Syrah In My Pinot

The recent brouhaha over at Palate Press starting with an offhand Twitter comment by wine blogger Remy Charest and ending (maybe) with an article by winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri called up the frequent under-the-breath reference insinuating many California Pinot Noirs are so big due a dollop of syrah. It’s rather a silly idea if you think about it. Why? It’s already there, no not the syrah, but the syrah character. No additions are necessary.

All of this just shows the misconceptions of both writers and winemakers. Writers think California Pinot is so big because they put syrah in it while winemakers think they need to put syrah in their pinot to make it big enough to make the writers happy. The wonders the 100 point scale has brought us.

Just because you are the first does not mean that you’re the one and only. Burgundy is not the only correct example of pinot noir in the world. It is only one expression of that variety. It’s always interesting to me that the most ardent defenders of terroir are the ones most loudly damning the robust character of California Pinot Noir. Perhaps they should consider that powerful character is the terroir of pinot noir in California. There is a difference in claiming that a wine does not have terroir and not liking the style of a terroir. Successful California Pinot does not and should not taste exactly like Burgundy. That is only one standard and only one of the many expressions of pinot. California Pinot Noir is supposed to taste like California Pinot Noir.

In his excellent article, Syrah in My Pinot? A Winemaker Responds, Adam Siduri makes many good points, but one stands out. It all his years of winemaking he has never known any serious pinot noir producer to add syrah to their wine unless they openly admit it on their label or sales materials. I’ll add my own thirty years of experience to that and I too have never known any winemaker aspiring to make great pinot noir that added syrah to their blend without being upfront about it. The example of Castle Rock adding syrah to their pinot is simply a producer making a better wine. At that price point you can’t make a decent pinot noir without some help. If you insist on buying pinot noir under $15 your palate should be grateful they blended a bit of syrah in. The strange thing about consumers is that if they just bought a $15 syrah they’d get a great wine at a bargain price instead of insisting on pinot noir that needs to be “corrected” to make it pleasurable to drink. Excellent pinot noir is not for bargain hunters.

This does not mean that pinot noir cannot be manipulated out of showing its terroir as it so often is in California and, for that matter, throughout the world. Just because the natural character of California Pinot Noir is substantial does not mean that all extremes are acceptable. The essential character of pinot noir is its transparency, that unique ability to show the personality of the vineyard where it was grown. This transparency can show itself in wines of many different weights and concentrations. This is clearly seen within Burgundy itself.  Vineyard and winery manipulations that obliterate that transparency eliminate the reason to grow and make pinot noir in the first place. If you want to make massive, powerful wines there are a lot better varieties to work with.

The only reason to blend syrah with pinot noir is that you actually wanted to make a syrah to begin with. If you’re a winemaker and want to blend syrah with your pinot you’ve chosen to make the wrong variety. If you’re a wine writer and you want your pinot noir to taste like syrah you’re drinking the wrong variety.

Square pegs in round holes don’t work any better than they used to.

Warning Label

I like to experiment with wines so I’m always trying new things. That’s always a risk and sometimes I get burned. Burned was what I got when I ordered the Herman’s Story, On the Road, Santa Barbara Grenache 2007. I was not burned by the wine, after all a winemaker has the right to make the wine they see fit. The wine itself was well made and interesting, but it clocked in at 16.1% alcohol on the label. A little warning of such an extreme would have been nice.

In Italy Amarone has for generations been a revered wine and it routinely sports alcohol levels of 16% and more. The problem with this Grenache was not the alcohol level, but that there was no way to know what was coming to your table unless you read the label before the cork was pulled. When you see Amarone on a wine list you know what to expect. With New World wines you have no clue. It seems to me the restaurants should make an effort to guide us a bit considering the markup they take. As with Amarone, wines like the Herman’s Story Grenache are not really table wines to compliment dinner, but “meditation wines” to be sipped with cheeses and nuts to finish a meal or while you read a book before the fireplace. When a restaurant tosses such wines into the wine list without comment they do their customers a disservice. It’s like putting a bottle of Graham’s Oporto into the wine list with the rest of the red wines - except that everyone knows Port is sweet.

A wine at 16.1% alcohol is an extreme wine for special circumstances and the wine list should note this fact.

