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Bacon fat, olive brine, truffle and any number of other complementary flavors make Syrah a pairing fascination of mine. It’s got spunk and has always been high on my list of wines to probe; less esoteric than some of my other highly ranked wines but more charming than most, with unabashedly out-there odors and its ability to pair with such a wide variety of food, there is little to dislike about this genuine varietal. I love the grape so much that I decided to make it the focus of my first group tasting (a new group) last week, to explore further terroir and the producer’s techniques—a scholastic approach to each wine than regularly figures in my other tasting group.

There were three of us—a manageable cadre—with no distractions, just three separate bottles of wine, glassware and our notes. Three bottles from three different continents (Australia, North America and Europe) between us: 2009 Tyrell’s Single Vineyard Steven’s Shiraz (#158), 2008 Moulin de la Gardette Gigondas (#157) and K Vintner’s “Cougar Hills” Syrah (#156). Though the Gigondas was primarily Grenache—as mandated by the AOC—we thought it would be fun to see how Syrah behaved when asked to play a supporting role.

We began the night with the Gigondas, listening to a succinct presentation about the wine and the region before dissecting the bottle before us. The coloring was ruby with light to medium depth in the glass. The complex bouquet of white pepper, mushroom, leather, red berries and Gorgonzola cheese had my mouth watering before I brought the Grenache-heavy blend to my lips and dabbed a tongue. I took my first sip, swooshing vigorously and expecting a lot, instead, I was alarmed by the paucity of discernible flavors; faint red fruit, moderate drying tannins, medium body and a surprisingly short finish. We were all shocked, the wine’s gorgeous bouquet translated to a truncated note—we were grasping for all that we could on that first bottle but we were left with a vanishing act. It was not a fair portrayal of Syrah so we detoured to the Pacific Northwest.

Moving on to Washington State, I gave a little talk on Walla Walla Valley—with its loess soils, dry (an average of 12 inches of rain) climate and more about the history of the AVA before discussing Charles Smith. We took a look at the wine; the “Cougar Hills” Syrah possessed a deep garnet hue in the glass. On the nose there was a decidedly meaty quality to it, with notes of bacon, barbequed meats and dark fruits. With just one sip the wine was definitely big, armed with mouth-jarring flavors of roasted coffee, blackberry, grilled meat, smoke and chocolate. The smoky Syrah from Washington State had a good hefty structure, moderate acidity, a nice not overbearing compliment (sic) of oak and a long finish that made us all but forget the previous wine.

The last bottle on the table had begun its life in the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest growing region, an area close to Sydney, famous for its examples of Semillon and Shiraz that grow in the well-drained red clay loam in the upper and lower parts of the valley. We poured Tyrell’s Single Vineyard Shiraz that was a composite of ruby and garnet in the stemware. The wine was powerfully aromatic with notes of red cherry, vanilla and worn leather. It was bursting with bright red fruit balanced by lightly drying tannins, moderate acidity and a long simple finish. The Shiraz did not showcase enough complexity on the palate to warrant a first place finish (if we were judging) but the unembellished style was done well and though singular, it was not without breadth.

I was impressed by the many suits of Syrah, from the darker, smokier impressions to brighter expressions of fruit—Syrah could do it all. I knew this going in to the tasting but it was nice to have it reaffirmed. Next time (and in the near future), I might limit the Syrah tasting to strictly Northern Rhône exemplars because Côte-Rôtie has eluded me to this point in my wine career.

Recapturing the magic that transpired a couple weeks ago Thursday was my goal, but realistically, I did not think it would be attainable. For those of you that have not scrolled down to the “Ducks, Lakes and Speakeasies” article allow me to sum it up in a word: awesome! This last Thursday I planned on weaving my Better Burger Bureau group into my wine tastings at Silverlake Wines—a best of both worlds scenario—by first enjoying a burger at The Fix Burger on Hyperion Blvd and then heading to the wine shop to enjoy their pours.

Driving eastbound around 4:30 p.m. on Santa Monica was miserable (really anywhere in LA, but the problem is always localized like a blood clot); too much traffic to type into words, but my stomach was a staunch supporter of my architected plans and thus would propel me through the unfathomable slowdowns. In addition to my stomach’s adamancy I had some great music to help me wade through it.

Apparently getting there was only a brief part of my stomach’s problems, I still had to wait for my party to arrive. Meanwhile, I took in the place, observing that it was clean, minimal in decorative touches, a nice looking counter and a few potted plants streamlining the entranceway to really help the feng shui. They were also stocking a cooler with clever beverages, such as Kickapoo Joy Juice and Captain Eli’s Root beer.

Trickling in slowly, the first attendee biked in and the rest followed on four wheels. When the group was finally amassed, we took little time to order, almost entirely selecting the “Fix Burger” with slight modifications like changing the patty to bison and one person ordered the “Pesto Burger” and a ton of garlic fries to go round the table.

My choice, the Fix Burger with bison arrived first, donning two wedges of tomato, slightly translucent rings of red onion, leafy lettuce, some spread nestled between sesame seed buns. The garlic fries were topped with copious amounts of cooked down toes of garlic. They were very good! I helped myself to the pickles and peppers and began eating, noting that the patty was firm but still revealing a slight pink in the center so it was not over cooked but just a coarse grind. All other elements were satisfactory but nothing special, especially not for the price—a heaping basket of garlic fries, a buffalo burger and root beer will run you the better part of a twenty ($18 after tip).

After our burgers we carried on to Silverlake Wine, where there was a slew of activity stirring in the shop, a livelier bunch than I could recall. I spied a head of hair so familiar that I knew we were in the graces of one of the most portentous winemakers of Washington State—Charles Smith.

His wines receive enormous scores every year from reputable critics and publications, most recently adding to his acclaim he was dubbed Food & Wine magazine’s Winemaker of the Year. He also has been credited with a hundred point Syrah from his K Vintners label so while other winemakers vie for cracking the 90 point score he has reached the pinnacle of winemaking, lumping him in with some of the greatest winemakers of all time (wow, getting controversial on a burger ‘n wine blog). The man is no slouch.

Silverlake Wines would be pouring four of his modest bottles, namely: Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon, Boom Boom Syrah and a K Vintners Syrah. I put my tasting book away and just decided to be in the moment.

The Riesling was excellent, fresh peaches jumping out of the glass and singing on the palate. It was vibrant, replete with good acidity and was most likely my favorite of the tasting. We then moved on with two bottles I am familiar with the Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon and The Boom Boom Syrah. The Cabernet was not showing as well (that is, it was not as wonderful as I remembered) when I last had the bottle to mark the beginning of the Ducks tumultuous season.

The Boom Boom Syrah was noticeably jammy and delicious like a blueberry cobbler but had the potential to be cloying in high volume. Finally, moving on to my first experience tasting a K Vinters Syrah and that was markedly different, trading the blue fruit for savory notes of meat, smoke, earth and a touch of cherry.

I was pleasantly full from my burger so the alcohol did not totally rip me apart even though I politely polished off each glass of wine. I spent the day with close friends and was elated (geeked out) to get to meet Charles Smith after seeing him on my favorite wine program (WLTV), and to erase four more bottles of wine from my countdown with his creations, leaving 372 remaining. Thursday is fast becoming my favorite day of the week, not just another in the steady rotation.

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