The Lester Family Syrah is one of the more interesting cool-climate Syrahs I’ve encountered for this blog. I know it well, I’ve been helping out at Scott Sisemore’s little winery in San Carlos, CA for a couple of years now.
The 2012 Waxwing has an unmistakable aroma of green peppercorn on the nose which has made it something of a niche wine. I have the sense that it’s a wine that will integrate more over time so I’ve got a few bottles put away for safe-keeping. For the moment though, if you’re not a fan of green peppercorn, the Syrah can be seen as a tad too exotic.
With the 2013 vintage, for whatever reason, there’s less of that green peppercorn. It’s there but it’s couched in bitter chocolate and brambly black berry aromas. There are aromas of meat, too, and an intriguing bit of iodine in the background. The palate is full but light with a bit of a dusty, tobacco-y finish and the tannins are, right now, surprisingly approachable for a 2013 Syrah. This is good stuff and speaks to the potential of the Lester Family Vineyard to produce Syrah not just for wine geeks who like to #keepsyrahweird, but also for those just looking for a balanced and intriguing wine.
Scott has recently moved out of a shared winery space into a smaller dedicated warehouse for his winery and has by necessity adopted more of an old world method for making his wine. There simply isn’t room for the larger equipment he used when he shared space and costs with other winemakers. All the wines are now crushed by foot and they’re all 100% whole cluster. To me, all this makes for compelling wines.
The Lester Family Vineyard is located just behind the town of Corralitos south of Santa Cruz. The area has become known for Pinot but, as is the case with many of the cooler-climate growing areas in California, there’s great Syrah to be had there too. The vineyard is influenced by fog due to its proximity to the coast. It’s managed by the ubiquitous Prudy Foxx who looks after many vineyards in that area with meticulous care.
When Scott first relocated to the peninsula from Sonoma County, he kept many vineyard connections with that area but he’s gone through a bit of a shift living down here and has moved towards more vineyards in the Santa Cruz and farther south in Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands. I’m excited about this southward progression because I think there’s great potential for wine with a cool-climate bent along the coastal hills south of the Bay Area.
Lester Family Syrah bears this out. It has a distinct aroma profile, vintage after vintage, that makes it one of the more fascinating New World Syrahs I’ve ever tried.
Early in April, on a gorgeous Sonoma, day I had the pleasure of attending a very special wine luncheon in the Carneros area of Sonoma. Every year vineyard owners John Painter and Jean Gadiot host a unique event at their Las Madres vineyard. I know the area well. My mother is manager of a ranch in Carneros, a ranch where I had worked for summers and weekends all through high school, college and even after college when I was between jobs. But it wasn’t until I actually plugged in the address to Google that I realized how close to the house this vineyard actually was. As the crow flies, the vineyard was probably only a couple of miles from the back end of the ranch’s property. I could have hopped the fence and walked over in about the same time it took me to drive. You can’t actually see the vineyard from the ranch so at least I have that excuse for not knowing that one of the Carneros most famous Syrah vineyards was basically in my own backyard.
Las Madres is a small vineyard that consists of two separate block. One is planted with the 300 clone (also known as the Hulda block) and sits a little lower in elevation and a tad more protected from the afternoon wind. The other is the 174 (Esther) clone and is planted on a hillside making it a little more exposed. Some of the winemakers make wine from one of the specific blocks but most take a blend of the two. Interestingly, there are two picking dates for the vineyard. One late and one early. In 2014 the difference between these two dates was only about a week because of some impending rain that threatened the later pick. John believes that managing lots of different picking dates from different wineries is simply too much to handle so signing up for taking fruit at Las Madres means that you have to leave a little bit of individual control up to the collective power of the group.
I first heard about Las Madres after I tasted a very impressive Syrah from Anaba Winery in Sonoma a few years back. The wine had a meaty, savory component that I completely fell in love with. Anaba unfortunately no longer takes fruit from Las Madres but the wine sure whet my appetite for more Las Madres Syrah.
