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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 told us he doesn't recall it that way.
Sometimes Randall Grahm had 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 $15-$30 range.
Many of the California Rhône Rangers' (as they're called)
wines are in the $25-$100 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.
Randall Grahm sold his Bonny Doon brand to some company that features
labels geared towards marketing. The company that now owns this historic
brand, for example, offers a seltzer called "Bubble Butt."
Perhaps that tells us all we need to know???
|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-$125 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 eleven to sixteen bucks. And
$20-$40 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.
(That winery went out of business, by the way.)
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 an edition (now some years ago) 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:
- 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 one Ojai Syrah in the shop presently (along with Sauvignon
Blanc and Pinot Noir).
We liked the 2018 Santa Barbara bottling from the Sebastiano
Vineyard. This comes from a Sta. Rita Hills vineyard that's quite breezy
and rather cool. In 2018 the grapes were picked in early November, meaning
there was a lot of "hang time" allowing the fruit to develop
additional character. There are aromas and flavors we look for in Northern
Rhône Syrahs from France, as those are benchmarks for this variety.
We often ask California vintners who show us wines labeled as Syrah what grape
variety they use to make their wine. They are likely thinking they're
dealing with a moron (and maybe they are!), as the wine is clearly labeled
But if you sniff and taste many of these, the wines are merely red table wine
and there's not much classic Syrah character.
In this 2018 from Ojai, it displays plenty of easily identifiable Syrah notes
with dark fruit, a touch of a bacony, hickory smoke tone and some blackberryish
fruit. They use only a token percentage of new oak barrels, so the wood is
a dash of salt & pepper and not an easily detectable feature of the wine.
We expect this will continue to blossom over the next five years and maybe even
- Currently available:
2018 OJAI "John Sebastiano" Sta. Rita Hills SYRAH $37.99
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.
- We are saddened, though, by the passing of Susan in mid-2020 from a
prolonged illness...Jonathan, though, says he will continue her legacy and
grow grapes and make a little bit of wine.
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 2018 vintage Grenache comes from 25 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 2019 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.
2016 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: 2018 CEDARVILLE El Dorado
2019 CEDARVILLE El Dorado VIOGNIER $21.99
2016 CEDARVILLE El Dorado SYRAH $25.99
- 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 2016 has arrived recently
and it's a medium-bodied, mildly peachy rendition.
Syrahs are, of course, a main attraction at Alban. There are
Patrina is a big, dark, teeth-staining red. We are waiting for a new
Then there's one called Reva. It's even bigger and blacker in
color. Nothing in stock presently..
- We tasted one called Lorraine and another called Seymour's. It is
obligatory that one fasten one's seatbelt when tasting these.
They are absolutely inky, dark, full-throttle red showpieces.
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: 2018 Central Coast Viognier $25.99
Patrina 2016 Syrah Sale $49.99
REVA SYRAH : Sold Out
customers (or lurkers here on the web) at Weimax have often seen bottles of
Bryan Harrington's wines in the shop. His winery is located in an
out-of-the-way spot in an industrial warehouse zone of San Francisco, hardly the
bucolic Napa or Sonoma winery experience.
Harrington makes all sorts of tiny batches of interesting wines. He began
as a Pinot Noir winemaker and these days has broadened his horizons to all sorts
of Italian varieties.
In 2017 he was able to acquire some grapes from the McEvoy Ranch. You
might recognize that name from the world of olive oils.
They also grow some interesting grapes and have made a bit of wine under their
Harrington's Marin County Syrah is a baby and you might describe it as a wunderkind.
It's really showy and delicious already and it's going to continue to blossom
over the next several years.
We like the dark plum fruit and there's a touch of spice to this with other dark
We put a bottle in our little wine tasting room and the reaction to this has
been most favorable...remarkable as Syrah is not usually appreciated by many
California wine aficionados.
Currently in stock: 2017 HARRINGTON McEvoy Ranch
Marin County SYRAH $32.99
- Here's a cool wine company that seems to fly below the radar, despite
making some exceptional wines.
