Blind Tasting Syrah in Reno with Mom

You ever fly across the country just to conduct a wine tasting? Well now I can say I have. I jetted to Reno to lead my mother and about a dozen of her neighbors through an evening of blind tasting Syrah. Of course the main reason was to see my mom, duh, because I am a (pretty) good son (at times). This goes in the plus side on The Ledger of Life.

I picked out six wines, two from the west coast of the US and four bottles of international vino. Here’s the unveiled lineup:

Blind Tasting Syrah in Reno with Mom

Blind Tasting Syrah: The Wines Revealed

  1. Tenet Syrah 2016 The Pundit (Washington) $25
  2. Fess Parker Syrah 2014 (Santa Barbara County) $24
  3. Montes Alpha Syrah 2013 (Chile) $19
  4. Mollydooker Shiraz 2016 The Boxer (Australia) $21
  5. Nobles Rives Cave de Tain Syrah (France) $13
  6. Mullineux Syrah 2015 (Swartland, South Africa) $35

This is also the order the wines were poured. I thought about slotting the Mollydooker last because it would stick out so much with its juicy fruit and alcohol and oak, etc. But then I supposed it would be an interesting/jarring contrast to the more subtle wines following. Seems kinda counter-intuitive to have this fruit bomb detonate on your palate then follow it up with some chill juice, but we had a lot of food and took our time in between wines so no biggie. Wasn’t one of those tastings where you have six glasses in front of you and haul ass.

Post-Blind Tasting Syrah Thoughts

Tenet is a collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington, Costières de Nîmes winemaker Michel Gassier and enology consultant Philippe Cambie, who has a Châteauneuf-du-Pape HQ. The Pundit, a blend of 90% Syrah, 4% Grenache, 4% Mourvèdre, 2% Viognier (co-fermented with Syrah) was my second-favorite wine. Very elegant and balanced. Impressive.

The Fess Parker was deep, dark, and oaky. Monolithic. 15.5% ABV

The Montes had very appealing minty, eucalyptus notes, and was the oldest wine in the group at five years post-vintage. Kind of reminded me of Carménère, which is a little nutty. But none in there: 90% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Viognier.

The Mollydooker. Holy cow, 16% ABV, some sweetness. I remember when these wines set the world on fire in the heady heyday of Aussie Shiraz. “GOBS OF FRUIT!”

Damn. I just realized I asked for the Nobles Rives Cave de Tain Crozes-Hermitage but got the plain ‘ol Syrah. Whoops. Not sure what the vintage was, either. Sorry! Well this was…meh. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. Snooze fest. This is a private label for Total Wine, BTW. Anyway, if you are looking to dip your toe into Syrah form the Northern Rhône get a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage. (And scrutinize the label rather than being oblivious me.)

My favorite wine was the Mullineux. It was pretty good when first cracked but really blossomed after a couple hours of air. Excellent stuff with a balance of fruit and other non-fruit stuff (earth, pepper, etc.) that I want from Syrah. Very little new oak here and a lot of large barrel usage for less wood influence on the wine.

In a tasting like this I also recommend going back and trying every wine again. After they’ve been open for a few hours you will be a witness to change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Thanks to Mom, winemaster Keith, and everyone who stopped by the clubhouse to hang out, chat, learn, and drink wine.

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Get to Know Central Coast Syrah

Hello. Here’s the second episode of the podcast I’m hosting for Wine Enthusiast, What We’re Tasting. It’s a look into Central Coast Syrah. Now when you think of California wine, of course Napa and its iconic Cabernet get the lion’s share of praise. So it was great to speak with Matt Kettmann, who is a guru when it comes to the wines of the Central Coast.

What do we discuss? Whoa we cover a lot of ground

  • Natural wine (“Natty with Matty”)
  • The lighter side of Syrah
  • Chillable reds
  • Joyous wines
  • Tips for cellaring
  • The Santa Cruz Mountains
  • Matt’s all-time favorite bottle
  • Finally, garage drinking

Have a listen:

Syrah vineyard photo via Ballard Canyon AVA. BTW, the first wine we talk about is from this region within the Central Coast.

