Great Scots Syrah! – Part Two

[One]

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.”

In 2009 Steve got his hands on some fruit from a neighboring property, Judge Vineyard, and made a minerally, northern Rhône-style syrah from it in back-to-back vintages (“Perfect for pairing with wild mushrooms,” as he wrote on his website tasting notes). The case quantities each year were tiny, but the net result was huge for the MacLaren program. “That was when I realized Bennett Valley was just a fantastic spot. The soils were very different, and the styles that were coming out of the vineyards were very different” from Dry Creek Valley.

Dry Stack Vineyard Bennett ValleyA good number of the seventeen AVAs in Sonoma County aren’t as well-known as Dry Creek for their wines. Through a petition by Matanzas Creek Winery, Bennett Valley was granted American Viticultural Area status in 1993. Before then, as someone at Matanzas Creek notes on the winery’s website, the valley “existed for many years in quiet obscurity.”

After his switch to Judge Vineyard and seeing what Bennett Valley syrah could deliver, Steve wanted to explore other cool-climate vineyards in Sonoma County. But he was still a “newbie” who needed some guidance. Andy Smith stuck around to help him get in front of the right growers. Smith probably understood his fellow Scotsman’s winemaking goals, even if Steve himself wasn’t yet completely in tune with his inner vintner. “Andy was a huge helper to me,” he explained. “He was actually instrumental in helping me get into Samantha’s Vineyard, which is in the Russian River AVA.” Smith has made a DuMol version of Samantha’s—he calls it “Eddie’s Patch”—since 2000. When he introduced the vineyard’s owner to Steve in 2009, it ended up being MacLaren Wines’ entrée into a grower relationship that endures to the present day and helps define the MacLaren brand.

eddie's patchCompared to Bennett Valley, that Russian River Valley AVA is not so obscure. In 1993, it had already been an American Viticultural Area for a decade, and it has a long grape growing and winemaking history going back to the 1800s. As one of California’s best-known wine regions, Russian River Valley is closely associated with cool-climate viticulture, for its chardonnay and pinot noir in particular.

Strategically (because how else does one manage to move stacks of it out of winery warehouses?), syrah grown in this state’s more temperate regions is kind of like fire to pinot noir’s smoke: some prestigious wineries, including DuMol, make syrah from vineyards in close proximity to their better and best pinot noir vines. Of course, the Rhône Valley’s noblest wine grape offers different aromatic and flavor characteristics from its equally (or more!) noble Burgundian cousin. But, as Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyard told a group of syrah enthusiasts—myself included—at a San Francisco gathering in the late 90s, syrah and pinot noir can behave more like fraternal twins. Both varieties need a long, even growing season to get to barrel and bottle in their finest form. From there, pinot noir tends to fetch a higher price, so a profits-pinching determination just goes with the syrah territory. Steve and other dedicated winemakers in California seem to have it in their DNA to try to coax the best out of the grape under such conditions. Like San Francisco’s late, great Irish bartender, Michael McCourt, they want to have a conversation with their customers through the wines—or, in McCourt’s case, the stiff drinks—they make.

 •   •   •   •   •

As I noted last month in part one, Steve Law is unique around Sonoma Plaza for syrah’s central place in his winemaking. Not so unique: like a lot of winemakers, he’s also a good host. Hanging around him at his lounge for an hour ensures a tasting of whichever MacLaren wines are currently available, plus maybe a surprise or two.

Vine Alley signAppropriately, in 2014 he threw his customers a couple of curveballs and bottled a “Heather” pinot noir and a “Lee” sauvignon blanc. It was equal parts personal and business: he honored his wife and mother respectively with MacLaren versions of their favorite grape varieties, while mixing a little diversity into the brand. The sauvignon, in particular, gives him a useful aperitif to begin a dialogue with his guests. From there, it’s no surprise that syrah remains the focus.

On the rainy day last year when I interviewed him, after a little glass of his mum’s crisp sauvignon blanc, Steve had me taste four syrahs from 2013, along with a ’12 he happened to have open. He likes to start with wine from the coolest site and progress to the warmest. “There’s a certain education for people in terms of the styles of syrah you can get from different vineyards,” he said, handing me his tasting list.