The Herman’s Story, On the Road, Santa Barbara Grenache 2007 itself is an outstanding wine for the finest full flavored cheese you can find. Washed rind and blue cheeses will find a perfect counter point in this powerful, warm and richly fruity wine. The intense fruit and the high alcohol give an impression of sweetness on the palate that marries well with the the pungent saltiness of such cheeses. As there was no chance we could finish this wine with a meal, we brought the bottle home and tomorrow night a cheese course will be waiting for it. I think 24 hours of air won’t hurt a bit either.

Mixed Blacks


Mixed blacks, an old term that used to be the backbone of wines like Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. It was a catch all phrase for varieties that did not command a premium like those that could be bottled under their own name. It also referred to a very old way of planting as farmers would plant many different varieties in their vineyards so they wouldn’t have all their grapes in one basket - if one variety had a bad year perhaps the others would do better. The ‘mixed blacks’ were the bottom of the totem pole and got bottom dollar for the farmer. Today that’s turned on its head as these old mixed planting vineyards have become a national treasure of old vines and interesting varieties.

Girard Winery has taken full advantage of one of these vineyards producing their 2006 Girard Mixed Blacks from a century old vineyard with a mixed planting of syrah, zinfandel, petite sirah, grenache, mourvedre, carignane and a few other varieties whose identity remain a mystery. All the varieties are co-fermented (always an interesting idea) and aged in a blend of French (85%) and American oak for eighteen months. What a wine this is! Loaded with explosive black fruit and layered with earthy touches of porcini and smoked meats, it fills the mouth without being heavy. Girard has avoided the ponderous, one dimensional character of so many “old vine” wines from these varieties. A crisp acid bite keeps this wine alive and it will remind Rhone lovers of a good Cornas or Crozes Hermitage, of course with an added dose of ripe California fruit. 

Too few of these great old vineyards survived the rush to plant more fashionable varieties. It’s great to see a winery give such an old treasure its due.

Posted via email from craigcamp’s posterous

The People That PIck

DSC_0057.JPG I was dreaming in Spanish, at least I was dreaming I was dreaming Spanish. As I slowly woke and came back into reality it occured to me I could not be dreaming in Spanish for obvious reasons. Then the lyrical strains of the harmonious Spanish language again floated through my bedroom window. The vineyard outside my bedroom window was alive with pickers in the pre-dawn glow and their happy chatter filled the air. How anybody can be that happy before dawn and facing hours of backbreaking work always amazes me.

That was about ten days ago and those crews were the first wave, picking grapes bound for sparkling wine. However, now those first ripples are getting ready to turn into a tsunami of harvesting as the Napa Valley gets ready for the main event: the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest. There has been scattered activity around the valley as first the grapes for sparkling wine and then some of the white varieties were harvested. We picked the grapes for our Cornerstone Sauvignon Blanc early last week, in perfect conditions. This was our first harvest of Sauvignon Blanc from the Talcott Vineyard just outside of St. Helena (not too far from Taylor’s Refresher), so I was out there at first light to watch the pick. It never ceases to stun me how hard the picking crews work. None of what we do could be possible without them. Every time I watch a harvest crew in action I want to punch Lou Dobbs in the mouth. I’d like to see him survive even a half-hour, while these crews work at breakneck speed hour after hour until the mid-day sun forces the picking to a merciful end.

Tonight our new Sauvignon Blanc is slowly bubbling away in a cold stainless steel fermemter, while the pickers themselves sleep the sleep that only exhaustion can bring as they prepare to hit the vineyards tomorrow before the morning light illuminates the seemingly endless rows of vines waiting for them. Today we scheduled the pick of our Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon for this coming Tuesday and our Oakville blocks will be right behind. It’s going to be a busy two weeks for us, but it’s nothing compared to the ultra-marathon our pickers have already embarked on.

Wine MSG

While tasting through barrels of our 2008 cabernet sauvignon today, I kept thinking as good as they were they needed a little lift - a little cabernet franc. I love the minty brightness with a vegetal punch that the mouth watering cabernet franc wines of the Loire deliver - often at bargain prices. I think just of touch of that cabernet franc lift would be perfect in our powerful Napa cabernet.

Like soy sauce, Parmigiano and truffles, cabernet franc is packed with umami, that distinctive savory essence that that makes flavors just explode in your mouth. Certainly cabernet franc can be delicious on its own, as in the wonderful reds of the Loire Valley, but its "umami" effect on cabernet sauvignon cannot be overstated. A dollop of cabernet franc "lifts" the nose and expands the finish on many a cabernet and, in my opinion, this variety is under-utilized in Napa where power is easy, but high tones are not.

