Syrah shows many different sides in California, from San Diego north through Mendocino. But, one thing is understood here by all: There's no producer in the state whose passion for the variety surpasses that of Pax Mahle.
For many years Pax has worked with a wide range of Syrah vineyards in California bottled under the Pax label, as well as Wind Gap. He's become obsessed with tapping vineyards on the extreme to prove the grape can flourish in conditions many thought were far too marginal. His fascination and love of the variety can be traced back to the traditionalists of the Northern Rhone Valley, the birthplace of Syrah. In 2016 Pax chose to pay tribute to one of the legends of the old guard, Raymond Trollat of Saint Joseph.
The 2016 Sonoma Hillsides, as one would imagine, is 100% whole cluster fermented. Sourcing comes from three vineyards Pax feels capture the essence of cooler climate hillside California Syrah. Castelli-Knight Ranch and Walker Vine Hill from Russian River Valley, and the iconic Griffin's Lair vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Through Pax's illustrious career it's sites like these that have best expressed the fresh and vibrant personality that Syrah is capable of. His visits with Trollat and other vignerons in the Rhone have been a huge influence on his viticulture and vinification practices.
At 12.8% the Sonoma Hillsides cuvée exemplifies everything that's so thrilling about the more savory, spicy, and mineral-inflected qualities of Syrah. Trollat, whose vines are now farmed by Gonon, personified the soul and authenticity found in the best of Saint-Joseph. Pax, too, stands as a benchmark for what other producers in California aspire to craft, having served as a mentor to much of the younger generation of winemakers. He has a long history with the variety here, but it's this hommage to Raymond Trollat that hit the sweet spot with me more so than any other bottling to date. This is not to be missed!
2016 Pax Sonoma Hillsides Syrah
$48 per bottle.
California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be a difficult subject. Though we're in the midst of a sea change with styles veering toward a greater emphasis on brightness, minerality, and nuance, most of what we come across leaves a lot to be desired in this area. What has become crystal clear is that the success stories tend to come from vineyards on the extreme. These sites are usually located in very close proximity to the Pacific, where cooler temperatures and howling winds provide a decidedly different sense of California. Sites where ambitious growers were laughed at decades ago in their pursuit of land with the assurance that grapes will simply not ripen. Of course, no great ideas are met without a fair share of derision.
If there's one vigneron who could tackle the rugged, extreme Sonoma Coast it's Ehren Jordan. After several years working throughout 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 first hand the outrageous heights capable of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this wild western edge he moved to find his own parcel immediately. That's when he settled on the now 13-acre-planted Estate Vineyard located in the newly recognized Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. He's pretty much the only show in town.
Sonoma Coast vineyards like Ehren's work really well with these Burgundian varieties for a few different reasons. They're situated above the fog line giving them optimal sun exposure. They have an incredible diurnal shift in temperatures from day to night - perfect in preserving the crunchy and energetic qualities of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that are so vital. And lastly, these rugged hillsides present a wild mix of soils precisely along the San Andreas fault line that are ideal for drainage and forcing roots to work deep - a prerequisite for concentrated and intricate wines.
At Failla Ehren produces two benchmark Sonoma Coast wines which source from these extreme sites. They are the very first place to turn for an example of what these noble Burgundian varieties can do when a hands-off approach is applied to winemaking. The formula here is a simple one: source great fruit, and let nature take its course in the cellar. Add nothing. Take nothing away.
The Failla wines truly represent the best of what's capable from the Sonoma Coast appellation. They offer grace, complexity, and above all else are incredibly easy to drink. There's simply no better source for North Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
2013 Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Aged in 10% new French oak, with the remainder in neutral French oak barrels. Fermented with 15% whole clusters, adding spice and vibrancy.
2014 Failla Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
Aged in 3 parts. 1/3 in French oak barrels (10% new), 1/3 stainless steel, 1/3 concrete egg. The concrete egg has been a terrific addition to the Chardonnay here for over 7 years now. They provide oxygen exchange as oak does, but without imparting any flavor. They also keep the lees (dead yeast cells) in constant suspension, giving a fascinating and terrific texture.
2013 Failla "Chuy" Sonoma Valley Chardonnay
At 1,000-foot elevation looking down upon Sonoma Valley, the 1964-planted Chuy Vineyard always produces tiny yields, and even smaller berries. The perfect combination for unparalleled concentration. One of the most unique and mind-bending Chardonnays in all of America.
2009 Failla Keefer Ranch Chardonnay
Juicy, forward, with notes of chamomile and orange blossom. With age, faint notes of burnt caramel have developed.
2013 Failla Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay
From Napa Valley's coolest AVA, Coombsville. From 1966-planted vines on volcanic alluvial soil. Tremendous clarity and precision, with background notes of mint, almonds, and honey.
2012 Failla Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir
30% whole cluster, with dark fruits and notes of cinnamon, pepper, and a silken texture. Deep and powerful with a lifted finish.
2009 Failla Phoenix Ranch Syrah
100% whole cluster Syrah from one of the iconic cooler climate Napa vineyards. Loaded with black pepper, violets, roasted meats, and brambly red and black fruits.