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K Vintners Powerline Syrah 2014

So what do you do when get a case of one of the most sought after wines in the world? You post it to Facebook and see who shows up. Today, I present K Vintners Powerline Syrah 2014 $55.99 Limit 1 bottle per person in store only! That’s right you must come into the store to get your wine. No phone, no email, no madwine. We want to see your smiling faces!

K Vintners Powerline Syrah 2014 $55.99
Damp earth, campfire and stone wafts up from the glass. It gives way to the density of flavor of the palate. Cured meats and olives abound. Tumbled river rock is the home of these vines. From the heart of Walla Walla to your glass. – Winemaker Notes

 

#2 Wine Spectator Top 100 of 2017
“A knockout Syrah, precise and impeccably built but explosive with personality. Smoky roasted meat and floral blackberry aromas combine with bold, supple flavors of dark plum, pepper and licorice. The tannins are big but polished. Drink now through 2024.”
95 pts Wine Spectator

K Vintners Powerline Syrah 2014

A new cuvee that’s all from the Powerline Vineyard in the southern part of the Walla Walla Valley, the 2014 Syrah Powerline is all from the Phelps clone, was fermented with 100% whole clusters and aged in puncheons. One of the more bloody, meaty, iron-laced and savory Syrahs in the lineup, it hits the palate with full-bodied richness, a thick, unctuous texture, ripe tannin and a finish that makes your heart beat a touch faster. Give bottles a few years in the cellar and enjoy over the following decade.
97 pts Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate

In store only no phone orders first come first serve, limit 1 bottle per customer.
Cheers!
Lenny

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Whither Syrah? Nobody really knows, and neither do I

 

There, I said it. When it comes to predictions about Syrah, it’s the blind leading the blind.

When you’ve been around this industry for a while, as I have, you hear certain memes resurrected over and over. One is “Zinfandel’s new face.” Another is “Why don’t Americans like Riesling?” Still another is some variation of “Up-and-Coming Varieties.” But perhaps the most regular is exemplified by Wines & Vines’ new blog post, “Is Syrah Hitting Bottom or Finding Its Niche?” written by a talented writer, Andrew Adams, who’s been with W&V since 2012, and—unlike many wine writers—has actual dirt-in-the-boots winemaking experience.

Andrew was coming off a Washington State trip and so naturally had good things to say about Syrah. He struggled in his mind to understand how the Syrahs he tasted could be so good, while at the same time, Syrah sales have been tanking for years.” How can this be? It is, as the King of Siam said, a puzzlement.

We can begin explanations with the theory that Americans don’t understand what Syrah is because they’ve heard of Petite Sirah and Shiraz and can’t tell the difference. That is perfectly understandable. Most consumers are busy enough without having to understand such arcane distinctions. This suggests that the “wine industry,” whatever that is, needs to do a better job of explaining Syrah to people, but that’s easier said than done. Wine writers have tried for years, with very little success; writers have to do more, but wineries should not depend on them to solve their Syrah problems.

Gatekeepers such as sommeliers and merchants are also part of the solution, but the problem there is that, being sales-oriented, they’re not going to put much energy into pushing a variety they perceive as a poor seller. Can’t blame them for that. So, given the under-performance or under-interest of the media and gatekeeper sellers, there’s not much more than can be done.

But what of quality, you ask? Well, as Andrew correctly notes, there are fabulous Syrahs out there, not only from Washington State but California (my bailiwick). Individual wineries that have developed a reputation for Syrah will be able to sell it, but overall, I think the challenge here is that Syrah isn’t different enough from Cabernet Sauvignon for consumers to “discover” it. Cabernet is so embedded in their heads as the #1 full-bodied red table wine that it will take a gargantuan effort to make them think of Syrah as an alternative. When it comes to lighter-bodied wines, there’s no shortage: Pinot Noir is the undisputed leader, Tempranillo is coming on strong, and there are many other candidates; but Syrah is not lighter-bodied. For Big Reds, Cabernet Sauvignon is like FDR during the ‘30s and ‘40s: so dominant a force, so overwhelming, that no other candidates found the oxygen to break through.

A Syrah super-tasting

 

I’d call it a super-tasting, our event on Wednesday in which we sampled 13 of the top Syrahs from California.

