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Syrah - California vs. Washington - Episode 1
updated: Oct 27, 2012, 1:00 PM

By Marc Liberts

Syrah was the theme at the BYOB Wine & Dine series held at Max's Restaurant & Cucina in Santa Barbara. Episode 1 was held on Sunday October 21, 2012 and featured Syrah wines from Tantara Winery. Bill Cates and his wine-making team presented their wines and provided a number of speeches and question and answer sessions.

Bill was surprised to know how many people at the event knew of their Syrah because they produce so little of it. Going back to 1997, Bill and his partner started Tantara by obtaining four tons of grapes and they started making wine. They tried to blend Syrah into their Pinot based on what they had read in books, figuring they could do it too. They tried by blending 10% Syrah into their Pinot, which failed because the Syrah totally dominated the Pinot. They later tried blending 5% Syrah into their Pinot which also failed because the Syrah still overwhelmed the Pinot. They tried 2%, 1%, and finally a smidgeon, and the Syrah still dominated the Pinot. So, they abandoned the attempt and tried the Syrah on its own and really enjoyed it, coming to the realization that this was a really good grape that made really good wine!

When they moved to Bien Nacido, they had the opportunity to grow their own grapes, and in addition to the Pinot Noir that they grow, they also planted 2 acres of Syrah. Pinot is very sensitive and frustrating, while Syrah is very rugged and can be abused. They made a number of Syrah wines that they and the critics liked, and they continued to make very small lots of Syrah in addition to their primary wine - Pinot. They enjoy eating meat and they like their Syrahs with their meat. Rick Hill from New Zealand is taking charge of Tantara, and Rich gave a talk about Syrah. Rick started working with Tantara in 1998 at the winery in Santa Maria. He was staying at Bien Nacido and got involved in winemaking. Rick met Bill Cates at that time and they have been working together ever since.

Rick got heavily involved with Tantara in 2009, and likes Syrah because it is such a chameleon of a grape. Some examples of what Syrah can do include: being made richly, Australian style with high alcohol and residual sugar, aged in American oak, picked early, restrained style, high minerality, co- fermented with Viognier, and aged in French Oak. American Oak imparts vanilla and smoke while French Oak imparts Asian 5 spice and ginger flavors.

I've had Tantara Pinot Noir wines in the past and have always appreciated the precision and balance of their products, and I was looking forward to trying their very limited production Syrah wines. In addition, the BYOB Wine & Dine last month was particularly successful because many of the guests brought many representative wines from the regions being compared. Unfortunately, at this event, the vast majority of the wines that were brought by the participants were from California, with less than 5 Washington wines to compare to. I took a wine tasting trip to Walla Walla Washington in 2009 and was extremely pleased to discover the excellent quality of wines being produced there. Even better - the wines from Washington tend to be lower in price than their competitors here in California. The quality of Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles Syrah is well known. I was hoping that Washington would have the opportunity to show well against their California competitors.

I had a chance to interview Bill Cates before 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: More variety in the Paso Syrahs. East side differs from west side.

QUESTION 2: At the BYOB Wine & Dine event at Max's Max's Restaurant & Cucina on Sunday October 21, 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: I've never had a Washington Syrah but look forward to doing so. Keep in mind that I am primarily a Pinot Noir guy.

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: To me the wines from the Northern Rhone seem more precise than ours and never syrupy. Their wines also exhibit more white pepper and incense than our Syrahs. But I love the fruit aromas and flavors in our Syrahs.

QUESTION 4: What challenges do you face when you are marketing and selling your Syrah wines? Is it hard or easy?

ANSWER: Syrah is difficult for us because 80% of what we make is pinot and our markets for pinot (we sell chiefly to restaurants) are very different from Syrah markets.

QUESTION 5: What wines will you be bringing to the event? Please provide a brief commentary on each wine that you are bringing to the event.

ANSWER: '05 and '07 Syrahs from our Bien Nacido Vineyard we planted in '99 and a '11 chardonnay that never experienced any oak nor went through malic (good palate cleanser) and an '04 Late Harvest Pinot Blanc.