He poured a pair of Russian River AVA wines: the bright, spicy Samantha’s Vineyard that Andy Smith helped enable; and an even higher-toned syrah from Atoosa’s Vineyard, owned by growers Tuck and Atoosa Bierbaum. The Bierbaums have sold fruit to Steve from their property just off of Guerneville Road since 2011. Between the two vineyards, he’s developed a following over the last few years for some pretty lively wines. He pointed out that, like most wine grapes, syrah loses acidity the riper it gets. For red wines made from a meaty, dark-fruited, and potentially opulent grape, Steve’s offer a certain restrained snappiness. “The fruit never gets that ripe,” he assured me.

Samantha's Vineyard RRV - textBecause he had it open, and because I never say no, I was able to taste his otherwise sold-out 2012 Atoosa’s, an eye-opening wine next to the 2013. In the high-quality but warm ’12 vintage, Atoosa’s clocked in at all of 12.9% alcohol, an almost absurdly low percentage that, while indicative of a temperate location, might make a paranoid French vigneron suspect there’s something wicked in the Russian River water.

Steve then caught me up on his current Drouthy Neebors and finished with a slightly richer, gamier syrah from Moaveni Vineyard in Bennett Valley. It rounded out the flight as the “biggest” wine, but it still comes from a relatively cool site. This was a debut bottling, 2013 Samantha's Vineyard RRV 3being the first year he’d worked with the steep location in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain. Its slightly higher elevation means the conditions aren’t “totally fogged,” which was how he described his previous experience with Dry Stack and Judge Vineyards.

I sipped while Steve explained. “My history with Bennett Valley is I started in probably the coolest area, and I’ve been trying to get progressively a little bit warmer. And the reason for that is really to try and protect the amount of ripeness I could actually get, because Bennett Valley is very, very foggy. But there are certain regions within the valley Atoosa's Vineyard textthat are foggier than others. Dry Stack, for example, is a wee bit lower, so it gets a little more fog. But the higher up the hill you go, the less fog you get.”

“So Moaveni is great,” he summed up. He was happy to be working with vines that receive a few degrees more heat during the growing season and, consequently, produce more even-ripening fruit. “It really gives you those prolonged hangtimes. If anything, it’s on the other side where you’re kind of hoping you’re going to get the ripeness you’re looking for. It’s actually on the other side where it’s slow.”

Slow but steady: this is how I thought of the progression of syrahs Steve had open the day I visited. The Moaveni syrah was impressive, and the skills he’s developed over the past ten years present themselves through all the wines he makes, but I think Samantha’s and Atoosa’s might best demonstrate his range. From those fog-shrouded Russian River vineyards “on the other side,” as he put it, come bright, balanced, expressive wines that are intrinsic to the MacLaren syrah identity.

 [Two]

WHEN TALKING ABOUT vineyard locations, microclimates, and other physical factors of grapegrowing, it can understandably get a bit abstract to some of the Vine Alley visitors who find their way through Steve’s door. To help with this, he has a laminated map of Sonoma County that sits on his concrete bar and outlines in pale green shade the AVAs he works in within the county, including the Russian River and Bennett Valleys. Pinpointed in each region are the locations of the individual MacLaren vineyard sources. Visual aids are good for wine tourists and reporters alike.MacLaren partners map

We looked at the map together while he poured his wines. Swirling the ’12 in my glass, I confessed Atoosa’s Vineyard was probably my favorite MacLaren syrah. Like my host and subject, I enjoy acid-driven, savory red wines—at least when I’m not slurping zinfandel. Steve nodded, pointing to the vineyard on the map while he drew a circle around it with his finger to show the Russian River plain. Across the flats extending west from Santa Rosa, he reminded me, fog will often linger in summertime until mid-morning. The same is true of the Bennett Valley floor and lower hillsides to the city’s southeast. Crucially, the chill in the air slows down the vines early in the day and provides conditions for balanced fruit at harvest. It applies pretty equally to chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah.

Late last year, I caught Atoosa’s owner, Tuck Bierbaum, on his cellphone. He’s been a Russian River grower for nearly two decades and has worked even longer as an emergency physician at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. I was glad to be sharing non-emergency time with him while he told me about his history with MacLaren Wines. Bierbaum purchased the ten-acre property on the northwest edge of Santa Rosa in 1998. He somehow fits hours on a tractor into his schedule. “It’s way too be big to be a hobby,” he laughed over the phone, “and it’s too small to make a living.” Through what he drily described as an “academic and pragmatic, self-directed training session,” he built the syrah vineyard from the rootstock up.

