The Making of a 100-Point Wine: A California Red with Depth and Finesse

Blind Tasting
Photo by Tom Arena

It was a blind tasting, like all tastings for Wine Enthusiast reviews. I knew only that the seven wines in front of me were newly released California Syrahs from regions I cover as a contributing editor. The bottles could have been made from grapes grown in Mendocino or Lake counties, Lodi, the Sierra Foothills, Livermore Valley or anywhere in the Central Valley.

As the tasting began, I had no idea that one bottling would merit the first 100-point rating I’ve given since beginning to review these wines for Wine Enthusiast in 2014.

My assistant had set up the tasting. Selected bottles are hidden in bags, foil capsules removed, uncorked and poured into a row of glasses. As the tasting continued, I typed notes. Pretty soon, it was clear this was a great flight.

The scores awarded were a 90, an 89, then a 94. The wines became more concentrated, more structured and more awesome. One bottling earned a 98, which tied it for the highest rating I’ve ever given.

Make Room in Your Cellar for California Red Blends

The next wine was, incredibly, even better: inky in color, fantastically aromatic, mouth filling and deep in the classic Syrah way. It showed profuse berry, game and spice flavors enveloped in fine-grained tannins.

It was a kind of epiphany. I was elated but engaged in an internal debate. A detailed and effusive review was already in the works. But for the score, was a 99 enough? Or did it rise to the level of a perfect 100-point wine?

Mentally, I reviewed the checklist of what one looks for in a great wine: concentration, depth, layers, creaminess, balance, finesse and structure that can promote aging. This wine had all of those.

The decision ultimately came down to this: I couldn’t think of anything that the wine lacked. It seemed to fulfill every wish or expectation one could have for a Syrah, no matter where the grapes came from. In my judgment, as someone who has spent decades reviewing wines, it reached the pinnacle of quality.

I typed 1-0-0 into my notes and hit save. Then I pulled the bottle out of the bag. It was the 2016 vintage of a familiar wine: Domaine de la Terre Rouge Ascent Syrah from the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA). The winery bottled just 400 cases (4,800 bottles) of this $90 wine.

A bottle of Terre Rouge 2016 Ascent Syrah in autumn leaves
Terre Rouge 2016 Ascent Syrah/Photo by Larry Angier of Image West Photography

Ah! It makes total sense. Terre Rouge uses their best barrels of Syrah from different vineyard sites to create Ascent. The bottling has always been near the top of my yearly reviews from the Foothills. And it ages beautifully.

What made this vintage special, though?

Bill Easton and Jane O’Riordan founded Terre Rouge in 1985. Bill has long been a leading winemaker in Amador County, where Terre Rouge and Easton Wines are based. As one of California’s original Rhône Rangers, he began to make wine from varieties native to France’s Rhône Valley, but grown on the granitic, volcanic slopes of the Sierra Nevada at elevations of up to 3,000 feet, quite high for wine grapes. His wines have made the annual Top 100 lists of Wine Enthusiast as well as other publications.

Terre Rouge 2016 Ascent Syrah (Sierra Foothills); $90, 100 points. This is a grand, ageworthy wine from consistently stellar Winemaker Bill Easton. It delivers flavors of smoked plum, dry-aged beef and blueberry-blackberry compote wrapped in a velvety structure of superfine tannins and a full feel, while lighter, intricate spice elements weave through from the first whiff to the lingering finish. Best from 2026–2036. Cellar Selection.

Easton couldn’t put his finger on what was different in the 2016 Ascent. It was the last year of a six-year drought in California, but the vineyards received nearly 40 inches of rain over the previous winter and spring. The vines produced a normal to below normal-sized crop, usually a positive sign for potential quality. Harvest came one to two weeks earlier than average, which avoided any early fall rains, also a positive.

Simply put, it was a great year.

The exact vineyard sources for Ascent in any vintage are a secret, says Easton. He adds that there was nothing very unusual about the mix or the winemaking. He produced the limited-quantity blend based on his sense of taste and long experience as a winemaker, backed by lab tests.

Terre Rouge vineyard during the growing season
A Terre Rouge vineyard in the Sierra Foothills/Photo courtesy of Terre Rouge

Easton paid special attention to the aromatics, balance, tannins and finish. The blend was aged in French oak barrels, mostly new ones, made of three-year seasoned oak staves.

No miraculous twist occurred in 2016 in the vineyards or winery. But the reason the wine turned out so special is not really a mystery. Easton and his team took a grape variety well suited to a particular terroir, harvested it from tried-and-true upland vineyard properties, fermented, blended and aged it carefully according to strategies and practices refined over many years.

It wasn’t magic. What made the 2016 Ascent a 100-point wine was a near-perfect growing season, an exceptional wine region and a winemaker at the top of his game.

Published on February 27, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings