Archive for the ‘review syrah wine’ Category

Lodi Revisited

lodiIf you see a wine label that says “Old Vine Zin” or “OVZ,” chances are pretty good that it’ll also say “Lodi.”

Besides being a small town in Northeast Ohio, Lodi is a wine region in Northern California known primarily for its Zinfandel. The appellation hasn’t traditionally had the cachet of “Napa” or “Russian River,” sitting as it does in the warmer central part of California. Wine geeks associate warm-climate regions with flabby, un-structured wines that may sell well at the grocery store but don’t usually rate a place at the Premium Wine table.

But wait! Lodi has more to offer than the wine geeks allow, as I can testify after tasting through several wines at an online interactive tasting event sponsored by an association of Lodi wine producers. There was surprising variety and a few really excellent bottles that made me rethink my definition of “Lodi wine.”

First, let’s get this climate thing straight. Lodi may sit inland, directly east of San Francisco, but it’s right on the edge of the Sacramento Delta where nightly “Delta breezes” funnel cool ocean air over the vines. The soil is sandy and summers are dry, so growers can control vine vigor and ripening with careful irrigation practices. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Santa Ynez Valley: “A little paradise for wine grapes.”

Main Street, Los Olivos

“Toto, we’re not in Napa anymore…”

I felt as disoriented as Dorothy and her little dog when I landed in the middle of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. I was supposed to be in Wine Country, but where were the sights so familiar in the Napa Valley? Where were the gigantic Tuscan tasting rooms crowded together along the roadway? Where were the high-end restaurants grudgingly serving $200 a plate lunches? Where were the traffic jams?

Instead, I saw the brick-front Lompoc Chamber of Commerce, Circa 1892. It sits across from Sissy’s Cafe, where they make a mean lentil soup.  I saw the Los Olivos General Store, and further up the street was Jedlicka’s Saddlery, where working ranch hands still buy bridles and belt buckles. I saw the pseudo-Dutch village of Solvang, which was, well, weird — but features an antique dealers showroom with one of the country’s finest collections of clocks.

And I tasted some very, VERY good wine.

The Santa Ynez Valley is south of San Francisco, just a few hours north of Los Angeles, and  close enough to Santa Barbara for a nice day trip. It’s blessed with wonderfully moderate temperatures, and if you’re a wine geek like me, you know that the valley runs east-west, splitting the coastal hills and allowing morning fog and cool afternoon breezes to blow in from the ocean. This creates the longest and coolest growing season in California, and when you add endless summer sunshine, low rainfall and well-drained soils, you’ve got a little paradise for wine grapes.

Cool-climate Santa Rita Hills

Our first taste of paradise came at Melville Winery, which nestles in the cool Santa Rita Hills appellation on the west side of the valley. This is where the Melville family and winemaker Greg Brewer craft some amazing estate wines. They’ll tell you it’s all about their vineyard practices, using techniques such as these:

  • High density planting creates really intense flavors in the fruit. Vines must compete for nutrients from the soil and yields are very, very low.
  • Leaves are pulled to expose the stems to the sun. The stems become dry and brown so they can be included in whole-cluster fermentation without adding green flavors to the wine.
  • Their Pinot Noirs see no new oak, which seemed like sacrilege: what’s red wine without oak? But the crafty folks at Melville let the dried wood from the stems act as their “oak.” It imparts that soft vanilla undertone without overpowering the fruit.

Alvin is a great host at the Melville tasting room.

I loved several of their Pinot Noirs, including the Estate Pinot which I’ve reviewed in the past (read about the Melville 2009). My first love was Melville Sandy’s Pinot Noir 2010. It’s made with fruit from a four-acre block planted on very sandy soil, and named after a woman named, you guessed it, Sandy. The nose hit me with sweet raspberry notes, and the palate offered intense dark cherry/berry fruit without weight or jamminess. Yumm…

Melville Carrie’s Pinot Noir 2010 uses fruit from a five-acre block that sits atop an exposed mesa, where the roots have to reach deep into the soil in search of nutrients. This creates the “darkest and most powerful” of their Pinots. I loved the luscious berry compote on the nose, and the rich, textured body of this Pinot. Again, there was plenty of lush fruit and layers of spice, but it was all balanced by good natural acidity.

Sister wineries Dierberg and Star Lane

A few miles further up the road, we found what looked like a big old Midwestern cattle barn plopped down in wine country. It houses sister wineries Dierberg and Star Lane. Between the two of them, they capture the diversity of the Santa Ynez Valley:

  • Dierberg makes Chard and Pinot Noir from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, which sits further north and eight miles closer to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Star Lane grows Syrah and Bordeaux varietals in Happy Canyon, otherwise known as the Banana Belt of Santa Barbara County. The owners were so impressed with this warm-climate region that they bought a whopping 8,000 acres — about one third the total area of the Canyon.

Dierberg’s Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2009 was an absolute stunner. Delicate and rich at the same time, I loved the bright pear and tropical fruit with notes of pineapple and butterscotch. The palate was lush but the finish was tangy and crisp, showing the great natural acidity that balances this wine. Thanks to aging in large oak vessels that impart just a hint of toast, and minimal secondary fermentation that maintains the natural acidity, this Chard will actually age like a White Burgundy. If you can wait that long to drink it…

Besides plenty of high ratings, Dierberg has the distinction of being served to a bevy of international dignitaries at the 2012 NATO Summit (that was the 2007 Syrah). That’s high praise, indeed.

