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Sotanum SI wouldn’t consider myself a Syrahist by any means, but to start this year I’ve already had a couple of bottles that are forcing me to reconsider that position. At a sample party, most recently, I pulled the cork on a 2006 Sotanum that outshone the rest.

A gathering of friends, bearing accessories (cheese, crackers and meats) and eager palates, arrived to help deplete old samples that had been collecting dust. We began with a couple white wines meant to abate the heat, before moving into the heartier reds. Halfway through the charcuterie board it was time to bring out something more interesting (and not a sample), enter Sotanum.

It was a bottle that I had purchased long ago, intrigued by the story of Les Vins de Vienne. Sotanum is a tip of the hat to Roman tradition, comprised of 100% Syrah from the periphery of the Northern Rhône (beyond Côte Rotie), made by a collective of experienced winemakers—at the time four of them—from the Rhône Valley, intent on restoring and farming ancient vineyard sources—another saga in itself.

This wine made a statement; I altered my oral chemistry (ate sopressatta) to accommodate the bold flavors of that Syrah as it began with a dark musky scent of smoked meat, olive brine, tobacco and plum—a textbook nose. With ripe, fine tannins, a body like a plume of smoke, nervy acidity and a sturdy finish that encouraged conversation.

Surrounded by six empty bottles, talk centered only on Syrah; Sotanum changed people’s opinion that night, erasing the bottles that came before it and bringing out a Syrahphile in all of us.

Cop BakIn the midst of discarded Christmas trees and drained Champagne bottles, re-activating the long-neglected Maverick Palate was a pressing resolution. In the streets of San Francisco, drawing inspiration from culinary tastemakers and superb bottle shops and out among the Sonoma vineyards I was feeling the comeback.

I had lots of great wine in 2013 after I left you, my fantastic subscribers, in the lurch. There was so much I wanted to write about but after picking up a few more wine gigs (read juggling three jobs), the rest of the year flew past in a torrent. By the time I half-typed about a bottle of Field Recordings Chenin Blanc in early October it was time to saber that bottle of 2006 José Dhondt Champagne on NYE!

I am not sure what will come of 2014, with travel plans and wine adventures on the books; I don’t want to make promises this early, but, what I’m certain of is that my latest trip to Sonoma County, specifically at Copain, was a resounding success. Not only did I receive excellent customer service while visiting the property in Healdsburg, I was very much impressed by a graceful Syrah from Baker Ranch.

Baker Ranch—a single vineyard release from Copain in 2009—is a personal and individualized expression, rather than the ensemble cast of Les Voisins (the neighbors), which is to say, a cast of single-vineyards’ fruit blended together. Baker Ranch is in Anderson Valley, growing Syrah and Pinot Noir in a cool and a high elevation site.  Apart from the other single vineyards that were shown, like Halcon, this wine was confident and extraverted. Pronounced aromatics like violets and sweet spice notes tap-danced above red berries, pencil shavings and beef jerky. The Syrah was equally impressive on the palate with a fine and prevalent grip (med-plus, ripe tannins), cut medium figure, toned by medium-plus acidity and deep intensity of flavors that left a long lingering impression. Baker Ranch Syrah was in a great place, distancing itself from its parts in Les Voisins Syrah, but without losing focus or sacrificing balance.

There were a lot of good food and wine memories forged on my Northern California (San Francisco) expedition, especially that Syrah, enough to make my drive back to Los Angeles a little less exhausting. On that five-hour drive I also thought about how I had missed an opportunity last year to share some killer wines and superb meals worth checking out. I am hopeful that this year will be different, perhaps my vacation has me talking brave, but I am determined to learn from the past and propel this site to new levels. Only time will tell.

ChampelroseMy Syrah column remarked on its unimpressive showing during a January tasting where I was more in awe of the setting than the wines poured, and where the theory that the price point at which better Syrah appears is relatively high… seemed confirmed. I needed a recommendation, a bottle that had the potential to rescue the varietal from the doldrums.

A bottle of Syrah from Northern Rhône was the first opportunity I had to restore my vision of the noble grape. In January, shortly after the tasting group malaise, I was given a sample of 2009 Domaine Courbis Champelrose Cornas to ameliorate my impression.

Uncorking the Syrah I poured four ounces of medium-plus intensity garnet liquid into my stemware; it wasn’t the color that was riveting. The bouquet leaped from the glass (medium-plus intensity), a developing aroma of violets, dried thyme, ripe plums, cigar and roasted meat appeared. The wine was showing off. On the palate it was dry, filling out the palate with a medium-plus frame buttressed by fine and grippy tannins and a blend of muddled berries, red and black, plums, edible flowers, black pepper and dried herbs finishing long and balanced. From my view the Cornas has a long life ahead of it in the cellar—having a pleasing core of fruit, bright acidity and tannin to reward patience.