An absolutely seductive example of California cabernet franc at its best is the 2005 Keenan Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Spring Mountain District. Rich and powerful without being overwhelming, this is one of the finest American cabernet francs I've tasted. Deep in color, with an expansive, bright nose and a fresh, salivating finish, a telling point about this wine is that while I drank this bottle over three days, the wine never got tired. This very fine cabernet franc is a great education on what is possible from this variety in California.

Brilliant Gray

Gray Pinot (pinot gris) sounds pretty drab and 9 times out of 10 the name fits the wine. Yet in the hands of some winemakers this variety can sing. Joining the ranks of delicious and interesting wines from this variety, including wines like Jermann, Chehalem, Albert Mann among others, is the Horse and Plow 2008 Pinot Gris,, Filigreen Farm, Anderson Valley. Crisp, refreshing, but in no way light and simple, it is loaded with creamy fresh pear and white peach flavors all accented by a tangy minerality and firm acidity. This wine was barrel fermented in neutral oak, which shows in the lovely texture and a yeasty whisper on the nose. A whopping 350 cases were produced so Santa Margharita Pinot Grigio has as much to worry about as it has flavor.

Stain Free


I’ve been drinking some California chardonnay lately - believe me it surprises me as much as it does you. It’s not that I wasn’t drinking any chardonnay as Chablis, Macon Villages, St. Veran and Pouilly Fuisse have always been some of my favorite wines. California Chardonnay was another matter with its heavy oak and more than a little residual sugar. The cheaper the California chardonnay the sweeter it seemed to be. For my taste, sweet and oaky does not go very well with food.


So why am a drinking chardonnay again? Here and there there are emerging a few chardonnays that see no oak aging or fermentation. They spend their time before bottling only in stainless steel. Best of all, the California wines in this category are usually fermented to dryness. Often referred to as “unoaked” they are the exception to the rule as the vast majority of California Chardonnay is either aged in oak barrels or “oak alternatives” (oak chips, oak dust and so on) are added to give that sweet, vanilla oak characteristic that has replaced chardonnay varietal character as the defining characteristic of chardonnay for most wine drinkers. Not that there are not many exceptional wines produced from chardonnay aged in oak barrels (no exceptional ones come from wines made with “oak alternatives”), but the fact that most consumers think that the taste of oak is the taste of chardonnay few producers choose the “unoaked” path.

These “unoaked” wines are everything their oaky siblings are not. They are fresh and bright with clean, firm mineral flavors that are lightly laced with touches of white peaches and key limes. With a touch of refreshing tartness to balance their beautiful California fruit, they are perfect food wines. As another plus they tend to be cheaper than their more rotund oaky counterparts.

Two of my favorite “unoaked” California Chardonnays are:

2007 Iron Horse Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay, Sonoma County-Green Valley - Firm and bright with a lovely, lively freshness throughout you can tell as you drink this wine that the Sterling family cut their teeth on French wines. While having a lot in common with a fine Chablis or Pouilly Fuisse, the California personality of this wine shows through in the fresh hints of ripe tropical fruit that rides on a firm backbone of acidity and minerality. What a wonderful thing to do with chardonnay grown in the cool Green Valley.

2006 Elisabeth Spencer, Chardonnay Napa Valley, Special Cuvée - Deeper and more powerful than the Iron Horse, but still crisp and firm. Creamy with bright fresh citrus on the nose with and those characteristics flow through the entire wine. Firm mineral flavors are balanced by round pure apple and pear fruit flavors, which are all lifted by the crisp acidity. Very long on the finish, here is proof positive you don’t have to age chardonnay in oak to get complexity.

Miscellaneous Mendocino


The wines of Mendocino continue their exciting development. You cannot help but be excited by the energy and creativity of the winemakers there. Here are some excellent wines from less than popular varieties that are all delicious and highly recommended.

2007 Bells Echo Syrah - Firm, earthy butcher shop aromas and flavors over rich black fruit. A real beauty.

2007 Monte Volpe Pinot Grigio - Brilliant, bright and fresh with none of the annoying residual sugar that mars so many Oregon and California wines misusing the Italian name for this variety. It’s great to find an American grigio you can actually drink with fried calamari. Winemaker Greg Graziano makes this wine, St. Gregory and the Enotria below and it seems everything he touches is just great to drink - with a fair price to boot.

2005 Enotria Barbera - Explosively fruity and zesty. Oddly like real Italian barbera, which is rare from American examples of this variety.

