California's Best Syrahs
Syrah was my first “favorite” grape.
The wine offers a complex range of flavors, from the ripe purple fruit and smoky bacon fat that enchant newbies, to the savory herb, earthy funk and distinctive cracked pepper that keep savvy palates coming back for more. I couldn’t help but be hooked.
And I wasn’t the only one who was impressed 15 years ago, when I first started paying attention to what was in my glass. Vintners across California planted rows and rows of Syrah in the late 1990s and early 2000s, believing it would some day rival Cabernet Sauvignon as the Golden State’s preferred grape.
Then came the perfect Syrah-sinking storm.
Australia’s Shiraz craze led consumers away from subtle, savory domestic Syrah. California vintners realized that the grape didn’t make interesting wines in every corner of the state. Sideways skyrocketed the popularity of Pinot Noir. And, in a final blow, the global financial crisis that started in 2007 caused people to stick to familiar red wines (read: Cab and Pinot).
Vineyards began grafting Syrah over to more lucrative varieties, and many wineries shed their Rhône programs.
But not everyone gave up on Syrah. In a few special pockets of California’s Central Coast, where the climate dangles perfectly between coastal chill and inland warmth, some brave vintners doubled down on the Rhône Valley varieties.
In fact, estate owners in Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon bet their entire farms on the grape, creating California’s first Syrah-focused appellation in 2013.
Today, from the redwood-jammed mountains of Santa Cruz to the hawk-hovered hilltops of Los Alamos, Central Coast Syrah is shining brighter than ever. These five sweet spots, whose optimal conditions provide winemakers with bountiful fruit and spice, yield finished wines of compelling complexity.
—Photos by Meg Baggott, paintings by Julia Lea
“The difference between Ballard Canyon and the rest of California is that we stuck to our guns,” says Peter Stolpman, overlooking his family’s 150-acre vineyard. Their initial plantings of 16 different varieties are now dominated by 90 acres of Syrah.
“In a few years, if you have a good wine list, you’re gonna have a hole if there isn’t a Ballard Canyon Syrah on it,” he says.
The new, relatively tiny American Viticultural Area (AVA)—smaller than the Northern Rhône’s Côte-Rôtie, but bigger than Hermitage—extends up a narrow, north-south canyon that stretches from the hills behind Buellton and Solvang up toward Los Olivos.
It’s located halfway between the fog-swept Sta. Rita Hills AVA (where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive) and the sun-drenched Happy Canyon AVA (where Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon show promise).
Ballard Canyon shoots like a perpendicular dagger through the heart of the east-west Santa Ynez Valley, the nearly 80,000-acre appellation from which it broke away.
The designation covers about 7,700 acres, from the sweeping, 360-degree valley views atop the Beckmen family’s Purisima Mountain Vineyard down toward the rolling hills of Rusack Vineyards, where Gene Hallock started Ballard Canyon Winery back in 1974. At last count, 17 estates comprise about 600 acres of vineyards.
More than half of the acreage is dedicated to Syrah, while another 30 percent are planted to other Rhône varieties. All are rooted in sandy white soils that sit atop chunky chalk in the south and blocks of limestone in the north.
There’s even a specially designed bottle that wineries are encouraged to use for their estate Syrahs, the first California region to make such a packaging move.
Standing with Stolpman on his balcony are viticulturalist Ruben “The Grape Whisperer” Solórzano (who lives on the Stolpman ranch and farms Jonata, Kimsey, and numerous other properties for Coastal Vineyard Care) and Michael Larner, whose family planted 34 acres of mostly Syrah in 1999 and 2000. He’s now the family’s vineyard manager and winemaker.
After hosting a group of sommeliers in 2010 to taste their wines together, the Ballard-ites realized that their land spoke louder than their winemaking, so Larner spearheaded efforts to form an AVA. They celebrated that victory in the fall of 2013, one of the last moves by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau before that year’s government shutdown.
“I call it the Goldilocks syndrome—it’s just right,” says Larner of Ballard Canyon. “Syrah is amazing because it can be grown in every region, but to get all the synapses firing at once—the fruit, the bacon fat, the asphalt, the pepper—there has to be a confluence of cool air with enough warmth to ripen.
“That allows the fruit to express, but not dominate. The vegetal side to dissipate, but not vanish.”
That rings true when tasting. There’s a bit of creosote and blackberry fruit that’s almost too strong from vineyards in hot climates, and a nice shake of peppery spice that tends to prevail in cool climates, like the nearby Santa Maria Valley.