The background was Jackson Family Wines’ purchase, about a year ago, of Siduri Wines, which also included the Lee family’s lesser-known brand, Novy. Now, I’d always given very high scores to Novy’s Syrahs and other Rhone-style wines, going back to the 2000 Page-Nord Syrah (94 points). It was clear to me that Novy was a top Rhone producer in California, but I wanted to more clearly understand the wines, especially in light of the competition. So I thought, let’s taste some Novy reds against the most critically-esteemed Syrahs and red Rhone blends in California, and see how things stack up.

I asked Adam Lee for his suggestions as to which Novy wines to include in the lineup, and he suggested 2013 Simpson Vineyard Syrah-Grenache (Dry Creek Valley), 2011 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands) and 2013 Susan’s Hill Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands, from a part of the Pisoni Ranch). Beyond those, I selected the rest: Saxum 2011 Bone Rock; Tensley 2013 Thompson Vineyard Syrah (with a Santa Barbara County appellation but actually from the Los Alamos Valley); Zaca Mesa 2012 Black Bear Block Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley); Copain 2012 Halcon Syrah (Yorkville Highlands): Alban 2011 Seymour’s Syrah (Edna Valley): Colgin 2012 IX Estate Syrah (Napa Valley): Qupe 2011 Bien Nacido X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah (Santa Maria Valley); Arnot-Roberts 2013 Clary Ranch Syrah (Sonoma Coast, from way down to the south, near the Marin County line); Kongsgaard 2013 Syrah (Napa Valley, from the Hudson Vineyard in Carneros) and Donelan 2012 Obsidian Vineyard Syrah (Knights Valley).

Let me tell you, California flights don’t get any better than this!

We tasted the wines, as usual, blind. There were eleven of us, and we took our time, discussing each wine separately, but going back and forth. There was quite a bit of unanimity, but for this posting I’m using only my own impressions.

Despite the conventional wisdom that you can’t sell Syrah, these wines should be enough to convince even the most confirmed doubter that, when well-grown and well-made, Syrah is one of California’s best red wines. It’s common to say that there are two styles of Syrah in California: a riper style from warmer regions such as Paso Robles and a more structured style from cooler regions like Edna Valley. In general, this is true, although there are notable exceptions; for instance, Alban’s wines, from Edna Valley, are high in alcohol (the Seymour’s was 15.6%). Still, in general there are two styles: (1) higher alcohol, more extracted, darker in color, softer, richer and fuller in body, and (2) lower alcohol, paler in color, more delicate, less ripe, earthier, more nuanced and crisp. In our tasting, the quintessential #1 style was the Saxum (15.3%, Paso Robles); the quintessential #2 style was the Arnot-Roberts (11.8%, Sonoma Coast/Petaluma Wind Gap), which was so pale it could have been Pinot Noir. (But I liked it a great deal despite the lack of typicity.)

Either style can succeed critically, but it’s fair to say that, among the top critics (including myself, when I was a critic), the former style, #1, gets the better scores. On this occasion, I have to say that the Alban and Saxum wines were not among my favorites. I could and did appreciate the soft charm of the Saxum, but the Alban, at 15.6% alcohol, was just too porty.

My top wines—the style I really love—cannot be described as Northern Rhone or Southern Rhone, but rather is balanced, in a rich, sexy, California way. Tied at 98 points each were the Novy 2013 Susan’s Hill and the Donelan 2012 Obsidian. Both almost exploded the top of my head off. Unbelievable richness and concentration, massively saturated wines, so complex and flavorful you could hardly believe it, yet both of them with superb structure and integrity. Close on their heels was the Colgin, which RJP gave 98 points; all I could muster up was a measly 95! The alcohol on that wine was 15.3%, quite high, but the wine had no heat, or perhaps it’s accurate to say it had a pleasantly warming feel. As good as it was, I wrote, “Needs time.”