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

ANSWER: That we are incredibly blessed out here. I grew wine grapes and made wine in Virginia before moving to CA to make pinot. Can't make excuses in SB County.

In my article last year I discussed Syrah's history and pedigree in great detail. If you are interested, you can search www.edhat.com for that article. This year, I have been making a concerted effort to examine and discuss how the grape and the wine might best be paired with food. Syrah has always been a challenge for me because most of the ‘good' Syrah wines that I've been exposed to have been from Australia (big, bold and high alcohol), Paso Robles (big and bold), or Santa Barbara County (big and spicy). Besides red meat and perhaps meat based stews, it is difficult to pair these types of Syrah wines successfully with food. Syrah wines from France tend to be lighter and have better balance, and pair better with food because they aren't so ‘big'. Luckily, the menu at Max's Restaurant & Cucina for this event paired extremely well with Syrah.

The event started with the usual assorted paired cheeses from C'est Cheese. One cheese in particular, a French cow's milk cheese called "l'Eveque" had enough good stink and funk to stand up to the Syrah. The other cheeses were good, but overwhelmed a bit by the huge wines. The first course of the meal was Herbed Gnocchi with Green Olives, Cippolini Onions, & Roasted Cherry Tomatoes. I was afraid that the light sauce would be dominated by the Syrah, but the punch and tang of the dish paired decently with the Syrah wines. Also, the cool weather syrah that Tantara brought for the pairing, their 2007 Tantara, Gary's Vineyard, Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands was demure enough to pair perfectly with the first course. The main course of Cassoulet of Braised Lamb with Cannellini Beans, Chard, & Stewed Tomatoes was a perfect pairing for Tantara's 2005 Syrah, Santa Maria Valley. This Syrah had more back-bone than the Gary's Vineyard Syrah, and had enough fruit and structure to pair with the potent Cassoulet. The Cassoulet was strong, flavorful and had the oomph to stand up to the Syrah. The dessert course of Wine-Poached Pear with Dark Chocolate-Sesame Seed Bark was complimented nicely by Tantara's Late Harvest Pinot Blanc from Bien Nacido Vineyard. Overall, a successful pairing of foods and wines.

I normally bring 3 to 5 special wines of my own that I put in brown bags and share with my table-mates. However, I decided that I would try something new this time - instead of sharing my wines only with my table, I decided to share my bagged wines with everyone. I used the opportunity to take a survey as to which of my bagged wines the guests liked best, and I tallied the results which are listed below.

MARC'S BLIND MINI-WINE TASTING AND VOTING TALLY: Twenty tasters tasted all five of my wines in brown bags and voted on their favorite wine. Below is the result of my mini blind wine tasting. Note that the winner was from Washington!

WINE #1 - FOXEN, 2006 Syrah, Tinaquaic Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley - eau de Brettanomyces maybe? Coarse and rough with good fruit and structure - 89 points & 2nd Place.

WINE #2 - OWEN ROE, 2009 Ex Umbris Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington - Fruity and balanced on the palate. A pretty wine - 91 points & 1st Place!

WINE #3 - BRANDER VINEYARD, 2010 Syrah, Clone 7, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - Big dried fruit notes. Plush and strong - 89 points & 3rd place.

WINE #4 - EPOCH ESTATE WINES, 2009 Syrah, Block B, Paderewski Vineyard, Paso Robles - The favorite amongst the winemakers and myself - Strong and big with prune and raisin notes while maintaining excellent balance and verve. 94 points & 4th Place.

WINE #5 - ZACA MESA, 2008 Syrah, Black Bear Block, Santa Ynez Valley - Balanced but coarse with rough tannins & pronounced fruit. 89 points & 5th Place.


1. SUNSTONE ESTATE, 2007 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley - light and uninspiring. Decent fruit and some spice but nothing exciting - 85 points.

2. SUNSTONE RESERVE, 2008 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley - good fruit with decent balance and some panache - 86 points.

3. CALIZA, 2007 Syrah, Paso Robles - Overt fruit and acid with nice balance. Great force and longevity on the palate. A wine to remember - 92 points.