Combine those elements with violet florals, roasted game and crushed oregano, and you’ll see why this Syrah-centric appellation makes perfect sense.
Jaffurs 2012 Kimsey Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $50, 94 points. This wine, from a newer vineyard in the recently named Ballard Canyon appellation, offers aromas of boysenberry, black pepper and a judicious amount of creosote. It’s elegantly structured along a line of ripe purple to tarry black flavors—think burnt ends of beef tip coated in smashed wild berries and crushed Indian spices.
Larner 2010 Reserve Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley); $65, 94 points. Michael Larner is making savory Syrahs to sit on. This one, from four years ago, offers perfectly ready black and white pepper scents along with blueberry, black licorice candy and violet flowers. It’s viscous on the palate, with mace and all sorts of peppery flavors, picking up a bit of scorched lemon tartness and remaining a bit tannic. This may get even better in years to come.
Stolpman 2012 Originals Syrah (Ballard Canyon); $42, 94 points. Distinctive and unique aromas of blueberry, sawdust pencil shavings, freshly tanned leather and fennel seed swirl amidst a mysterious minty element. It’s silky and lush once sipped, with fine-grained tannins and all shades of purple fruit and flower flavors.
Beckmen 2012 Clone #1 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah (Ballard Canyon); $52, 92 points. Made from a clone UC Davis sourced from Australia, this is all about intense fruit. Aromas of licorice and blackberries give way to a lush palate, with notes of smoked blueberry, mocha, chocolate pudding, black rocks and mint. The tannins will last awhile, but this is ready now.
Transcendence 2012 Harrison Clarke Vineyard Syrah (Ballard Canyon); $38, 91 points. Deep and rich aromas of blackberry syrup and wet slate kick off this excellent, approachable representation of Santa Barbara County’s new Ballard Canyon appellation. It’s both juicy and tannic once sipped, tasty with blackberry and slight cherry juice. Balanced with medium-range force, it provides evidence of how the region evens out Syrah’s rougher edges.
Rusack 2012 Ballard Canyon Estate Reserve Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $36, 89 points. Oak aromas lead the nose of this wine from one of the new appellation’s longest landowners, with smoke and vanilla wrapped around blackberry fruit. Barrel-related tannins also feature prominently on the palate, though deep purple fruit and hot tar make appearances as well.
Standing beneath a nearly three-story-tall cut of exposed limestone, where sprigs of chaparral surprisingly cling to cracks of life, winemaker Jordan Fiorentini makes me lick a dusty white rock, and the moisture vanishes from my tongue.
We’re exploring the Paderewski Vineyard, planted on property west of the city of Paso Robles that was once owned by Ignacy Paderewski, “the mad pianist.”
“When you first get here, the soils are just inspirational,” says Fiorentini, a Georgia-raised, UC-Davis grad. After working 10-plus years in Napa and Sonoma, Fiorentini became winemaker at Epoch Estate Wines in 2010, against the advice of her NorCal friends.
“They equated Syrah to a really bad disease,” she says. “But people understand it when it’s coming from West Paso, and there’s only so much to go around.”
Fiorentini was convinced of the region’s Rhône potential, thanks to wines from Saxum, Booker, Denner and L’Aventure, all from Paso’s Westside, which was broken up last fall into the Adelaida District, Templeton Gap District and Willow Creek District subappellations. (The latter is home to Epoch’s Paderewski and Catapult vineyards.)
Though Paso thermometers often hit triple digits, these rippling western reaches, loaded with chalky, white soil that winemakers covet, are cooled by the Pacific Ocean, from the Cambria coast through the Templeton Gap along Highway 46.
The resulting Syrahs and Rhône-style blends are powerful and ripe, but also nuanced, with licorice, pipe tobacco, balsamic vinegar and savory herbs like black sage and tarragon.
To the south of Paderewski, in the heart of the Templeton Gap, Venteux’s Scott Stelzle dry-farms Syrah on a former barley plantation that’s chilled by damp sea breezes.
“The plants look like crap, and they’re struggling to survive,” he says proudly.
The low yields produce an earthy, Cornas-style Syrah from this property, where it’s tough to reach 23˚ brix. By comparison, the grapes he uses for the juicier Tache Le Verre bottling from Alisos Canyon in Los Alamos reach 28˚ brix.
“It’s a lot of babysitting, and kind of a pain in the ass,” says Stelzle. “But it’s all about getting deep roots. That gives more character when the roots go down 50 feet through the sedimentary soils.”
Struggling vines are also the theme at Alta Colina Vineyards, north of Paderewski in the Adelaida District. The Tillman family’s 31 acres of grapes (about 35 percent Syrah) are planted in exposed, siliceous shale soils across two ridgelines, where the sun bakes them constantly.
