I have to admit that I have a real soft place in my heart for Piedrasassi. I love their aesthetic, the distinctive little bottle, the simple labels, the rustic, yet modern, tasting room. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, I could have sat talking to Melissa Sorongon, who’s the wife and partner of Piedrasassi’s winemaker Sashi Moorman, forever. With my favorite indie rock playing on the tasting room sound system, the mid-afternoon sun pouring through the windows, Melissa talking in reverent tones about cool-climate Syrah, I was in my happy place. And, just to put things totally over the top, Melissa also serves delicious homemade bread and olive oil with the tasting.
Homemade bread, marcona almonds, olive oil, great conversation and great Syrah. My happy place.
Of course, none of this would really mean anything if I didn’t love the wines. They are, without question, up there in the echelon with the best Syrah I’ve had in all of California. This is my kind of Syrah; picked at the correct ripeness (for my palate), minimal intervention and neutral oak.
Piedrasassi is one of the many projects of Pinot and Chardonnay expert, Sashi Moorman. Melissa and Sashi set out to make California Syrah that could go toe to toe with the Northern Rhone styles of Syrah that they loved so.
On a recent trip to London to help Jon Bonné promote his New California Wine book the couple were pleased when wine-knowledgable Londoners remarked after tasting their wine, “You must love Cornas.” Melissa likened it to an aspiring musician receiving a compliment that invoked his biggest influence.
A few years ago, Rene Rostaing’s son Pierre was looking for an internship. He ended up at Piedrasassi and Moormon and Sorongon relished this new connection with one of the Northern Rhone’s famous wine houses. This new relationship also fueled a motivation for Moorman. He wanted to make a wine that he would be proud to present to the Rostaings. After the 2010 vintage, they had turned a corner in their farming, picking, and winemaking decisions that they feel has now allowed them to reach that pinnacle.
They are looking for wines that represent vineyard sites that have a concentration and depth but with a modest alcohol level, lift and energy on the mid-palate. They don’t want heavy wines but they also don’t want wines with overwhelming acidity. I guess the obvious word to use here is balance and it’s a cliche but that’s what they are really looking for, balanced wines with the concentration and power of wines from the Northern Rhone that are also food friendly.
But their wines are not without controversy. Some in the region think they are are undermining the very nature of California wine and its ample ability to ripen grapes, by picking too early. The naysayers see the wines as too lean, and too “old world” when they should be embracing the “new world”. I think there’s a place for all styles and that diversity is what California should embrace. For my palate, I will throw my lot in with wines that dance with lightness, acidity and verve on the palate and that’s what these wines offer.
The 2010 Piedrasassi Central Coast Syrah 13.9% ABV $42
On the nose, there’s some celery and bacon fat, sweet plum that verges into jam but virtually no hint of oak keeps it light and fresh on the palate. There’s a lot of energy here and fresh fruit blackberry flavors. The tannins are extremely integrated even at this stage but the acidity means it will age for much longer.
Day 2: Still retained some strong acidity after a night on the counter. Has a deeper umami character today, kind of mushroomy but still with the meaty, plum aroma. Really a gorgeous wine.
2010 Rim Rock San Luis Obispo County Syrah 13.2% ABV $65 (Yes, the bottles look exactly the same, you’ll have to take my word for it that the wines inside were different.)
Day 1: The Rim Rock nose bears a little similarity to the Central Coast with its blackberry, plum, and bacon profile but there’s also some green peppercorn, bright raspberry, BBQ smoke, and on the palate, a lot more acidity. No hint of alcohol. This wine is built for aging, the tannins are more pronounced.
Day 2: Well, even after a day on the counter the acidity is still there big time but it’s beautifully integrated into a wine that has become more open and inviting. Other than an intensification of the flavors and aromas, this wine really hasn’t changed a whole lot, it still has the same meaty and fresh fruit flavors, all mixed together with savory elements and no hint of alcohol or new oak to throw it off balance.
These are honest Syrahs and they are indeed wines worthy of standing up to the Northern Rhone. The aren’t dismissive of California’s ability to ripen fruit but they nod towards Syrah’s birthplace with their savory and lifted profiles. I can’t help but be excited for what’s on the horizon for the Piedrasassi label and I hope that they are but the beginning of a trend towards “balanced” Syrah on the Central Coast.