La Diligence, Part Two – Marsanne, Remembered

TASTING IN OAKVILLE AT MINER FAMILY WINERY BACK IN JULY, it was my French wine importer friend Jack Edward’s comparison of Miner’s 2011 La Diligence marsanne to the Rhône Valley that triggered a flashback to some of the marsanne-based wines I’d tried in the past, especially from the Crozes Hermitage and Saint-Joseph appellations and, when I was lucky enough, from Hermitage. Though they aren’t as widely available in California or the rest of the U.S. as their red counterparts, northern Rhône white wines from producers like Alain Graillot (Crozes-Hermitage) and Domaine Faury (Saint-Joseph) epitomize the particular charms of marsanne-roussanne blends, while the great Jean-Louis Chave’s description-defying Hermitage blanc exists in another universe altogether. Unlike white Hermitage these days, the price of which would inflict feelings of inadequacy on even the most aggressive Napa Valley business manager, Graillot’s and Faury’s bottlings represent some of France’s great white wine values, as do those of their equally accomplished fellow producers.

I remember a couple of road trips to Napa and Sonoma while in college in the late 80s. The white wines on offer in winery tasting rooms (free of charge, no ID checks, lots of pretzels and local mustard) were as much about the two “blancs”—chenin and fumé—as they were about chardonnay. But before I began to develop a sense of what California white wine was supposed to taste like, I was serving and drinking blancs from Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage (and even Chave’s Hermitage) in Paris in 1991 and ’92, working as a garçon and barman at the iconic first arrondissment restaurant, Willi’s Wine Bar. It was a formative period in my wine career. As much as anything else I recall drinking back then, the distinctive aromas and flavors of northern Rhône white wines etched an indelible impression on my rookie palate. When, years later, I tasted the ’11 La Diligence marsanne at a San Francisco trade show, I experienced a rush of memory to that time.

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La Diligence: A Marsanne Goes Missing – Part One

ON A HILLSIDE ABOVE OAKVILLE, Dave Miner and company sit in cabernet’s catbird seat.

It’s carved into a rocky slope that faces west down to the Silverado Trail, where the Napa Valley floor displays hardly a patch of green canopy that isn’t planted to the traditional varieties of Bordeaux. The neatly divided blocks of Oakville are verdant with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, the vines that tie Napa Valley and California to France’s most famous wine region.

Miner Family Winery is perched in the Oakville AVA with a view across a section of the valley that a friend of mine, the wine merchant Rhett Gadke, once called “the Rodeo Drive of Napa Valley.” The analogy fits, since so many of the cabernet-based wines produced here command Beverly Hills prices. Although Dave Miner’s Oakville cabernet sauvignon isn’t exactly cheap, compared to most of his neighbors’ price tags, it’s more Silver Lake bottle shop than Beverly Hills boutique.

On the shelves of said boutiques, or at winery cellar doors, many Oakville cabernets and red blends cost as much as the top wines from Left and Right Bank Bordeaux. Dave Miner doesn’t shy away from the comparison—just the $200-per-bottle prices.

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Great Scots Syrah! – Part Two

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IF THIS HAD BEEN AN ARTICLE about, say, San Francisco bartenders in the 1970s and 80s, chances are pretty good that a couple of Irishmen would have made an appearance by now. But two Scottish winemakers in the same story on Sonoma County syrah? Not bloody likely, you might think. Yet it happens, anyway: Steve Law, who was mentored by zinfandel specialist Michael Talty and inspired by a pair of Rhône vignerons, found another Michael McCourtimportant career influencer when he introduced himself to Edinburgh native Andy Smith, the winemaker and proprietor of DuMol Winery in Windsor.

“I met Andy in ’08 down on the Central Coast at one of the Hospices du Rhone events,” Steve told me last year. “I was initially drawn to him because of his accent. It was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I found out he was actually the winemaker at DuMol, and the friendship has grown between the two of us.” He described Smith, 48, as a brilliant advisor, especially when it comes to analyzing different microclimates of Sonoma County for their syrah potential.

Andy Smith has made wine at his Windsor facility since 1999 and started producing DuMol’s Russian River Valley syrah a year later. I called him there recently to chat about the MacLaren wines. He echoed his friend’s comments about his own winemaking mindset, telling me that Steve “knows what he likes, and that’s his target. That’s his vision.”

He and Steve get together regularly to trade bottles and taste each other’s wines, which has given Smith insight into the MacLaren program over several vintages. “Steve started off well over at Talty and had some good guidance,” he said, “but, you know, syrah’s a little different than zinfandel. I think he’s making very interesting wine. What I particularly like is he’s adhering to his vision and not following any trends or critical acclaim or anything like that.Drouthy Neebors He’s making what he wants to make and what he believes in.”

