California Syrah on the Big Stage
2010 Araujo Syrah Eisele
2009 Colgin Syrah IX Estate
2009 Kongsgaard Syrah
2008 Alban Vineyards Syrah
2009 Piedrasassi Syrah Rim
2010 Paul Lato Syrah Il
Padrino Bien Nacido Vineyard
2009 Tensley Syrah Colson
2009 Samsara Syrah Melville
2008 Sine Qua Non Syrah The
2009 Copain Syrah Baker
2010 Radio-Coteau Syrah Las
2010 Arnot-Roberts Syrah
This charity event at the Culinary
Institute of America last October was special for so many reasons. First and
foremost, the tasting and dinner at Press that followed raised over $110,000
for two very worthwhile causes, students in the CIA’s wine program and a
division of The Mount Sinai Hospital that treats children with terminal cancer.
As for the wines, well, they were pretty special, too.
The Culinary Institute of America’s EcoLab
Theater is a dramatic room. Designed as a classroom for cooking demonstrations,
the audience is seated amphitheater-style while the presenters are on the
ground floor. At times, it can be daunting to look up at all of those people. I
did better this year than last year, when I arrived late for my own event! It must
have been my Italian genes. By the time I walked into the room, I had spent
over a month and a half in California in 2012 alone. During the ten days leading
up to this memorable afternoon I had tasted virtually every major Napa Valley
wine, many more than once. So, it would have been understandable if the twelve
Syrahs I had chosen for the tasting might have suffered in comparison. Instead,
the exact opposite happened. I was completely blown away. One after the other,
the wines were just drop-dead gorgeous. As my co-host, Karen MacNeil, and I
surveyed the wines, I knew instantly it was going to be a great tasting. And it
Because I usually taste within each
region in California separately, I don’t often have the occasion to taste one
variety across many different appellations. Based on what I heard from the
audience, it turns out I am not alone. A number of attendees mentioned how much
they enjoyed tasting a wide range of wines from different parts of the state. I
felt the same way.
I wanted to challenge the audience,
and also take some risks. It isn’t enough to taste a set of great wines, even
when it is for charity. There has to be something more than that. Hopefully
something that remains. So I decided to toss out the conventional rule of thumb
when it comes to putting wines in flights of going from lightest to richest. I
wanted to debunk one of the most common urban myths I often run across; the
idea that delicate wines are easily overpowered in a group tasting.
We started with three wines from Napa
Valley, as I wanted to open with wines that presented a sense of familiarity.
Did they ever. The Araujo and Colgin Syrahs had something in common in that
they were first and foremost wines of place. In this setting in particular, the
2010 Araujo Syrah really screamed Eisele Vineyard, with warm tobacco,
smoke and grilled herb overtones. It
was so distinct and pure. Along similar lines, 2009 Colgin’s Syrah from
IX Estate on Pritchard Hill, was
very much defined by a hillside sense of structure. Both were gorgeous. John Kongsgaard’s 2009 Syrah from Hudson Vineyard, in the southern part of Napa,
had a little of both, or better said a lot of both. It was deeply reflective of
place, but also incredibly varietally expressive. Dazzling pretty much sums it
up. This was a stunning flight.
John Alban’s 2008
Syrah Reva impressed for its power, but came across as very, very young. On
this day, the oak was a little more pronounced than in previous tastings,
something I also heard from a few attendees. Still, all of the pedigree was
there. Sashi Moorman’s 2009 Piedrasassi Syrah Rim Rock was
fabulous. Rim Rock is a little-known vineyard in San Luis Obispo planted with
Syrah that was grafted onto existing Chardonnay rootstock. The 2009 Rim Rock
was firing on all cylinders, with tons of varietal nuance and plenty of
explosive fruit. Wines from this site have the ability to deliver intensity
with no excess weight. That was certainly the case here. As they so often are, Paul Lato’s 2010 Syrah Il Padrino Bien
Nacido Vineyard was pure sophistication, elegance and class. A dash of
Viognier and partial use of whole clusters came through in the wine’s striking
inner perfume. The audience loved it, and so did I.
