The Future’s Not Ours To See. Que Syrah, Syrah.

Ballard Canyon Syrah grapes hangin' around in July.

Ballard Canyon Syrah grapes hangin’ around in July.

When attending wine tasting seminars, proper etiquette requires you comport yourself with professionalism, propriety, and dignity. You will learn, as I have, that if you conduct yourself with all due decorum, chances are you’ll end up face down under a table.

Earlier this year I attended a seminar in Santa Barbara featuring several winemakers from Ballard Canyon, one of California’s newest A.V.A.s located in the Santa Ynez Valley.  The seminar was followed by a tasting of impressive wines from the appellation. After listening to speaker after speaker, the moment that the audience had been waiting for finally arrived – the bathroom break.

After the break we tasted seven Syrahs, a wine that hasn’t caught on with American consumers. When I bought my wine store 20 years ago I was told, “Syrah and Viognier are the next big things. They will soon replace Cabernet and Chardonnay!” Viognier seemed to burst onto the wine scene like a supernova, but it petered out like a Chevy Nova.

Syrah’s ascension has been more gradual, and by gradual I mean nobody gives a rat’s ass about it. As a rookie wine merchant I tasted many impressive Syrahs and I bought into the idea that it was a wine on the rise. I went on a crusade to coax, cajole, and convince customer after customer to buy Syrah and by the end of my first year in business I had succeeded. I sold both of them a bottle.

I guess the future’s not ours to see. Que Syrah, Syrah.

About the time Syrah finally did show signs of catching on, a terrible thing happened. Wine critics started handing out big Syrah scores. Before it had a chance to get its hooks in the general public the prices started to rise and soon Syrah was out of reach for the average wine buyer. Pedestrian, insipid, but affordable Syrahs rushed in to fill the void. This new Syrah Lite lacked the complex, unruly hooliganism that makes Syrah unique, so consumers didn’t see any reason to switch from the pedestrian, insipid, but affordable Merlot they were already drinking.

The ocean fog layer sits like a frozen tidal wave above the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The ocean fog layer sits like a frozen tidal wave above the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Patrick Comiskey, a prolific writer and moderator of the Ballard Canyon seminar, opened the forum with these spot-on observations;

Syrah is … the most heart-stirring, head-turning, mind-expanding, epiphany-inducing red wine in the American repertoire … its best attribute, its defining attribute, has always been wildness. Not beauty, though it can be beautiful, and not grace, though it can be graceful, not even power, though it certainly can be powerful. No, the reason we love Syrah is the reason we love thunderstorms and thrillers, gooseflesh and gambling, bullfights, food fights, mud runs, grunge rock, sour beer and stinky cheese.

Comiskey referred to the line-up as the “murderer’s row” of California Syrah. I’ve taken his batting order and rearranged it from my favorite to my not-so favorite wine. Regardless of the order, there wasn’t a wine in the line-up that I wouldn’t recommend (well, the jury is still out on one of them).

My lead-off hitter and the one with the highest batting average was Larner’s 2010 Estate Syrah, presented by Michael Larner.

Larner, 2010 Syrah, Estate, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, CA
Many Syrahs from the Rhone Valley have pronounced herbal characteristics, whereas this Ballard Canyon Syrah has so much spice but so little thyme. Larner’s Estate Syrah features an absolutely delicious nose of sweet baking spices, fresh baked cookies, and rich, concentrated aromas of cherry liqueur followed by a subtle whiff of sweet cedar. This elegant red is medium to full-bodied with very concentrated flavors of ripe cherry compote and blueberry torte. You can have your cake after dinner – I’ll take the Larner. $38
Rating: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Jonata, 2010 Syrah, Sangre de Jonata, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, CA
While I found Jonata Sangre de Jonata Syrah exceptional, I didn’t find it nearly as profound as the Wine Advocate did. Of course WineSnark isn’t the Wine Advocate. For one thing we have far better poopy jokes.