It's the work of a husband & wife team, Peter Hunken and Amy
Christine. Peter had been working for the Stolpman winery for a
number of years and then was a founding partner in the Piedrasassi
winery. She has experience as a sommelier and has worked for a Los
Angeles wine importer. She and Peter met in 2004 and they launched
their Holus Bolus enterprise with the 2005 vintage.
She, by the way, represents Kermit Lynch Wine Imports in Southern
California. In 2013 she took "Master of Wine" honors and
is one of 13 American women to hold such a title.
Peter and Amy
It seems clear to us that they enjoy Northern Rhône wines as
their own Syrah bottlings have beautifully emulated these French
Currently they have several labels of their "Black Sheep Finds"
portfolio. There's "The Joy Fantastic" wines from what is
essentially an "estate" vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. They lease
this site and perhaps one day they'll own this vineyard. Holus Bolus is
their label for Rhône varieties, focusing on Syrah. And then there are
the Black Sheep Finds bottlings with names such as Genuine Risk, Amy & Peter
Made This, Cafe Society and Hocus Pocus.
We currently have a remarkable Syrah from the Presqui'le
Vineyard, a cool site some ten or eleven miles northeast of Vandenberg Air Force
Base. It's a sandy site and the winds blow off the Pacific Ocean there,
forcing the grapes to struggle to achieve maturity. They tend to have long
"hang time" as a result. So Amy and Peter are starting with an
advantage right there. But it still takes attention to detail to handle
those grapes and make a wine of depth and complexity.
We currently have their 2019 Syrah from this Santa Maria Valley site. They
seem to rely on some whole clusters in the fermentation tank in making this
wine. It's then matured in older, seasoned cooperage so the wood influence is
minimal in terms of imparting oak fragrances and flavors. This is what
Syrah is (or should be) all about.
So many California Syrahs are merely "red wines." And this
causes me to ask vintners "What grapes do you make your Syrah from?"
Of course, they think I'm a total rube (and maybe I am), missing the subtle jab
over the character of their wine.
The 2019 is showing well, but it's just starting to strut its stuff. If
you're putting this on the dinner table in the near future, please give it an
hour or two in a decanter to allow the wine to breathe a bit and
This Holus Bolus wine is pure Syrah. All at once.
Their wines, by the way, are made in an industrial park full of
small winemaking enterprises called the Lompoc Wine Ghetto about an hour drive
north of Santa Barbara.
Currently in stock: 2019 HOLUS BOLUS Santa Maria
Valley "Presqui'le Vineyard" SYRAH $39.99
- This brand started out as a little wine shop in San Francisco, operated
by Gavin Newsom (later mayor of San Francisco and presently governor of
the state of California) and his buddy, Gordon Getty.
They chose to name their enterprise after a Shakespearian character, Sir
John Falstaff, who was nicknamed Plumpjack. They were able to
purchase what had been, in the 1970s, the Villa Mt. Eden winery in
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the main wines and yet their Syrah
The Syrah comes from the Carneros region, a slightly cooler area where the
grapes will take a bit longer to mature than farther north in Napa.
They do a couple of batches of this wine...approximately two-thirds of the
fruit is de-stemmed and then the juice is cold-soaked and fermented with
about 8 to 10 days of maceration. The other third is whole-cluster
fermented at a slightly lower temperature in hopes of retaining more
fruit. Then the wine is racked into French oak barrels with about
three-quarters of the cooperage being brand new.
The resulting wine is remarkably showy and complex. There is intense
black fruit on the nose and palate. We detect notes of black plums
and blueberries and the wood gives a brown spice element to the wine.
The 2018 Syrah is beautifully drinkable now and should hold well for
several years. We have one customer who favors this with Indian
cuisine as the wine dovetails beautifully with the brown spice notes in
the cuisine. But this can also be paired with grilled or roasted
Currently in stock: 2018 PLUMPJACK Napa Valley
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.
- The 2016 "La Bruma" is comprised of 5 clones of Syrah. Something
like 10% of the fruit was "whole cluster," while the rest was
conventionally processed. Twenty percent new oak gives a faintly sweet
quality to the wine, which really captures elements of cool-climate Syrah as
there is a fair bit of dark fruit and some of the olivey, tapenade-like
character we look for in Syrah.