Domaine Courbis Champelrose Cornas is my wine of the month in February. Its pronounced aromatics coupled with sculpted frame and complexity bowled me over. I wasn’t ready for it. The modest price tag ranges from $35-$45, in California, still supporting my theory, but I would gladly pay that price for such a great example. Today I’m recommending this Syrah as a strong buy! Still waiting for the same effect below the $35 threshold… please tell me if you find one.

Syrah Reflection Admitting that Syrah is not my favorite grape, I have no issues with the varietal other than how much I pay to find quality examples. When it was pitched to my tasting group that it would be our next grape of focus, I was reserved but optimistic about the possibilities.

Our group had implemented new rules on buying wine for the tasting, to avoid the same region making multiple appearances—like, say, having Australia’s Barossa Valley light up the scoreboard. The real challenge was certain to be price; we defined our spending limits between the 20-35 dollar sweet spot, fingers crossed for great values.

Topanga RedOur six brown bags were passed around the table, yielding two different wines that were far apart in the flavor spectrum but equally enjoyable. The first wine of the night was actually one of the best, hailing from Edna Valley (in San Luis Obispo County). The 2007 Topanga Red Red Wine Syrah showed a deep and brooding ruby inside the bulb. The wine was voluptuous and darkly skewed, giving black fruits, creosote, black pepper and dried lavender. The finish was a bit warm (the alcohol and body were both in the medium-plus camp) but pleasant, and the red showed a big side of Syrah with balance.

The second winner appeared third in our lineup. An aromatic experience, this Syrah had an elegant perfume that demanded our attention from the first sniff, showing fragrant violets and more red flowers, white pepper, smoke and a blend of berries and plums. On the palate it displayed a softer hand with fine medium tannin, a svelte medium body, keeping the alcohol in check (medium) and flaunting a clean finish that resounded brightly of youthful fruits, herbs and spices. When unveiled it was no surprise that this was a cool climate Syrah from France’s Rhône Valley, specifically Yves Cuilleron’s 2010 Les Pierres Sèches from Saint-Joseph.

Apart from our setting, in a private room of Villetta in Brentwood, and the great spread of food, our tasting was otherwise lackluster: I was disappointed with the overall showing; four out of the six wines were out-of-balance. For these tasting group blogs the verdicts are always personal, sometimes harsh, and strive for concision, but many of the other wines that I omit to review are actually very good. This tasting showed the widest disparity between winners and losers, and unfortunately validated my sticker-price theory for Syrah. Anyone having any suggestions for better Syrah under $30, please feel free to comment! 

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.

Last Friday I spent the evening with close friends and some newer acquaintances at an LA favorite: Father’s Office. For those readers outside the area, Father’s Office is a gastro pub (probably responsible for the term as far as Los Angeles is concerned) that features an excellent beer list, with a fair selection of wines and drinks to accompany delectable treats from a seasonal menu. While the beer & wine menus may be upgraded and the food might be altered to accommodate new vegetables and meats that become available, a constant fixture will always be the burger.

There are many things that interest me about the newer Father’s Office, not the original in Santa Monica; the communal hand washing outside of the bathrooms (in short, the layout), the clientele is always different (not your average bar goers) and the strict adherence to the menu—no substitutions! They offer a lot of nice choices like grilled Sonoma lamb, braised oxtail, duck confit salad yet most people come for the acclaimed cheeseburger.

Well, the cheeseburger is no secret to Angelenos—it is frequently said to be one of the best served in the city. It is packed with a great grind of meat stacked in a patty nearly an inch thick served with arugula, caramelized onions, gruyere, Maytag blue cheese, bacon compote wedged inside a soft brioche bun that resembles a submarine sandwich (demisubmarine). The patty is juicy and the salty sweet combination between the bacon compote and the onions is played up to the nth degree. The burger is a little busy and the flavors crowd your palate—masking what is otherwise a perfect grind. The finish is a mixture of cheese and a tiny spice from the rocket (arugula) as the generous patty disappears into the ether. It becomes messy too as the bun breaks down like a clunky submarine, leaving the jus on your fingers and in the basket.

I chose a central California syrah to pair with my main selection the duck leg confit salad but saved some room for a couple of shared bites of the many burgers that were on the group’s table. Surprisingly the Melville syrah went well with both but was definitely better suited for the gaminess of the duck.

The aforementioned salad was executed well, the dressing, tart vinaigrette that flowed over some fresh greens, figs, duck leg confit and nuts arrived shortly after an order lapping the burgers at my table. The salad, no matter how fancy, was just a salad but it’s nice to try if you feel like something light and substantial. The chef is capable of creating a lot of fantastic foods that make this bar a real treat to go to—especially if you are not thrifty. The consistency is also worthy of a cheer for the few times I have gone the same dish arrives each and every time.

So our lively group enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and when our pockets were lighter we packed up and shared four of my bottles of wine (responsibly!!!) at a friend’s house—more on that in a future blog. Father’s Office deserves the title of truly stellar gastro pub (not because of the burger, which falls short in my opinion) because of the diversity of the menu, beverage list and the ambiance.

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