“Our vines really have to work for it,” says Maggie Tillman, who calls the resulting wines, “big, hearty and hedonistic—but not one-dimensional fruit bombs.”
Alta Colina sells fruit to artisanal brands like Sans Liege, Dilecta and Paix Sur Terre, but the Tillmans also make about 2,000 cases per year under their own label. Almost all are Rhône-style wines, including two main Syrahs: Toasted Slope (which comes from the sunny, south-facing side), and the north slope-sourced Old 900, named after the B-29 bomber Maggie’s grandfather flew in World War II.
“From the very first vintage, it was very clear that the Toasted Slope is one wine, and the Old 900 is another,” she says. “Neither is improved by blending them.”
Anglim 2011 Syrah (Paso Robles); $28, 93 points. This is a wine to smell all day long, with dried rose petals, violets, cigar ash and blackberry fruit chews evolving into elegant aromas. The flavors are distinct and delicious as well, with long-lingering pepper spice, plum jam and beautiful florals. Editors’ Choice.
Barton 2011 Paradise City Syrah (Paso Robles); $40, 93 points. This bottling is a reference to the Guns ’n’ Roses hit song, and proves to be quite a destination itself, with aromas of cocoa, coffee, smoked meats, ginger snaps and cinnamon strudel against a canvas of deep blueberry. Tannins provide tension on the palate, with rich flavors of mocha and blackberry, coming in just a tad hot.
Alta Colina 2011 Toasted Slope Estate Syrah (Paso Robles); $42, 92 points. Pleasantly dank aromas of smoldering pine needles, leather and gamy meats hit the nose on this 2% Viognier coferment. Flavors are reminiscent of roasted wild boar, with dark chocolate, creosote and beef crust, presented against grippy tannins.
Epoch 2011 Block B Paderewski Vineyard Syrah (Paso Robles); $75, 92 points. This is Syrah at its rich and rugged finest, with aromas of grilled game, freshly turned earth, barnyard and even body odor. Once sipped, flavors of a blackberry-crusted roast and clove emerge, with serious tannins that will promise ageability. It’s good for drinking now, but can hold until 2017.
Law 2011 Intrepid Syrah (Paso Robles); $65, 92 points. Winemaker Scott Hawley delivers deep and dark aromas of blueberry and mint against a backdrop of bacon fat and barrel smoke. The mouthfeel is rich and lush, with more blueberry plus anise, black licorice and a canvas of minty herbs that also reveal a touch of bitterness.
Zenaida Cellars 2011 Syrah (Paso Robles); $28, 92 points. There is great tension between the ripe florality of fresh violets and the reductive scents of rubber on the nose of this wine. Those scents imply it may be rough on the palate, but it proves quite elegant, with blueberry fruit, lavender flowers and a bit of tar. A great Syrah for the price. Editors’ Choice.
In 1978, Zaca Mesa Winemaker Ken Brown planted the first Syrah in Santa Barbara County on a vineyard near the intersection of Foxen and Alisos canyons. The grape has flourished in this unique corridor ever since.
Taking Ballard Canyon and the rare cool-climate renditions from the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley out of the equation, it’s hard to find a Santa Barbara County Syrah without the Watch Hill, White Hawk, Thompson and Alisos vineyards on the label. All occupy hilltops that rise above the Los Alamos Valley.
Even renowned Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non planted his The Third Twin Vineyard here. If there were better groundwater over the ridges to the east, you’d see a lot more Syrah from Foxen Canyon. Billy Wathen, Foxen Winery’s co-owner and winemaker, makes a delicious dry-farmed Tinaquaic Vineyard Syrah.
Both canyons benefit from the wide-mouthed Santa Maria Valley’s maritime influence. The cool air ensures that grapes ripen slow enough to develop earth and spice notes alongside the ripe fruit.
“We’re a good five degrees cooler here on any given day than places more to the east in the Santa Ynez Valley,” says Wathen. He makes about 20,000 cases a year of 24 different wines, including a handful of Syrahs, from land that business partner Dick Doré’s great-great-grandfather Benjamin Foxen purchased in 1837.
Sitting atop the uplifted, ancient mesas of the Santa Maria Riverbed, the area’s well-draining, gravelly soils allow the grapevines to dive deep into the earth.
“It’s just good dirt,” says Wathen, surveying the landscape around Tinaquaic, where cattle ranches largely cover the expansive, parched hills. “We could plant hundreds of acres here, if we had the water.”