It's a really "serious" wine with a lot of character.
Currently in stock: 2016 PEAY Sonoma Coast "La
Bruma" SYRAH $54.99
couple of wine industry friends launched their winemaking enterprise back
in 2004 and focused on making wines from grapes more commonly found on the
We're really delighted by another rendition of this "Whole Hog" red blend.
2019. It's quite a mix of grapes and regions.
It's 60% Syrah with grapes coming from the Petaluma Wind Gap and another
cool site in Sonoma County's Green Valley.. Then there's 16%
Mourvedre in Dry Creek in Sonoma. There's 14% of Grenache and 7% Carignane coming from
Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. Two percent Cinsault comes from a Lodi
vineyard that's claimed to be well more than a hundred years old.
And the remaining one percent is Viognier.
Some of the fruit was left as whole clusters to obtain more berry-like
notes in the wine. And then they mature this in cooperage that's a
bit larger than standard French or American oak barrels. These are
called "hogsheads" and so now you know why the wine is
dubbed "Whole Hog" and the brand is called Cochon.
The wine is a delight and every time we taste it we encounter a new
wrinkle or element. There's dark berry fruit and some underbrush.
Add to that some spice notes. It's dry and there's a modest level of
tannin, so the wine smooths out nicely in the company of lamb or
well-seasoned beef. Or how about a grilled pork chop to complete the
They don't make much of this and given its popularity with Weimax
customers, one might rightly accuse us of "hogging" the
Less than 200 cases made.
Currently in stock: 2019 COCHON "Whole Hog" RED
- You're probably wondering what the hell is a "shypoke"?
How did this winery get its name?
Well, in fact, "shypoke" is another name for a heron.
These birds were known as "shitepokes" and and, yes, the
"shit" is attributed to the behavior of herons...a result of
their propensity to defecate, so get your umbrella ready when you see some
The couple tending the Shypoke vines have a long heritage of
grape-growing. This is the work of Peter and Meg Heitz. His
great grandparents came to California from their homeland in France's
Alsace and they settled in Napa in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
This brand of the Heitz family is not related to the famous family which
started the prestigious Heitz Cellar winery in the 1960s. But Peter
Heitz told us they had sold grapes to the legendary Joe Heitz.
His great grandparents had established vineyards in the Calistoga area and
his parents owned vineyards at the other end of the Napa Valley, in
Peter studied biology at UC Santa Cruz and returned "home" to
Napa where he worked for Beringer. He told us he has a "day
job" working for the Turnbull winery as its winemaker.
"This allows us to make a small amount of wine under our Shypoke
banner and we can produce wines we like to drink."
We tasted a unique blend which we all enjoyed. It's called
"Keep" as they got in the habit of putting that word on barrels
of their estate-grown Grenache. Peter explains they buy a small
amount of Grenache from a grower in Mendocino which Peter claims is
"the best," while his own Grenache is "maybe the second
best in the world." So he writes the word "Keep" on
those barrels and he keeps them for blending into his proprietary red
Shypoke, located in Calistoga, also grows a bit of the rare Charbono
grape. We have long been fans of that variety, having grown up
drinking the Charbono of the Inglenook winery back in the 1970s. For
years we had Charbono featured in the shop from another Calistoga-area
winery, Summers. Jim Summers passed away in 2018 and his wife Beth
closed the winery sadly.
Peter Heitz blends some of his Charbono with his estate Grenache, giving
some blackberry-like fruit notes to the raspberryish Grenache. Then
he adds a bit of Petite Sirah and a dollop of Malbec. The 2017
vintage is a seven barrel blend. The cooperage is well-seasoned, so
the wine doesn't show oak influence, allowing him to highlight the dark
fruit notes of the Charbono, Petite Sirah and Malbec while incorporating
the red fruit tones and touch of spice from the Grenache.
Seven barrels, so there's not a lot of this wine to be had. It's $40
a bottle at the cellar door. We are delighted to feature it for
$34.99. We view this as a wine that's ready to drink...not sure this
will blossom into something greater with cellaring, so plan on enjoying it
over the next few years.
