The West of West Wine event held in Sebastopol this year is one of the best wine tasting events offered in Northern California. It’s an event that celebrates wines grown in the true Sonoma Coast. Wines grown in the edge of their ability to ripen. The area has become a popular area for Pinot and Chardonnay to say the least, and as Jon Bonné has written in the San Francisco Chronicle, the region has even eclipsed the Russian River in its popularity and caché for Pinot Noir.
The West of West event grew out of many winemakers’ frustration with the vastness of the Sonoma Coast appellation and a feeling like the wines made on the eastern edge (sometimes more than an hour drive from the ocean) shared little in common with the wines grown in the western, more coastal edge, of the appellation. They wanted to create a tasting that celebrated the wines that they felt represented truly coastal microclimates.
I had a great time at the event this year. I’d been looking forward to this event for a while and even though it came on a weekend right in the middle of the start of a new school year in which I probably should have been in my classroom getting ready for Monday, I simply couldn’t resist. Adding to my excitement about the event was that they were offering a Syrah seminar this year. Now, outside of the Rhone Rangers events and the now defunct Hospice du Rhone event in Paso Robles, there just aren’t many seminars focused on Syrah these days. The Syrah from the Sonoma Coast are some of my favorite examples of the variety and I was definitely excited to try them, especially within the context of other Syrah from around the world in a blind tasting. I’d been curious for a long time to see how the “true Sonoma Coast” wines would stand up.
The Syrah seminar was preceded by an interesting seminar on a newly approved appellation called Fort Ross Seaview, and as far as I know there’s no Syrah being made in this appellation so the morning pours were all Pinot. And what delicious Pinot it was. These were spectacular wines, the standouts for me were the 2010 Hirsch Vineyards San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot, the 2011 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Estate, the 2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard, and the 2011 Failla Estate Vineyard. You can check out Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka’s excellent write up of this seminar on her site here.
Now, on to the really good stuff: Syrah. The afternoon seminar was less well-attended than the morning one, perhaps one more example of how Pinot continues to draw the crowds these days. But the afternoon group, although smaller, was a livelier one and one with a star-studded panel: Ehren Jordan of Failla winery and ex-winemaker of Turley wine, Alder Yarrow of Vinography and Jancisrobinson.com, and Master Sommeliers Andrea Robinson and Gillian Ballance.
The panel: Ehren Jordan, Gillian Ballance, and Alder Yarrow (Andrea Robinson arrived later)
Much of the discussion at the beginning of the tasting was about how Syrah has so many permutations, from ethereal cooler climate examples of the varietal with low alcohol to big, rich, bruiser wines that verge on having port-like texture and aroma profiles. The panelists described how cooler-climate Syrah is more savory, more red and blue fruit, higher acidity and minerality, with aromas of blood and iron and white pepper. And the warmer style is more juicy, verging on jammy with aromas of bacon fat, etc. None of this was really new to me but it was fun for me to hear these experts expounding on Syrah and it’s unique characteristics. Obviously this panel was a little biased towards to cooler side of the Syrah spectrum because the wine festival is a celebration of a cooler-climate growing area. Needless to say for someone with a blog on cool-climate Syrah who sometimes feels like a lonely voice in the wilderness, it was very exciting to hear some of the country’s foremost experts talk about Syrah in the reverent tones it so deserves.
Syrah for daysss.
Wine number 1: Before the reveal, I had this wine pegged as a Cornas or St. Joseph, it was dark and brooding with a core of acidity and aromas of flowers, celery salt, and pepper. I was sure this was a Northern Rhone example at its finest. The reveal: Ehren Jordan’s own wine, the 2010 Failla Estate. What a wine; when we were told what it was the audience erupted in applause, apparently I wasn’t alone in liking this one.
Wine number 2: I had this pegged as a warmer climate style, it was fuller with lots of blueberry fruit verging on jam on the nose, but the finish had a nice kick of acidity and tannin. The wine turned out to be the 2010 Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Syrah from the Columbia Valley in Washington.
Wine number 3: This was definitely a cool climate wine, a very light and elegant wine and I was thinking that it was French, St. Joseph specifically because of it’s floral nose. Again, I was pleasantly surprised as the wine turned out to be the 2010 Red Car Estate Syrah.