Atoosa and Tuck Bierbaum - textI asked him the same question I’d posed to Steve earlier in the year: why syrah? Bierbaum credited his Iranian wife. “Shiraz, you know, is a town in Persia, and Atoosa loves syrah. So when everyone else was putting pinot and chardonnay in the Russian River, I explored the idea instead of doing cool-climate syrah. Since I was going to be spending a lot of time there, I pretty much wanted to bow to her wishes. I put in the syrah and named the vineyard after her.”

He didn’t disagree when I called him a “smart husband,” and told me that he and Atoosa celebrated their wedding while developing the vineyard in 2000. “It was sort of a love-infused horticultural project,” he said. The good doctor had a way with words.

Since they started working together in 2011, Bierbaum has paid close attention to Steve’s winemaking and described him as “very meticulous and fairly demanding about how things are grown and done.”

“I’m good with that,” he said. “I mean, he gets in the vineyard and actively gives me input and perspective. He recognizes I have to balance his desires with the financial reality of growing and the timing and demands of the other folks I sell to. I love working with Steve. He’s always very accommodating, always very thankful for the fruit. When I drop it off at his place, he’s just excited to get his hands on it.”Atoosa double-rainbow - text

Bierbaum has supplied grapes to a handful of wineries, including Rosenblum Cellars and Carlisle Winery, whose styles of syrah differ from the MacLaren version of Atoosa’s. I asked him how he thinks the vineyard “speaks” through Steve’s wine. “Whatever he does to it, he’s able to capture the savory-spice characteristics of the fruit. You know, syrah, if it’s grown really hot, can get really fruit-forward.” He noted with appreciation in his voice that Steve “somehow emphasizes the savory component of syrah wine, and I think that’s pretty cool. You can go buy an Australian cherry bomb, or you can have a little bit of ‘rosemary scone’ character, or something like that, with ours. I think he does a great job with it. He does it in a very, very elegant way.”

So Atoosa’s starts the syrah conversation at the MacLaren lounge because the vines are located in a cool pocket of the Russian River Valley where fog is a regular feature. It’s ironic, for sure, that gloomy conditions can beget such energetic wines. But, as I’ve observed, the stylistic envelope for MacLaren syrah has become smaller as Steve has fine-tuned his fruit sources and improved his winemaking. His Moaveni syrah from Bennett Valley, a bit bigger in texture and alcohol but equally vibrant, finishes the conversation.

I realized the Rhône Valley was probably lurking in the background of the interview the whole time when Steve brought it back front-and-center. “I know it’s difficult to kind of compare to other regions,” he admitted, “but I would say my Atoosa’s is more of my ‘Saint-Joseph.’ It’s more floral and peppery, whereas the Bennett Valley is always a little bit more of a Côte-Rôtie style. It’s a wee bit bigger and little bit more robust—though still quite light from a California syrah perspective.”Cote-Rotie - text

If I didn’t mention it before, all of this syrah talk took place before lunch. Steve’s Rhône Valley reference reminded me about the Suite D dinner in 2015 and Villard’s and Cuilleron’s delectable wines. It furthermore had me thinking about pancetta-wrapped rabbits and arrays of rich rillettes. My stomach and I needed to get the hell out of the MacLaren lounge and to the closest steak sandwich, stat.

“The comparison is just kind of an indication,” the Scotsman summed up. “I think that the California wines I’m trying to make are more influenced by my past with regards to French wine than by drinking bigger and more opulent styles of California syrah. I’m not making a French wine in California. I’m making a Californian wine.”

(End of part two)

 

2 Comments

  1. John Poer February 11, 2017

    Tony, I might be your Dad and I know so little about the wine you love to write about, but I always learn so much from your articles. I’m particularly pleased to learn about the young winemakers and their connection with each other. I think they too should be thankful that there’s someone who understands their passion and can write as well as you do. Keep it up…..your Mom and Dad are rightfully proud. John Poer, Pasadena, CA

    Reply
    • TP February 12, 2017

      As the owner/editor, I reserve the right to gladly accept parental appreciation!

      Reply

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