The annual luncheon that John and Jean host is unique because all of the winemakers are invited to talk about the wines they’ve made for the current vintage. We started the brunch off with a little meet and greet and an impressive rosé from Belharra wines. Made from a batch of Las Madres Syrah that was picked earlier than the Syrah for red wine, it was a mouthwatering introduction to the vineyard. Beautiful, light pink color with savory watermelon on the nose and very crisp mid-palate with a bright finish, it was everything I like about rosé.
We got down to business with the twelve Syrahs on the table.
The work at hand.
Here they are in alphabetical order, they are all 2014 Syrahs. I’m not really reviewing the wines, as they haven’t actually been bottled yet, but rather giving a snapshot of how they are tasting at the moment. As I said, my general impression of all the wines was positive.
This wine was the wine of the tasting for me (although, as I mentioned, I was impressed across the board), it had a floral element and more of a red fruit profile than some of the other wines and had a brightness and an elegance to it that I really enjoyed. I was surprised to learn later that the wine is around 15% ABV. Another example of how alcohol percentage is just a number, other elements must be giving the wine a sense of balance.
This wine was made with very little intervention, 100% whole cluster made in one t-bin, this wine was meant as a little side project to see what whole cluster brings to the signature of the vineyard. At 12.8% alcohol, I was surprised at how much weight the wine had on the midpalate, A beautiful wine, with lots of litheness to it.
The Campesino tended to the darker side of Syrah with some blackberry and black olive character. Good grip on the finish, a little more tannin. This wine had about 25% whole cluster.
Eric Kent winery has been making wine from Las Madres since 2010. They’ve gone through a progression of using less and less new oak to let , as Kent put it, the signature of the vineyard shine through. This wine also seemed balanced despite a higher ABV of 14.4%. I have to say it was a tad closed down at the tasting but I did get some savory and meaty notes coming through, which I believe will develop over time.
Guerilla is the home wine making project of ex-Gundlach Bundschu winemaker, Lance Cutler. He makes the wine basically for himself and some family members. This was a bit riper wine than some of the others but still possessing good Syrah character.
The Jazz wine also tended to a riper profile with more of a milk-chocolatey thing going on in the nose.
Mark Finver’s winery used 50% whole cluster, Esther block. 3-4% co-fermented with Viognier. 1/3 new oak. A very balanced Syrah with a lot of aromatic intensity, elegant and beautiful. I kept coming back to this one.
Both the Myriad and the Quivet are separate brands from Mike Smith that he differentiates by making wines from the different Las Madres vineyard blocks. The Myriad is from a distinct block of the vineyard. A floral element was present on both these wines.
This wine is made from the other block of the vineyard. A lower alcohol wine than many at 12.8% ABV this wine was also floral. Both wines had an energy to them that I responded to.
Another elegant Las Madres Syrah, about 30% whole cluster. Vie is a winery on Treasure Island. The wine was made by Todd Seaver but presented to us at the tasting by winery partner Bryan Kane.
This is a new project from a neighbor of John and Jean’s, Wanda Mae Lombardi. It’s made with more Viognier than the others, it’s a lighter style of Syrah that Wanda wanted to be more food-friendly. I think she succeeded.
The last wine, poured after the tasting, due to the late arrival of the owner of the project, Jamie Watson, was also delicious. Made by Macario Montoya of Campesino in a completely hands off style, it was balanced and expressive on the nose.
The winemakers: Kent Humphrey of Eric Kent; Matt Nagy of Benevolent Neglect; Anne Fogerty of Belharra; Lance Cutler of Guerilla Vino; Bryan Kane of Vie Winery; Winery Owners, John Painter and Jean Gadiot; Wanda Mae Lombardi of 100 Legs; Mike Smith of Myriad and Quivet; Macario Montoya of Campesino; Vineyard Manager Armando Ceja
It was a pleasure to taste these wines and the fact that there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch not only speaks to the talent of the winemakers, but also the care that the vineyard owners and the vineyard manager, Armando Ceja, put into the vineyard. What was most interesting to me was that many of my preconceived notions of what I like (lower alcohol, whole cluster) were challenged. I found myself responding well to most of the wines regardless of their alcohol level and whether or not they had stem inclusion. And I guess that’s the takeaway from the tasting. Las Madres fruit can be made in different styles but in the end, the signature of a balanced, yet rich Syrah, with pure fruit expression and savory qualities almost always emerges.