Perhaps credit for the planting of the major Rhone varietals in California goes
to Joseph Phelps, who offered a varietal Syrah back in the mid 1970s.
however, even more credit goes to Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Grahm began
in his quixotic quest to master Pinot Noir. He came to realize that California's
climate was more suited to Mediterranean varieties than Burgundian. He's brought
attention to Grenache (the primary grape of French Rhone wines such as Côtes du
Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape), Syrah (the noble red grape of the Northern
wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rotie) and Mourvèdre (also known as Mataro or
Monastrell in Spain and the backbone of the robust reds of Provence called Bandol).
A prominent Rhône Ranger winemaker sent a note saying Randall Grahm's interest in Syrah
was piqued after his tasting a 1982 Syrah from Paso Robles made by Bob Lindquist (Mister
Qupé). Mr. Grahm says he doesn't recall it that way.
Sometimes Randall Grahm has been the victim of his own success, losing out on buying the
fruit he's brought attention to as other wineries have been willing to pay
(higher) premium prices
for these grapes!
There was a legal entanglement some years ago over some grapevines originally said to be
Roussanne. It seems some people have paid money to Sonoma Grapevines for cuttings or
Roussanne, planted these "sticks" in the ground and then, several years later,
they're harvesting fruit. Unfortunately these grapes were Viognier, not
What was Monsieur Grahm thinking, anyway? He brought over
what are cleverly dubbed "suitcase varieties" (grape cuttings stashed
in luggage and brought over directly from Europe. Mr. Graham claimed to
have gotten the cuttings from a vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape where Viognier
is not especially prominent, but Roussanne is more widely cultivated.
He reportedly "gave" the cuttings to the nursery, while the owner of
the nursery asserts he paid for the vines.
One factor seems lost on many California producers of "Rhône-styled" wines.
European connoisseurs have historically turned to the Rhône Valley for wines when Bordeaux and
Burgundy priced themselves out of reach. It is still possible to buy glorious
Rhône wines in the $10-$20 range.
Many of the California Rhône Rangers' (as they're called)
wines are in the $25-$80 category! Frankly, we've tasted some mighty fine Rhône
wines which cost a fraction of what the California wineries are asking. Many local
producers are banking on, apparently, scarcity as a factor in allowing them to seek these
luxury prices before their wines have reached the same quality level.
Others are banking simply on the novelty of having a wine they hope will compare
favorably to those being made in Europe.
|Actually, though, there's a
particular dynamic which is driving the ridiculous prices for a lot of
the marginal wines.
For many of the scads of producers in the Paso Robles/San Luis Obispo
area, the wines are good enough to sell to tourists who are out
for a weekend away from Los Angeles or San Francisco. This
is the same for Lodi, too. Add Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa
Barbara to this list, too, why don't you?
Wineries with $40 price tags are able to sell their precious bottles to
folks who are just out for a day or two "on the road" and
these expensive souvenirs cause vintners to expect others to pony up
silly sums of cash for the same plonk.
If you have an idea of the "value" of wine, then you might be
unwilling to pay so much for so little. If you're just out on the
wine trail and collecting some souvenir bottles, well, knock yourself
We have good quality Côtes-du-Rhône wines in the shop at ten bucks. And
$19.99 will get you some really good French bottles...
Not a lot of them have a great understanding of the wines they are trying to
imitate. One fellow recently stopped by with a Viognier, telling me
"The wine from this vineyard doesn't taste right when it's bone
dry." I kept my big mouth shut (for once) as I was thinking "It doesn't
taste right sweet, either!"
He had a freshly-bottled Rosé. Only 15% alcohol, too! As for his
Syrahs, none was likely to keep Rhône Valley winemakers awake at night knowing
there's competition from California! I asked him what Rhône winemakers he
liked and he ran off a list of many good wineries. Too bad his wines
didn't taste as good to me as some of our well-priced Côtes du Rhônes.
fellow made a Syrah Rosé of huge alcohol (he claimed it's around 19.0% alcohol
and dry!) and asked $75 for a bottle. He's no longer in business, we
learned recently. Wonder why???
We wonder if so many proponents of California's
Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre and Viognier/Roussanne/Marsanne, etc. wines have even
tasted good wines from France's Rhone Valley. It seems as though most
producers have no clue as to what makes top French Rhone wines
In a recent edition of Robert Parker's "Wine Advocate," many of the
micro-production Syrah wines are evaluated. Highly praised are wines which
some consumers may find undrinkable. The wines are picked at high levels
of sugar and end up producing wines nearly as alcoholic as a martini! We
don't agree with this notion that bigger, more intense wine is necessarily
Amazing is the fact that Mr. Parker wrote a book on the wines of the Rhône Valley. He seems to have a good idea of what the wines from France, the
benchmarks, ought to taste like. Yet he is advising consumers to throw
serious amounts of money at wines which are less-than-stellar, in our view.
(Look at some of Mr. Parker's reviews of Australian wines. Yikes!)
Further, by heaping what we view as unwarranted praise on many of these wines,
Mr. Parker is encouraging winemakers to make these behemoths since those are
wines which get the highest numerical scores. Winemakers will
continue to pick at higher and higher levels of sugar and make wines more potent
I spoke with one well-established winemaker whose wines get good reviews from
Mr. Parker. He said he felt a bit "sick" when reading Parker's
Issue #154 from notes gathered over the summer of 2004. "I thought
about writing a letter to him suggesting that he's totally lost with respect to
these wines. But I don't want it to sound like 'sour grapes' since he does
rate my wines. And besides, such a letter might adversely impact the
scores for my own wines."
We poke fun at ourselves on our wine-tasting pages pointing out that our
blind-tasting comparisons are for "sport" and they are not
"rocket science." The notion of scoring every wine with a
numerical score on a 100 or 20 point scale seems silly, since these numbers
really are a personal reaction to a particular wine. And they are
"valid" (if you wish to give them any credence) for the flight of
wines in which they are tasted. That is, a 90 point wine in one line-up,
might merit only 85 points in another, while garnering 93 points amongst a
weaker field of challengers.
But to attain the lofty scores many winemakers seek, one is obliged to make
"extreme" wines. You have to have a wine with more color, more
body, more intensity than other wines. These wines, evaluated in the
context of a "wine tasting", may show far differently than they do in
the context of dinner-time wine "drinking."
A "taster" has but a minute or two to evaluate a wine. They
don't "live" with the wine for an hour while dining. We've found
many of these huge monsters to be fatiguing and, frankly, uninteresting after
the first glass.
We admire the enthusiasm of some of the local winemakers, but think some might
benefit from additional study in the realm of wine and how it pairs with
It's, perhaps, fortunate that the old-time fashion of flambéing food tableside in
restaurants is pass, since many of these wines might catch on fire and cause
serious damage! Some of the white wines are well over 15%
alcohol! These can burn a hole on your palate.
Some Wines We Like:
- Bob Lindquist owns this "modern stone-age winery" and produces
Chardonnay, along with Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and a series of Syrah-based
reds. Located in the wine-making facility surrounded by the Bien Nacido Vineyard, Au
Bon Climat, Makor and a host of other labels are produced in this winery. We've been
featuring Bob's wines since the early or mid 1980s. Even though he's an ardent fan
of the Los Angeles Dodgers, we still like Bob and his wines.
We're not sure if
there's hope on the horizon or not, as Bob married a Bay Area woman who's a Giants' fan
(at least SHE'S got some brains!).
Bob's success with his Rhone-styled wines had led to his hiring, way back when,
by the small Provence estate, Chateau Routas. He certainly improved
their wines, but the owners finally sold the property and it's now run by a
Scotsman and Bob has more time to watch his bankrupt Dodgers flounder.
