“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 South 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.”
The 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 just 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.
• • • • •
In 2009, the Sonoma winemaker Steve Law and I met alphabetically. This is how I think of it, anyway. At an event in San Francisco similar to the “Syphilis Tasting” (Oh, humorless, vulgar flashback!), I was arranged at a table next to the Scottish native and his wife, Heather. The couple are proprietors of what was a new label at the time, MacLaren Wines, and my spot happened to immediately follow “MacLaren” on the table signage. Being a syrah-themed event during the Great Recession, pallets of the stuff must have been piling up everywhere around the Bay, and buyer attendance was thin. The Laws and I had time to get acquainted and taste each other’s wines, which we mutually agreed were very good, if quite different. So the “M” section of the event brought us together that day, and our shared syrah connection has kept us friends and colleagues.
We poured just a syrah each at the tasting. I sampled my employers’ 2006 Yorkville Highlands bottling from over the Mendocino hills and far away, while Steve and Heather debuted their first MacLaren vintage, a 2007 made from mature vines at Unti Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s possible at trade shows to come across a wine or two that will leave an indelible mark on the palate, or maybe even shift the ground of one’s wine world a little bit. To me, the MacLaren was one of these: a meaty, intensely black and blue wine that still showed lightness and restraint—textbook syrah, in other words, from a self-described “newbie” winemaker. It took a while circling around the idea, reconnecting with the Laws at tastings and dinners, and laying the groundwork for this column, but at the beginning of the year I decided to investigate what made the Unti and subsequent MacLaren syrahs the benchmark red wines they had become in a fairly short time.
ON A RAINY MORNING in late January, I headed over to Sonoma Plaza to meet Steve at his tasting lounge on Vine Alley, a narrow pedestrian lane faced with shops and winery tasting rooms at the square’s south side. “Follow the bread crumbs,” he’d advised me ahead of time, as his place is tucked away in a corner of the tiled and arbored complex. The space is bright and comfortable, with a poured concrete bar, cushioned banquettes, and rustic tables of reclaimed wood. The wine bar partially divides the room and is constructed on top of wooden slats, which match the design of the low tables and banquettes. The lounge sits adjacent to Delhi Belly Bistro, a popular Indian restaurant, and was previously a landscape architect’s office that had, as Steve described it in his unmistakably Scottish accent, “nasty blue carpet on the floor and no water.” In the spring of 2013, after a few months spent observing the flow of foot traffic through Vine Alley while they pursued their use permit, the Laws signed a lease. Steve and his father-in-law refurbished the office that summer, converting it to a tasting bar and retail outlet. When MacLaren Wines opened for business over Labor Day weekend, it added to a range of wine tasting facilities that dot Sonoma Plaza and its side streets. As wine tourism goes, there’s something in the historic neighborhood for everyone, though the offerings around the square reflect Sonoma County’s skew towards pinot noir, chardonnay, and zinfandel. As far as he can tell, Steve Law is the only guy in town with such a syrah-intensive program.
We sat on the banquettes and talked for an hour about the inception of MacLaren Wines. I reminded him about our first meeting in San Francisco and the tribulations of working with syrah. Why, I asked right off the bat, did he choose to specialize in this grape variety?
“I don’t really follow the trends,” he said. “Whether it’s fashionable or not, syrah is my favorite grape, and that’s why I’m doing it. So I’m not making wine from it because it’s fashionable or it’s the next big thing. If I was doing that, I’d be a pinot house or something like that. That’s not the reason. The reason is, I really do enjoy syrah.”
As do I. And since we’re about the same age, the Scotsman and I have been concurrently enjoying it for half of our lives. After finishing college, we each lived in Paris in the early 90s, where wine grabbed hold and didn’t let go. Steve took the high road, if you will, while I took the low road (and he got to France a wee bit before I did). He earned a master’s degree in electronic and electrical engineering from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and got his first job with Philips Electronics, who sent the French-speaker to Paris to work in research and development. As for me, a year out of college I was couch-surfing friends’ apartments in the French capital. I doctored a student ID to acquire a work permit from an unsuspecting Left Bank employment agency and fell into a year-long wine bar stint, waiting on impatient Parisians who would sometimes mistake me for Irish Gen X.