The same year they met, Smith connected Steve with Peter Young, the owner of Dry Stack Vineyard. Come harvest, he thought Young might have some syrah fruit available from his rocky Bennett Valley property. Steve called to inquire, and the rest is MacLaren Wines history—if only for one vintage. Grape sources in California not locked into contracts can, and do, shift with the prevailing winds, and his access to Dry Stack ended up being more of a Bennett Valley experiment. Still, he viewed it as a successful one. Reflecting on the unique opportunity to work with Young’s cool-climate site, he was enthusiastic about the wine that came out of it. The 2008 Dry Stack was “a telling moment in terms of the style” of syrah he was trying to make. “It just lit up,” he said. “That was it. It had everything I was looking for from a stylistic perspective.”

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Great Scots Syrah! – Part One

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“HAVE YOU HEARD THE JOKE?” the wine retailer standing at our table asked with a stupid grin. He was trying to laugh it up with my winemaker boss and me. “What’s the difference between a case of syphilis and a case of syrah…?”

“The case of syrah is harder to get rid of! Get it?!”

My winemaker boss happens to make syrah—cases of it, in fact—so only one person was laughing. He looked stone-faced, saying nothing as his eyes narrowed. I’d seen that look before. The guy turned to me, but I just shook my head. “That’s hysterical, man,” I said flatly. He moved on to find a friendlier audience.

This little episode took place several years ago at a trade tasting in San Francisco. The boss and I were pouring his Mendocino County syrah for Bay Area restaurateurs and retailers. Venereal jokes aside, California syrah had free-fallen into the damn-near-impossible-to-sell wine category, thanks in no small part to an industry trope that put this noble wine grape variety in the same containership-sized box as a purplish, fermented grape beverage commodity from Australia called Yellow Tail Shiraz. The reason? Back in the 1950s, a Sicilian winemaking couple, Filippo and Maria Casella, immigrated to New imgSouth Wales. A few decades later, Casella and his sons launched an export shiraz brand. They named it after Australia’s cute Yellow Tail wallaby, adorned the bottle with a quasi-Aboriginal art label and a $6.99 price tag, and unleashed upon the world the phenomenon of “critter wine.” The family duly made a fortune. Here in the U.S., the imaginations of Costco members from coast to coast were forever captured, and shoppers doing wine arithmetic in supermarket aisles summed up that premium domestic syrah was equal to, but not necessarily greater than, cheap-ass Aussie critter shiraz. California syrah went into a marsupial death dive.

But letting the Casellas—and their wallaby—off the hook for a second, I think another important reason for California syrah’s bad rap of recent memory is that a lot of it made in this state isn’t very good. It’s been a problem going back to the 1990s that can be pegged to both location and vine age. “People weren’t really paying attention to the places they were planting syrah vines,” my friend Bill Easton told me on the phone recently. Earlier this year, Bill received the Rhone Rangers trade organization’s lifetime achievement award for thirty-plus years of work at his Amador County winery, Terre Rouge. He’s widely respected for both growing and making syrah and other Rhône varieties, and I was curious about his thoughts on the state of syrah a couple of decades ago versus today. “I think what happened in the 90s was everybody kind of jumped on the bandwagon at the same time with syrah. They thought it would be the next easy or hot thing to sell, and they didn’t want to be left out.”

bill-easton-rr-award-2016-textThe rush to production in the 90s and early 2000s meant that grapes were being harvested too early from young syrah vines, a practice that took away from many syrah-based wines the varietal characteristics that wholesale buyers and knowledgeable consumers associate with the wines of the northern Rhône Valley— syrah’s home turf in France—and better examples from California: namely blue and black fruits, white pepper, and the all-important meaty-bacon flavors that are a signature of this complex variety. Bill, who has produced syrah under the Terre Rouge label since the late 80s, started early enough to stay ahead of, and immune to, consumers’ disinterest in California syrah. Over time, he’s cemented his reputation for definitive syrah from the Sierra Foothills. “I think a lot of people came out with wines that were from third-leaf syrah vines, and they dtr-labeljust weren’t that great,” he explained. “But as our vineyards have matured, the quality of the syrah and the character we get from the grapes is exponentially better than it was when we first started working with those sites.”

Bill added that, in his opinion, this trend included a number of Napa Valley wineries and growers. I’ve tried my share of Napa syrah over the years. Some has been quite good, though much of it I’ve found average, or at least expensive for the amount of complexity, elegance, and varietal focus it delivers. And the Valley’s floor and hills are already covered with a famous vine that is capable (with just the right human touch) of rather spectacular underachievement. Looking a bit south, successful growers like Lee Hudson and the Truchard family in the Napa-Carneros AVA have worked magic in their syrah vineyards for years, thanks to a combination of the area’s syrah-friendly, cooler climate and their own growing and winemaking skills. Down in Napa County’s southwest corner, Carneros spills over into Sonoma County, and in this neighboring viticultural region the conversations about syrah—and the wines themselves—take off in a different direction.

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