The Syrahs of Qupe are varied--the Central Coast
bottling is about the weight of a Pinot Noir and is berryish, simple and
soft. I suggest serving it at cool cellar temp and it seems to go
nicely with a wide variety of foods. The 2010 is a delightful
wine. It's from about 13 different vineyard sites. One other
factor we especially like is that Bob doesn't go overboard with picking late
and making a hugely alcoholic wine. He says "I'm too
old and set in my ways to make those big fruit bomb Syrahs..." So
The Bien Nacido Hillside Estate is
a deeper, richer, more smoky red wine. It has some bacony or hickory smoke elements
similar to Northern Rhône Syrahs. The 2006 is complex and deep,
a perfect wine for some sort of lamb or duck dinner. It is drinkable
now and will show well for probably another 5-8 years.
The 2009 Bien Nacido Reserve features a wine that's a bit more plump than
most Pinot Noir wines, but not as hugely tannic or structured as some California Syrah
wines. It displays blueberry-like fruit and a hint of green
olive--very nice with duck. We find this to be reminiscent of some of
our favorite Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph wines.
With the 2001 vintage, Qupé has a bunch of single vineyard bottlings of
Syrah. That would be about five of them! Each is a bit
different, all of them being in the range of "very good" to
"excellent." I have not purchased any of these,
finding that 3 Syrahs from one producer are certainly enough.
Lindquist also has done well, from time to time, with his white Rhone
variety wines...we periodically have these in stock.
- Currently available:
Currently sold out of everything...
- ALBAN VINEYARDS
Alban is one of the leading lights in the Rhône Ranger contingent. His name
seemed to first appear on various wine labels as the source of grapes such
as Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Then he launched his own label, much like many people who grow grapes.
When you see how much money some winemakers ask for the wines from your own
fruit, there's certainly the temptation to start making your own.
Early vintages were a bit inconsistent. Some wines were pretty nice,
while others were not to our taste. Though the current crop of Alban
offerings get good reviews from many critics, they are not wines of
universal appeal, but the "basic" (if you want to call them that)
offerings have been good as John seems to have the vineyard and cellar work
Alban makes a couple of Viognier wines, for example. Most of the time
we seem to prefer the basic, entry level "Central Coast"
bottling. It is typically more forward, lower in alcohol and simply
"easier" than the Estate wine. The 2012 has arrived recently
and it seemed a bit tighter and less peachy/apricoty than many of the
earlier vintages. Perhaps time will help this round out a bit.
Alban prefers a minimalistic approach to cellar work...so the wine is not
brilliantly clear in appearance. It's a bit hazy, in fact. They
have the idea that filtering the wine to make it brilliantly clear robs it
of some of its fragrance and flavor. So...it still tastes pretty good.
Syrahs are, of course, a main attraction at Alban. There are
several. We have a rather nice Central Coast bottling, a wine called
"Patrina." It's a 2010 vintage, an intense, teeth-staining
red wine. Big, intense, deep in color and high in octane, this is the
sort of wine which appeals to point-awarding wine critics.
bottling is named after Mrs. Alban, Lorraine. It is even more
limited. Then they make something like two bottles of a wine named
after John's father, Seymour Alban. These two bottlings are examples of
"pushing the envelope" and they are the sort of wines for
wine-tastings but are a bit much on the dinner table.
I was at a dinner event with a winemaker from France and a bunch of Bay
Area wine people. Someone brought one of these whiz-bang bottles of
Alban Syrah. If you are impressed by how much a wine can stain your
teeth more than you are by its character, then you will probably appreciate
these latter two wines. They are wines to admire for their power and
strength, but drinking more than a sip may prove challenging to some.
- Currently available: 2014 Central Coast Viognier $25.99
2011 Central Coast "PATRINA" Syrah $49.99
2009 Central Coast "REVA" SYRAH $99.99
first met Bruce Neyers when he was the sales manager for a little start-up
winery in Napa called Joseph Phelps Vineyards.
He and his wife Barbara have long been part of the Bay Area wine &
food scene, as she worked at Berkeley's famed temple of gastronomy, Chez
These days Bruce works for another Berkeley luminary, Kermit Lynch.
Monsieur Lynch fancies himself as a musician and he moonlights as an
importer of French and Italian wines. Bruce handles the chores as
"National Sales Manager" for the Uncle Kermit and this gives him
great exposure to lots of European wines, including some killer bottlings
from the Rhone Valley.
Collaborating with Mr. & Mrs. Neyers on their winemaking adventure is
Ehren Jordan, he of Failla winery fame.
Okay...maybe you've not heard of Failla, but that's Jordan's wife's family
name and they make some cool Pinot Noirs, Chardonnay and Syrah under that
banner. He was also affiliated with Dr. Turley in a Zinfandel and
Petite Sirah winemaking escapade called Turley Wine Cellars. Jordan,
by the way, had spent some time in the Northern Rhone, so he's well-versed
with the ins-and-outs of Syrah.
Neyers makes some delightful Syrah wines. In fact, he's got quite a
roster of interesting varieties these days.
As we understand it, one of Kermit's producers, the famed Thierry
Allemand, a producer of some stellar Cornas wines, has given Bruce some
suggestions on refining his "recipe" for Syrah. And what a
dynamite result if you're at all a fan of Allemand's wine or other
exceptional Northern Rhone bottlings!
The resulting wine has the fingerprints of a Syrah-meister all over
it. Neyers calls this tiny bottling "Cuvee d'Honneur" in
honor of Monsieur Allemand. The grapes are crushed by foot, not
machine. I don't know if Bruce has bigger feet than Allemand (I'm
not sure I want to know, for that matter). The wine spends a year in
barrel on the spent yeast sediment and it's not given a dose of sulphur
until they're ready to bottle it. Of course, there's no fining or
We're crazy for that hickory, bacon-like character which we enjoy in
Northern Rhone Syrahs when they get a bit of bottle aging. This wine
shows that quality right from the start. And there's the lovely
spice notes of Syrah with hints of pepper...I'm sure you can baffle your
guests who profess to be Francophiles...
Neyers doesn't make much...maybe a couple of barrels. Good thing
nobody knows about this wine.
We included a couple of vintages of Neyers' Mourvedre in a
blind-tasting of California Mourvedre wines with a couple of Bandols in the
line-up for kicks. Surprise, surprise!! The California wines fared
well and Neyers 2010 Mourvedre from the Rossi Ranch was a delight. It's a
small production bottling and we have a few bottles in the shop presently...
Currently in stock: NEYERS 2012 Napa Valley
"CUVEE D'HONNEUR" SYRAH $49.99
NEYERS 2010 Sonoma Valley "Rossi Ranch" MOURVEDRE $41.99
are often shown bottles of wines which have curious (and sometimes
ridiculous) brand names.
Sometimes the names are cute. Sometimes they're clever.
Sometimes they're in a foreign language. The name can help imprint
the brand in the mind of the consumer (or wine merchant) in an indelible
What does Juicy Rebound have to do with Rhone Valley grape
varieties? What does Juicy Rebound have to do with wine?
And how the heck did they come up with the name "Juicy Rebound"
in the first place???
The brand is owned by winemaker Douglas Danielak and his
wife Mary. These two are supreme wine geeks, as both worked in
France in the wine biz, before coming back to the US and landing in the
Napa Valley. Douglas studied winemaking in Burgundy and UC
Davis. In Napa he founded the Jade Mountain winery which was
swallowed up by the drinks company, Diageo. Mary had been a wine
buyer at Napa's Oakville Grocery, so between the two of them, they know
everybody who's anybody in the world of wine.