The region’s loudest champion of Syrah is Andrew Murray, whose family bought property on Foxen Canyon Road a quarter-century ago. They sold those vineyards to Demetria, but Murray kept at Syrah. Last year, he upped the ante, taking over the Firestone family’s Curtis property.
“We’re so infinitely proud to be right here, banging the same drum 25 years later,” says Murray, who’s “fine-tuning” by replanting certain blocks with better clonal selections. “We’re watching Syrah really come into its own down here. We’re not just making jam.”
Murray was one of the first to identify the promise of Watch Hill Vineyard, where he finds tart-ripe raspberry fruit flavors and the iron and iodine notes that he associates with cooler climates.
“They taste like you just cut the inside of your mouth, which I adore,” he says.
He’s also a fan of Alisos, where he sources up to 30 tons annually. Much of that goes into his Tous Les Jours blend, which, at $20, represents solid value, Syrah or otherwise.
“So many wines cost more or deliver less, with just jammy fruit or fake oak,” he says. “People are really curious about a good, authentic, affordable Syrah.”
Margerum 2012 Black Oak Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $36, 94 points. This wine that Doug Margerum makes from the Los Alamos Valley vineyard owned by Dan and Meghan Reeves presents intriguing complexity on the nose, from violet and rose petals to smashed boysenberry, thyme, rosemary and roasted boar. Blueberry, blackberry and black cherry soak the palate, which is evened out by pine sap, cedar, purple flowers and shiitake mushroom-powered umami. Editors’ Choice.
Andrew Murray 2013 Tous Les Jours Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley); $20, 93 points. Perhaps one of the best wines for the money available right now, Andrew Murray delivers aromas of cherry, blackberry, lavender and a white pepper wow factor on the very inviting, florally driven nose. The wine looks silky in the glass, and flavors of black cherry, anise, violet and oregano are easily accessible to a wide variety of palate preferences. Editors’ Choice.
Foxen 2012 Tinaquaic Vineyard Syrah (Santa Maria Valley); $48, 93 points. This dry-farmed vineyard reliably delivers memorable wines, including th is Syrah, redolent of notes of oregano, thyme, charred beef and tar. The herbs, fruit and smoke integrate smoothly on the palate, with boysenberry fruit in the background and crushed bouquet garni on the front.
Mulvane Wine Co. 2011 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $40, 93 points. Addictive aromas of hot blackberry pie laced with cinnamon, allspice, cola nut and a stewed cherry sauce reveal the promise of this popular Los Alamos -Valley vineyard. Dark plum fruit, but with the acidity of the plum skin, meets with candied flavors of blackberry syrup and the freshness of soda water. A hedonistic Syrah.
Vie Winery 2011 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $45, 92 points. Scents of effervescent cherry and mint run with emergent licorice and slate on this wine that proves lithe yet flavorful on the palate. Lovely blackberry flavors and black pepper make for a very balanced bottling that doesn’t rely on bombastic power to tell the Syrah story.
Zaca Mesa 2011 Mesa Reserve Estate Grown and Bottled Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley); $48, 92 points. In 1978, Zaca Mesa became the first winery to plant Syrah in Santa Barbara County, and Winemaker Eric Mohseni keeps pushing the quality. This offers notes of blueberry cobbler, rocks and fresh-turned soil, followed by blue fruit flavors, dark chocolate, leather and slight asphalt.
A rumbling ride in Gary Pisoni’s jeep through his vineyards tends to focus more on Pinot Noir than Syrah. First planted in 1982, the vineyard now includes Syrah, located in the upper reaches of the Santa Lucia Highlands.
But this cool region, chilled by steady sea breezes from the deep Monterey Bay a few miles away, produces incredibly distinctive, peppery and herbal Syrahs, including the ones that the Pisonis grow in the Susan’s Hill, Soberanes and Garys’ vineyards.
“This cool climate is why you don’t see much Syrah planted in the region, as it doesn’t ripen every year,” says Gary’s son, Vineyard Manager Mark Pisoni.
The well-drained soils range from decomposed granite, schist and quartz to sandy loam and river rock, depending on the vineyard, but weather is the key determinant. Fresh with cracked pepper, purple flower and boysenberry juice flavors, the wines boast tremendous acidity and serious tannic structure, which make them great for cellaring.
Adam Lee is better known for his Siduri Pinot Noirs, but he also makes four Santa Lucia Syrahs under the Novy Family label. That includes a 2002 from Garys’ Vineyard that’s amazing today, with flavors of black olive, truffle and maraschino-style black cherry.