Currently in stock: SHYPOKE 2017 Napa Valley
"KEEP" Red Blend $34.99
- 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."
- He made, for many years, a lovely blend called Rocks and
Gravel and it was somewhat akin to a good Southern Rhône wine.
We currently have a red blend called El Jaleo. 2017 Vintage.
It's a Spanish/Rhône themed red...Mourvèdre, Grenache, Tempranillo and
Graciano. It's a berryish red with an underlying spice
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 was"bottled by the skin of our teeth."
The newest red we have from Steve is Bottled by Thumbnail Moonlight!
- Currently available: 2017 EDMUNDS ST JOHN "EL JALEO"
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 one of three vineyards.
There's the Garys' Vineyard, a site owned jointly by Gary Pisoni and Gary
Franscioni (ROAR winery). This is right in the middle of the Santa
Lucia Highlands appellation.
There's a sort of second "Garys' Vineyard" site near the first
This is called Soberanes.
The 2018 Gary's Vineyard Syrah is a beautifully robust red and there are elements which may
remind you of some Northern Rhône wines. Winemaker Jeff Pisoni
leaves a significant percentage of "whole clusters" in
fermenting this wine. Indigenous yeasts, too. The wine goes
into French oak for about 15 months. Fifty percent of the barrels
are brand new.
We like the spice notes and dark berry fruit. There's a touch of an olive
note, too. Drinkable now and it ought to cellar well through 2028.
Perfect for lamb or duck especially.
- Currently in stock: 2018 LUCIA "Garys'
Vineyard" SYRAH $59.99
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 also 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.
Recent vintages have seen the wine wood-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: 2015 MEYER FAMILY "Yorkville
Highlands" (Mendocino) SYRAH (List $28)
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
In 2018. we found the XXVI bottling to be a fairly
standard wine but not as charming as the XXIV we had previously.
- It's a mix of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Zinfandel and Syrah,
"to name but a few." More recently, in mid-2019, we
tasted the wine and it seem to have seen better days, frankly.
We later found out there was a snafu in Thackrey bottling his second round
of the XXVI batch of Pleiades. It seems he undertook bottling without
the help of a trained enologist and, oops!, neglected to add a small measure
of sulfites to stabilize and preserve the wine.
As a result, that bottling deteriorated rather speedily and this was not a
We had a taste of the XXVII batch and there's a world of difference in the
quality of the wine at its core. The fruit elements are finer and
there's nice red fruit to the fragrances and flavor. It's a
medium-bodied, gentle red. We find it to be good and worth putting on
the dinner table.
The XXVIII is showing well (in 2021) and we understand Thackrey sold off his
Pleiades brand to a fellow named Richard Shell who's been affiliated with
the wine industry through a real estate investment trust and who has a wine
industry news site. Now he'll be dealing with a whole new set of
challenges. For now, though, the XXVIII bottling of Pleiades is
charming and nicely done.
Will this new vintner upgrade Pleiades in the coming years or will he focus
on marketing more than winemaking?
Time will tell.
Watch this space!
- Currently in stock:
PLEIADES XXVIII $23.99
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.
It seems, though, they retired this label and now feature a blend dubbed
- The 2013 Montage is in stock presently. This vintage is 47%
Grenache, 32% Mourvèdre, 12% Syrah and 9% Counoise. It shows some red
fruit along the lines of pomegranate and a touch of herbs and spice...sage,
Currently in stock: 2013 SCAGGS Mount Veeder "Montage"
Red Blend SALE
Story is the name of winemaker Russell From's grand-daddy, so that's that
Russell's story is he was at Cal Poly as a student and got himself an
internship at the Lockwood winery in Monterey County. (Lockwood had
more than 1800 acres in Monterey and the brand has since been swallowed up
by Boisset Family Estates.) He also worked at the Tantara winery in
Santa Maria, California. From also was exposed to wine and food
while working at a little Italian restaurant in Pismo Beach. Rosa's
Ristorante Italiano carries From's wine, so they're fans, too.