Douglas is also an avid hockey fan. He follows the team from
Detroit, I suspect, because he thinks they're called the "Red
Wines." In fact, though, they're the Red Wings.
Having made some nice wines at Jade Mountain, he and Mary now have their
own brands...Pont Neuf for a Chardonnay and some blended red...and Juicy
The term "Juicy Rebound" is a well-known hockey term. This
is when a puck might be deflected by the goalie or hit off the pipes and
it sits ever-so-tantalizingly in front of the net, needing just a slight
tap to score a goal.
So, now you know.
- We had a beautiful little blended red called "Juicy
Villages"...we've had several vintages of this...routinely charming!. It's a blend of Grenache and Syrah, with the fruit coming
from Sonoma County. It's a delicious and beautifully fruity
red...medium-full on the palate and the tannin level seems fairly
low. Many folks who purchased a single have come back for more
(that's a good sign and brings a smile to the face of a winemaker) and one
fellow from Kentfield drove down here for a six pack!!
We've had varietal bottlings of Mourvedre and Grenache...those are no
There is a delicious little white blend...Juicy Villages white...it's
dubbed "Cuvee No. 34" in a tip of the chapeau to a
"department" in France's Languedoc region which is
"Department 34." Precisely it's called the Hérault.
The wine is a Rhone-styled blend, but based on Viognier (40%) with
Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne. The peachy notes of Viognier
are front and center. It's dry, mildly acidic and an enjoyable wine.
Currently in stock:
2013 JUICY REBOUND "Juicy Villages" $19.99
2014 JUICY REBOUND "Cuvee No. 34" $15.99
Humphrey is a young winemaker who's made some very impressive Chardonnays,
Pinot Noir and Syrah.
The wines are made at the Copain facility in Sonoma and we especially
admired how this guy managed to capture really nice varietal character and
notes of terroir in his wines. With so many young vintners
creating "monster" wines, hoping to garner high numerical scores
from various wine critics, this fellow's wines actually have a measure of
finesse to them.
Each bottling is adorned with interesting art work. Kent's wife
Colleen is an artist and "curator" of the interesting labels
featured on their wines. This is all well and good, of course, but
when we're in a restaurant we "want to see it on the plate" and
when evaluating wines, we "want to see it in the
We have an elegant 2005. This comes from
a vineyard in the Bennett Valley and we appreciate the lovely berry notes
and finesse of the wine. I'd expect a Rhone Valley winemaker would be
pleased to have made this...
dabbling with Grenache is exceptional!
It comes from a vineyard situated 700 feet above sea level that's in the Russian
River Valley appellation.
The wine was blended with about 9% Syrah. We like it because it does
remind us of some good Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines and it has the pomegranate and
red fruit notes we like in Southern Rhone reds.
Medium to medium-full bodied, this is a good accompaniment for Mediterranean
lamb dishes or well-seasoned beef or duck.
A mere 137 cases of this Grenache were produced.
Currently in stock:
2005 ERIC KENT Bennett Valley SYRAH $36.99
2011 ERIC KENT Russian River Valley GRENACHE $39.99
Livermore Valley, once upon a time, was an elite location for
grape-growing and winemaking. With leading producers such as Wente
and Concannon having dropped the ball, for the most part, the region lost
its toe-hold on its reputation as a major viticultural area.
Now, with the San Francisco Bay Area spreading out, housing is supplanting
agriculture. Still, there has been a modest increase in the number
of wineries over the past decade.
One of the shining stars is the Wood Family winery. You may have
heard about small, start-ups in Bordeaux who are known as "garagistes."
These are vintners whose wines are vinified in something other than a
Well, the Wood Family facility is a real garagiste winery!
- The grapes come from a very old vineyard site, though the vines are not
ancient. "Ruby Hill" was a very famous vineyard and
winery...today the name is more associated with a golf course than wine.
Winemaker Rhonda Wood gets a small quantity of Syrah from the Madden
Ranch. That would be former National Football League, Oakland
Raiders' coach John Madden (and his son, Mike). The fruit is
reminiscent of dark berries...blackberry and blueberry...with a nice touch
of spice and a woodsy tone. It's not going to remind you,
particularly, of Northern Rhône Syrahs, but it's a good wine in any case.
Currently in stock: 2007 WOOD FAMILY
"Livermore Valley" Madden Ranch SYRAH $23.99
- THE OJAI VINEYARD
Adam Tolmach owns this gem of a winery with his lovely wife Helen. He
had been an early pioneer in Santa Barbara wine history, having been a
co-founder of the Au Bon Climat winery with Jim Clendenen. Both
fellows are graduates of the University of Zaca Mesa, another old Santa
Barbara County winery. (Bob Lindquist worked there, too, he of the now
famous Qupé winery.)
A-B-C specialized in Burgundian varieties and this was a much-heralded
little brand in its early days. The partnership eventually dissolved,
as Adam sold his interest in ABC to Clendenen and devoted full attention to
The Ojai Vineyard.
Adam's grandfather has bought a property in Ventura County, just south of
Santa Barbara. There Gramps cultivated melons and corn and the old boy
sold these at a roadside stand in the town of Oak View.
Tolmach made some striking wines in the early days. He still makes
striking wines, actually, but in those days his wines were seemingly bigger
and deeper than most in the market. (We were early fans of his
Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays, too.)
Adam hasn't changed much, although there have been constant refinements and
enhancements in his vineyard work and cellar practices. But these
days, some of the wines being made in California seem to be pushed in a
direction to maximize color, alcohol and intensity as these features help a
wine stand out in a blind-tasting. And, at one point, wine critics
tasted wines "blind," so those elements allowed a wine to rise
above the competition.
These days we're fairly certain most of the current crop of critics taste
wines knowing what they are evaluating and there are certain preconceived
notions muddying the murky waters of wine criticism.
So today's Ojai Vineyard Syrah wines are not the biggest or "baddest"
wines on the table. But they can be some of the most intriguing and
interestingly complex wines on the dinner table.
Adam still makes a fair bit of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
and, crazy fellow that he is, Riesling is now part of the Ojai portfolio.
Tolmach works diligently with a stable of growers to produce his remarkable
wines. In the early days he was buying grapes as most winemakers
bought grapes, "by the ton." But the grower, cultivating
vineyards for tonnage is usually working at cross-purposes with a
So Adam was early on the bandwagon of buying fruit "by the
acre." This meant he would pay a grower the price he'd pay for so
many tons per acre, but he would direct the farming to produce a smaller
crop with the idea of increasing the quality of the grapes.
He's continued to refine his partnership with growers with whom he
works. As there has been a warming trend over the past few decades,
Adam keeps an eagle eye on the various vineyards as the harvest season looms
on his horizon and he's not at all interested in picking fruit with such
high levels of sugar that the grapes are a bit dehydrated. His
other refinement is a reduction in new wood used for aging the wines.
When you make a number of single vineyard bottlings, you can make them taste
quite similar by seasoning the wines with the impact of new barrels.
Tolmach now prefers to highlight the actual characteristics conferred on the
wines by toning down the wood.
We have a couple of Ojai Syrahs in the shop presently (along with Sauvignon
Blanc and Chardonnay).
The 2012 Santa Barbara County bottling is the entry-level Syrah. It comes from a bunch of different vineyard sites which keeps Adam busy
and reasonably out of trouble: 35% Bien Nacido, 20%
Pacific Coastal, 17.5% White Hawk, 17.5 Roll Ranch and 10 %
Grenache from the Sebastiano vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills appellation.