4. GRAVES, 2007 Syrah, Superfino Coloso, Paso Robles, Ohana Vineyard - Plump and plush fruit with pretty spice notes - 89 points.

5. TENSLEY, 2006 Syrah, Tierra Alta Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - Impressive, strong, peppery, demanding - 90 points.

6. QUPE, 2009 Syrah, Purisima Mountain Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley - Quiet, thin, soft and pretty with nice minerality but lacking force and intensity - 85 points.

7. CARR, 2010 Syrah, Morehouse Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley - Overt prunes and dried fruit notes, slightly out of balance and sweet - 83 points.

8. STEELHEAD RED, 2009 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley - Nice fruit but clunky and out of balance - 85 points.

9. BRANDER, 2010 Syrah, Clover Creek Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley - Pruny with candied fruit notes and soft tannins. 87 points.

10. HERMAN STORY, 2007 Syrah, White Hawk Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - Nice herbs and game with good fruit and texture - 91 points.

11. STOLPMAN VINEYARD, 2009 Hilltops Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley - Taut with big fruit, nice balance and choppy tannins - 90 points.

12. ANDREW MURRAY, 2009 Syrah, Tous les Jours, Central Coast - spicy with good dark fruit notes and pleasant balance - 89 points.

13. OREANA, 2008 Syrah, Central Coast, "Bacon Reserve" - Meaty with good texture and bold fruit - 88 points.

14. FOLEY, 2007 Syrah, Sta. Rita Hills, Syrah, Rancho Santa Rosa - Age has helped unify this wine. Good balance with nice fruit and acid and pretty spice and herbal notes - 90 points.

15. TANTARA, 2011 Cadence Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley - Plump and plush with nice citrus notes, but slightly out of balance - 87 points.

16. ANDREW MURRAY, 2009 Syrah, Terra Bella Vineyard, Paso Robles - Nice density with good fruit and overt spice and peppery notes - 91 points.

17. MARGERUM, 2008 Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - Punchy with intense fruit and nice acid and a hint of basil - 91 points.

18. HAHN WINERY, 2010 Syrah, Central Coast - Lacks integration and balance. Fruity but all over the place and can't decide where it wants to go - 83 points.

19. COLUMBIA CREST, 2008 Syrah, Columbia Valley - Soft and nice with decent fruit but lacking on the interesting scale - 85 points.

20. COPAIN, 2007 Syrah, Harrison Clarke, Santa Ynez Valley - Plush and assertive with a beam of dark fruit to start with nice balance - 89 points.

21. STILL WATERS, 2008 Syrah, Paso Robles - Ample fruit with rustic tannins and decent balance - 87 points.

22. SEQUEL, 2003 Syrah, Columbia Valley - Really pretty with great finesse and balance. Old world, cool weather type wine which I really liked - 93 points.

23. CONSILIENCE, 2006 Camp 4 Vineyard, Syrah, Santa Barbara County - Gritty with good dried fruit and big acid. A little bretty - 88 points.

24. JAFFURS, 2008 Syrah, Thompson Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - Attractive fruit and spice on the palate with precise balance and poise - 91 points.

25. TANTARA, 2007 Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands - Precise, measured, and well crafted with appealing fruit and nearly perfect balance - 91 points.

26. E. GUIGAL, 1999 Hermitage, Appellation Hermitage Controlee - Extraordinary! A benchmark French Syrah that one must experience to understand what great Syrah can be like. Un-rated because it is out of the parameters of the tasting, but outstanding in every way.

27. TANTARA, 2005 Syrah, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley - Really pretty and elegant with appealing fruit and spice notes, featuring great balance - 92 points.


#1 & FIRST PLACE OVERALL: EPOCH ESTATE WINES, 2009 Syrah, Block B, Paderewski Vineyard, Paso Robles. A classic Paso Syrah that you should try.

#2 & SECOND PLACE OVERALL: SEQUEL, 2003 Syrah, Columbia Valley.

#3 & THIRD PLACE OVERALL: HERMAN STORY, 2007 Syrah, White Hawk Vineyard, Santa Barbara County.

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