Santa Barbara's cool-climate wines have growingly become one of my obsessions. For me, the most integral name in the array of labels is Sashi Moorman. His Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay are among my favorites, but his first label, Piedrasassi, offers downright delicious and complex reflections of Syrah.
Piedrasassi harnesses savory, bright, and superior aromatics while never shying away from the innately luscious qualities that define California Syrah. They nail the roasted meat, violet, and black pepper trifecta at each price point. The P.S. bottling, sourced from a handful of Piedrasassi's single vineyards, is the perfect introduction to their philosophy on cool-climate Syrah, and the vineyard-designate bottlings best exemplify how these wines continually develop in bottle over many years.
Sashi vinifies and ages as naturally as possible, excluding sulfur at fermentation and only utilizing native yeasts. Whole cluster inclusion and aging in larger 500-liter barrels ensure the lively, crushed rock virtues that make Northern Rhone Syrah so unique aren't lost here in Santa Barbara.
At first glance, Turley may seem like an outlier in our Old World-focused collection. The reason I go deep on these prized wines from America's oldest vineyards extends far beyond their historical significance. While Turley wines have a hedonistic side, they are balanced, precisely detailed, and always supported by fresh acidity.
Turley defines American viticulture today. Working with over 50 vineyards, they apply organic principles and rely only on native yeasts for fermentation. Head winemaker, Tegan Passalacqua of Sandlands, is rightfully respected for his work in the cellar as much as for his encyclopedic knowledge of California's diversity of old vineyards.
While Zinfandel and Petite Syrah inherently push toward higher ripeness, their thoughtful approach with vines from Paso Robles to Napa Valley is to preserve acidity and manage tannins. Each cuvée is crafted free of reliance on excessive new oak, additives, or manipulation in the cellar. These are ultimate wines of terroir, epitomizing the best of California's viticulture heritage.
When serious BBQ is at hand, Turley is among the first wines I reach for. Their vibrant, fruit-forward, and deeply nuanced traits lend themselves to a wide range of grilled meats and marinades. Even more, a bottle of 2001 Hayne Vineyard Petite Syrah was a great reminder that the pure joy these wines give, even after a decade in the bottle, is evidence of their greatness.
Finding jaw-dropping hillside vineyards beyond each weave and turn of Napa Valley's roads is common. However, finding winemakers that live up to the landscape by pursuing graceful, nuanced, and site-specific wines is more of a challenge. Diana Snowden Seysess typifies this essence like few others in the valley do, and the winery's history explains why the personification of place is her ultimate intent.
Snowden eschews many winemaking practices that have become commonplace today. No cultured yeasts are employed, no enzymes to enhance color, no "bleeding" of the must for concentration, no fining, and no sterile filtration. Diana presses off the skins when they're dry rather than ongoing maceration to pick up more density and extraction. The wines never see more than 50% new French oak.
The Snowden Ranch began in 1878 after the Homestead Act encouraged the settlement of new agricultural lands in the valley. The Snowden family took control of these vineyards in 1955, planting different parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon. Through the 1980s, the family worked closely with Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap Cellars to improve their vineyards. Finally, Snowden Vineyards produced its first wines from the family estate in 1993.
Diana grew up in Napa Valley and graduated from the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program. In 2003, she became the oenologist at Domaine Dujac and worked alongside her now-husband, Jeremy Seysses, crafting some of Burgundy's most celebrated wines. Her time between Napa and Burgundy brings extraordinary perspective. These wines re-shape how Napa Valley speaks to sense of place.
Oakville's To-Kalon is arguably the most hallowed vineyard in all of California, planted in the 1870s. Most notably, it's been the main component of Robert Mondavi's Reserve and To-Kalon cuvées. Mondavi also buys fruit from the MacDonald family, whose parcel sits at the desirable westernmost part of the vineyard at the Mayacamas Mountain Range base. For 60 years, the family farmed their head-trained Cabernet Sauvignon and sold all the grapes to Mondavi.
Graeme MacDonald has an impressive resume: He studied wine at UC Davis, then worked at Opus One, Colgin, Kongsgaard, and Scholium Project. But his most difficult task was convincing his family to let him farm and produce wine from their sacred To-Kalon vines. After all, they could sell the grapes to Mondavi for $20,000 per ton. Graeme and his brother, Alex, negotiated with their family to harvest a small portion of the vines, and their inaugural release was the 2010 vintage.
While To-Kalon translates to "The Highest Beauty," its first owner, Henry W. Crabb, was fond of calling it "The Boss Vineyard." MacDonald's Cabernet is both beauty and boss. It's incredibly structured with hints of black olive, bitter chocolate, and graphite. While the fruit spectrum is dark, vivid raspberry and violet tones point to Graeme's insistence on preserving freshness and avoiding the overripeness that has permeated Napa in recent decades.
Graeme's philosophy is as old-school as the 19th-century photos on his small farmhouse's walls. The rare California Sprawl vine-training allows the canopy to shade grapes, prevent sun damage, and preserve freshness. As neighbors tear out vines that aren't capable of giving six tons per acre, Graeme is taking steps to ensure the oldest vines continue to thrive. The unique location of Macdonald's parcel is over 90% gravel, which allows the vines to travel deep below for water and nutrients. In the context of Grand Cru To-Kalon, MacDonald's parcel sits in the sweetest spot.
California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be difficult subjects. What has become clear is that the success stories tend to come from vineyards on the extreme. These sites are usually in close proximity to the Pacific, where cooler temperatures and howling winds provide a decidedly different sense of California. Ambitious growers interested in these sites were laughed at decades ago, being told that their grapes wouldn't ripen. Of course, no great ideas go without their fair share of pushback.
One brave soul to tackle the rugged, extreme Sonoma Coast is Ehren Jordan of Failla Wines. After several years working in France, Ehren returned home to California and was an integral part of the inception of the famed Marcassin Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. After seeing firsthand the outrageous capability of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on this wild western edge, he went off to find his own parcel. Ehren settled on a 13-acre-planted vineyard in the newly recognized Fort Ross-Seaview AVA.
Failla produces two benchmark Sonoma Coast wines from these extreme sites. They are one of the first places to turn for an example of what these noble Burgundian varieties can produce in California. The formula here is simple: Source great fruit and let nature take its course in the cellar, with nothing added or taken away. The Failla wines offer grace and complexity and, above all else, are incredibly easy to drink. This estate is one of the great sources for North Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.