Very fine...classic Syrah with hints of berry and spice. It's a
great bottle for well-seasoned meats, as you may find some dusty, peppery
tones and a mildly earthy quality.
The wine is a very fine example of Syrah and I'm sure many a French Rhone
producer would recognize this immediately as Syrah.
In fact, we were visited by a famous Tuscan winemaker who thinks he's a
Syrah-iste (his wine wholesales for about a thousand bucks a case!) and we
poured him a sip of Adam's 2012. His eyes lit up and he acknowledged
that this, in fact, is Syrah!
We also have the 2012 Syrah from the Sebastiano vineyard...and, oh my, this
is serious Syrah! It's a bit darker in scope, with brushy notes and
lovely spice tones. The tannin is moderate, but pairing this with duck
or lamb really allows the wine to strut its stuff.
- Currently available:
2012 OJAI Santa Barbara Syrah $26.99
2012 OJAI "Sebastiano Vineyard" SYRAH $37.99
Dave Ramey is a winemaker's winemaker.
He wrote a magnificent thesis in 1979 which will likely cure your insomnia
- Ramey has tattoos from various wineries: Simi, Chalk Hill,
Matanzas Creek, Dominus, Rudd Estate and now his own...We find his
Chardonnays to be routinely excellent and he's got a nice touch with
Syrah, as it turns out.
Whodda thunk a fellow with Petrus-like training and Matanzas winemaking
would be producing such a lovely Syrah?
He gets fruit from the Sonoma Coast appellation and his 2007 is a blend of
a couple of vineyards. The wine displays lots of blackberry-like
fruit and there's a woodsy tone, as well. Paired with roasted leg of
lamb or duck confit, the wine shows itself to be drinkable now. On
its own, you might find the tannins to be a bit aggressive...
Currently in stock: 2007 RAMEY Sonoma Coast SYRAH SALE
CLICK ON THE BOX BELOW FOR FURTHER SLEEP-INDUCING READING
By Sleep Specialist, DAVID RAMEY
property was founded by an investment group back in the early 1970s.
Santa Barbara County was just getting established as a small viticultural
area, what with Firestone having broken ground to start that winery.
Over the years the focus has changed at Zaca Mesa and today they're solidly
featuring Rhone varieties. It's rather ironic that so many good
winemakers passed through this place and yet it's not a brand most wine
geeks pay any attention to. This is partly due to the wines being
balanced. They don't make "extreme" wines, the sort of
hugely alcoholic, highly-oaked bottlings that hit you over the head.
Some of the famous names who were associated with Zaca Mesa include Adam
Tolmach (Ojai), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Bob Lindquist (Qupe) and Ken
Brown (Byron), amongst others.
The winery originally produced varietals which were popular without much
thought as to whether or not these grapes had much potential in Santa
Barbara. As a result, early wines from Zaca Mesa included Merlot,
Cabernet, Riesling and Zinfandel. No wonder the brand had some
difficulty in establishing itself!
Someone had the idea of cultivating a grape called Syrah and a few acres of
vines were planted back in 1978. This parcel is called "Black
Bear Block" and it's today made into a single vineyard wine of good
quality. It was, until the mid-1980s, the only Syrah planted in Santa
Today the winery cultivates not only Syrah, but Grenache, Mourvedre,
Viognier, Roussanne and something called Chardonnay.
We've had the Black Bear Syrah in a few tastings and it routinely
shines. The 2006 is currently in the shop. Here's a big, deep
wine which offers hints of pepper and spice notes, along with dark fruit
tones. It's nicely balanced on the palate and pairing it with lamb,
duck or well-seasoned beef is ideal. They don't make much, having only
3 and a half acres of Syrah in this parcel. I think they produced well
less than 200 cases of this vintage.
Currently in stock: 2006 Zaca Mesa Santa Ynez Valley "Black
Bear Block" Syrah SALE $52.99
This brand was launched by winemaker Greg
Brown in the 1990s. He was a fellow who'd been working for a bank
before trading his coat and tie for the duds worn by Napa Valley cellar
After a stint at Cain on Spring Mountain, Greg hooked up with the Frediani
family in Calistoga and they've been the backbone of T-Vine
Brown preferred wines with lots of fruit.
That is, he strove to highlight the character of the grape in his
wines. Oak is not a central feature. In fact, Greg is quoted on
the back label as saying "I like my wines as I like my friends:
Today the brand is owned by three fellows who all have their hands in the
wine business in some manner or another. The same fellow who worked
under Greg Brown is in the cellar, though...
Sadly, Mr. Brown in no longer with us, but his memory lives on with the
We're enchanted by T-Vine's 2011 Napa Grenache. California ought to be
a good place for this Rhone grape variety. Yet so many wines we taste
have "no there there." Part of the problem, of course, is
with the viticulture and part with the terroir. We can buy really good
quality Rhone wines for $15-$25 from modest appellations and you can spend a
small fortune on Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Few California Grenache wines,
in our view, though, match up well with the French.
Yet there's something special about the T-Vine Grenache. It does have
some "there" there. We like the berry notes and the hint of spice, along
with an almost dusty aspect to the fruit. It's showy now and probably
is not a wine for extended aging, but over the next few years should make
for a memorable accompaniment to southern French/Mediterranean cuisine.
- Currently in Stock: 2011 T-VINE Napa Valley GRENACHE $35.99
Marks and Jonathan Lachs met while studying at UC Davis and they had
careers outside of wine in order to generate enough cash to invest in
their winemaking folly.
She worked in some biotech capacity and Jonathan was a Hewlett-Packard
staffers back in the day. I know they had some experience working in
wineries in California's Central Coast and the fantasy world called Napa
They settled in the town of Fair Play which is located in El Dorado
County. Gold Country. Way up yonder in them thar' hills, if you know
what I mean.
It's a beautiful little property and they farm it with thought and care.
Organic farming practices have been in place for a number of years now.
Wine grower and winemakers Jonathan Lachs.
It's a small winery and most wines are produced in lots ranging in quantity
from 75 to 300 cases.
- The vineyards surrounding the house and residence are in the Fair Play
appellation. This is, by the way, California's highest elevation
vineyards, with most of the acreage ranging from 2,000 to 3000
feet. The soils are sandy loam and granite, with modest
rainfall if we're not experiencing drought conditions. The large
swing between daytime and night-time can be dramatic, allowing the fruit
to retain nice levels of acidity.
I suspect Lachs and Marks thought they'd be making primarily Zinfandel and
Cabernet Sauvignon, but these days they're growing a number of Rhone
varieties and with success.
We've had a few Rhone varietals from Cedarville.
The 2011 vintage Grenache comes from 18 year old vines grown on their own
estate. We found it to be a rather charming and well-balanced
version of this Rhone grape.
The wine features a nice red fruit character, with hints of strawberry and
red cherries. There's a faintly spicy element, as well...might be
from the modest amount of Syrah they blend into this or it could simply be
the Grenache showing its own spice tones. It's a medium-bodied and
gentle version of Grenache. We view this as being immediately
drinkable, but we wouldn't be surprised to taste it in five years and find
a more stunningly complex red.
- The 2014 Viognier comes from a north-facing slope, which is great in
terms of challenging the vines to ripen their crop. The problem can
be , though, at such a high elevation, frosts can adversely impact the
crop load when the vineyards are in the early stages of the Spring
The soils are loamy and granitic which they say helps in producing a wine
with a mildly stony quality along with its classic peach/apricot-like
character. To its credit, the wine can be identified in the glass as
Viognier, unlike many of the "mystery whites" we encounter.
2013 Syrah comes from vines that are nearly two decades old, so they've got deep
roots and this helps add to the quality of this lovely wine.
