Tag Archives: syrah

Santa Barbara Rhônes Revisited

A few years back Lori and I spent a few days in the Santa Maria/Santa Ynez Valley/Santa Barbara area doing some tasting. We had some great wine tasting experiences on that trip, but overall the best wines (and tasting experiences) were the Rhônes, the Syrahs, Grenaches and Mourvèdres and blends of those (typically called “GSMs”). Over the last month or so we’ve had a chance to open up these wines we tasted and bought, and Wow!

First, there was a 2010 Qupé Syrah, Bien Nacido Vineyard, opened the weekend we spent celebrated my mother’s 85th birthday. Big, yes, but more graceful than we usually get in a wine with this much fruit. “Graceful?” I was looking back on my notes from a Wine Bloggers’ Conference panel on Syrahs, and one of the participants compared Syrahs to the dancing hippos from Fantasia, at once big but surprisingly light on their feet and graceful. Opening the Qupé also reminded us of the visit to the Qupé winery (not the tasting room), and being invited to join Bob Lindquist and his team for lunch in the winery. One of our most memorable meals ever.

The second bottle opened, also in Mom’s honor, was the 2012 Carr Grenache, Santa Barbara County. It’s hard to adequately describe this wine, made from 100% Grenache, grown in a vineyard south of the city of Santa Barbara, pretty much where no other vineyards are located. Grenache fruit up front, both in the nose and the initial entry into your mouth, then this fullness in mouth like it’s expanding to fill all available space, then a lingering flavor in your mouth but without a lot of tannin. It’s time to order more of this from the husband and wife team, with the great tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara.

The last bottle was 2011 Harrison Clarke Vineyards Eve e Marie, Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara County. Eve e Marie is a blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache from another husband and wife team. Actually, at that same Wine Bloggers’ Conference panel where panelists were describing Syrah as dancing hippos or thunderstorms or just dangerous, Hilarie Clarke Harrison stood out for her no-frills approach. This approach is embodied in their wines, made from grapes they grow themselves, harvest row by row, transport a few hundred yards to their winery, and make into wine. It was a pleasure to visit their vineyard and winery, to walk those rows of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre with Dave Harrison, and taste with Hilarie. It’s just good, very good, wine. This bottle was opened last week with some friends that mentioned that they were looking for good Syrah and GSM.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Porter Creek for Syrah, with a Side of Scottish Rugby

The Porter Creek Vineyards tasting room is not much more than a glorified tool shed.

Lori and I took some friends wine tasting the other day in the Russian River Valley, and our first stop was Porter Creek Vineyards. We had only been to Porter Creek once before, but it was a memorable wine tasting experience. We were there with my parents, pulled into their dirt parking lot, and between there and their tool shed of a tasting room we were greeted by a pair of big dogs. Probably around 100 lbs each, friendly as could be. We all love dogs, so that started the tasting off on a great note. As far as I remembered their wines, while they’re known for their Pinot Noir, it was the Syrah that we loved and walked away with that day.

Vineyard view at Porter Creek Vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

No big dogs this time. Forgot to ask about them. Instead of the big dogs, we got Paul from the tasting room, letting us know that us guys could use the ladies room, because where he’s from “they all wear skirts.” While I’m sure Paul doesn’t have any bad days, he was particularly happy that day because the Scots had beaten England in rugby earlier in the day, for the first time in some large number of matches. He’d even posted the score on the wall behind the tasting room bar.

Tasting with friends at Porter Creek Vineyards.

Porter Creek still has the same tasting room, crowded enough on this day that we took our tasting outside. More Pinot Noir to taste than any other wine. They are in the Russian River Valley after all, and Pinot Noir is what the RRV AVA is known for. However, our favorite of the day was again the Syrah, the 2012 Timbervine Ranch, Russian River Valley. Interestingly, they put a few percent of Viognier in the Syrah, similar to the winemaking style in the Northern Rhone Valley in France, which helps give a boost to the nose on the Syrah. I don’t know if it was that, or just good Syrah grapes, but this was a really nice Syrah from start to finish. Not too big and bold, not in your face, just waiting for a nice lamb chop to pair with it.

They also had a Carignane, 2012 Old Vines Mendocino County. I don’t think I’ve ever run into one before, since Carignane is almost always (now with one exception) used as a blending grape. Sort of like coming across a California Grenache, except that bottles of Grenache are much more common. I really liked the Carignane: it was a bit bigger and bolder than the Syrah, felt like it filled up your mouth a bit more.

