced” and food-friendly style of wine. If this is truly the case, I couldn’t be happier and I look forward to tasting them in the years to come.

A footnote: Over the past year of writing this blog I’ve been doing a lot of thinking as to how the average consumer can get more information on what style of Syrah they are going to taste. Much in the same way that the In Pursuit of Balance organization has promoted a more acid-driven balanced version of Pinot Noir, Syrah would benefit from some way for the consumer to differentiate its varied styles. If I had more money and time I would try to promote this organization but in the meantime if you also share the same love of the savory side of Syrah, keep reading my blog.

5 thoughts on “In Search of Acidity: The 2013 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting in San Francisco

  1. Yeah, Syrahs almost need a scale on the back of them like many Rieslings are starting to do for sweetness – only the Syrah could be a continuum between cool and warm, with a brief couple word description of each end of the scale “higher acid, lower alcohol, more savory” vs “fuller body, lusher fruit” or something like that. You could then put Qupe in the middle, Oregon Willamette Valley Syrahs to the far left, Aussie Shiraz to the far right.

  2. Pingback: MacLaren 2010 Judge Family Vineyard Bennett Valley Syrah 13% ABV $38 | sólosyrah

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