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Laurie Jervis: Saving Syrah, the ‘Rhone-a-gade’ Grape

By Laurie Jervis, Noozhawk Columnist |

Characteristics of mocha. Tobacco. Tar. Bacon fat. Blood. Bone. Fur. Horsehide.

On the palate, it's the essence of  thunderstorms, thrillers, mud runs and feral animals — think angry raccoons.

Those are but a few of the descriptors wine writer and former sommelier Patrick Comiskey used to open "Syrah Territory: Ballard Canyon," a seminar at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Buellton.

Comiskey moderated a panel of eight winemakers who produce syrah (and other wines) from Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara County's newest American Viticultural Area (AVA). It became official Oct. 30, 2013, and is planted to 600 acres of vines, mostly syrah.

Syrah, as winemakers, viticulturists and seasoned wine writers know, has fallen from favor with many American wine connoisseurs. It's passé, say some. It's just not pinot noir, say others.

But guess what? It's planted throughout Santa Barbara County and California, and in Washington.

It thrives in warm climates (Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon, Napa County, Lodi, eastern Washington) and in cooler regions such as the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley, Sonoma County and Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Comiskey, a prolific writer and critic for several publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Bon Appetit and Wine & Spirits, opened his discussion by admonishing the room: "It's your job to get syrah out of its doldrums."

The bloggers cheered and clapped. I and many others tweeted Comiskey's words.

Whether it's up to wine writers to boost syrah is beside the point. This scribe takes no issue: I adore syrah.

But, as Comiskey noted, syrah doesn't have the staying power or "reputation" that cabernet sauvignon from Napa does. It's a "Rhone-a-gade" of sorts, newer to the party but full of bluster and fruit, white pepper and smoke.

Before introducing the winemakers, Comiskey emphasized how the Ballard Canyon AVA — "a warm spot in a cool place" — is exactly "what syrah wants. Hot and not. Chilly nights and blazing sun midday.

"In all of California, I can know of no better place to 'represent' for American syrah than Ballard Canyon," Comiskey said.

The winemaking panelists and their syrahs were Rueben Solorzano (Kimsey); Steve Beckmen (Beckmen Vineyards' La Purisima Mountain); Peter Stolpman (Stolpman Vineyards); Steve Gerbac (Rusack Winery); Hilarie Clarke (Harrison Clarke Vineyards); Michael Larner (Larner Winery); Matt Dees (Jonata); and Keith Saarloos (Saarloos & Sons).

Saarloos & Sons' current syrah release was already sold out, but all the other winemakers' syrahs were poured for seminar attendees in order of the panelists (from Solorzano through Dees).

Larner, who earned a BS in geology before turning to winemaking and viticulture, outlined some of the soil factors that set apart Ballard Canyon from the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley AVA. His own vineyard, Larner Vineyard, could pass for a beach — it's that sandy.

The soil around nearby Chalk Hill Road (which ends at Ballard Canyon Road) "is, well, chalk," Larner noted. Other vineyard sites contain pockets of limestone, which helps soil retain heat.

My tasting notes on the seven wines poured:

» 2012 Kimsey Syrah (unreleased): Inky espresso; young.

» 2012 Beckmen La Purisima Mountain Syrah: Spice and mocha.

» 2012 Stolpman Vineyards "Originals" Syrah: Elegant and spicy.

» 2012 Rusack Winery Reserve Syrah: Cinnamon and chocolate

» 2010 Harrison Clarke "Cuvee Charlotte" Syrah: Soft, with black pepper.

» 2010 Larner Syrah: Dark, less pepper.

» 2010 Jonata "Sangre de Jonata" Syrah: Smash of blackberry.

All of the wines were 100 percent syrah but for the Kimsey, which contains 5 percent whole cluster viognier. The Larner wine is comprised of seven different clones of syrah. And the vines that grew the Stolpman syrah are 18 to 20 years old. If that's not history, what is?

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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