“Before I moved to France after university, I was sure that wine came out of a box,” Steve joked, though he wasn’t, really, “because that’s all I could afford when I was a poor student. So then I moved there, and my French friends introduced me to this product that came out of a bottle. It was called wine. A few of them were into wine, and so we’d pile into somebody’s car on weekends and take off to some of the different wine regions. I discovered that I had a palate for it. And naturally it all followed from there, from that point. That was really the genesis.”
“I had some good friends who really were major winos. Drouthy neebors, as they are,” he added, using the Scots term for “thirsty companions.” There’s actually a MacLaren syrah with this name, but more on that later.
The Loire Valley, Champagne, and Chablis were some of the friends’ preferred stops on these road trips out of Paris. In 1992, Hewlett-Packard hired Steve for a job in their Lyon office. Relocated to France’s gastro-capital, he was quite close to the northern part of the Rhône Valley where syrah comprises two of France’s greatest wines, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, as well as a handful of satellite appellations. Visits to these places helped cast the initial syrah spell. He credited his drouthy cohort. “I was able to go and discover the Rhône with them, as well as get down onto the Mediterranean coast, and Languedoc-Roussillon, and all the Provence areas” where syrah figures into the overall southern French wine equation. He smiled, remembering the excitement of all the discovery crammed into that period. “To be honest, I liked everything. I mean, everything was good…It was like being a sponge, just trying to absorb as much as I possibly could.”
In the mid-90s, he came to California for the first time to work in electronics with Seagate, an early Silicon Valley company. While his interest in wine burgeoned, the electrical engineering degree was paying career dividends. He noted drily that it has continued to do so. “I can change my own lightbulbs nowadays,” he bragged.
I looked up to admire the lighting of the room. It appeared to mostly come through the large windows. “By yourself?” I asked. “So, wait. How many Scotsmen does it take to change a lightbulb?”
I got my own blank stare out of this one. He steered the conversation back to his moves between France and California and the joy of owning a couch “that had made it across the Atlantic three times.” In 1999, he went to work for another European firm and spent five more years in Paris. The company transferred him to California in 2004, where he’s lived ever since. He met Heather at a wine event in Monterey in 2007, and they married three years later (it ended up being her or the flying couch). She teaches primary school full-time in her hometown of Petaluma and is an integral part of MacLaren Wines. “Heather helps me as much as she possibly can,” Steve said. “She supported me making the decision to quit my electronics job and actually do this full-time, so that was a huge enabler.”
In the spring of 2015, it had been a while since I’d seen the couple, though Steve and I make a point to stay in touch over the phone and email to share syrah sales war stories. Around tax day, my importer friend Jack Edwards told me about a dinner that was to take place on the last Saturday of May. Sondra Bernstein at The Girl & The Fig Restaurant on Sonoma Plaza had lined up a pair of accomplished Rhône Valley winemaking friends, Yves Cuilleron and François Villard, to participate in one of her series of dinners at Suite D, an event space she operates in a converted warehouse near the Plaza. Jack is Villard’s U.S. importer, and he asked Rachael and me to join him. Since the ’99 vintage, I’ve been a huge fan of a Cuilleron Saint-Joseph that the vigneron charmingly calls “L’Amarybelle.” That alone had me excited for weeks. When we arrived at Suite D and were handed cool glasses of one of Cuilleron’s white wines, it was a nice surprise to run into Heather and her husband.
Suffice it to say, a whole column could be written about the dinner and the Saint-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie, and other Rhône wines served that evening, not to mention about Yves and François, who I’ve met before and always give me the respective impressions of serious artist and smiling trickster. So my interview with Steve took an interesting turn when I asked him one of my favorite winemaker questions: was there an epiphanic wine in his drinking past, particularly one made from syrah?
In fact, there was. On one of his trips down to the French Riviera—this time in the summer of 2002—he was dining at L’Oasis, a restaurant in Mandelieu-la-Napoule, near Cannes. He asked the sommelier to suggest a wine to accompany the seafood course he had ordered. The selection took him by surprise: a 1999 Saint-Joseph Reflets from François Villard. “A syrah to go with a John Dory fish? I thought the guy was smoking pot!” he laughed. “He brings out a Saint-Joseph at cellar temperature, a little bit chilled. It was in the summertime, and it went perfectly with the fish. And then as the meal went on, the wine started to come up to room temperature, and it went perfectly with the next course, and the course after. It just worked fantastically over the whole dinner.”
