1. Guigal: These wines were an interesting juxtaposition to the Calif Syrahs. I have long found Hermitage wines more Calif in style than NorthernRhone/C-R in style, with much less of that roasted/espresso character that makes C-R so special. The Ch.D'Ampuis did not have the strong roasted/espresso character that I find in their Brune&Blonde and that is somewhat covered by new oak/extraction of the LaLa's, which I regard as great C-R made in a Calif style. They both seemed ratherr tart&lean compared w/ their Calif counterparts, but should age well I think.
2. BakerLane: I had tried one (2005?) BakerLane Syrah early on and liked it OK but not overly impressed. These two Estate Syrahs I was mightly impressed by, especially the 2006, for its cold-climate character. The Estate is a few miles SouthWest of Sebastapol in the RussianRiver AVA, but true SonomaCoast.
3. EdmundsStJohn: This was my first chance to try Steve's new Fairbairn Syrah. This comes from the Fairbairn Ranch in MendoCnty. Originally planted by one of the Fetzer kids, it is BioDynamically farmed and goes into the Patianna wines. Steve wanted to see if BioDynamic grapes had anything special to say. My conclusion from this one data point would be "no". The wine seemed to be a bit on the simple side and have nothing special or distinctive to say. That said, I had a sense, and the confidence in Steve's winemaking ability to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, that this wine, like his R&G, may turn into a pretty interesting wine w/ a few yr's age. Maybe not a profound Syrah, but should provide very good drinking over the next few yrs.
4. Qupe: I've followed Bob's CentralCoast Syrah from the very start, the '82. It has long been a favorite of mine and often my restaurant go-to order. The '07 that's currently on the market developed a bit too much brett for my taste and I've not cared for the way it's evolved. Just a bit too unclean for me. However, this about-to-be-released '08 is packed w/ Syrah fruit, clean as a whistle, and maybe one of his best CC Syrahs in some yrs. It comes from BienNacido, FrenchCamp/Paso, Sawyer-Lindquist/EdnaVlly, and a bit of Hillside/Block-X grapes. It's a bargin at $16 or less and promises to offer up fine drinking for another 5-10 yrs I suspect.
I was hoping to taste his Sawyer-Lindquist Grenache and Syrah from their new EdnaVlly estate across the road from JohnAlban at RR. Alas, the label approval had not come thru and I'll have to wait until HdR to try it. The X-Block comes from the oldest Syrah planting in BienNacido, that was Riesling or Chard that was grafted over to Syrah in the early '80's at Bob's behest. Bob has stated to me that he thinks the X-Block makes his best Syrah but, with vine maturity, the Hillside will eventually overtake it in quality. I'm not so sure, from my limited data, that I'd agree. I've always liked the Hillside the best of Bob's Syrahs and view it has one of Cali's greatest Syrahs and a definite ager.
5. Parr: His sans-soufre Anika is only identified as SantaYnezVlly. I would presume it is also made from PurisimaMtn grapes and is essentially the same wine, but w/o SO2 additions, in the style of TierryAllemand. The differences between the two wines were distinctive, but not dramatic. It will be interesting to see how they evolve differently w/ age.
6. Arnot-Roberts: Every time I taste these guy's wines, I kick myself for not following their wines more closely. Whatta doofus I am. I am quite impressed w/ the strong Rhone character they manage to get into their wines. Better NorthernRhone than many NorthernRhone wines I try these days. The ClaryRanch is out on the western end of the PetalumaGap, near the Pacific, and one of the coldest Syrah plantings in Calif. Definitely pushing the boundary for Syrah. In 2009, the Syrah got only a little above 18Brix, so it got a bit of assistance to make it into a wine. Still, Duncan thinks it tastes like very tart cranberry juice and probably won't release it on its own.
7. Rhonish: It never ceases to amaze me how some of the Calif Syrahs manage to achieve that special roasted/ espresso/NorthernRhone/Cote-Rotie character in their wines. Like the Neyers CuveeHonorre, Arnot-Roberts, Copain, WindGap. Since the Calif terroir is much more different, I assume this Rhone terroir in those wines comes from some unknown combination of oak treatment and cold-climate growing conditions. However they do it...it's magic. In fact, as many NorthernRhones move in style towards their Calif brethern in order to garner big scores from the wine critics; I'm finding some Calif Rhones are more NorthernRhone in character than those guys across the ocean.