Star Lane is like the big, bad-ass sister next to refined Dierberg. Their vineyards in Happy Canyon are unexpectedly warm for Santa Barbara County,

The beautiful Happy Canyon

with more degree days and less rain than almost all of the Napa Valley. They’re also among the highest elevation, with grapevines climbing up the lower slopes of the San Rafael Mountains. They can make big reds here, like Star Lane Estate Happy Canyon 2007. Five years after vintage date this beauty is bold, rich and soft. A blend of Bordeaux varietals plus Syrah, it opens with rich creme de cassis and vanilla, following with dark berries, mocha, and a little exotic spice. The mouthfeel is juicy and the tannins are beautifully supple. A few bottles left the winery in the back of my car, and I can’t wait to revisit them with an appropriate meal to match.

There’s more to tell but I’m out of space and out of time. Stay tuned for the final installment of our adventures in the Santa Ynez Valley. Cheers!





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Austin Hope Troublemaker Lot 2

He doesn’t look like a troublemaker, but you never know… Some guys take you by surprise. They just can’t make nice.; they’re always poking and prodding, pushing the envelope and threatening to jump right out of the box.

Like this guy, Austin Hope, who has his name on a bottle called “Troublemaker.” That sounds kinda dicey, right? And it got even dicey-er when I looked for a vintage date on the bottle and saw only… “Lot 2!” What kind of troublemaker is this guy?

Austin Hope is a second generation Paso Robles winemaker. His father, Chuck, bought land there in 1978 and started growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which he sold to well-known Napa Valley winemaker Chuck Wagner for his Liberty School label. Austin eventually worked under Wagner, and the Hope family ended up taking over the Liberty School label. They’ve since launched other brands, including the premium wine Treana and the line named “Austin Hope.”

So let’s get back to the winemaker, and his treasonous ideas. Why make a non-vintage blend? Wine drinkers have come to expect a date somewhere on every label, except for sparkling wines. Well, here’s how their website explains it:

“Wine is best made when a winemaker has choices.” In this case, Austin has chosen to blend 65% of his wine from the 2009 vintage, and added 15% from 2008 “for complexity and structure” and 20% “bright, young wine” from the 2010 vintage.

Is this heresy, or good winemaking practice?

I guess the wine drinker should be the judge. So let’s check out this wine drinker’s tasting notes.

The wine poured out opaque and intensely colored, and I said, “This is no wimpy wine.” The nose was bold too, but with very sweet fruit compote aromas suggesting plums and boysenberries. It had me expecting a very jammy palate, and there was certainly a big burst of up-front dark fruit. But it dried out very quickly and started showing some good structure. Read the rest of this entry »

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Arista Russian River Valley Syrah 2007: Body and Elegance


Every winery has a dog, and Arista's Lucy is one of the best: she made it to the Winery Dogs Calendar. Is that like being a SI Swimsuit model?

You may not have heard of Arista, because it’s a VERY small production winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley.

And even if you’ve heard of Arista, you probably thought they just made Pinot Noir, because making Pinot is how they earned a boatload of 90+ ratings from The Pinot Report and others.

I came across my Arista Russian River Syrah by accident. A friend (who lucky for me collects great California wine) came to our house with a bottle she thought was an Arista Pinot Noir. It was a surprise to her when it turned out to be a Syrah, but it was an even more delightful surprise to me when I tasted it.

So let me tell you about Arista. The winery is the love child of a couple from Texarkana, Texas. Al and Janis McWilliams came to northern Sonoma County in xxxx with a mission to “create the most elegant expression of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.” They purchased vineyard land in Cloverdale and Healdsburg, but went to the heart of the Russian River for their estate vineyards and their home.

Their winemaking philosophy is “to strive to preserve each vineyard’s natural qualities,” or let the terroir shine through. In the winery they use minimal intervention and gentle handling, striving for “a balanced expression of fruit, oak, acidity and alcohol.”

So how’d they do?arista

Let me start by saying that I’ve never heard of a Russian River Syrah. I’ve had RR Pinot, Chardonnay and sparkling wine, but never Syrah. That grape usually thrives in a warmer climate, like California’s Central Coast, where they can make rich, almost jammy Syrah.

So, aha! Maybe that’s the trick here. This Syrah is elegant (so elegant I thought I should be wearing a tiara) because the cooler climate creates more acid to balance the rich fruit.

That theory was borne out by my tasting. Right off the nose I got rich black raspberry fruit and vanilla, with a softness that suggested I was dealing with a real lady. The palate was also delicate, but not lacking in fruit: more raspberry, cherry and plums and then the jackpot: a rich, soft mocha that lingered in my mouth like a lovely treat.

Wow. But don’t be thinking Arista Syrah is candied or tooty-fruity. The acid kicked in after the mocha, and carried a clean, balanced finish.

This Syrah is a perfect companion to Russian River Pinot Noir. It’s fruity but almost weightless, and would be a pleasure to drink with almost any meal.

I’d suggest you go get yourself a bottle, but unless you’re on Arista’s mailing list you’re probably out of luck. Or maybe you can have a lovely friend bring you a bottle, like Chris did for me. Thanks, Chris, and Cheers!


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