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Syrah - California vs. Washington - Episode 2
updated: Nov 10, 2012, 11:00 AM

By Marc Liberts

October 28, 2012

Syrah was again the theme at the BYOB Wine & Dine series held at Max's Restaurant & Cucina in Santa Barbara. Episode 2 was held on Sunday October 28, 2012 and featured Syrah wines from Ojai Vineyard. Assistant Winemaker Fabien Castel presented their wines and provided a number of speeches and question and answer sessions.

The Ojai Vineyard began in 1983 with the intention of making distinctive California wines using traditional wine making practices learned in Burgundy and the Rhone valley. Today, Adam Tolmach continues to create old-world inspired wines at his winery in Ojai, California. The winery purchases grapes from the best regions in the coolest districts of northern Santa Barbara County. Ojai Winery's continuing goal is to bring together European sensibilities of balance and finesse with the exuberant fruit from coastal California vineyards.

Fabien Castel, born in France, has lived in the United States and worked for Ojai Vineyard for over 11 years. In his time at Ojai Vineyards, Fabien has become the assistant wine maker. One of his favorite things about harvest is that the staff and crew taste a half a dozen wines every day with lunch to expand their palates and wine knowledge.

Ojai Vineyard has been recognized by famed wine reviewer Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate for the quality of their Syrah wines consistently over the years. Ojai Vineyards prided itself on the intense wines with great dense textures that it has produced in the past. In the last 6 years, Ojai Vineyard has taken a turn towards less ripeness, focusing on more aromatic ranges and more savory elements in their Syrah Wines. Their Solomon Hills Syrah is the coolest-climate Syrah they make. The Solomon Hills vines are located in a Pinot Noir vineyard.

Fabien talked about how Syrah can go from fruity, ripe, round and rich in the hotter climates to something that has balsamic, incense, cassis, currant and herbaceous notes in the cooler climates. He thinks that most wines are made taking into consideration the climate and the winemaking style. There are different ways about thinking about all types of varietals. Something exotic that isn't distracting is what they like to do with the herbaceous elements in their wines. Ojai Vineyards are now trying to find more layers in the aroma and flavors of their wines, as opposed to the past when ripeness and hedonism were preferred. As a wine maker, he is training his palate and his nose to try and make wines that are pleasurable both in aroma and taste. Currently at Ojai Vineyards, they are trying to produce Syrah wines that are velvety, rich, peppery, and herbaceous.

Like Ojai Vineyard's wine maker Adam Tolmach and assistant wine maker Fabien Castel, I too have gravitated away from ripe, rich, overt, fruity wines, and now prefer wines that are more balanced, supple, interesting, and lithe. In sum, I'm happy to report that I've gone from a Syrah Slut to a Syrah Sophisticate. The main reason I've done this is my exposure to French wines during my travels to Europe in the last 2 years. Due to the climate, Europeans tend to drink wines that originate from cooler climates. These cooler climates produce wines that are less fruity and more savory. Savory wines tend to pair well with food, while hotter weather fruity wines tend to be more fun to drink on their own or paired with ultra-rich and bold flavored snacks such as pungent cheeses and powerful Hors d'oeuvres.

I had a chance to interview Fabien prior to the event:

*QUESTION 1:* Syrah grapes have been successfully grown and Syrah wines have been successfully produced in both Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles. Can you compare and contrast the differences between Santa Barbara County Syrah and Paso Robles Syrah?

ANSWER: The comparison is that in general Paso is warmer and is the key to fragrances being developed in grapes and subsequent wines. We work with coastal Santa Barbara where the climate is marginal and the growing season is long without sugar going too quickly up and acid to quickly down. The result is more peppery, spirity and quirky. It the warmer sections of Santa Barbara and Paso the expression of Syrah is fruity and voluminous. It tends to not have balsamic, incense, tar notes and being berry and sweet fruit infused.

*QUESTION 2: * At the BYOB Wine & Dine event at Max's Max's Restaurant & Cucina on Sunday October 28, 2012, we'll be comparing California Syrah against Washington Syrah. Can you share with us your impressions about Washington Syrah? Are there any Washington Syrah producers or vineyards in particular you like?

ANSWER: Washington again has both cool and warm climates and these would be the deciding factors (except for the winemaker style pursuit) on the final results. I like Cayuse & Owen Roe.

*QUESTION 3:* When I think about Syrah, the Rhône Valley in France always comes to mind. Specifically, I think of and enjoy wines of the AOC's of the Northern Rhône, particularly Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes- Hermitage, Hermitage, and Cornas. Generally, the wines from those AOC's are 80% or more Syrah. How does Syrah from California compare generally to Syrah from the Northern Rhône?

