2013 Waxwing Santa Cruz Mountains Lester Family Vineyard Syrah

2013 Lester family Syrah better

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.


2009 Bonny Doon “Bien Nacido” X-Block Santa Maria Valley Syrah 13.3% ABV $50

bien nacido

Bien Nacido is one of the most famous vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley of California.  It’s mostly planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but some of the oldest blocks are Syrah.  The “X block” is a small block of the Estrella clone planted in 1973 along with the other original plantings on the vineyard.  The Bien Nacido Syrahs that I’ve had have been characterized by lots of floral aromas (even without any Viognier) and a big and full mid-palate.  They lean towards a cooler climate style but with the full mid-palate of a warmer style. When made in a relatively restrained style they can be balanced and savory.  That’s what I was hoping for in Bonny Doon’s 2009 X-Block Syrah at 13.3% abv and that’s what I got, at least after I let it breathe for a while.

The Bonny Doon Alamo Creek taught me that Randall Graham’s Syrahs are better left on the counter with the cork in for a night to let their secondary savory aromas develop. The first quick glass was big, fruity and blueberry-y and rather one note but after a night out on the counter the wine was singing.

The X-block had lots of floral aromas, cranberry, cigar box, black olive paste, and a touch of something that reminded me of celery soup (not a bad thing and added some character).  The same flavors carry over to the mid-palate with a touch of a savory, almost umami sensation that reminds me of soy sauce.  The mid-palate is full, with a nice lift of fresh cherry acidity on the finish and a good amount of tannin but not out of control.  It’s a great wine, there’s a touch of oak but it’s well integrated.

Randall Graham espouses a hands-off style for his Syrahs and this was no exception.  The wine was fermented with natural yeast and aged in French Oak barrels.  At $50 this isn’t exactly a bargain buy but it is a fantastic expression of what the Bien Nacido vineyard Syrah can be.

Left Bend Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah 2010

left bend
Left Bend Winery is the project of winemaker Gary Robinson and his friend Richard Hanke. At the moment, it’s an extremely low production winery.  The Santa Cruz Syrah I tasted from the 2010 vintage was just recently released.  It’s a very impressive wine. I was concerned that at 14.4%  it would be a little too hot or too ripe but that was not the case.  This is a purely delicious wine that’s worth seeking out if you’re a Syrah-head like me.

Again, just like the Clenenden Syrah, this is not exactly a Syrah that anyone would mistake for a Northern Rhone but, in this case, that is not a bad thing.  It has a lot of up front pure new world fruit but great acidity and a not-too-tannic finish that makes me happy.  Now, don’t get me wrong it’s got a lot of tannins, it’s a very dry-ing wine but there’s more acidity here than tannins and that’s a good thing.  Again, for a wine with a 14.4% alcohol, I don’t get any alcohol.  The nose has beautiful floral, plum and bright strawberry aromas.

I asked Gary why the wine didn’t have too-intense tannins and he said that it probably had something to do with the extended aging period of 27 months.  He also said the wine was basket pressed as opposed to bladder pressed which may have led to less tannic extraction from the skins and seeds.  Basket presses can be less harsh than bladders because they don’t squeeze the seeds as tightly which results in less bitter tannins releasing into the juice.  I’ve had some great, nicely balanced, Syrahs that have been pressed with the basket.  A recent article from a winemaker magazine talks more about them here.


Here’s a modern basket press, older versions have a handle on the top that you twist to press down the fruit.  Most wine is pressed in a bladder press these days which looks like this:



Whatever the reason, this is an elegant Syrah that left me wanting to order more.  Unfortunately, my wine fridge is packed right now so I’ll have to do some more drinking to make space.  I think I can accomplish that.