He emphasized that drinking Villard’s Saint-Joseph that evening “was really a defining moment” in his evolution as both a wine lover and eventual winemaker. “I remember it because it just stood out. It was a gorgeous wine. It actually started my friendship with François. I searched him out to try and find out where I could find this wine. I met with Yves Cuilleron, as well, and became friends.”
The Suite D event was an opportunity for Steve to catch up with the Frenchmen. Moreover, hearing his take on it several months later gave me a better understanding of what made him tick as a winemaker. “François and Yves were actually the ones who pushed me into doing something about this ‘terrible affliction’ I have. I told them at the dinner that before I knew them, I had a job, a career, and I was able to pay a mortgage! So, yes, I got into syrah down there, and the Villard was the first syrah I remember being an absolute standout. It was fantastic.”
I reminded him that another Villard Saint-Joseph, the Mairlant bottling, had gone quite well with the panoply of pork charcuterie served during the dinner (fish and pigs being apples and oranges of gastronomy, François Villard is clearly dexterous with syrah). Also appearing on the menu that evening to accompany the wines and satisfy the bons vivants: perfectly pan-seared scallops and fava beans, a cute little rabbit confit clad in a bikini of bacon, and wild mushroom flan with medallions of elk. It was all too much, really, and we should’ve been awarded medals for not keeling over. I’m sure I had bizarre dreams that night, if I slept at all.
THE NEXT BIG THING to happen to Steve Law on his way to a winemaking career came out of left field a dozen years ago—left field in this case being an old zinfandel vineyard in Napa Valley. Settled into a Bay Area high tech position, he started hitting the road again for wine country, albeit with Sonoma County as a destination instead of Saint-Joseph. On one of these excursions, in 2005, he was hunting around the county with friends for pinot noir producers. The group stopped at a winery in Dry Creek Valley known for pinot and were directed a couple miles up Dry Creek Road to Talty Vineyards, where they were told they’d find some wines that were both different and delicious. Steve was greeted by owner-winemaker Michael Talty, who poured him his lineup of Sonoma wines and also offered a Napa Valley outlier: an old-vine St. Helena zinfandel. The experience was Villard Saint-Joseph redux. “I literally had a knee-trembler moment,” he said. “It was one of those wines that really just rocks your world, an ’03 Filice Connolly Vineyard zinfandel. A fantastic, spicy wine from an 80 year-old head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard on the east side of St. Helena.”
Deeply impressed by this old-school California wine, and equally taken with the small winery vibe, he returned to Talty a couple more times that year and the following. Each visit drew him further out of the high tech cocoon and closer to a 180-degree career change. He took an intermediate step in 2006, signing up for a UC Davis extension course in winemaking. “It was something I decided to do,” he confessed, “because I wasn’t sure where I was going with this thing.”
For additional direction, he fell back on the Cuilleron-Villard duo, who happened to be visiting the Bay Area around this time. Steve met up with them at a restaurant, and the conversation inevitably shifted to his own fledgling efforts. “I was having dinner with Yves and François in Los Gatos, and I was like the junkyard dog sniffing around,” he recalled. “And I’m saying, ‘Hey, so what’s going on with the vintage? What’s this, and what’s that?’ And they said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to do something about this.’”
Their advice was friendly but firm: he needed to foray into the “terrible affliction” of winemaking. Even Michael Talty, a product of the same UC Davis program, told him that the courses were worthwhile but “the best way to make wine is just to do it.”
Steve took mental note of Talty’s “totally innocuous” statement and was back in Dry Creek Valley the following weekend. “He didn’t mean to offer anything at all, but I actually took it as an offer. I went back up there knocking at the door and said, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m here to help you.’ So Michael let me in.”
In unlikely fashion, so began the career of a winemaker.