Wine number 4: Wine number 4 sparked a lot of conversation, for me it did taste as if it was from the old world but the wine was hard to read, as Alder described it; the wine had an angular and narrow quality and just wasn’t expressing its fruit at this time. In the end this was a wine that most people believed was not from the US. Richard Jennings defended the wine as being old world and tasting of Thierry Alllemand wines, who is one of the stars of the Northern Rhone. The reveal: The 2010 Cote Rotie Rene Rostaing
Wine number 5: This wine for me was definitely old world, there was some funkiness to it. I did think it was warmer style though because of some overripe characteristics in the fruit. It was a blockier style of Syrah. The reveal: The 2010 Domain JL Chave St. Joseph. This was a surprising reveal for me. It think of St. Joseph wines as light on their feet and elegant and this wine was different.
Wine number 6: This was a beautiful wine and we all expounded on its elegance and intriguing aromatics of pepper and olives mixed with berry fruit. Alder nailed it in the tasting as a California wine on the vanguard of the cool-climate Syrah movement. Because of that fruit coming through on the nose I first thought it might be a warm climate Syrah but the mid-palate had a huge hit of acidity that was anything but warm. The reveal: The 2011 Peay La Bruma. Another great showing for the home team.
Wine number 7: This was a bigger and lusher wine, syrupy, and as Andrea Robinson mentioned, evoked memories of the berry syrup used at IHOP. I had it pegged as a new world warmer climate Syrah and it turned out to be true. The reveal: The 2010 Alban Patrina.
Wine number 8: This was another big wine that was easy to tell was new world and warmer climate, big and juicy and almost port-like. Again this turned out to be true. The reveal: The 2011 Booker Estate Fracture. Probably the most expensive wine in the tasting. Not my thang.
Wine number 9: This wine was a tough call, I went back and forth trying to decide if it was warm or cool-climate. In the end I decided to go with cool climate. The tasting group also struggled to figure out on which side of the warm or cool climate. This was another wine that people thought was old world. The reveal: The Baker Lane 2010. Again, another great Syrah from the true Sonoma Coasters.
Wine number 10: This wine was also a hard one to call, in the end I guessed with new world, warmer climate. It was a meaty wine with some fruity and oaky elements. The wine turned out to be the 2010 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Syrah. The group also couldn’t decide if it was warm or cool. The wine did not quite stylistically fit into the same mold of the other WOW wines but it was a well-made Syrah.
Wine number 11: Another bigger style of wine, fruity, smoky, new world style but with some savory elements. Juicy on the palate. The reveal: The 2010 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Syrah. I liked this wine. I know, Napa? Am I jumping the shark? It was definitely not my usual style but it did have this nice core of acidity and some savory elements that I liked. Another example of how blind tasting is great because it challenges your expectations.
I had a lot of fun at this tasting. And the biggest takeaway was exactly the one that the event’s founders envisioned: The tasting group thought all the wines from the WOW vineyards were delicious expressions of cool climate Syrah. And I agree, these “true Sonoma coast” wines were remarkable. My favorite for sure was the Failla Syrah but I also really enjoyed the Red Car Estate wine and the Peay “La Bruma”. The Failla and the Red Car are wines that I had not tried previously and I will have to search them out to explore more intently. The Failla has always been on my radar but I’ve stayed away because of the stiff price. I will shy away no longer. The Red Car was a pleasant surprise and as I was also impressed with their Pinots I’m going to have to get to know their wines better. I hope that WOW can convince at least a few more winemakers in the “true Sonoma coast” to plant more Syrah amongst the current Pinot explosion because these wines are stellar examples of the variety.
WOW was a great wine experience and the Barlow event center was a perfect place for it. I would recommend it for anyone who’s really into wine, it’s well worth the price. I also tasted a lot of really good Pinot both at the seminar and at the Grand Tasting. They all had a common thread of acidity that is Pinot as it should be. Classroom work or not, next year, I’ll be first in line to buy my ticket. And I can only hope there will be more Syrah. If not, I’ll kick back and enjoy another taste of incredible Pinot Noir.