Que Syrah Vineyard in Occidental California

I’d heard whispers among those in the know that the Que Syrah vineyard was perhaps the coolest-climate Syrah vineyard in all of California. It had begun to reach legendary status for me and it was a only a matter of time in my “deep dive” into cool-climate Syrah before I would get a chance to visit it.

I first contacted former vineyard owner Al Rago who told me that he had recently sold the vineyard and the house to Nathan Roberts of Arnot-Roberts Winery. He contacted Nathan who said he would be happy to host us all up at the house and talk about the vineyard. We met Al in Occidental and followed him up into the hills to the Que Syrah site. We decided against a meeting among the vines due to the rain but walked down the road to the house. And this isn’t just any house, it’s modeled on a villa in Italy designed by Andrea Palladio but made with corrugated metal.

The Que Syrah vineyard is situated in the hills west of the town of Occidental, as the crow flies it’s only four and half miles from the coast. The elevation and proximity to the coast make it a marginal vineyard site for syrah to be sure.

Rago bought the property in the early 1990s from a couple of architects who had designed it. With the land surrounding the property he originally considered planting olive trees for olive oil but had a change of heart when he was told that his soil was too good to waste on olive trees.

Even though there were just two other vineyards in the area, he decided that it might be worth finding out more about that possibility. He took a class at the Santa Rosa Junior college on viticulture from the famed Rich Thomas who advised him that planting Syrah there might be the way to go because no-one else was planting it in cool-climates in California. He would corner the market. Al knew just enough about grape growing and wine in general to decide to take the chance, which is to say he knew very little.

Even though many of his neighbors thought vineyards might work in the area, they thought he was crazy for planting syrah. To this day, the area around the vineyard is surrounded by pinot and chardonnay grapes. Things turned out well in the long run.

One of the first to take the Syrah was Ehren Jordan. Ehren had made syrah in the Northern Rhone and appreciated the grapes cooler side. His 1998 vintage turned out to be the rainiest and coldest on record. Although the wine was rather controversial it gained a following. Ehren took the Syrah for a few years and then it eventually went to Kurt and Derek Beitler under the Boheme and Bodega Rancho labels in 2003. I’ve enjoyed those Syrahs but felt that they were trying to tame the acid-driven Syrah to make it more like a warm-climate style Syrah, adding too much new oak and over-extracting the fruit. Derek Beitler made a Que Syrah vineyard designate all the way up until 2013 and then Arnot-Roberts took over.

Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts have not always made wine from cool-climate vineyards but as they’ve gone along, they’ve found themselves appreciating wine made from marginal vineyards that tend to have fruit with a long ripening pattern that’s picked late in the season at low Brix. For them, the question is not necessarily picking grapes at low sugars but allowing them to develop over a long-ripening season. They are looking for vineyards below a climate line that allows that to happen. Que Syrah, because of its coastal location is, in many years, actually cooler than most vineyards in Côte-Rôtie. In fact, Nathan had tasted Ehren Jordan’s 1998 Syrah and knew what the vineyard was capable of even in the most challenging of years. Que Syrah vineyard seems a perfect fit.

Their winemaking has an old-world style to it with 75% whole cluster fermentation, native-yeast fermentation, and gentle extraction. And minimum five-year old barrels. If you’ve read my blog you know that all of this is right up my alley.

The 2014 Arnot-Roberts Que Syrah has a Northern Rhone sensibility about it. It’s got plenty of black olive and it’s dark and brooding, but it has a prettiness and elegance to it also. It begs for a rainy day but wouldn’t seem out of place on a warm summer evening either. There’s some tannin there but it will mellow with age and I think this will become an even more spectacular wine.

It was a pleasure to meet  Nathan Roberts and Al Rago I thank them for their time. The Que Syrah vineyard is in good hands with Arnot-Roberts and I look forward to tasting this syrah for many years to come.

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