“Compared to Sonoma and Napa, you just don’t have to worry about rain much in the Santa Lucia Highlands, so you can capture that hang time,” says Lee. “We get a lot of tertiary flavors developing, with herbs and those more earthy, funky characteristics.”
The herbs and funk can also be found in the wines Gary Franscioni makes under his Roar label, and in those from Dan Lee’s Morgan Winery, whose G17 is a wallet-friendly $22.
Lucia 2012 Soberanes Vineyard Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands); $50, 93 points. Pulverized peppercorn and dried oregano aromas give ample seasoning to lush blackberry fruit on this wine from a vineyard planted by the Pisoni and Franscioni families. The firm structure implies that this wine will improve with time, but it’s already deliciously savory, with lots of thyme, anise, menthol, charred beef and pepper throughout the purple fruit flavors. Editors’ Choice.
Novy 2012 Susan’s Hill Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands); $34, 93 points. Pinot Noir pro Adam Lee shows his Rhône colors with this cool climate bottling that offers scents of black pepper, violets, purple fruit and fried pork. It’s both lush and energetic on the palate, presenting dark blackberry flavors but with acidic verve. An exciting look at the grape’s varied potential.
Morgan 2012 G17 Syrah (Monterey); $22, 89 points. This fresh, fruit-driven wine opens with aromas of black pepper, blackberry and violet. It’s not overly complex but very tasty and bright, with berry juice, cola, sassafras and a pinch of spearmint.
Half-pipe skateboard ramps, wild turkeys and the smell of growing marijuana are to be expected while driving through the remote, redwood-shaded reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. But despite those distractions, Bradley Brown’s Big Basin Vineyard still stands out.
Inspired by Randall Graham’s early success with Rhône varieties at the Bonny Doon Vineyard a few ridges away, Brown worked with Syrah expert John Alban in the late 1990s to plant his 10-acre property, which had been clear-cut on the steep mountaintop by homesteaders a century earlier.
“It’s been a study ever since,” says Brown, who admits that today, Santa Cruz County authorities would never allow so many trees to be removed for a vineyard.
Located at the upper collision between the San Lorenzo and Pescadero river valleys, Big Basin is planted on fractured shale soils with lots of iron content. Like the nearby Rhys and Skyline vineyards, it’s subjected to sea breezes that devigorate the vines.
“We get a big diurnal effect being so close to the ocean,” says Brown. He’s also planting a little Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in his vineyard this year, optimistic that they’ll perform well.
“Because it’s cooler, you can choose to make wine with more Old World sensibilities, with a lot of phenolic ripeness at low sugar levels.”
Big Basin wines are incredibly unique and delicious. They’re aromatic in lavender, violet and white pepper, and full of energetic verve, perhaps the most striking evidence that Syrah should continue as a Central Coast star.
Like Ballard Canyon, Brown stuck to his guns, even though he admits to being part of that precarious Syrah planting wave 15 years ago.
“I’m one of those people,” he says. “But I believe there is slow growth, especially among wine aficionados. There isn’t a herd mentality like there was for Pinot, but it’s growing organically. There are a lot of Syrah lovers out there.”
Big Basin 2011 Old Corral Syrah (Santa Cruz Mountains); $55, 94 points. Like smelling a pepper shaker with an underlying line of boysenberry fruit, this tremendously spicy, low-alcohol Syrah promises a bright future for the 1,400-foot-high vineyard. The pepper matches with purple fruits on the silky palate, altogether delivering a refreshing yet savory experience.
Big Basin 2011 Rattlesnake Rock Syrah (Santa Cruz Mountains); $55, 93 points. Prevalent black pepper scents swirl alluringly with leather, air-dried meats, tea and blackberry fruit on the nose. It’s light, vibrant and peppery on the palate as well, making it a refreshing wine that also delivers a hefty, satisfying flavor profile.
Cooper-Garrod 2010 Finley Vineyard Estate Syrah (Santa Cruz Mountains); $29, 89 points. The pretty but powerful nose is like striking a gusher of black gold in a field of lavender, full of tar, violet and blueberry. Leather and deep purple fruit lead the palate, with charred meat savoriness, black pepper spice and plum skin tannins making a good case for this seven-acre vineyard that was planted in 1998.
- 1Ballard Canyon: America’s First Syrah Appellation
- 2Westside Paso Robles: Rise of the Rhônes
- 3Alisos and Foxen Canyons: Santa Barbara’s Hidden Gems
- 4Santa Lucia Highlands: Pepper Power from Pinot Lands
- 5Santa Cruz Mountains: Big Basin Bets Big