I met Steve Law, MacLaren’s winemaker, at this year’s Rhone Rangers grand tasting event and was immediately blown away by the fact that he was a dedicated cool-climate Syrah winemaker in California. Most wineries that make a cooler climate style of Syrah don’t necessarily advertise it as such and as I mentioned in my previous Rhone Rangers post, cool-climate Syrah wineries are few and far between to start with. Which begs the question (and the same one many probably ask about my blog): What was Steve Law thinking by starting a winery dedicated to this style of Syrah? In fact, on my way to Steve’s small winery operation, I stopped by an open house at Peay winery and had a brief conversation with the winemaker Vanessa Wong. After hearing that I was heading to a winery in Healdsburg dedicated to cool-climate Syrah she paused, raise her eyebrows and replied, “Well, that’s the definition of insanity.”
Well, bring on the insanity. This is my style of Syrah. It was grown in the Bennett Valley appellation, which lies between Glen Ellen and the west side of Santa Rosa. There are areas of Bennett Valley where the Syrah grapes barely reach ripeness and, in fact, some would say would be more suited for Pinot. (I don’t agree.) I’ve had a few bigger styles of Syrah from this area but also a few elegant and savory Syrahs that scream cool-climate.
The Judge Family Vineyard Syrah from MacLaren is a great example of how Northern California Syrah, when grown in the right environment, can reach the same heights as Northern Rhone Syrah. This wine is really a dead ringer for a Northern Rhone Syrah – it’s got textbook bright plum, black olive and floral aromas. There’s a lot of fresh fruit on this wine; this is not a jammy style of Syrah, which is something Steve Law is very proud of. There’s also a lot of minerality and a very savory edge, almost like a salted plum. The mid-palate is bright and transitions to a nice lift of acidity on the finish. There is very little evidence of tannins on this wine and that’s exactly what Steve was trying to achieve. This wine is up there with my absolute favorite Syrahs that I’ve tried for this blog.
Steve Law moved to California after living in France and working in the electronics industry for twelve years, a time he also spent drinking and eating and falling in love with Northern Rhone Syrah, especially St. Joseph. In coming to California he began exploring wine areas and developed an affinity for the Healdsburg area. He began to volunteer for Michael Talty at Talty Winery and eventually convinced Michael to let him make a barrel of wine in 2007. Steve wanted to make Syrah, and he got some fruit from a winery down the road and made it in a style that’s more associated with the Dry Creek Valley Syrah – big, tannic, and fruity. Steve told me the wine was actually received well but he never liked it himself; it just didn’t remind him of the Syrah that he had grown to love so much in France.
After some lucky conversations with two of Steve’s favorite Saint Joseph winemakers, Yves Cuilleron and Francois Villard, Steve realized he needed to find cooler climate grapes and to pick a tad earlier. He also needed a way to de-emphasize the tannin but emphasize the acidity. Steve is passionate about the important distinction between these two red wine characteristics. Big and tannic wine needs fatty food to cut through it and Steve wasn’t interested in that. He was impressed with how the Syrahs he’d had in France and specifically from Saint Joseph were not huge tannic bombs but rather, elegant wines that went just as well with meat dishes as they went with fish. He felt that the key to making a wine in this style was to deemphasize the amount of extraction from the skins. The skins in grapes are what carry all the tannins and when punched down heavily or pressed at high pressure those tannins result in a bigger and blockier style of Syrah. Steve solves this problem by pressing down the grapes with a bladder press at a very light setting. This light pressing extracts the beautiful flavor, aromas and acidity of the Syrah without giving him all those beefy tannins. It also results in getting less juice per ton than many other wine makers. But Steve is ecstatic with the results.
And he has a right to be. This Judge Family Vineyard Syrah is my favorite in Steve’s lineup (you can see some of my tasting notes from his other wines here). It’s a wine that much like the Two Shepherds Syrah could easily go with light food. In fact, I drank a few glasses with an egg and vegetable scramble and the wine went spectacularly well with it. As Steve said, you can save the jam for your bread and butter in the morning because it doesn’t belong in your wine. I couldn’t agree more.