I also quite liked the Zaca Mesa, the Copain, the Qupe and the other two Novys—I scored them all above 90 points. While the others didn’t rise to the magic 90 level, they were still delightful; and it might be that, in another tasting with another lineup, they might have shown better. It always strikes me in these blind tastings that the wine’s place in the flight, and the other wines that accompany it, are very important. For example, the Copain (which I gave 90 points) came immediately after the magnificent Donelan; the first thing I wrote was, quote, “Not fair after the last wine,” and some of the other tasters led off their remarks by saying something similar. Which is why it’s so important for the critic to try and set aside everything that’s going on in his head and his palate and try to be fair and objective about every wine. Who knows? Had the Copain come before the Donelan I might have given it 91 or even 92 points. That is the subjectivity factor in tasting, which every honest critic will admit exists. The public needs to constantly be reminded of the shortcomings of every type of wine tasting.

Anyhow, this tasting has provided me with a fresh perspective on Syrah, and I intend to give that sometimes maligned variety more of a drumbeat than I have in the past. At this level, it’s a better wine than Merlot, making it a lovely choice for that steak, pork chop or game—in fact it occupies a distinguished place between heavier Cabernet Sauvignon and lighter Pinot Noir as the ideal medium-bodied, complex, dry red table wine.

* * *

I’ll be in Mexico next week, doing some wine tastings for Jackson Family Wines. Will try to blog everyday. Have a great, peaceful weekend.

On Merlot and Syrah. This is a good read if I do say so myself

 

For all the bashing that Merlot supposedly got in Sideways—and the conventional wisdom following that 2004 movie is that Merlot sales fell off the cliff, because Americans supposedly believed that, if Miles wouldn’t drink any “fucking Merlot,” then they wouldn’t either—Merlot sales actually remained pretty strong.

Yes, California has lost a little acreage of Merlot over the years—not much—but the message to producers, that consumers still like this wine, has not been lost. And, if you needed further proof that Merlot is still a very, very popular wine, then check out the Sonoma State University/Wine Institute’s latest consumer survey, as summarized in winebusiness.com.

You can see that, in terms of “favorite wine varietals,” consumers reported Chardonnay a strong #1, by a 50% margin. But guess what wine was #2? Hints: It was red. It was not Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.

Answer: It was Merlot.

Now, granted, this survey covered relatively inexpensive wine: As the article states, the most common [bottle] price was $10 to $15.” This explains why the #3 favorite wine was White Zinfandel while #4 was Pinot Grigio. Cabernet Sauvignon, which is by far the most widely-planted red wine grape in California (second only in acreage to Chardonnay) was ranked only the #5 favorite wine. But I suspect that, had the survey targeted a higher price point—say, $20 and above—Cabernet would have scored higher.

What was most surprising to me in the results was how poorly Syrah performed: It was #12, dead last, the choice of only 10% of respondents. That put it behin even Malbec and Muscat (whose glory days are fast disappearing). This is very odd, given a few heartening factoids gleamed from recent Crush and Acreage reports in California, among them that planted acreage of Syrah is decreasing in the Central Valley (where it peaked around ten years ago), but is increasing in prime coastal areas especially the Central Coast, and that even though the average price per ton paid by buyers for Syrah grapes has risen only a disappointingly low 5% over the last decade, that was a statewide average: If you look at prime growing areas (Napa Valley, Santa Barbara County, Sonoma County), Syrah grape prices are up a healthy average of 13.6% over the last ten years. That’s not bad, for a variety that, anecdotally at least, has been pronounced dead in the water. (The joke has been going around for years: “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of venereal disease? You can get rid of the V.D.”)

So as usual when it comes to statistics, there’s a little bit of everything. Syrah lovers can take hope that the grape and wine are poised for a comeback. Syrah bashers will find evidence that they’re right and have been all along.

Still, there’s plenty of Syrah in the ground in California, at least 21,000 acres, more even than Sauvignon Blanc. Those grapes aren’t going away anytime soon, so what should producers do with them? Well, some wineries have established cult reputations for their Syrahs (Sine Qua Non, Colgin, Alban, Saxum and so on), but they are so far off the chart in terms of price and rarity that we can effectively discount them from our calculations as outliers. Other Syrah producers do indeed face a dilemma: not a huge one, but a pesky one: They have enough of a loyal fan base for their Syrahs, but it’s not growing, and may be shrinking (this is where consumer research really helps, but not all wineries have the resources to do it), so they have to figure out what they’re going to be selling—which means what consumers will be buying—five, ten and more years out. You can always bud your Syrah over to another, more popular variety, but it does take a little time for the transition; a vintage may be lost in the process. And what would you bud it over to anyway that makes more sense?