Taking a page out of a winemaker's book from the Northern Rhone in France,
Cedarville's Syrah is co-fermented with a small percentage of
The wine sports a nice dark berry sort of fragrance and it's medium-full on the
palate without being especially astringent.
They only make a few barrels of this wine, by the way.
We suspect the wine will blossom handsomely with sufficient bottle
aging...though it is quite enjoyable in its youth, the wine seems to have enough
stuffing to turn into quite a surprising bottle if left alone for five or ten
years. On the other hand, if there's a leg of lamb in the oven tonight,
your bottle may be too tempting to allow it to develop.
Another feature of Cedarville wines is they are well-priced and afford consumers
of not only good quality, but good value.
Currently in stock: 2011 CEDARVILLE El Dorado
2014 CEDARVILLE El Dorado VIOGNIER $21.99
2013 CEDARVILLE El Dorado SYRAH $25.99
- The Kivelstadt name comes from a San Francisco real estate firm owned by
a couple whose surnames are Kivelson and Angstadt.
One of their investments was in a little vineyard in Sonoma and their son
became afflicted with the wine bug and today there's the Kivelstadt
Cellars brand of wine.
Jordan Kivelstadt spent some time learning his craft at Australia's Vasse
Felix winery as well as at O. Fournier in Argentina. In California
he was affiliated with a company responsible for assisting wineries
putting their wine in kegs for by-the-glass service in restaurants and
The family vineyard was purchased in 2005 and the grapes were being sold
to the Landmark Winery before young Mr. Kivelstadt made some wine from the
fruit under his own label. Garnering a bit of critical acclaim, the
project has now morphed into Kivelstadt Cellars.
We tasted a range of wines and found the white wines to be of lesser
interest, while the reds were remarkably soulful, complex and compelling
The 2010 Estate Syrah is called "The Inheritance" and
it's from the family vineyard in Sonoma. The color is dark and
intense, while the fragrances of berryish, spicy, earthy Syrah waft from
the glass. They did a fair bit of whole cluster fermentation and
this probably accounts for the lovely fruit on the nose and palate.
The wine displays a touch of oak, but it's just a mild woodsy tone.
The tannin level is fairly modest, so you can put this on the dinner table
tonight, if you like. Duck or lamb would be first choices for
this. A well seasoned beef or pork roast would also be good.
They made but 200 cases of this.
A red Rhone-styled blend is called "Father's Watch."
The 2011 vintage is 64% Syrah with the rest evenly split between
Carignane, Mourvedre and Grenache. Good food pairings would include
roasted chicken, grilled sausages, pizza, tomato-sauced pastas, etc.
Something like 400 cases were produced.
- From the Cooley Ranch in Sonoma's Alexander Valley, we have a 2012
Carignane called Old Wyve's Tale. Less than a hundred
cases were made of this, a remarkable red from vines well more than a
century old. What stories those old, gnarly vines might be able to
tell, as they're said to date from the era of Ulyesses S. Grant, The
Chicago Fire, Wild Bill Hickock and Thomas Edison! It's a
medium-bodied red wine and one that's well suited to braised or stewed
Currently in stock: 2010 KIVELSTADT Estate
SYRAH Sold Out
2011 KIVELSTADT "Father's Watch" RED BLEND $21.99
2012 KIVELSTADT Alexander Valley CARIGNANE $21.99
- COUNTY LINE (Radio Coteau)
Radio Coteau label is the work of winemaker Eric Sussman and his
"other" label is called County Line.
Sussman came to winemaking after studying agriculture at Cornell and then
being bitten by the wine bug. This led him to Burgundy where he got a
good education in making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. From there he
landed in Washington State before migrating south to Bonny Doon Vineyard
where Syrah and all sorts of other wacky varieties were being
vinified. Heading back north, Sussman studied at the University of
Dehlinger in Sebastopol before launching his own brand, Radio
He was interested in making a Rose, but when he donned his marketing chapeau,
he figured if it had the Radio Coteau label, consumers would think it was a wine
bled off from his Pinot Noir, so he came up with this other label. And now
he produces not only a County Line Rose, but a Zinfandel, Chardonnay and a
rather remarkable Syrah.
The wine comes from Russian River Valley fruit and it reminds us quite a bit
of good, young, drink-me-now Crozes Hermitage from the Northern Rhone Valley in
France. Sussman really captured the bright berry notes of Syrah, but also
the inherently spicy quality of those French bottlings.
His is well-priced, too, costing a few bucks less than comparable French Syrahs.
- Currently in stock: COUNTY LINE 2012 Russian River Valley
We had been a long-time admirer of the amazing early works of the crew at Bonny Doon Vineyard.
The "flagship" wine in the galaxy of California Rhone wines from
super-star winemaker Randall Grahm is called "Le Cigare Volant", a French term
translating to "the flying cigar" (we call them "flying saucers", the
French, apparently, view UFOs as being akin to cigars).
wine, a California interpretation of "Châteauneuf-du-Pape", pays homage to the
citizenry of the Southern Rhone Valley who passed legislation banning the landing of
"flying cigars" in their vineyards. It is, to date, the only law I am
aware of, which has not been broken in France. Over the years the blend has changed
and been refined, sometimes by what varieties have been available and other times by the
taste of Grahm and company.
few years ago Randall had become enamored with a process being employed (or deployed) by a fellow in the
southwest part of France. This method involves adding tiny oxygen bubbles to the tanks
during it's maturation. Randall feels it is possible to manage the tannins with this
method, so he made a somewhat "stronger" version of the Cigare in 1997.
I was privileged to taste a number of samples, from non-microbouillaged (as it's
called) to a "little" MB to a lot of "MB." The heavier dosed
versions were, in fact, the more interesting wines.
The winery became quite successful in its marketing efforts and Randall's
playful wine names and often artistically-enchanting labels brought much fame
and a little fortune to the brand.
Randall was an anti-establishment character and a bit of an iconoclast (as well
as an icon). Of course, contrarians are always popular with many people
who root for the underdog. And Randall worked with lots of
"underdog" grape varieties and the wines were must-haves for many
shops and restaurants.
Bonny Doon had a vineyard near a men's correctional facility and so Randall
produced a line of modestly-priced "house wines." But these were
labeled "Big House" Red and "Big House" White. They
were popular and the brand grew like a weed until Randall rounded up all these
playful labels and sold them to some wine group in Livermore. Many people
who had worked at Bonny Doon lost their jobs as a result. Part of
the sales contract mandated that Bonny Doon stop using the cartoon-like labels
with which they're identified.
A recent tasting of current offerings (May of 2013) showed improvement in the
wines...the new Cigare bottlings, in both red and white, are good. The
fruity Clos du Gilroy is bright and berryish...
- Currently available: Nada. Niente. Nuthin'.
The Peay brothers, Nick & Andy and Nick's wife, winemaker
Vanessa Wong, comprise the trio that run this nice little enterprise.
They scouted prospective vineyard sites up and down the west coast before
settling on a wild patch of land (formerly devoted to an apple orchard and
sheep-raising) a few miles inland from Sea Ranch. This is situated,
then, in a little pocket on the western edge of the northernmost portion of
the Sonoma Coast appellation. The Peays have a 51 acre site with about
two-thirds of it devoted to shy-bearing Pinot Noir. There's a modest
couple of sites with Syrah, two plots of Chardonnay and a smattering of
Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne just for curiosity.
Nick Peay handles the vineyard work, having spent time in a previous life
with affiliations at Schramsberg, La Jota, Newton and the very practical
Storrs winery in Santa Cruz. He also did a bit of industrial espionage
at the nearby Flowers winery, before shipping out to Coldstream Hills in
Australia one year.