He's a fan of pedal-to-the-metal wines, so you shouldn't be searching for
subtlety in the wines of Herman Story. They are not for the
We have a 2016 Syrah called "Nuts and Bolts." The fruit
comes from several vineyard sites in the Paso Robles area and south into
Santa Barbara County. It carries, though, the appellation of
It's a mere 15.8% alcohol on the label, so it could be even higher.
You'll want to fasten your seatbelt when drinking this at the dinner
When we tasted this, we pegged it right around 15.5% alcohol and
expected that the various critics would be giving the wine some serious point
scores, so if you want to put some numbers on the table, grab a bottle of this.
The wine shows lots of black fruit notes and somehow seems to avoid being
jammy. We found it to show a touch of oak as it was matured in French oak
cooperage, 80% of the barrels being brand new. The critics predict this
will cellar handsomely into the next decade. We'd be inclined to open this
over the next two or three years.
Currently in stock 2016 HERMAN STORY California
SYRAH "Nuts + Bolts" $47.99
The founder of Elyse...Ray Coursen.
- This winery has been around since the 1987 vintage, founded by winemaker
Ray Coursen and his wife Nancy. It's named after their daughter Elyse,
whom Ray told us, "isn't much of a wine drinker." We were
introduced to the Elyse wines in the late 1980s and they've been off and on
our radar. After a number of years "off," we saw their wine
coming through a good distribution source and bought a bottle to
And, damn! It was quite good...better than we remembered.
Now Coursen mostly made Zinfandel and Cabernet, but we've tasted some other
wines and the reds have been good.
In 2018, around harvest time, the Coursens sold the Elyse winery to a fellow
from Yountville named Josh Peeples, who hails from South Carolina. These
days, then, the winemaker is Russell Bevan, who had teamed up with Peeples
when they worked at the Chateau Boswell winery. Bevan has his own
brand and together they have a few other labels.
We don't consider Elyse to be precisely a "Rhone Ranger" sort of
producer, but they do make a charming red blend that this vintage has
three Rhône varieties and a bit of Charbono and Zinfandel.
We have the 2019 vintage of this blend called "C'est si Bon," a
smooth, easy-drinking red from vineyards in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and
The blend for this has changed over the years, as has the source for the
grapes. Some renditions have been made solely of Rhône varieties,
while others have had a Bordeaux grape in the mix.
The 2019 is 52% Grenache with 20% Mourvèdre, 10% Zinfandel, 10% Carignane
and 8% Charbono. The wine is matured in French oak and 30% of the
barrels are new, so there's a mildly woodsy note with the dark berry
fruits. It's not a big fruit bomb and, in fact, it's less than 14%
alcohol, somewhat of a rarity these days in California.
So we're inclined to say this is aptly named as, yes, it IS good!
Currently in stock: 2019 ELYSE California Red Blend "C'EST SI
BON" SALE $24.99
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.
He's dabbling with Syrah...nice red wine and it's neither the bombastic
"fruit bomb" made by many California winemakers and it's not the
Rhône styled wine, either...
It's been a while since we've picked up a Ramey Syrah but we can always
get some bottles for you if you like.
Currently in stock: 2007 RAMEY Sonoma Coast SYRAH Sold
CLICK ON THE BOX BELOW FOR FURTHER SLEEP-INDUCING READING
By Sleep Specialist, DAVID RAMEY
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).
Grahm was such a pioneer in the 1980s, he was dubbed "the Rhone
Ranger" and the Wine Spectator featured him on the cover of its magazine
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 his selections for the blend...
We are not convinced this wine has taken the proper flight pattern and over the
years it's changed and become a bit more superficial and less soulful. We
were surprised and saddened to see one vintage labeled with the admission of
less-than-stellar winemaking: it was revealed that the wine had been
'flavored' with oak chips!
In his early pioneering days, it's doubtful Mr. Grahm would have even considered
the use of "fake oak" in making his wines!
In 2020 Randall sold the Bonny Doon Vineyard brand and winery to some outfit
called "WarRoom" and that enterprise offers some brands seemingly more
the work of a marketing department than of winemakers.