We walked away with some of the #PorterCreekVineyards Syrah and Carignane, with me humming one of my old college drinking songs, which I’ve been told (after a few pints) has direct roots in rugby drinking songs.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Minestrone and Syrah for the New Parents

An old friend of ours, ex-girlfriend of one of our sons, daughter of friends of ours had her first child a few weeks ago. As she lives relatively close by, in San Francisco, we thought it would be good to go visit, see the baby, and bring them a meal. It was one of the first colder weekends in the Bay Area, so we decided on soup for lunch, and of course we needed to bring a bottle of wine.

Lori holding baby Miles!

Baby Miles was 2 weeks old when we visited, and also of course, Lori had to hold the baby. Interesting to note that this is the third “Miles” that friends have had in the last 1 ½ years. First was Milo, then Myles, and now Miles. I don’t see this on the list of trending baby names, but maybe our friends are just ahead of their time.

Minestrone was chosen for the soup, to be served with a loaf of fresh sourdough plus a bottle of 2007 Arrowood Syrah, Sonoma County #Arrowood #Syrah #SonomaStrong. We enhanced the soup for the lunch by adding some beef to it. You can find the recipe on the ViciVino.com recipe page. The Syrah was delicious: nice nose, great fruit, enough structure and body but a very smooth, easy finish, and went great with the soup.

We all – new parents, grandparents, Lori and I – really enjoyed the soup, and especially enjoyed catching up and telling stories of the new mother when she was young, plus other fun stories.

Our best wishes to Miles for a long and healthy life, and to the parents, may he bring them much nachas.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Te Whare Ra in the OXO Tower Restaurant

Lori and I spent a week in England in December. One of those business/vacation trips, which ended up being great. We were staying in a small town, Thame, which is near Oxford, and is where my day job company is located. Two days Lori took the train into London, with me joining her there in the evening. One of those evenings was a theater evening (Billy Elliot), while the second was to meet with friends that we hadn’t seen in a number of years. After wandering around a Christmas market near the Millennium Bridge, we went to the OXO Tower Restaurant (only 8 floors up to the top of the tower, but still a pretty good view overlooking the Thames River and London).

Incredible cheese trolley at OXO Tower Restaurant in London

Incredible cheese trolley at OXO Tower Restaurant in London

The restaurant has a very good reputation. The food was very good, and the service was excellent, except for the sommelier. After looking through the wine list I found a bottle of Te Whare Ra 2010 Syrah, from Marlborough, New Zealand. The sommelier tried a couple of times to talk me out of this bottle, suggesting both South African Syrah and Australian Shiraz as alternatives with bigger, bolder flavors. But I didn’t want that – didn’t want bigger, bolder Syrah with the mix of meals we were getting – and I did want the Te Whare Ra bottle.

Te Whare Ra 2010 Syrah, Marlborough, New Zealand

Te Whare Ra 2010 Syrah, Marlborough, New Zealand

When we visited New Zealand in 2005, and visited the Marlborough area where Winemaker B and then-fiance-now-wife Kim were spending 6 months (Winemaker B’s first post-UC Davis graduation job was in Marlborough), our favorite winery was Te Whare Ra. The name is pronounced Tea Far-ee Ra, and means house of the sun in Maori. There was a young couple running the place; I seem to remember twins about 1 year old at the time.

Te Whare Ra 2004 Gewürztraminer, Marlborough, New Zealand

Te Whare Ra 2004 Gewürztraminer, Marlborough, New Zealand

This couple really knew what they were doing around wine. They made the standard crisp Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but also made a Gewürztraminer that we all loved. I don’t remember much about red wines, but anyone that can make a good Gewürztraminer can make almost anything. That was proved out with the 2010 Syrah. Not so big and bold, but lighter, smooth with a good balance between fruit and acids. It went great with our dinners.

Wine is about people and place and time, as well as about the wine itself and the food being enjoyed with the wine. This was a reminder of New Zealand 10 years ago, and now has a place in our memory with our friends Chris and Catherine with whom we enjoyed this wonderful bottle and meal.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Harrison Clarke for Rhônes

At the Wine Bloggers Conference last year, one of the sessions was on Ballard Canyon AVA Syrahs. Ballard Canyon is one of the newest AVAs in the Santa Ynez Valley, and has made its reputation based on the Syrahs and other Rhône varietals that are typically grown there. I tried Syrahs from 7 different wineries in that session, with typically two vintages per winery.