Andy Peay is a Dartmouth graduate and spent time in the world of Wall Street
high finance and UC Berkeley economics. At one point he worked a
harvest at Cain Vineyards and he was hooked. Today he oversees the business
side of the enterprise.
Nick's wife Vanessa-The-Winemaker-Wong has some nice names on her résumé.
After her university studies, she ventured to France and spent time at
Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux and Domaine Jean Gros in
Burgundy. She came home to California and was employed by the
Franciscan winery before signing up with the Peter Michael Winery.
Then in 2001, the Peay adventure began and it seems to be sailing along
They make a modest quantity of Peay-labeled wine and have a second label
called Cep for the declassified lots. They hedge their bets
financially by selling a small amount of fruit to two other top
wineries: Williams-Selyem and Failla.
- We've been delighted with the Syrah (and Pinots) we've tasted from
We currently have a 2009 Les Titans bottling of Syrah and this wine gives
Northern Rhone wines a run for the money. It's a 300 case production
of a wine which is easily recognizable as tipping its chapeau to the
French as there's a beautiful hint of a floral note with mild peppery, spicy
tones. It's a medium-bodied wine, not a big, gobs o' fruit bomb.
It pairs perfectly with lamb or duck, though a grilled steak ain't a bad
match, either. Given that it's already blossoming in the direction of
Rhone wines, we'll be interested to see how this evolves with another three
to five years, maybe more.
Currently in stock: 2009 PEAY Sonoma Coast "Les
SYRAH Sold Out
- EDMUNDS ST. JOHN
- Getting his start in the retail end of the wine biz, Steve Edmunds
makes small lots of wines in
rented space in the East Bay, a far cry from some idyllic
site along the Rhone Valley!
His wines have often been quite good, demonstrating his eye for good fruit and then
capturing the grape in the bottle. Steve says he's not out to woo The Critics.
"Our wines may or may not receive the
highest numerical ratings bestowed by the most popular wine journals. At the
the wine is in the glass, and the glass is placed before the taster, the numbers are
meaningless; if I can offer someone a wine that is thrilling to smell, that is
unforgettable to taste, that taster, being only human, cannot help but respond. If that
response is forthcoming, I will have done my job."
So Steve's wines are, to a certain degree, not for the wine drinker
who's looking for a ton of new oak. You won't find his wines to be manipulated to
suit the current taste of the market. Edmunds enjoys the sense of "place"
one finds in many European wines; the element the French call "terroir."
"It is our goal to produce wines of the
highest level of quality, integrity, and authenticity, the hallmarks of which are balance,
nuance, and elegance, wines that express their origins in place and time, wines through
which "the earth speaks" in a clear and strong voice."
- There's a rather nice Rhone-ish blend from the 2011
vintage. It's grown by the Unti family in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley.
The wine is comprised of 43% Syrah and 57% Grenache...no Mourvedre this
vintage because it was so cold during the growing season, the Mourvedre did
not get ripe! Still, Steve made a nice bottle of wine, adapting to the
vintage and producing a good bottle.
His 2010 Syrah from El Dorado County is a delight. It's from the Wylie-Fenaughty
vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, lending a measure of truth to the notion
that there's gold in them thar hills...dark and showing nice spice with a
tip of the old chapeau to France's Rhone Valley...drinkable now and it
should hold up well over the next 5 to 10 years, maybe longer...
The Edmunds St. John labels used to read: "Produced and Bottled by Intuition and
Blind-Luck." We didn't believe him.
A recent vintage was labeled: "Cellared and Bottled by Wayward
Pilgrims Of The Vine." The new 2010 Rocks & Gravel is
"bottled by the skin of our teeth."
- Currently available: 2011 EDMUNDS ST JOHN "ROCKS &
GRAVEL" (list $27) SALE $23.99
2010 EDMUNDS ST JOHN Wylie Fenaughty SYRAH $28.99
Epiphany label is the work of Eli Parker, whose father is Davy
Okay, well, his Pop is actor Fess Parker, who played the role of Davy
Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Dad later portrayed Daniel
Boone, another wild, wild west pioneer.
Fess may not have been the first pioneer in Santa Barbara wine history,
but he amassed a fair bit of acreage and did launch the Fess Parker Winery
We typically found the Fess Parker wines to be a bit ordinary,
frankly. We'd tasted some wines from grapes Parker had sold to
others and these were often superior to the wines Parker put his name
on. But we've noticed a steady improvement over the past few years
and the wines of the Epiphany label to be a bit of a revelation.
In 2013 we included a Rhone-styled blend in a blind-tasting. The
2009 blend of Grenache and Syrah won the tasting, finishing in first place
ahead of 7 other Grenache and Grenache blends from California. The
wine carries the proprietary name of "Revelation" and it was
certainly a pleasant surprise. It showed a nice blackberry sort of
fruit character and had mild tannins and a bit of acidity to keep it
Currently in stock: 2009 EPIPHANY CELLARS Santa Barbara
"REVELATION" (51% Grenache/49% Syrah) $32.99
Thackrey is located in the sleepy burg called Bolinas, California.
The locals there routinely abscond with state or county signage, pointing
visitors in their direction, making it difficult to find.
- SEAN THACKREY
- Here's a real artisan winemaker, someone who makes wine by
"feel," not by recipe. Located in the middle of nowhere
(that would be the town of Bolinas, which is unmarked as the locals keep
swiping the road signs pointing in their direction), Thackrey buys fruit
from a variety of sources and creates some amazingly good wines.
Thackrey has been branded by some as a "Rhone Ranger," but he's
not embraced that designation since he doesn't want to be viewed as
"copying" an original. Thackrey has training as an "art
historian," so the idea of making a knock-off of a masterpiece is
His wines are named after stars and constellations and it's no wonder many
people describe the wines as "heavenly." His grape sources
have changed over the years, some vineyards being snatched by competitors
either in terms of ownership or buying contracts. Even so, Thackrey
manages to offer rather complex, "soulful" wines.
The flagship bottling is an interesting "minestrone" called
"PLEIADES." It's the "winemaker's secret blend,"
varying from bottling to bottling, but always managing to be something
intriguing. Thackrey, who doesn't make wine in large quantities,
doesn't make wine for "everyone." And he notes "Why
waste an open bottle on a closed mind?"
These have been labeled with a "lot number." The blend has
changed over the years, but the wine remains typically "Thackrey"
in style, with some brown spice notes on the nose and palate.
We tasted a new bottling
in July of 2014 and found the wine to be perfectly standard in quality, but
nowhere close to the really soulful bottlings Thackrey had five to ten years
This year, 2015, we found bottling XXIV to be closer to the standard set by
Thackrey. We've heard mumblings about the wine having a hefty
percentage of Sangiovese in it. Who knows, besides the
winemaker? And he's not talking. I mentioned to him we thought
some of the recent, previous two or three bottlings were not as interesting
as the first 15 or 20 and he seemed to shrug off that notion. Of
course, the winemaker is typically a bit cellar-blind.
This is a delightful, medium-bodied red blend. There's not much in the
way of tannin, so drinking it in the short term makes sense.
The "Orion" wine comes from an old vineyard in Napa.
Thackrey believes the fruit is, at least in part, Syrah. Or something
like Syrah. In fact, there is NOTHING LIKE THIS WINE. It is
unique. It is amazing. The color is so intense and dark it
nearly stains the glass! The fragrance is exceptionally fruit, with
blackberry notes, blueberries and sweet spices emanating from the
glass. Though I detest the term "gobs of fruit," if ever
there was a wine worthy of that descriptor, this is it.