My own hunch is that Syrah will always have a solid foundation, a “floor” if you will. Problem is that the floor level is likely to remain pretty constant, so producers are going to have to fight it out among themselves to attract loyal customers, and these sorts of fights, necessary as they are in the business, are not things that Chief Financial Officers look forward to. There is one other option: GSMs. I think Rhone-style red blends from California have a good future. You don’t have to call them GSM on the label; they don’t have to strictly be blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre; there’s no reason you couldn’t blend Syrah, Grenache and, say, Tempranillo, or Merlot, or Petite Sirah, give it a proprietary name, and make a pretty damned good wine. (Paso Robles has been doing a good job in this.) The advantage of such blends is that they don’t suffer from the “Syrah” word (if, in fact, you believe that consumers shy away from that word out of confusion with Shiraz, or Petite Sirah, or for other reasons they’ve adapted to). If you believe that consumers have a bias, conscious or not, towards Syrah, then sales-wise you’re always starting from behind the starting line, which is a huge disadvantage: you first have to overcome that consumer gap in trust. If, on the other hand, you’re selling a proprietary blend or a GSM, you’re right on the starting line: no harm, no foul, may the best wine win. Can a winery come out of nowhere and establish a reputation for cult Syrah? Yes, in theory. Several from Washington State have done it. Here in California? Probably not.

Tin Barn Vineyards Syrah Vertical: The Power of Decanting

Tin Barn Vineyards Syrah Vertical: The Power of DecantingI was sent four bottles of Tin Barn Vineyards Syrah, specifically from the Coryelle Fields Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, for my sampling pleasure. As it was an unreasonably (yes, I meant to say that…also, unseasonably) warm summer in Seattle, I waited until there was a bit of a chill in the air that would permit me to do these wines justice.

The Syrahs at my disposal were from the 2011, 2010, 2006, and 2003 vintages. They all changed quite dramatically after opening and really benefited from decanting. I did a double-decant on all four wines. Technique: Have your favorite glass receptacle at the ready. Pull the cork then turn the bottle upside down and glug straight into the decanter, with extreme prejudice. Then (carefully) pour the contents of the decanter back into the bottle. (Use a funnel if you’re not an incorrigible wine parlor trick show-off like me.) Voila, you have double-decanted. (Hero.)

Here are my thoughts on each bottle:

2011: Rich, sappy, spicy. Baking chocolate notes. The most full-throttle of the four, probably because it’s the youngest. (Sorta duh, but worth mentioning.)

2010: What a difference a year makes. More balanced and earthy. Quite lively!

2006: Boom. This wine has developed some wonderful secondary characteristics. Like a green olive wearing tiny leather chaps, just off its well-lathered horse. There’s also a nice amount of fruit on the finish of this Syrah for balance. It’s in a great spot. Classic aged Syrah, well-done. Possibly worth of a Clive Coates-ian “Very find indeed.” (Coates is a famous Master of Wine and Burgundy guru. And I’m fond of his very British use of “indeed”.)

2003: Minty. Still lots of freshness here. No signs of getting tired; I was surprised at how well this showed at 12 years past the vintage.

Tin Barn Vineyards Syrah Vertical: The Power of Decanting

It’s really cool to undertake a tasting exercise like this. It tickles my wine geek receptors something fierce. Though the ability of California Syrah to age was something I had never considered, tasting through four vintages from the same vineyard and winery provided vivid snapshots. And now I can put together a small mental album I’ll tuck away into the wine part of my mind for the next time I contemplate Sonoma Coast Syrahs.

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Appreciating the FLX Wienery: A Conversation with Christopher Bates

Here’s the scene: You are biting into a burger called The Local, made with goat cheese and miso mayo and lettuce and tomato and herbs, and you’ve just pillaged a bottle of 1988 Dunn Cabernet from the secret wine fridge, and you’re wondering if this high-end comfort food oasis is only for serious food lovers. And then a well-placed dick joke cuts through any concern about pretension. This is the FLX Wienery, a little food-and-wine joint on Route 14 that has been open for a year. It’s already become a regional treasure, a must-visit for wine tourists on Seneca Lake.…