ANSWER: It is rare that it compares at all unless it is grown in a marginal climate where it does not ripen every vintage and it struggles doing so. Then you have the high acid, quirky fragrances found in most vintages in the northern Rhone. Mendocino, the Petaluma Gap, Sonoma coast, coastal Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria, and western Santa Rita can maybe compare. But Syrah is rarely planted there...

*QUESTION 4:* In the recent past, we've seen Syrah (Shiraz) from Australia grown in popularity. How do the Syrah (Shiraz) wines from Australia compare to the Syrah wines from Santa Barbara? To what do you attribute the success of Syrah (Shiraz) from Australia?

ANSWER: Australia is a world apart. There is as well many climates and possibilities but the overriding forces there are the market and has led to the pursuit of a certain style that became famous but also erased the finer more subtle aspect of that growing region. Wines are mostly very fruity, almost sweet, high alcohol and with little tannins. Wines often made by industrialists to export to other markets. There is small hand crafted wines but they rarely make it in the US. The success was that it rode the wave of consumers wanting forward easy wines to understand, fruity Syrahs opposed to funky, quirky, racy convoluted expressions of the varietal.

*QUESTION 5:* What challenges do you face when you are marketing and selling your Syrah wines? Is it hard or easy?

ANSWER: It was easy at first when the market became infatuated with the varietal. It peaked and started to be hard, then very hard. Adam's brand of Syrah has survived because of passion, constant search for the genuine varietal identity and relentless ethical pursuit of high quality viticulture and winemaking. Today we are in a good place as Adam is becoming recognized for his efforts.

*QUESTION 6:* What first comes to mind for you when you think about Santa Barbara County wine-making and Santa Barbara vineyards today in general?

ANSWER: A dream climate that combines the sun of Morocco to the magical cooling system provided by the cold currents flowing down from Alaska. Santa Barbara Wine making is still the frontier. So much to be discovered, so much to be explored.

The first course of the meal was Herbed Gnocchi with Green Olives, Cippolini Onions, & Roasted Cherry Tomatoes. The tanginess of the dish paired nicely with the Ojai Vineyard 2009 Santa Barbara County Syrah. The main course of Cassoulet of Braised Lamb with Cannellini Beans, Chard, & Stewed Tomatoes was paired nicely with Ojai Vineyard's 2008 Sta. Rita Hills Melville Vineyard Syrah. The Cassoulet was strong, flavorful and lent itself to pair well with the Syrah. The dessert course of Wine-Poached Pear with Dark Chocolate-Sesame Seed Bark. Overall, the dinner was a success and the wine pairings were excellent.

Once again, I dug deeply into my wine collection and pulled out six Syrah wines, half from California and half from Washington to compare. All were well rated, well crafted wines. Fabien also added one more wine to my line up, and we put them all in brown bags, randomized their order, and tried them all blindly. I also invited all the guests to try all the wines and vote for their favorite. Again, for the second week in a row, a wine from Washington won the best of the blind tasting! A special thanks to BevMo for supplying the bags for the blind tasting.


BLIND WINE #1: OWEN ROE, 2009 Ex Umbris Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington - Fruity and balanced on the palate with a little spice. A pretty wine - 90 points.

BLIND WINE #2: JAFFURS, 2010 Santa Barbara County Syrah - Smoke on the nose and thick, fruity and dense o the palate with a nice hint of anise and black licorice - 91 points.

BLIND WINE #3: CHARLES SMITH WINES, 2011 Boom Boom Syrah, Columbia Valley - Cooler weather Syrah with nice herbs, good balance and a hint of evergreen - 89 points.

BLIND WINE #4: BRANDER VINEYARD, 2009 Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - Dusty and chalky nose with pruny and ripe fruit on the palate - 88 points.

BLIND WINE #5: EFESTE, 2008 Syrah, Yakima Valley, Jolie Bouche Boushey Vineyard - Bacon and smoke on the nose with richness, balance and verve. A very nice wine - 92 points.

BLIND WINE #6: RUSACK, 2010 Syrah, Santa Barbara County, Ballard Canyon Estate Reserve - Spicy and bold with nice sage and herbal notes - 90 points.

BLIND WINE #7: THE OJAI VINEYARD, 2009 Syrah, Santa Maria Valley, Special Bottling, Solomon Hills Vineyard - Soft and velvety with great balance and balsamic notes - 95 points.


1ST PLACE (BLIND TASTING): EFESTE, 2008 Syrah, Yakima Valley, Jolie Bouche Boushey Vineyard, Washington

2ND PLACE (BLIND TASTING): OWEN ROE, 2009 Ex Umbris Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington

3RD PLACE (BLIND TASTING): RUSACK, 2010 Syrah, Santa Barbara County, Ballard Canyon Estate Reserve

It is interesting to note that the winner was rated 95 points by one of the professional wine reviewing sources, and the second place wine was one of that source's top 25 wines of the year last year. Also, Fabien started the evening by sharing their Ojai Vineyard 2011 Rosé which was fresh, bright, tangy, and delicious.