- Currently in stock: PLEIADES XXIV $23.99
2002 ORION $74.99
2004 SIRIUS $59.99
often said "It takes a lot of singin' and dancin' to sell a bottle of
wine." New vintners, especially in Napa and Sonoma, routinely
enter the business thinking selling $50 to $100 bottles of wine is easy and
that customers line up to throw hundred dollar bills at them. When
they find out they'll need to sing and dance, they often give up the ghost
(and the winery).
- We tasted a nice Napa Valley red and were pleasantly surprised to learn
the wine was made by a winemaker whose work we routinely admire: Ken
Bernards. (He and his wife own the Ancien winery and he makes
good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.)
The Scaggs of Scaggs Vineyard is a professional musician, so he's quite
accustomed to singin' and dancin'.
Scaggs and his wife Dominique bought a home in Napa in 1996 and they didn't
plant vines, initially, but fruit trees. It was to be a
"home," not a commercial endeavor. One day a friend of
theirs was driving by and he had grapevine cuttings which did not get
planted earlier in the day on a vineyard job. He was willing to give
them to the Scaggs and they planted these...Syrah cuttings from the Hudson
vineyard in Carneros.
When the vines started growing the following Spring, Scaggs says they put
down roots not only in the hillside, but within he and Dominique.
They're friendly with importer Kermit Lynch, another fellow who sings and
dances to sell wine and so the Scaggs had some familiarity with the Southern
Rhone Valley. They later extended the vineyard, planting Mourvedre and
What can I say...Production is quite small. The Lowdown is winemaker Ken
Bernards doesn't produce over-the-top, pushing-the-envelope,
full-lock-power-slide sorts of wines.
a 2005 Mourvedre blend...it was a medium-bodied red blend which played some
notes reminiscent of Southern Rhones, but with its own particular style and
character. The main verse is the Mourvedre with the chorus being sung
by Grenache and Syrah.
Having been in the bottle for a while, the bouquet is nicely developed,
showing some fruit tones of dark berries and a dusty, spiciness which may
be, to some degree, the terroir shining through. It's reasonably
harmonious on its own, but really sings with Provençal-styled foods.
- Recently released is a 2010 bottling of Mourvedre called
"Montage." It's a fairly tight wine at this early stage,
nicely capturing some of the elements we like in youthful Bandol red
wines...it's tannic and muscular, with a bit of dark fruit at the beginning
until the finish trails off the palate.
Currently in stock: 2010 SCAGGS Mount Veeder MOURVEDRE "Montage" SALE
- JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS
was ahead of his time in planting Syrah in the Napa Valley back in the
They made some Napa Valley Syrah and later had a blended red called
These became difficult to sell when the market became flooded with Syrah and
Phelps made a wine called Le Mistral from grapes grown at the Ventana
Vineyard in Monterey County. They sold the brand to the Ventana
owners, though Phelps winemaking crew will consult on its production and
Phelps will still distribute the wine.
- Currently in stock: Nothing Presently
DOMAINE DE LA TERRE ROUGE
Bill Easton used to be an East Bay wine merchant before heading for the
hills many years ago. He's quite a fan of Rhone varietals and dabbles
in Viognier, Roussanne, Mourvedre and, of course, Syrah.
We're not big fans of most Amador and Sierra Foothill wines, but we've
usually found Easton's wines to have a point of elegance and refinement
which most other area winemakers there seem to miss.
Especially good is Easton's selection of his best barrels of Syrah.
The 2002 Ascent, as he calls it, is quite good, being deep in fruit and
showing nice spice tones on the nose and palate. I like the woodsy
element in the wine, too. It's got some oak, but the wood (French oak
from a favorite cooperage) adds to the festivities, rather than hogging the
Currently in stock: 2002 Terre Rouge Sierra Foothills
"Ascent" SYRAH Sale $69.99
most people identify the famous "Pisoni" name with Pinot Noir,
this family is also making a small quantity of Syrah. They use the
"Lucia" name for their wines from various Santa Lucia Highlands,
Monterey County vineyards.
Gary Pisoni is not a fellow one would consider "normal."
He's a really enthusiastic wine "geek" and embarked on a quest to
grow Pinot Noir that's as good as (or better than) the benchmark estates in
France's Burgundy region.
His name appears on a dozen or so different winery brands, all of whom pay
him amazingly large sums of money for fruit from his precious
Now that his two sons are finished with their college studies, they've
joined the family enterprise. One has a "B.S." degree in
enology (most people will tell you there's a lot of BS in the wine
business!), while the other is schooled in finance and business.
While many vintners view Syrah as a hot-climate grape variety,
Yet some of the best Syrah wines come from vineyards where it's
significantly cooler, challenging the vine to mature its fruit before the
growing season comes to an end. As a result, the Sonoma Coast and
Monterey appellations, more famous for Pinot Noir, seem to be good locales
for Syrah as well.
The Pisoni's Syrah fruit comes from the Garys' Vineyard, a joint-ownership
with their neighbors, the Franscioni's. Apparently there's a law in
the Santa Lucia Highlands which mandates everyone be named Gary for the wine
to be good.
The 2010 "Lucia" Syrah bears the Garys' Vineyard
designation. The wine displays a berry note from the fruit, but also a
spicy character with plenty of pepper. There's a mildly smoky note and
a touch of bacon fat as well. It's a delicious red and the tannin
level is modest, so the wine may be consumed immediately. Consider
pairing this with duck or grilled lamb.
- Currently in stock: 2010 Lucia "Garys'
Vineyard" Syrah Sold Out
- BEHRENS & HITCHCOCK
- This brand came about as a collaboration between a restaurant guy (B) and a winery guy
(H). We thank one of our customers, some years ago, for putting us in touch with this dynamic
duo. The fellow had tasted a B & H wine in his travels and so we've been a supporter
ever since. They make rather small quantities of the various bottlings. Their
1997 Napa Syrah, for example: only 375 cases were produced. That wine won one
of our Syrah tastings.
The partners split and now it's Les Behrens and his wife Lisa Drinkward, who
manages their vineyards, who own the place. They will still offer some
wines under the B&H label, but are also creating a new brand using the
name of Les Behrens' mom: Erna Schein. She was, we're told, quite a
proficient baker and the label design for the new label features an icon of
her electric mixer. Well, it beats the hell (literally) out of another
We currently have a few bottles of a nice Petite Sirah: it has intensely fruity
notes which are somewhat along the lines of a whole-berry fermentation wine, yet the
tannic backbone of some Rhône-styled reds. It will stain your teeth.
The Homage to Ed is in honor of Ed Oliveira, a high school principal and
winemaker in Arcata who's known to Les Behrens for working with his kids and
giving him some guidance as to winemaking philosophies. The wine is
quite deep and a real mouthful. Fasten your seat belt when opening
- Currently in stock: 2000 Petite Sirah Napa Valley $38.99
2005 ERNA SCHEIN "Alder Springs" Homage to Ed $56.99
2005 ERNA SCHEIN "Spring Mountain" Petite Sirah $47.99
- 2003 BEHRENS & HITCHCOCK CHIEN LUNATIQ SYRAH $59.99
many people associate Shafer with Rhone Ranger varieties, since the winery
produces Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay for the most part.
But they've been making a rather nice, showy red blend called
"Relentless." It's named in honor of winemaker Elias
Fernandez, who's been a part of the Shafer "family" since the
The wine comes from vineyards at the southern part of the Stags Leap
District. It's actually a field blend and they estimate the wine is
75% Syrah and 25% Petite Sirah. The wine goes into brand new
French oak and it's one of the benchmarks for Napa Valley Syrah. The
wine is hardly in the style of most French Rhône Syrahs, having deep
black fruit notes, the typical "international" style of power,
body and oak of modern, high point-scoring Napa reds.
