2014 Halcon Vineyards Yorkville Highlands Syrah 94 pts. $27

Heading up to the hilltop vineyard at Halcon, one can’t help but think, “How would it have occurred to anyone to plant way up here?” The dirt road winds and then winds again but, eventually, the vineyard appears on the horizon and you know you’re almost there.

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The view west from the vineyard edge.

Paul and Jackie Gordon bought the land and planted their vineyard about ten years ago and slowly but surely have built a brand around this spectacular site and their flagship cool-climate Syrah.

The property had been an old sheep ranch that was subdivided. There weren’t many grapes in the area but the exposed hillside and the rocky soils were too enticing not to take the plunge. It’s a low-vigor site, as you can tell right away, so the vines generally produce the right amount of fruit without much cropping necessary. Paul says that what he’s learned in ten years of farming the vineyard is that what defines it is their cold month of May where they don’t get the fruit set that they would in areas with warmer springs. And the wind, as we found out as the day went on, is a force to be reckoned with! Paul said that just as in Côte Rôtie, the northern-facing slopes will actually produce riper grapes than the southern-facing slopes because of that constant buffeting from the wind. But smaller yields and stressed vines (although not too stressed) can often make for the best wines and Halcon Vineyards certainly exemplifies that.

The vineyard isn’t organically certified but Paul and Jackie practice organic farming. The weeds are weedwacked in early summer and then die back from lack of water as the season progresses. They do irrigate but only small amounts with the goal to eventually not irrigate at all, if possible.

There’s still some planting to be done at Halcon, they’d like to plant some Marsanne and Rousanne and also put in some Pinot. They also have a plan to plant a steeper section of the vineyard using the single-stake method that is used throughout the Northern Rhone. They would be one of only a few Syrah growers that I’ve heard of to employ this method. There’s also a small block of own-rooted Syrah there that produces only about a half a ton an acre. They think the sandy and rocky soil would prevent any Phylloxera from taking hold and if it did, they are in an isolated spot.

The soils are known as Yorkville-Shortyork-Witherell, which is the greatest name for anything ever. They are made up of loam or gravelly clay loam and sandy loam, below that there’s hard schist bedrock at a depth of about 20 to 40 inches.

The vineyard is divided into four blocks planted to mostly Syrah, Tablas Creek clone, Chave Selection, Estrella River, and Clone 172, and with some Mourvedre, Grenache, and a tiny bit of Viognier that they use in the Côte Rôtie tradition as a co-fermenting agent.

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Paul and Jackie also plan on putting a winery and a home on the site. Right now they make their wine at the Dogpatch Roar Wines facility in San Francisco. They are looking forward to being able to process their grapes just steps away from the source.

The 2014 Halcon Vineyards Syrah: A little more primary fruit driven than the 2013, floral aromas also add to the blackberry and plum. High-toned aromas of gravel with powdered cocoa too. Lots of energy and freshness on the palate with an umami element that reminds me of that salty/sweet balance in asian food. The finish is pleasant with present but not-too-tannic tannins, a wonderfully balanced Syrah. 94 pts.

The wine is aged in 20% new oak and neutral puncheons with about 30% whole cluster.

We also tasted a beautiful Roussanne from Alder Springs, and an impressive Anderson Valley Pinot from the Oppenlander vineyard. Their GSM blend is also quite delicious.

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Thanks to Jackie and Paul Gordon and their little dog Cookie for having us up at their distinctive vineyard site in the Yorkville Highlands.

I’ve written about all the vintages of Halcon Syrah going back to 2009 if you’d like to explore them on the blog.

This wine was provided as a sample for the purposes of review.

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Drew Family Cellars: A Study in Balance

A trip up to Drew Family Cellars on a recent visit to the Anderson Valley left me a little awestruck.  Not only were the wines great, but the Drews’ beautiful property was stunning.  The drive was long and winding up to the top of the ridge, where the vineyard and winery were perched, with a distant view of the ocean.

Drew Family Cellars has quite a reputation.  It’s got some amazing Pinots that have continually garnered respect and big scores from the influential critics.  I’d been to Drew’s tasting room near Philo in Anderson Valley before and I’ve had a few bottles of the Syrah so I know that those scores are well deserved.  These are impressive wines known for a structure and acidity that makes them eminently ageable.

Drew Family Cellars’ wines are sourced from the Mendocino Ridge and Anderson Valley appellations.  The Mendocino Ridge appellation runs upon the ridge that lies between the Yorkville Highlands and the Anderson Valley and the coast.  It’s the only appellation in America that isn’t contiguous because it’s also based on elevation rather than just location.  The valleys and lowland areas of the appellation just aren’t suited for grape growing because they are often shrouded in summer fog.  Only the tips of the ridge where the sun shines are included in the appellation.