They have a wine called The Big Red Monster and a seltzer called "Bubble
They have scaled back the range of wines being offered by Bonny Doon.
Here's a snippet from the back label of a Bonny Doon Cigare Volant bottle:
Do you think a serious wine producer would be adding or flavoring a premium
quality wine with oak chips?
Mr. Graham would have never entertained the idea of using fake oak for his wine.
As we update this posting in the Summer of 2021, we should include the news of
Randall signing on with the humongous wine giant, Gallo.
They plan to dabble in more esoteric wines from Central Coast vineyard sites.
A few decades 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, California. 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.
Randall also had a Riesling project in Washington State where Riesling can be
grown with ease. He made some good wines and when that gained some
traction in the market, he sold that brand, too. Pacific Rim.
- Currently available: Nada. Niente. Nuthin'.
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
We inquired about a new vintage of this wine and the winery rep was more
intent on selling their entry-level wines which we did not find to be
terribly exciting. "We only have a few 6-packs of the Revelation,"
she told us, indicating she was not at all interested in our tasting the
wine or in carrying it in the shop.
One day, when her wines are not selling, perhaps she will have an epiphany
of sorts and realize her wines are not selling.
Currently in stock: 2012 EPIPHANY CELLARS Santa Barbara
"REVELATION" Sold Out
Murphy hails from Arkansas and his family had a farm in nearby Louisiana
where he'd hang out during the harvest...that's where he became interested
While at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he spent a summer working
at Napa's Signorello winery and this proved to be a life-changing
After finishing his studies in biology in Colorado, he again came west and
landed at an ambitious Santa Maria Valley property called Ambullneo.
The assistant winemaker there was Dieter Cronje and the two became good
friends. Ambullneo was a short-lived venture and the fellow who
owned the place was hell-bent on making impressive,
After a short stint with Ambullneo, Murphy decided to throw caution to the
wind and launch his own brand. The name Presqu'ile is Creole and
translates, they tell us to "almost an island."
With the help of his parents and siblings, Matt found a 200 property
that's 16 miles from the Pacific Ocean and it has a diverse landscape,
allowing for vines at different elevation levels and varied soil
Murphy and Cronje planted numerous clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,
along with some Sauvignon Blanc and a tiny bit of Nebbiolo and
We tasted through the roster of Presqu'ile wines are were delighted with
the 2014 Syrah. It's an impressive wine that really captures the Rhône-like
soul of the grape. The fruit comes from their estate vineyard and
they left about 30% whole clusters in the fermentation tanks.
The wine then went into French oak barrels for about a year and a
half. Twenty-five percent of the wood was brand new.
It's a limited release, by the way.
You might taste this blind and guess it to come from the Northern Rhône.
It's got the spice and berries of a really good Crozes-Hermitage or Saint
Joseph. With a bit more time in the bottle, perhaps we'll liken it
to a good Côte Rôtie.
Currently in stock: 2014 PRESQU'ILE Santa Maria
Valley SYRAH Sold Out
- JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS
Valley's Joseph Phelps Vineyard was ahead of its time in planting Syrah in the Napa Valley back in the
Mr. Phelps lived in Colorado and ran a very large construction
company. He even opened an office for the firm here in Burlingame.
He had been hired to build a winery in Napa and he fell in love with the
place. There was a modest property near Heitz' winery on Taplin Road,
east of the Silverado Trail and Phelps engaged the owner about selling the
place. It was most used as pasture land for cattle. The owner
didn't want the property to be turned into some commercial circus and Phelps
assured him he'd preserve the site for vineyards and winemaking.
We recall, visiting the brand new winery in the mid-1970s, that the winery
was built around an old tree, or two, out of respect for the property and
its previous owner.
- Phelps tasted some Northern Rhône wines and was a fan of Hermitage.
He also knew that some Bordeaux estates, under dark of night, had
"fortified" their Cabernet and Merlot blends with some
"Hermitage" wines. (Chateau Palmer in Margaux offers an
"historic" bottling of such a blend, by the way.)