8. Drew: I have, of course, followed Jason&Molly Drew from the very start, when I encountered the first wines down in SantaBarbara. I've always liked his Syrah because they struck me as a Syrah made by a Pinot producer, which he is. Not about power and extract, maybe even made w/ "balance". I was quite excited when he pulled up roots down in SantaBarbara and moved back home to MendoCnty. He's a certifiably "great" Calif winemaker and I have been very interested how is style translates from SantaBarbara to Mendo. His Syrahs seem a bit even more refined/elegant than what he did down South. Well below the radar is the Albarino he makes from AndersonVlly grapes; one of the best in Calif. What I'd really love to see is what he can do w/ Mendo Zin. Maybe even an Eaglepoint Zin, as well as an Eaglepoint Syrah. And maybe even PetiteSirah. And....maybe...even an Eaglepoint...Sangiovese. The possibilities boggle the mind!!
Susan&I had the privledge of sitting by SteveAlden, owner of PerliVnyd on the MendocinoRidge. We had hoped to make a visit w/ Steve that morning, but the weather and this seminar precluded those plans. Next visit, I'm going to make sure I visit MendoRidge to get a better feel for the area.
One of the recurring themes the panelists brought up was for Syrah to be made w/ elegance & balance (read less alcohol), it was necessary to grow the grapes in a cooler area, so they could achieve phenolic ripeness, yet w/o very high sugar levels. Is this really the case?? I'm not so sure that it is. I thought the Parr Anika showed such character, but I'd hardly call PurisimaMtn cold-climate. And certainly the counter-case can be made. Wines w/ high alcohol and high level of extraction are made by JohnAlban, hardly what I'd call balance. Yet his EdnaVlly Syrah is verifiably cold-climate. It will be interesting to see what kind of Syrah comes off the Sawyer-Lindquist vnyd, grown right across the road from JohnAlban. The original Qupe PasoRobles/EstrellaRiver Syrah '82 was more about balance and not about extraction (as were all four of those first great Syrahs in '82). It was labeled as 12.5%, though I don't know just how accurate that figure was. And EstrellaRiver is certainly a warmer growing area.
One of the problems of a seminar on this subject is defining what "balance" is in Syrah. Certainly, it implies a lower alcohol level, something well below 15%. But I've had Syrahs that were above 15% and showed what I would call balance. Some of these winemakers have been taken to the woodshed by Parker over the quality of their wines. It is alleged that he only appreciates Syrahs w/ power/extraction/oak/alcohol and gobs of hedonistic fruit. But his sycophants repeatedly assure us that he also equally values wines that show elegance/balance/finesse and restraint, and will offer up the occasional TN as evidence of such. That there is no "Parker Palate", I remain unconvinced on that score. But it is a problem for these wines to define what balance reeeally is.There are a lot of Syrahs out there that I like...like quite a lot...that don't fit neatly in either camp. Like terroir or varietal character, balance is not a be-all to end-all that must be
mounted on a pedestal and worshiped from afar.
After the tasting and some comments, the floor was opened to additional questions. I asked, in my finest pot-stirring mode, who the panelists thought were some of the poster-child winemakers who would not fit into this Seminar. They all, wisely, quietly demurred on naming any such people. I then asked who they thought should be here, but were not. EhrenJordan was the one they mostly agreed upon. Also mentioned were Nick&Andy Peay and John&KimCabot. I would include, probably, EricSussman, TomDehlinger, JasonHaas, Morgan Twain-Peterson, Tracey&Jared Brandt, and KurtBeitler.
RajParr's Anika Syrah was made sans-soufre. I asked him how come his san-soufre was so good and what did he do differently from the "great" sans-soufre wines made by TonyCoturri (again in my finest pot-stirring mode). Raj, not knowing me, was a bit taken aback by this question. Fortuntely, one of the panelists (who does know me well and my pot-stirring proclivities) chimed in with "Raj takes a shower every day", to much amusement all around.
When Bob invited me to this seminar and outlined the parameters, I was expecting the discussion to contain a lot of Parker-bashing and discussions on point-whores. But, surprise/surprise...the elephant sitting in the room was not mentioned once by name the entire discussion. I daresay that certain Monktown attourneys might have found much to like in this tableau of upper-80's to low-90's point wines. But probably not a 95+ pt wine would be found here, though. Fine with me.
That night, they repeated the tasting at the RN74 restaurant in TheCite, but w/o the Seminar and the trouble-makers in the audience to stir things up.