We receive a few bottles each vintage and usually have some bottles out on
the rack for sale.
Currently in stock: 2011 Shafer
"Relentless" SALE $84.99
Scott Sisemore studied microbiology and then got a degree in
viticulture and enology at UC Davis before working in a few wineries.
He was affiliated with our friends at the Olivet Lane/Pellegrini winery in
Sonoma and now he makes tiny lots of good Pinot Noir and Syrah.
In 2013 he made two Syrah wines...we were smitten by his Santa Cruz
Mountains bottling, a vineyard owned by The Lester family and it's located
in Corralitos. This is our second vintage of this terrific wine.
We've encouraged Scott to continue his pursuit of Syrah...he has a nice hand
with the grape and both 2013 bottlings were very good. We've preferred
the Santa Cruz Mountains bottling by a small margin. We tasted some
interesting Syrahs at an event and told him if he had the chance to buy
grapes from a particular grower in the North Coast, he should. He did
and now we're waiting to see the results.
This bottling, like its 2012 predecessor, captures the earthy and spicy notes we love in Northern Rhone
Syrahs. Too bad he made only about three barrels' worth of this!
It's fantastic Syrah and if you're a fan of good Cote-Rotie, Hermitage,
Saint- Joseph and Crozes Hermitage wines, you'll probably find this to be to
This is seriously good...I hope you get to taste a bottle.
- Currently in stock: 2013 WAXWING Santa Cruz Mountains
"Lester" SYRAH $29.99
MEYER FAMILY'S (Silver) Oaked SYRAH
- You may
not know the Meyer name or associate it with Syrah, but the late patriarch
of the family was a real pioneer in Napa Valley winemaking. He
established a little winery in the 1970s which featured Cabernet Sauvignon
exclusively and, today, it's one of the most popular of all west coast
Justin Meyer was a novice in the Christian Brothers many years ago, learning
the wine business from various fellows there, including the famous
winemaker, Brother Timothy. Meyer was supposed to become the manager
of the business, but he had other ideas and left the brotherhood, got
married and started a little Cabernet production called "Silver
Meyer was also involved with another winery called Franciscan, where they
made a range of wines. But his real goal was to make one wine and make
it the best they could. His notion was not to make a wine which
required 20 years of cellaring, but to produce something very drinkable upon
release. Hence, his idea for Silver Oak was to have a wine which had
spent plenty of time in wood and then got a nice bit of bottle aging before
it was sold.
Well, he and partner Ray Duncan built one hell of a mouse-trap with Silver
Oak, but Meyer saw his family would need its own business because there were
too many Meyers and Duncans to co-exist at Silver Oak. When
Justin Meyer passed away, his family had established a little outpost in
Mendocino's Yorkville Highlands.
A fan of Port, he bought all sorts of port-styled wines in bulk. These
he matured further in wood and blended to create "Meyer Family
The Meyer Family winery, located in Mendocino, features "port,"
still today, but they make a nice little red wine of Syrah.
It's not a wine which will recall great Rhone Syrahs, because the style of
the wine is, to our taste, more woodsy and nicely oaked, much like Justin
Meyer's old Silver Oak Cabernets.
vintages were made from Sonoma County grapes which they'd purchased.
Today they grow their own in Mendocino.
The wine was matured for nearly 2 years, with one-third of the barrels being
new American oak. About 12% new French oak was employed and the rest was
kept in neutral barrels.
We like the woodsy character of this wine and it's a delight at our current
Currently in stock: 2011 MEYER FAMILY Sonoma SYRAH (List $28)
Skinner family can stake a claim to having been in the California wine
business back in the 1860s, though this branch of the family is a fairly
recent arrival to winemaking.
James Skinner came to California from Scotland in the 1840s and was part
of the California Gold Rush before buying a property and planting
vineyards in El Dorado County. By the 1880s, Skinner's was one of
the larger wine producers in the Sierras...until tragedy struck and there
was some sort of mishap in the distillery where Skinner lost his life.
Fast forward to 2006 when Mike and Carey Skinner re-established the family
name in them thar hills with two vineyard sites: a 20 acre site in
Fair Play planted to all sorts of Rhone varietals and a 14 acre vineyard
in the El Dorado appellation.
They have a 2010 vintage of El Dorado Mourvedre which we found
to be quite nice. You won't mistake this for some gamey, funky,
astringent, rustic Bandol, that's for sure. They captured a nice dark
fruit element in the wine and lots of berry notes. The tannin level is
modest and the wine is medium-full on the palate.
In other words, this is a terribly civilized bottle of red wine and it's
Currently in stock: 2010 SKINNER El Dorado
MOURVEDRE Sold Out
- Red Car is all about
It's the work of a couple of guys with Hollywood backgrounds.
Screenwriter Mark Estrin teamed with movie mogul Carroll Kemp to produce
small quantities of Syrah and Pinot Noir. Kemp had been suggesting
they team up in a winemaking project, since they both enjoyed a good glass
of vino. Estrin had resisted this proposition until he received a
fortune cookie message saying "The venture you are thinking about will
bring you wealth and fame." That proved to be the impetus for
Estrin to accept Kemp's invitation.
They bought barrels and grapes and started making wines at a custom-crushing
facility in Santa Maria. The wines have garnered a modest amount of
"buzz" amongst wine geeks and critics.
Sadly, Mark Estrin died in the Spring of 2005, so who knows what direction
this enterprise will take.
We had tasted a nice, lavishly-oaked, international-styled Syrah from Red
Car, a wine dubbed "All Night Radio." They have been
sourcing fruit from good vineyards up and down California's coast, so it's
not surprising they're able to make some pretty wines.
The bottling in stock is called "Shake Rattle & Roll" and it's a
liqueur-like rendition of Syrah. It's one of those wines which sends
old-timers into apoplexy. Today's Generation-Somethings-or-Other
seem to embrace this sort of huge, deeply-colored, intensely fruity,
over-the-top Syrah. Five vineyards of Syrah and a drop of Grenache
from another vineyard account for this wine.
Production is limited, of course.
The winery moved to Sonoma County and they're making a nice range of wines.
Currently in stock:
2005 RED CAR "Shake Rattle & Roll" California Syrah $55.99
Rich is making some terrific wines in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
He produces such a remarkable range of wines, we initially thought of him
as a "Rhone-iste," but he vinifies a stellar Sauvignon Blanc, a
few soulful Pinot Noirs, a few Bordeaux varietals and even a sweet
Andrew is one of the founders of the Carlton Winemaker's Studio, a place
where fledgling vintners can test their wings and launch their brands.
So, Andrew's wines nest nicely in this little facility, along with a bunch
of other interesting producers.
We currently have a wine Andrew calls Tabula Rasa. Is this Andrew's
"blank slate" or is it an "erased" slate on which he's
Either way, his 2011 vintage is a lovely bottle of wine.
The fruit comes from Washington State. It's a blend of Syrah,
Mourvedre and a small percentage of Grenache. The wine is
medium-bodied and easily worthy of comparison to good Southern Rhones such
as Cairanne or Vacqueyras.
There's a nice red fruit/dark fruit note here and even a touch of
spice. It seems to be intended for immediate drinking and we can't
imagine this getting much better with additional bottle aging, but you
Anyway, it's a good bottle of wine and Andrew, despite the name,
isn't getting Rich making this sort of wine at this sort of price.
Currently in stock: 2011 ANDREW RICH "Tabula
Rasa" Red Blend $16.99
(Petite Sirah, etc.)