So Phelps took it upon himself to plant some Syrah in Napa and see what he
- But Syrah as a tough wine to sell, even back then, despite its
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.
Today, many years after the sale of the Pastiche brand, Ventana makes a
blend of Grenache and Syrah but incorporates Pinot Noir into this.
We fondly remember the late Joe Phelps and he was a real pioneer in Napa
- Currently in stock: Nothing Presently
- 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:
- 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 2017
vintage is 86% Syrah and 14% 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. They pick
the fruit at a high sugar level and it's usually north of 15% alcohol.
This one is around 15.8%!!!
Brand new French oak is used to try to tame the wine and the wood is
easily evident on the nose.
There are not many wines which are bigger than this.
We receive a few bottles each vintage and usually have some bottles out on
the rack for sale.
Currently in stock: 2017 Shafer
2013 SHAFER "Relentless" $89.99 (a few bottles remain)
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, Riesling and Syrah.
The wines are made locally...in Belmont, just a few miles from our shop.
He really seems to have a nice touch with Syrah, managing to capture some of
the smoky, bacony notes we appreciate in good Rhône Valley Syrahs.
He's been buying grapes from the Lester Family Vineyard in the Santa Cruz
region. It's been a terrific wine over the past several
vintages. Very elegant and gentle like Pinot Noir, but with berries
and spice of Syrah.
The vineyards are farmed sustainably...no pesticides. It can be
fairly foggy during the summer and this slows down the maturation of the
fruit and is one reason those grapes can make such a delightful
- Scott actually stomps on the grapes by foot! When you make just 150
cases of a wine, it's possible to devote a great deal of attention to the
project. Then he did a pre-fermentation cold soak for about a
week. The fermentation was not especially hot, which helps retain a
bit of fruit. Ten months of aging in small French oak...the
barrels were used once before seeing this wine.
We currently have the 2018...medium-bodied with dark berry fruit and that
underlying spice note...a vague hint of the hickory and green olive
notes. It can match handsomely with red meats, roasted chicken or even
grilled salmon. Best served at cool, cellar temp.
- Currently in stock: 2018 WAXWING Santa Cruz Mountains
"Lester" SYRAH $29.99
- The Sobon crew is certainly well-regarded for making some top Zinfandel
wines, but Syrah is well below the radar at this Amador County estate.
Shirley and Leon Sobon pulled up stakes in Los Altos back in the
mid-to-late 1970s and started the Shenandoah Vineyards winery. He
had been a research scientist at Lockheed, so it's not surprising that a
rocket scientist can make a decent bottle of wine. They did a good
job early on and were able to buy a neighboring property when the
D'Agostini brothers decided to hang up their corkscrews.
That cellar, by the way, is a California Historical Landmark, #762 if
you're keeping track. We had spent a couple of years on the
"waiting list" for D'Agostini wines...they made a wonderful
Zinfandel and it was slightly less expensive than those from Napa and
Sonoma. I recall the Zin going for $2.99 a bottle, so it was maybe a
buck or two cheaper than those expensive bottles from other
places. Eventually we moved up the list and Tulio D'Agostini
would bring cases of Zinfandel in fifth-sized bottles and I think we also
had half gallons of "Burgundy."
The Sobons farm some of the original vineyards of the D'Agostini property
and they augmented plantings over the years.
The Sobon's son-in-law Tom Quinn, who is the sales manager for the
company, told us "We thought we'd plant some Syrah and make a $35
bottle of wine. Well, we planted Syrah and we do make a $35
bottle, but with Syrah sales being stagnant, we sell it for a whole lot
And, indeed! We've tasted a number of vintages of this and it's
routinely been good and it does capture some earthy notes and a bit of the
bacony, hickory character we like in Syrah. And yet the wine is
available in our shop for a most attractive price.
Few California Rhone-istes can compete with the French, but the Sobon
family gives the French a run for the money, be it Euros or Francs.
We currently have the 2019 vintage.
Currently in stock: 2019 SOBON ESTATE Amador County
SYRAH $12.99 (Special Price presently)
- 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
(Petite Sirah, etc.)