Panel on Ballard Canyon Syrahs at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference

Panel on Ballard Canyon Syrahs at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference

One winemaker on the panel described Syrah by comparing the wines from this varietal to the dancing hippos from the movie Fantasia, but substituting the dangerous animals of the Nile for the cute animated hippos. (The music to that scene is Dance of the Hours, by Amilcare Ponchielli.) Not a bad analogy: Syrahs can be big and bold and graceful, and dangerous to novice winemakers.

Regarding the wines from the seminar, my favorite was the 2010 Syrah from Harrison Clarke Vineyards. It was still a bit young, but to my tastes a better balanced wine than any of the others, one that would have been great with a meal. So when Lori and I went to Santa Ynez Valley in July, a visit Harrison Clarke was high on our list.

We started with a tour of their vineyards, about 12 acres currently planted, with Roger Harrison. An interesting walk, as we seemed to stop every 5 steps for another 2 minutes of discussion about one aspect or another about the vineyard: differences between the top of the hill and the bottom, differences between the edge of the vineyard near a tree and the middle of the vineyard, differences between newer and older vines, differences between the Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre that they have planted their. Roger is in the vineyards every day, and his love of the grapes was obvious. By the way, they’ve also got a great view from the vineyard down Ballard Canyon.

Hilarie Clarke outside the Harrison Clarke winery.

Hilarie Clarke outside the Harrison Clarke winery.

We then adjourned to the winery and tasted with Hilarie Clark, whose love for her wines was as compelling as Roger’s love for his grapes. She’s no novice; the wines were big and bold and graceful, as I remembered from a year ago. Not only are they growing other Rhône varietals, they are making those wines. So we tasted Syrahs, and GSM (Grenache / Syrah / Mourvèdre) blends. There was also a very nice rosé of Grenache. We liked it all, but choices had to be made. In the end, the wines that made the cut and got taken home with us were

2011 Eve e Marie (70% Syrah, 30% Grenache blend)
2011 Cuvee Charlotte Syrah

Now we have a dilemma: We want to open these wines, but we also want to let them age for a few years or more. It’s a tough problem, but somehow we’ll face up to the challenge.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Qupé Is Central Coast Syrah

Family legend has it that my parents used to trade Dodgers tickets for Qupé wine. According to Bob Lindquist, owner/winemaker of Qupé Winery, there was at least one discussion about that, but it never happened. So it’s just legend. We do know that my parents met Bob just after he started Qupé, while he was still working at another winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. Lori and I will take credit for that, since we were living in Santa Barbara at the time, and took my parents to that other winery. Shortly after, my job took us to the East Coast, but my parents kept up the relationship with Bob over the next 30+ years.

30+ years of wines in the Qupé library.

30+ years of wines in the Qupé library.

In that 30+ year interval, all Bob did was to build Qupé into the leading producer of Syrah on the Central Coast of California, establish the Central Coast as a valid and valuable growing region for Rhône varietals and establish himself as one of the godfathers of those varietals in the state. That’s quite a résumé. We reconnected with Bob at last year’s Wine Bloggers Conference, and he was our first call when we starting planning our trip to the Santa Ynez Valley this year. He didn’t have a lot of spare time, so he invited us to come to the winery and share their daily staff lunch. As befits a godfather, he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse: Come to the winery, located in the middle of the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard, taste Qupe and Au Bon Climat (ABC) wines (Au Bon Climat, headed by Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and Chardonnay pioneer Jim Clendenen, shares the winery with Qupe), and have lunch with Bob and the winery team.

This was one of the most memorable meals we’ve ever had. Kudos to Enrique, Bob’s cellar master, for the meal: flank steak, spare ribs, fava beans and kale, braised cabbage, salad and garlic bread, served buffet style in the winery. Aside from Bob and Enrique, joining us for lunch were Katie, their marketing person, Marc Piro, who while he has no official title is essentially the assistant winemaker, and Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, Bob’s wife. As we sat down at the table we noticed the line up of wines:

The lunch table at Qupé Winery.

The lunch table at Qupé Winery.

Qupé 2012 Syrah Central Coast
Verdad 2012 Tempranillo, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard
Armida 2013 Parmelee-Hill Zinfandel
Armida 2013 Il Campo, Dry Creek Valley (field blend of about 80% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah, estate grown)
Qupé 2011 Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard, Highland Bench

Since they had to work after lunch, and we had to drive, there were individual spit cups lined up on the table, as well as larger buckets. You’ll notice some white wines in the photo, but since this was really a red wine meal, I quickly skipped and spit through the whites to get to the reds.

The Central Coast Syrah from Qupé is their largest production wine. Grapes from all three vineyards that they source from are included. This is a really nice Syrah, and at $20 per bottle it’s a great value.

