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by Tom Hill

A self-admitted wine geek, Tom lives in Northern New Mexico and works as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory doing numerical neutron transport & large scale code development. He has been tasting wines since 1971, participates locally with a couple of large tasting groups in his area, and is practically a fixture at most California wine festivals, such as the Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Rangers, and ZAP. Other interests: Tom is heavily into competitive sport fencing (foil & epee), biking, cooking, basketball, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing.

Syrah Seminar Notes - March 25, 2010

Notes from a 3/25 syrah tasting:

After a leasurely coffee w/ Casey Hartlip and a retaste thru the Eaglepoint Syrah Cage Match wines, we head on down from Eaglepoint in irregular drizzle w/ occasional patches of sunshine to Sebastapol.

Several months ago, BobLindquist was talking w/ RickMorrison (his marketing guy) about the need to get the word out about the other kind/non-Parker non-98-pt Syrahs like he makes. From this seminal idea grew the idea of today's Syrah seminar on "A Question of Balance". DanFredman helped greatly in the spadework for this event.

The seminar was to focus w/ Syrahs made w/ elegance/balance/restraint. The winemakers/wines shown at the event were chosen to be representative of such wines. It was a very casual gathering, sort of a sitting down amongst friends and talking thru the subject. The idea was to make this sort of a test-drive of a seminar that they'd like to take on the road. It would make an ideal seminar for RhoneRangers or HospicesDuRhone.

Much of the invitees were supposed to be from the media. Alas, a lot of them bailed at the last minute and the attendance was a bit on the sparse side. Susan & I were only a handful of non-media there. Also there was PatrickComisky (LATimes), JordanMcKay (SF-based writer), LindaMurphy (SFChron), DanBerger (StaRosaPress-Democrat) and a few others I recognized but couldn't come up w/ names.

The event was held at SteveSinger's PizzaVino restaurant in Sebastapol. After the seminar, we were treated to two different wood-fired pizzas and cesear salad, all very wonderfully done. It's definitely a restaurant I'd like to revisit next time. The panel consisted of PatrickWill/Guigal, StevenSinger/BakerLane, KevinClancey/EdmundsStJohn,BobLindquist/Qupe, WellsGuthrie/Copain, RajParr (ParrSelections), DuncanMeyer&NathanRoberts/Arnot-Roberts, and JasonDrew/ Drew Family. SteveEdmunds was on his way back from NewYork and Wells had just returned from
a marketing trip and was sicker'n a dog.

Bob gave a sort of introduction/explanation of the event & turned it over to moderator PatrickWill,
who expanded on Bob's ideas and made the introductions. Mostly, the winemakers focused on the details and origins of their wines, with alcohol levels and point-scores not being mentioned at all.

The wines and my notes:

  1. Guigal HermitageRouge 2005: Dark color; earthy/smokey some blackberry/Syrah light roasted rather Calif Syrah nose; tart bit lean/hard some blackberry/Syrah bit earthy/dusty little roasted/NorthernRhone light oak flavor; med.long some blackberry/Syrah very slight roasted finish w/ fair tannins; needs 5-10 yrs of age; not a lot of NorthernRhone/roasted character and rather Calif in style.
  2. Guigal Cote-Rotie Ch. D'Ampuis 2005: Med.color; rather floral/violets light roasted/espresso/Rhonish bit toasty/oak some complex/smokey nose; tart rather hard/lean light smokey/pungent/oak some Calif/blackberry/ Syrah slight roasted/espresso/Rhonish light floral/violets flavor; med.long rather hard/tannic/lean light smokey/roasted/Rhonish/espresso light toasty/oak light floral finish; needs more age; more Rhonish in character but rather Calif-like and not strongly C-R/roasted.
  3. BakerLane Estate Syrah 2007: Dark color; bright/forward/blackberry/Syrah rather smokey/pungent/ pencilly/ oak slight cracked pepper very attractive/forward nose; softer/lusher bright blackberry/Syrah light pungent/pencilly/oak bit tannic/hard flavor; long bright/lush/blackberry/Syrah light pungent/oak slight cracked pepper finish w/ some hard tannins; needs several yrs yet; a solid 4-square blackberry Syrah.
  4. BakerLane Estate Syrah 2006: Dark color; strong blackberry/Syrah quite peppery/spicy/cracked black pepper/ cold climate complex nose; tarter strong blackberry/blueberry/Syrah strong cracked black pepper/cold-climate somewhat hard/tannic flavor; very long strong blackberry/Syrah some cracked black pepper finish w/ some tannins; needs several yrs yet; more cold-climate/cracked pepper character than the '07; quite a good/ interesting cold-climate Syrah.
  5. EdmundsStJohn Syrah CuveeFairbairn/MendocinoCnty 2008: Med.dark color; strong blackberry/ Syrah/spicy light earthy/dusty bit perfumed somewhat simple nose; tart bit lean/hard spicy/blackberry/Syrah bit simple flavor; med.long blackberry/Syrah light spicy/earthy finish w/ some tannins; a pleasant enough Syrah but a bit on the simple side and not that distinctive; may age into something interesting given Steve's wine's track record.
  6. EdmundsStJohn Syrah BassettiVnyd/SLOCnty 2005: Very dark color; very strong blackberry/ blueberry/ Syrah very spicy/slight cracked pepper quite perfumed/aromatic nose; tart very spicy blueberry/blackberry/ Syrah slight herbal/dusty slight smokey/roasted somewhat tannic flavor; very long intense blueberry/ blackberry/Syrah some herbal/peppery slight floral/violets finish w/ fair tannins; seems more PasoSyrah and less cold-climate Syrah than before; very interesting Syrah.
  7. Qupe Syrah CentralCoast 2008: Med.color; strong blackberry/Syrah slight minerally/milk of magnesia bit
    smokey/pungent slight Rhonish interesting nose; tart very spicy/blackberry/Syrah slight smokey/ pungent/ ersatz-Rhonish flavor w/ light tannins; med.long tart strong blackberry/Syrah slight smokey/Rhonish finish w/ modest tannins; no signs of brett like in the '07 here; one of the better QupeCC Syrahs in a number of yrs; nicely done slightly Rhonish Syrah at a good price.
  8. Qupe Syrah BienNacidoHillsideEstate 2006: Dark color; strong blackberry/Syrah slight roasted/Rhonish
    slight appley/spicy somewhat smokey/pungent perfumed nose; tart bit smokey/pungent/Rhonish strong
    blackberry/plummy/boysenberry/Syrah/blueberry slight Rhonish/roasted flavor; long plummy/blueberry/
    blackberry/Syrah light smokey/pungent/Rhonish finish w/ light tannins; not particularly big/intense but
    great balance that should take it out 10-15 yrs; very nice pungent/Rhonish character.
  9. Copain Syrah BakerRanch/AndersonVlly 2007: Med.dark color; strong pungent/Rhonish/roasted/ coffee/smokey spicy/blueberry/blackberry/Syrah slight peppery/cold-climate complex nose; tart bit lean/tight some Rhonish/peppery/cold-climate strong blueberry/Syrah/blackberry bit smokey/pungent flavor w/ modest tannins; very long/lingering Rhonish/roasted/espresso/smokey strong blueberry/Syrah finish; still needs several yrs; lots of cold-climate/Rhonish character.
  10. Copain Syrah Hawk'sButte/YorkvilleHighlands 2007: Med.dark color; stronger blackberry/ blueberry/Syrah some roasted/pungent/Rhonish complex nose; tart somewhat richer/lusher/ blackberry/Syrah some roasted/ espresso/smokey some tannic flavor; med.long lush/rich tart blackberry/Syrah roasted/Rhonish finish w/ modest tannins; needs several yrs yet; more upfront lush Syrah fruit and less cold-climate character.