Jason met us as we pulled up.  His old blind corgie who seemed to want to get in the way of our car but we managed to avoid him.  Obviously running over the family dog (whose name we later found out was Grizzly Bear) would not have been the best way to start off.  Crisis averted, Jason and I talked about a family friend, Jeff Baker, with whom Jason used to work when he was a vineyard manager at Carmenet Winery in Sonoma, back in the 90’s.  We reminisced a little about the past and then headed out to take a look at the property.  One of the most amazing things about the Drew Family winery is that you can actually see the ocean from it.  Many wineries talk about being close to the coast and its influence but few actually can boast of an ocean view.  Jason has planted about seven acres of Pinot Noir around the property and expects to begin harvesting the fruit from these home vineyards next year.  The vines are organically farmed as is the adjacent apple orchard, from which he sells apples to a local distillery where they turn it into brandy.  Jason is using some biodynamic methods there and hopes to eventually convert the vineyards into a full biodynamic property in the coming years.

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The Drew winery building

We headed into the rather impressive winery facility among Jason’s surf boards and kayaks and began tasting the Syrahs.  We started with a 2011 Perli Vineyard Syrah which, although part of the Mendocino Ridge Appellation, was actually grown closer to the Yorkville Highlands than Anderson Valley.  The Perli (as well as the other ‘11s) was really tight.  At about 40% whole cluster the wine had a lot of structure.  It also had a lot of pepper and earth but the wine didn’t have much expressiveness yet.  This wine just seemed too young.

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Jason and his lineup of Syrahs

The 2011 Valenti was pretty much the same, with beautiful structure from the 100% whole cluster, and with great acidity and tannic structure.  Again, this is a wine that still needs some time in bottle to round out a bit.  Jason believes the Syrah grape is a great candidate for whole cluster because that can dial back its tendency to become overly fruity and flabby. He thinks that the fruit is always going to be there but the challenge (at least in California) is to keep the wine structured.

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The 2009 Valenti, entering a perfect drinking window

The 2009 Valenti was the star of the tasting and I brought a bottle home to taste and get to know better.  This wine shows how Jason’s wines, when given a little time, really begin to open up aromatically.  Granted 2009 was a warmer year but Jason believed that the ‘11s would also develop aromatically if given more time.  In the ’09 all of that structure and acidity of the 2011 is still there, but it’s developed beautiful aromas of plum, black olive and gravel.  The mid-palate still has a fair amount of acidity and verve but its energy has grown a tad more discreet. The finish has a gripping spike of acidity and tannin that speak to the fact that this wine will continue to age quite well.  All of Jason’s wines have great aging potential.

I let the wine sit on the counter for the night to see how it changed and found that it definitely benefits from some air.  That plum was still there but the black olive aromas were even more defined.  I got some strawberry and black cherry aromas mixed with licorice and fennel. The mid-palate rounded out a tad and the finish was a lot rounder.  After a day on the counter it was just about the most perfect Syrah I’ve ever tasted.

The idea of wines developing over time is a big deal for Jason.  He doesn’t think that a wine should be too expressively open at the time of bottling because if it is, it probably lacks structure.  He picks grapes when they are on the upswing towards ripeness but have not quite reached their apex. The wine should open like a rose bud, blossoming over time to reveal its charms.  Jason further explained, “If there’s a fine line between ripeness and under ripeness I’d rather be right under that line.” As you can imagine, all of Jason’s wines are under 14% alcohol.

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Barrels and barrels of recently picked Pinot

Jason also doesn’t want to add acid to the wines because he believes it simplifies them and he wants to bottle them in all their glorious complexity.  To enhance their complexity he also prefers to bottle his wines unfiltered.  He aspires to three precepts: (1) organic/biodynamic farming practices, (2) no amelioration, and (3) no filtering.  He hasn’t quite reached these goals but he’s getting closer every year.  For Jason, the perfect wine is a moving target and he doesn’t believe in using any set recipes, each vintage is different and influences the decisions he makes.  This is how he feels winemakers can express their creativity, just like an artist who creates original pieces rather than one who paints by numbers.

Jason Drew makes beautifully elegant and age-worthy California wines.  They are some of the best wines I’ve had although I would suggest resisting popping their corks for a few years after purchase (or at least decanting) before drinking.  As we left the winery down towards the coastal town of Elk (again barely avoiding Grizzly) my wife and I felt fortunate to have had a chance to talk to Jason and learn about how serious and thoughtful he is about the art of winemaking.

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The gorgeous beach in the town of Elk, only 10 minutes away from the winery.

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There’s wine in them thar hills.  Looking back towards the winery. 

Thanks to Jason Drew for taking the time to meet with us.