Verdad Wines is Louisa’s brand. She’s been in the wine business for decades herself, starting on the sales and marketing side of the business. The Tempranillo grapes come from a vineyard Louisa and Bob planted in the Edna Valley area, closer to San Luis Obispo than to Santa Ynez. The vineyard, the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, is farmed biodynamically. Tempranillo is an underappreciated varietal in California, with our abundance of great reds. But Tempranillo, cared for properly, can have complexity and subtlety and can age well. I’m not sure how the Verdad wines will age, as we were drinking fairly young wines, but this was among the best Tempranillo we’ve had from California. While we drank and enjoyed the 2012 Tempranillo with lunch, we bought a bottle of both the 2012 and 2011, so we could compare vintages at some point in the future.

Armida is the winery our son, Brandon (Winemaker B), works for. We figured that a) bringing wine for lunch would be a good way to pay for lunch, and b) that bringing Zinfandel, the flagship grape for Armida, would be the way to go. Also, while there is Zinfandel grown in the Paso Robles area, there’s really none in Santa Barbara County, so Bob and team don’t get to try to many Zinfandels. The Il Campo was as expected, fruity and big, with the Petite Sirah boosting the body of the Zinfandel as it’s supposed to. The Parmelee-Hill was as we expected, but not what Bob expected. This vineyard is in Sonoma County, not too far from the Carneros region, and therefore is a much colder vineyard for Zinfandel than usual. And it produces a much more nuanced Zinfandel than most in California. Delicious.

One block of Bien Nacido Vineyard, near Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County

One block of Bien Nacido Vineyard, near Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County

The Qupé 2011 Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard, Highland Bench is the flagship wine for Qupé. Bob doesn’t make a huge amount of this wine; he can’t, there aren’t enough grapes in the block. But this wine gets special care, and it shows. This was Syrah with restraint, Syrah that was showing off its style on the catwalk and you wanted to see it from all angles, noticing the little touches and subtle flair in the execution. This was Syrah produced by an experienced hand, comfortable in his own skin, not trying to impress anyone but just making the wine he wants to make.

Best. Lunch. Ever.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Carr Winery Shows Off Area Varietals

Carr tasting room in Santa Barbara

Carr Winery in Santa Barbara

We met Ryan and Jessica Carr last year at the Wine Bloggers Conference, and enjoyed talking with them and drinking their wine. Actually, I only got to try the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir as part of the Pinot Noir Heaven tasting night, and their Pinot Gris was worthy of special mention that night. Ryan started out doing vineyard management and still does that, and Carr Vineyards & Winery gets their grapes from vineyards Ryan manages. This knowledge of the grapes shows up in their wines. A good example of the old adage that the first job of the winemaker is to get out of the way of the grapes.

Painting on display at Carr Winery

Painting on display at Carr Winery

Carr was our last tasting stop on this trip. Their bottle storage, and a tasting room, is in the Santa Ynez Valley, and the wine making and another tasting room are in downtown Santa Barbara. It was the Santa Barbara site that we visited. Small facility, but they have a nice tasting bar and can accommodate more than a few people for tasting. They also feature a couple of local artists in the Santa Barbara tasting room, with different artists each month.

Jessica was in the tasting room, and led us through their wines. The Pinot Gris that I liked so much a year ago was great again, now in the 2014 vintage. We bought a couple of bottles of this, and opened one the next night with a Roasted Cauliflower and Garlic Soup.

In addition to the Pinot Gris, we really liked their Rhône varietal wines. The 2014 Crosshatch white blend (70% Viognier, 30% Marsanne) was very nice, as was their 2012 Syrah (Morehouse Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley). Our favorite was their 2012 Grenache, with the grapes coming from the Paredon Vineyard in Carpenteria, just south along the coast from Santa Barbara, and not from the Santa Ynez Valley. The vineyard is high up, at 1200 feet, so above the fog and direct marine influences, but still a cold climate vineyard. The Grenache was deep red, full bodied, fruity and just plain delicious.

Oil companies self-promotion at a Santa Barbara beach park

Oil companies self-promotion at a Santa Barbara beach park

As we were leaving the Santa Barbara area, we stopped at a beach park that we had never seen before. It appears that the park was built by the oil companies that support the offshore oil rigs and other oil activities in the area. Seems to me that building a small park is an absurdly low price for them to pay for the environmental damage they’ve inflicted on the Santa Barbara coast and channel. But maybe those oil execs feel better now, and can sleep at night.

Oil rigs off the coast of Santa Barbara

Oil rigs off the coast of Santa Barbara

L’Chaim,

Larry