8. QUPE, 2009 Syrah, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley - balanced and taut but a little on the thin side - 88 points.

9. ROBERT HALL, 2010 Syrah, Paso Robles - Dense, ripe, pruny, over the top fruit monster but still fun to drink - 87 points.

10. ZACA MESA, 2008 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley - Nice fruit but somewhat flabby and predictable - 87 points.

11. SANTA BARBARA WINERY, 2005 Syrah, Santa Barbara County - Smokey and chalky at the beginning with peppery notes behind the fruit - 88 points.

12. MT. VERNON WINERY, 2009 Syrah, Placer County, Mackenzie's Vineyard - Over-ripe and highly perfumed but scattered and lacking direction - 84 points.

13. HARRISON CLARKE, 2008 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley - Good fruit with tough strong attitude and nice peppery elements - 92 points.

14. LANE TANNER, 2000 Syrah, San Luis Obispo County, French Camp Vineyard - Singed on the nose with decent fruit but highly acidic and lacking style - 85 points.

15. LOS CINCO LOCOS, 2011 Syrah - Punch, fruity and fun with wet cement notes - 85 points.

16. JAFFURS, 2008 Syrah, Santa Barbara County - Very ripe, fruity, punchy, decent balance and discipline - 88 points.

17. MELVILLE, 2009 Syrah, Sta. Rita Hills, Verna's Vineyard - Syrupy and rich with dense fruit and bold acid but imperfect - 87 points.

18. FESS PARKER, 2010 Syrah, Santa Barbara County - Thin and out of balance with fruit and acid that can't come together - 84 points.

19. BIG BASIN VINEYARDS, 2008 Syrah, Rattlesnake Rock, Santa Cruz Mountains - well reviewed by the critics but this bottle was off or corked. No rating.

20. MELVILLE, 2008 Syrah, Sta. Rita Hills, Verna's Vineyard, Bacon fat and smoke on the nose with taut fruit and interesting acid and thyme notes - 89 points.

21. WHITCRAFT WINERY, 2007 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, Stolpman Vineyard - Nice quiet fruit with intriguing minty and peppery notes. Impressive wine - 93 points.

22. BRIDLEWOOD, 2003 Syrah, ‘Blue Roan', Central Coast - Nice balance with interesting spicy and peppery notes - 90 points.

23. SANTA BARBARA WINERY, 1997 Syrah, Santa Barbara County - I was hoping this 15 year old wine would have held up, but it didn't. Too old - No rating.

24. RUSACK, 2006 Syrah, Santa Barbara County - Sublime and pretty with nice dark fruit and husky peppery notes - 88 points.

25. PIEDRASASSI, 2004 Syrah, California - A nice surprise! Decisive and overt, supple, great balance and interesting herbaceous elements - 93 points.

26. CURTIS, 2007 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, Ambassador's Vineyard - bold up-front fruit dominates everything here with some pepper mixed in - 86 points.

27. OJAI VINEYARD, 2009 Syrah, Santa Barbara county - Pretty perfumed nose, supple on the palate with smart fruit, good acid and interesting herbal notes - 92 points.

28. OJAI VINEYARD, 2008 Syrah, Sta. Rita Hills, Melville Vineyards - Herbal and loamy nose with subdued fruit, pronounced herbs, black licorice and game - 92 points.


1ST PLACE OVERALL: THE OJAI VINEYARD, 2009 Syrah, Santa Maria Valley, Special Bottling, Solomon Hills Vineyard - Soft and velvety with great balance and balsamic notes - 95 points. It's that good - get some if you can.

2ND PLACE OVERALL: WHITCRAFT WINERY, 2007 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, Stolpman Vineyard - Nice quiet fruit with intriguing minty and peppery notes. Impressive wine - 93 points. Impressive.

3RD PLACE OVERALL: PIEDRASASSI, 2004 Syrah, California - A nice surprise! Decisive and overt, supple, great balance and interesting herbaceous elements - 93 points. Interesting.

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Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 341344 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-11-10 12:22 PM

Nice article! I have tried maybe half those wines and absolutely LOVE the Rusack syrah.


 FROGGY3 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-11-10 01:06 PM

Once again, a fascinating interview & great remarks on the wines, thanks Marc! One more BYOB dinner this year, hope to see everyone on Dec 2 for "Minor" Bordeaux Varietals (Malbec, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot) with Buttonwood Winery.


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