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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2013 Waxwing Santa Cruz Mountains Lester Family Vineyard Syrah

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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.

Napa cool climate Syrah? Not exactly, but a damn good wine: Corison Helios 2005 Napa Valley Syrah $38

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My wife and I had a couple of free hours to go wine tasting the other day, while my mother and stepfather were babysitting our little one.  Normally when I’m back home in Sonoma I stay there for wine tasting excursions but this time we headed to Napa to Corison Winery.

Corison is really a little gem of a place. I had been there about ten years ago and again about five years ago and was struck by how laid-back and down-to-earth it was compared with the rest of Napa’s winery estates.  On my previous visits, the tasting room was in the winery with just a little table and there was a small parking lot and barely anyone there.  Things have changed a little, the tasting fee that day was a whopping $40 for a library tasting and the tasting area was larger and more refined.  It’s still right there in the middle of a working down-to-earth winery though and the parking lot is still small.

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 Corison’s somewhat understated tasting room

Corison’s winemaker, Cathy Corison, has always made a more restrained style of Napa Cabernet.  Cathy picks earlier than almost anyone else in Napa and makes wines that harken back to a traditional and perhaps more varietally correct style of Cabernet.  As you can imagine, this restrained style did not go over too well with consumers during the hedonistic mid-2000s but it is making a comeback and Cathy’s benefiting from wine consumers beginning to see the light.

The Syrah was a nice surprise for me because I didn’t know Corison even made one. On first nose in the tasting room I didn’t get a whole lot of complexity.  Likewise on the palate — it was a balanced wine but seemed a tad simple.  Still, I bought a bottle and I’m glad I did.

The Helios Syrah is far and away the best Napa Syrah I’ve tried. (I’ve yet to try a Lagier Meredith Syrah so you’ll have to take that statement with a grain of salt.)  On the nose, I get black tea and fresh aromas of blackberry and flowers.  There’s a great mid-palate too with good acidity and the fresh, just barely ripe, blackberry carries through.  This doesn’t seem like a Napa wine but at the same time it does.  There’s good fruit, there’s bright fruit, it’s not a super savory wine but it has the balance of a Syrah from cooler climes.

I wish I had been able to try it when it was young because I’m guessing this wine wasn’t easy to handle at a young age and I would have loved to see how it has developed.   The Helios label is a label that Cathy uses for certain vintages when good fruit comes available and at around $30 a bottle this wine is a great way to get acquainted with Corison’s wines but not break the bank (her lowest level cab retails for around $80).

Ram’s Gate 2010 Durrell Vineyards Syrah

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You may or may not have heard of Ram’s Gate but you can’t have missed it if you drive to Sonoma with any regularity.  Since my parents live there, I’ve often driven by so I’ve seen it morph into its current modern-style winery extravaganza.  It used to be the little-visited Roche Vineyards characterized (at least for me) by a sad patch of vineyard in a low, puddle-prone area right by the road that would, even after a slight rainfall, effectively drown the vines.

Ram’s Gate was quite a transformation, as the old Roche barn was taken down and replaced with a rustic-modern building that is more wine bar than tasting room.  I wish I’d taken pictures but you can get the idea here on their website.  It’s a pretty cool idea, and all the wines are Ram’s Gate wines.  You order them by the glass, with or without small plates of food, find a place to sit inside or outside, and look at the great views, which are all around.  On our visit, we were greeted by a concierge at the door who ushered us over to the wine bar.  I hadn’t heard much about Ram’s Gate’s wine so I was excited to see that there was a cool-climate Syrah for sale.  Even though it was 90 degrees out and I was thinking of something more in the white or rosé category, I went for it.

I was more than pleasantly surprised.  The wine was definitely pushing into the warm climate range with its low tannin and acidity but it had a lot of cool-climate characteristics.  On the nose, I got peppercorn, cured meat, violets, blackberry and even an unmistakable aroma of Olvatine in powdered form, not yet added to milk or water (I know, somebody stop me).  This was a wine that again confirmed my growing suspicion that Carneros is really becoming a sweet spot for Syrah.  This wine had the perfect combination of both warm and cool-climate characteristics and there’s no doubt in my mind that it would please many wine-drinkers who are on both the warm and cool sides of the fence.

Piedrasassi 2009 Syrah Central Coast ABV 13.5% $40

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Again a hiatus from the blog for a couple of weeks has made me want to kick things back off with a bang.  I’m trying not to make a habit out of these breaks from the blog but my latest excuse is that my current obsession with Golden State Warriors basketball hasn’t done my wine writing any favors.  Now that the young Warriors have been undone by the aging Spurs, I have sworn off basketball for the rest of the season and I’m back in the blog game.

I’ve been wanting to try one of the higher end Piedrasassi Syrahs for quite a while.  I’ve had their more budget-friendly Syrah more than a few times and although I definitely wouldn’t call it cool climate, it’s a delicious honest Syrah.

The 2009 Central Coast Syrah is also honest.  It’s got a lot of those cool-climate characteristics I love and a pure core of acidity on the palate.  On the nose the wine has a beautiful floral aroma and bright blackberry. There’s black pepper and anise too.  The finish is just about perfectly balanced for my taste and is extremely food-friendly.  This is another versatile Syrah, yes, although I get tired of the Syrah-only-goes-with-barbeque paradigm, this is a wine that actually would go well-grilled food.  I could see it also matching well with richer chicken and fish dishes.

The Central Coast is a 100% Syrah blend and is an expression of the Piedrasassi philosophy and current thinking.  The Piedrasassi winery explains this philosophy on its website:

“Don’t get us wrong, we like single vineyard designates. As winemakers, we enjoy learning about the different personalities of the vineyards and the fruit they produce. However, we are also big fans of a well-crafted blend, which should highlight not only the strengths of the grape and the region but also how those traits are expressed through a particular winery’s lens.”

For this vintage, winemaker Sashi Moorman wanted to accentuate the savory side of these particular vineyards, so this wine also has some stem inclusion to add aromatic complexity. It’s a vineyard blend from Harrison Clarke, Sebastiano, Rim Rock and La Purisima Syrah vineyards. He picked earlier than most of his other Santa Rita hills counterparts and the wine was aged in 100% neutral oak.  Moorman’s made quite a name for himself as a low alcohol aficionado, which is a philosophy you can probably guess I agree with.  You can read about it more about it here on Blake Gray’s article for Wine Review Online (per usual, the comments are just as interesting as the article).  This wine is a great example of Moorman’s idea that grapes picked at a lower alcohol level can develop into wines with just as much flavor and complexity as grapes that are left to hang on the vines longer to develop phenolic ripeness. This wine is packed with flavor and aromatic intensity.  The acidity that’s present as a result of the earlier picking also adds to the complexity of the mid-palate and it makes you wonder, as Moorman does, how anyone would decide to wait longer to pick.

I can’t wait to try more of Moorman’s wines.  He’s got a deft hand with Syrah and it’s a style that’s right up my alley.