To be honest, I had some reservations
about including one of Joey Tensley’s
wines, as the 2009s were so tannic when I first tasted them. But the wines were
fabulous, so I chose the Colson Canyon, from the warmest site Tensley works
with, in the hope a few additional months in bottle would help. Thankfully,
they did. The 2009 Syrah Colson Canyon
was one of the most expressive, beautiful wines of the afternoon. It elicited
numerous positive comments. What a great, great showing. Chad Melville’s 2009 Samsara
Syrah Melville Vineyard was impressive from the beginning and was equally
superb here. Intensely aromatic and fragrant, it was one of the most savory, exotic,
layered wines in this tasting. Screamingly beautiful and haunting, the Syrah
Melville was breathtaking. It was quite a shift to move to the 2008 Sine Qua Non Syrah The Duel from Manfred and Elaine Krankl. Stunning in its depth, texture and pure beauty, the
2008 was absolutely breathtaking. Stylistically, it was of course one of the
more intense, fruit-driven wines of the day. Since then, the 2008 has only
become more expressive. Several recent bottles have been fabulous.
Without question Wells Guthrie’s 2009 Copain Syrah Baker Ranch was one
of the most talked about wines of the afternoon. How could a wine deliver so
much fruit intensity and yet remain so weightless? Well, that is one of the
great mysteries of wine. Pinot Noir can do that, and not just in Burgundy.
After the tasting, several sommeliers came up to me and told they thought I was
crazy to serve the Copain after the Sine Qua Non and the other bigger wines.
But I wanted to prove a point. And that is that delicate wines can be
appreciated after more intense wines. The idea that concentration and ripeness
overpower understatement is nothing more than an urban myth. If and when that
happens, those results reflect the preferences of specific tasters, not the
inherent qualities of the wines themselves. It took a lot of time for people to
wrap their minds around the Copain Baker Ranch. But there appeared to be a
consensus. It was a dazzling wine.
The Copain set the stage for our last
two Syrahs, both from the Sonoma Coast, a part of California I find immensely
intriguing. Here, too, these wines had no problem being served after some of
the richer wines. If anything, the freshness and brightness of the flavors left
an impression of vitality and energy that carried through the rest of the day.
Eric Sussman’s 2010 Radio-Coteau Syrah
Las Colinas impressed for its purity and silkiness, both qualities it has
shown from the very beginning. The combination of fruit and savory, peppery notes
was fabulous. Explosive and beautiful, the 2010 Las Colinas was a total
turn-on. Much the same can be said for the 2010
Syrah Griffin's Lair from Arnot-Roberts,
a wine that had put on quite a bit of weight since I last tasted it. Here, the
aromas and flavors were smoky, earthy and meaty.
In tastings like this, there is often
a wine or two that doesn't quite measure up to expectations. On this day,
though, all the wines were just fabulous. Frankly, I had a hard time leaving
the room. At the end of the afternoon, I could only marvel at the breadth and
diversity of the wines we had tasted.
For some reason (or reasons) Syrah
has never caught on in a big way with consumers. I have heard a number of
explanations for that, many of which were discussed during this tasting. There
is no low-price, widely available, high quality Syrah in the market a la
Kendall Jackson Chardonnay Vintner’s Reserve that might turn on wider public, I
was told. Others ascribed Syrah’s lackluster performance in the market to an
incredibly broad range of styles that might be too much for the average
consumer to grasp. Fair point. We certainly saw a huge number of unique styles
in these twelve wines alone. Some said consumers lack reference points for
great Syrahs from France, while the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy are more
familiar. That makes sense, too. But the best California Syrahs need no
reference to France, or anywhere else, for that matter. They stand on their
own. I also heard that after an initial boom a few years back, Syrah is now
overplanted. Not much anyone can do about that, I am afraid, at least not in
the near term.
Still, it is impossible to miss the
central truth. Syrah is one of the most compelling grapes in California.
Leaving aside the handful of famous wines that have reached high prices, the
vast majority of California’s Syrahs remain reasonably priced within the
context of the world’s great wines. I have no doubt that most, if not all, the
bottles in this tasting would sell for two to three times as much if they said
‘Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon’ on their labels. Savvy consumers who want to
drink the world’s best without spending a fortune will want to take a little time
getting to know California’s top Syrahs.