Steve soon found out that there’s nothing like a grape harvest when it gets rolling. He took vacation hours and commuted up from the peninsula to help Talty crush and barrel his ’06 zinfandel and other wines. It was hard work and required extra time just to get to Dry Creek Valley, but the frantic pace and effort had him fully engaged. His plan post-harvest was to repeat the process the following year and make himself available to Talty during the months in between for the essential cellar work of topping barrels and racking and “the other different bits and pieces,” as he put it. And with a Rhône winemaker whispering to him on each shoulder, he was already envisioning his own project.
“I said to Michael, ‘Any chance I could make a little syrah on the side? Because it’s my absolute favorite.’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you continue helping me make my zin’—because he works on his own—‘if you continue helping me, I’ll let you make your syrah here.’ And that was it…It was basically a barter. I was going to give him effort, and I was going to give him my sweat equity, and he was going to allow me to produce my syrah at his place.”
Picturing a MacLaren syrah in his head wasn’t too difficult, but Steve first had to seek out a fruit source. He found his way to Unti Vineyard in Dry Creek, where the respected father-and-son team of George and Mick Unti have been growing and producing Rhône-worthy syrah since the 90s. At the winery tasting room, a conversation with the elder Unti became part of his learning curve for acquiring grapes. “I remember chatting with George at his bar, and I asked him if he would be willing to sell me some fruit. But,” he admitted, describing the tone of the meeting, “it’s tough to get growers to sell you fruit when you have no background.” He must have sounded convincing, however, because George Unti agreed to let him buy two tons of syrah for the first MacLaren bottling.
“Or 100 cases,” he replied, confirming my shaky winemaking math.
“That’s not very much.”
“But it took me about a year to sell!” he moaned.
Then he shook his head, remembering, perhaps, the audacity of trying to market a wine brand no one had heard of made from a grape variety that, even before he got started, a shrinking number of people wanted to drink. Furthermore, no matter his enthusiasm for syrah, he had to face the reality of a wine-consuming public reeling from the Great Recession sucker punch. The customers Steve Law might have counted on when we first met in 2009 were probably saving their remaining disposable incomes, if not for high-proof whiskey, then for more familiar Napa cabernet, or even Yellow Tail shiraz.
• • • • •
On a different day this past fall, I dropped by MacLaren Wines to say hello and grab a couple of syrah samples for this article. A vaguely European couple wandered in after me to admire the enlarged photographs of MacLaren bottles the Laws have mounted on the walls. But once the couple figured out there was no cabernet sauvignon to taste and they had missed their Napa target by 20 miles, they turned around and left. They might also have been confused by Steve’s really odd California accent.
To me, the photographs represent the singular, syrah-driven idea Steve Law had bouncing around in his head a decade ago, blown up to announce that MacLaren syrah is now a tangible thing, recessions and wine fads be damned. Since he and Heather debuted MacLaren Wines with the ’07 Unti, they’ve produced nine different single-vineyard syrahs, along with a yearly release of the aforementioned Drouthy Neebors—a cleverly named vineyard blend that their thirsty wine club members select to be bottled by a tasting vote. It’s telling that, over the last ten harvests, some of the individual vineyards have come and gone from the portfolio, including Unti. This rotation is central to what has become Steve’s winemaking philosophy: to seek out and work with growers whose grapes provide him the material for balanced, expressive syrah.
“It’s taken me a while to find the right vineyards and where I was actually wanting to go,” he told me in January, expanding on his grower relationships. Despite my enthusiasm for his first syrah, he lamented that, with the Unti Vineyard fruit, “everything was just out of whack, in terms of the style” of restrained, Rhône-inspired red wine he wanted to produce. “I just realized that [Dry Creek Valley] was too warm…I was trying to make a round peg go through a square hole, and it wasn’t working. I figured I needed to try and find the different regions in terms of which ones were a wee bit cooler.”
In 2008, his second vintage, he repeated the Unti bottling, though he purchased half as much fruit. But overall, his sophomore effort saw an increased case production through the addition of cooler-climate vineyards. This included Dry Stack Vineyard in the Bennett Valley appellation. The syrah Steve made from this property, ideally situated on the foggy southern edge of Santa Rosa, gave him a glimpse of the different direction his winemaking could go. In another peculiar twist to the story, it was a fellow Scotsman who helped to show him the way.
[End of part one]