  11. ParrSelections SantaYnezVlly Syrah Anika (sans-soufre; 13.9%) 2007: Dark color; some roasted/cold-climate/ peppery strong blackberry/Syrah light toasty/oak nose; tart bit thin/lean peppery/blackberry/blueberry/ Syrah very attractive flavor; long tart bit tight/lean peppery/blackberry/Syrah light toasty/oak finish; needs several yrs; seems a bit leaner/tighter, a bit more aromatic than the PurisimaMtn.
  12. ParrSelections Syrah PurisimaMtn/SantaYnezVlly 2007: Very dark color; very strong blackberry/ Syrah/ blueberry ripe/lush light toasty/oak nose; softer/lusher/riper very strong blackberry/ Syrah light toasty/ pungent/oak some spicy/floral/violets flavor; long strong/blackberry/Syrah/ ripe/lush light toasty/oak finish w/ some tannins; needs some age yet; seems riper & lusher than the Anika.
  13. Arnot-Roberts Syrah ClaryRanch/PetalumaGap/SonomaCoast 2007: Beautiful Rhonish/roasted/ espresso floral/ violets some blackberry/blueberry/Syrah complex very Cote-Rotie-like nose; tart bit hard/tannic very strong roasted/Rhonish/pungent/espresso/bacon fat/smokey strong blueberry/ blackberry/Syrah/violets complex flavor; very long/lingering very Rhonish/roasted/espresso/bacon fat/pungent rather hard/tannic very strong Syrah/ blackberry/blueberry complex finish; huge NorthernRhone character; my favorite wine of the tableau.
  14. Arnot-Roberts Syrah HudsonVnyd/Carneros 2008: Dark color;rich/blackberry/Syrah/boysenberry/quite spicy some toasted/roasted lovely nose w/ less cold-climate/peppery character than the Clary; tart rather lush/ ripe/blackberry/Syrah almost simple some toasty/smokey/oak flavor w/ less obvious tannins; long fairly lush/ripe/blackberry/Syrah slight toasty/oak slight Rhonish/roasted finish w/ some tannins; doesn't show the cold-climate Syrah character that Hudson often does; seems more rich & lush & less Rhonish.
  15. DrewFamily Syrah PerliRanch/MendocinoRidge 2007: Beautiful floral/violets very perfumed/aromatic strong blackberry/Syrah slight licorice/pungent/tarry nose; tart fairly rich strong blackberrry/blueberry/ Syrah light toasty/oak slight licorice/pungent flavor w/ some tannins; long lush/blackberry/Syrah very aromatic/ perfumed almost Pinotish fragrant light toasty/oak finish w/ some tannins; seems riper & lusher than the Valenti.
  16. DrewFamily Syrah ValentiVnyd/AndersonVlly/MendocinoRidge 2007: Lovely very perfumed/aromatic strong Syrah/ blackberry/blueberry some cold-climate/cracked black pepper bit Rhonish/roasted/coffee/ espresso light toasty/oak complex nose; tart some peppery/cold-climate strong blueberry/Syrah slight Rhonish/roasted flavor w/ modest tannins; fairly tart peppery/cold-climate strong blueberry/Syrah quite aromatic/perfumed/ floral light toasty/oak finish w/ modest tannins; may favorite of the two because of the cold-climate a slightly Rhonish character. A lovely AndersonVlly Syrah.
  17. EdmundsStJohn Syrah BassettiVnyd/SLOCnty 2001: Med.dark color; beautiful floral/violets strong blueberry/ Syrah slight herbal/earthy/peppery somewhat unclean/bretty almost SouthernRhone nose; tart floral/violets/ blackberry/Syrah slight herbal/peppery/cold-climate some Rhonish/espresso some brett/unclean flavor w/ some tannins; very long/lingering peppery/herbal/blueberry/Syrah light floral/violets some unclean/bretty finish w/ some tannins; still going strong and should continue to develop; brett a bit stronger/distracting then I'd like, but plenty of stuff going on in this wine.
  18. Qupe Syrah 20'thAnniv/BienNacidp/X-Block 2001: Very dark color; strong toasty/smokey/charred/ oak/Francois Freres strong blackberry/Syrah/blueberry rather complex rather Rhonish nose; tart rather tannic strong smokey/oak/charred/pungent some roasted/Rhonish strong blackberry/blueberry/Syrah bit complex flavor; very long/lingering strong smokey/charred/oak some pungent/roasted/Rhonish/espresso strong blackberry/Syrah finish w/ fair tannins; still needs more time. Developing very lovely and will continue its upward trajectory.

And a wee BloodyPulpit:

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.


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