2007 Lazy Creek Gewurztraminer - Wow, a real dry gewurztraminer. A true rarity these days when most Alsatian examples are almost dessert wines and most Americans are simply and sweet. This gewurz with guts is a wonderful find.

2007 Lioco Indica, Old Vine Carignan Blend - Lovers of brash, forward earthy Southern French wines take note, you’ll love this balanced bruiser. Sausages on the grill anyone?

2008 McDowell Grenache Rose - A perennial favorite, McDowell keeps pumping out this very good rose vintage after vintage. Would it be better dryer? For sure, but it’s still dry enough to be really enjoyable for summer picnics and parties.

Bitter and Black in Mendocino

Spain, France and Italy are full of varieties you’ve never heard of, but that make great wines at great prices. That’s Europe’s secret. Tradition and wine laws, which are so often criticized for impeding progress, are also the secret ingredient that makes Europe beat the crap out of the New World when it comes to wines that sell for under $20 by preserving a diversity of varieites.

Despite our corporate driven wine culture, that wants to force every producer into the chardonnay-sauvignon blanc-pinot noir-cabernet-merlot club, there is a growing cacophony of other voices. Stalwarts continue to slug it out with varieties like zinfandel, syrah and others, whose slow sales (unexplainable quality-wise) can only be based on consumer ignorance fueled by the monotone marketing by the mega-wine factories.

Despite the wine white noise pumped out by the mass wine marketing machine there are a few small producers that can make their voices heard. I can’t think of a better example than Mendocino’s Chiarito Vineyard, where winegrower John Chiarito (pictured on the right) has chosen the road less taken, in the USA anyway, and is making wines from some of southern Italy’s best varieties. Chiarito is making some excellent wines out of varieties most Americans have never heard of, much less tasted. The Chiarito Negroamaro ( the bitter black in the title) is explosively fruity, yet with a compelling earthy touch that makes it very interesting to drink. Their Nero d’Avola ratchets all of the above up a notch combined with a bright, racy freshness.

The Chiarito wines are not cheap, which is understandable as the pioneers take all the arrows, but perhaps their wines, along with other producers, will lead our industry down the road of making exciting wines at moderate prices from varieties more suited to their vineyards than the narrow choices pursued by corporate wineries and their marketing departments.

The Chiarito wines may not be bargains, but just maybe they’ll lead the way there.

Marvelous Mendocino

Lots of places on the West Coast think of themselves as pinot prima donna, but there is a very real possibility that the least pretentious of all will claim the throne. Sideways loved the Central Coast. Oregon assumes (a little to quickly) the crown is theirs. Yet it seems time after time the most exciting pinots I’ve been tasting are from Mendocino’s rugged Anderson Valley.

Yesterday’s Taste of Mendocino was packed with enthusiastic tasters and expressive pinots. What's most exciting is, strangely enough, what these Mendocino pinot noirs lack. They are moderate in alcohol, missing a big price tag and offer more pleasure than attitude. They are brilliantly light in color, fragrantly lacy, exotically delicate and long on the palate. Pinot noir from Anderson Valley tastes like pinot noir - a claim many pinots from Oregon and the rest of California cannot claim. You'll not confuse a Anderson Valley pinot noir with a syrah.

We can only hope their increasing fame does not lead these growers down the path taken by so many Oregon producers who have given up the elegance that their cool climate can bestow on their wines in the headlong pursuit of points over purity of variety.

Some highly recommended Mendocino pinot noir wines from the tasting:

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90 Cases - Not Points

image1911299362.jpgA short note about a wine you can’t buy, but should be trying your best to find. I hate to write about wines that are essentially unobtainable, but for those that care about really distinctive wines you should get on this mailing list. La Fenêtre is a project by Joshua Klapper at Timeless Palates Wine.

His 2006 La Fenêtre Cargasacchi Jalama Pinot Noir is a marvel. A lovely garnet color with touches of brown, no purple is to be seen. The nose is high toned with hints of porcini, leather and hard, stony cherry pit fruit. At a 13.5% alcohol you can still taste the wine and the terroir. Damn this is a good wine and anybody that can make a wine like this is worth watching.

They were serving this by the glass at LA’s Water Grill, who said they got twenty of the ninety cases produced. What a great idea for a such a tiny production as far more people got to taste this lovely wine than if it had all gone out through their mailing list by the bottle.

Keep up the good work Josh.

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