Only Syrah could pull off a nose that features funky game, smoky beef, sweet vanilla cookie dough, ripe black cherries, flowers and something akin to citrus and still make you lust for a taste. This is a big, very ripe, concentrated Syrah with loads of spice and extremely ripe cherry kirsh and raspberry liqueur flavors. A great accomplishment no doubt, but for the price you could buy two or three bottles of the other wines presented, or sixty-two and a half bottles of Two Buck Chuck.  $125
Rating: 4 Stars (4 / 5)

Harrison Clarke, 2010 Syrah, Cuvee Charlotte, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, CA
The lone female winemaker on the panel was Hilare Clarke of the Harrison Clarke winery, and of all the wines presented, her Cuvee Charlotte Syrah was far and away the very best wine made by a woman.

Substantial barrel aging (32 months) explains the cedary, slightly oaky aromas that compliment (but don’t overpower) a bouquet rife with blackberry, mineral and subtle beef au jus. This big red is extremely concentrated, with very ripe, almost sweet flavors of cherry, blueberry and focused purple plum and spice. Very silky, refined tannins add to the soft, full-bodied mouthfeel. $55
Rating: 4 Stars (4 / 5)

Beckman, 2012 Syrah, La Purisima Mountain, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, CA
Batting fourth was Beckman’s La Purisima Mountain Syrah presented by Steve Beckman. I rated Beckman’s wine equal to Harrison Clarke, meaning murderer’s row doesn’t actually have a clean-up hitter.

This Syrah is as big and round as J.Lo’s booty, but it’s a lot easier to get your hands on. The chameleonesque aromas are constantly transforming themselves; at one moment revolving around cedar, vanilla and roasted nuts, the next moment fluctuating between blackberry and concentrated grape skins, followed by hints of smoked meat that could be salami or could be smoked bacon. The palate is a soft, full-bodied amalgam of dark plum and forest berry flavors that turns firmer when the mineral and black pepper notes kick in. And if all that’s not enough for you, the sizeable finish also reveals subtle saddle leather notes. I’m surprised this all fits inside a 750ml bottle. $32
Rating: 4 Stars (4 / 5)

Rusack, 2012 Syrah, Reserve, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, CA
Winemaker Steve Gerbac presented Rusack’s small production (350 case) Reserve Syrah. It is produced from barrels selected for their bolder style. Steve also makes Rusack’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vineyards on Catalina Island.

Rusack Reserve Syrah can be summed up in one word; elegant and powerful. Stomach growling aromas of sweet vanilla cookies, fresh baked blueberry muffins and ripe black fruit had me salivating like a zombie at a brain buffet. This is a full-bodied red with a river of silky tannins carrying notes of pepper and vanilla through a delta of ripe cherry and berry fruit flavors. I don’t know if you should drink it or have it for breakfast – so I recommend both. $36
Rating: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Kimsey, 2012 Syrah, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, CA
Kimsey winemaker Ruben Solórzano is best known for his exceptional vineyard management skills, where he earned the moniker The Grape Whisperer. He presented the 240 case production Syrah from the Kimsey winery.

This big red started out tighter than an eskimo’s sphincter but soon opened up to reveal inky aromas of spring lilacs, fresh crushed grape skins, cedar and graphite (think pencil shavings). This is a bold, full-bodied Syrah with a firm core of stony, graphite-like minerals buoyed by extremely ripe blackberry fruit and accents of fresh crushed black pepper. Give it some time in the cellar. Produced from 95% Syrah co-fermented with 5% Viognier. $60
Rating: 3 Stars (3 / 5)

Stolpman Vineyards, 2012 Syrah, Originals, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, CA
Pete Stolpman presented his “Originals” Syrah which is sourced from the oldest “original” plantings in the vineyard (18 – 20 years old).

This peculiar Syrah was the Lou Reed of the line-up, a little quirky and definitely on the wild side. It’s a slightly gamy style with perplexing aromas of orange peel, wild berries, and wild flower aromas that are so distinctive they boarder on soapy. This unique red is pretty and floral with polished tannins giving support to a medley of black cherry, blackberry and a concentrated black raspberry flavor that is almost syrup-like. It’s a smooth, full-bodied wine with an interesting carob characteristic that pokes through the bold fruit flavors now and then. Right now it’s hard to tell if this is a painter’s drop cloth with flavors splattered all over it in an incomprehensible mess or if it’s a Jackson Pollack masterpiece waiting to find an audience. You need to step back, wait a few years and see what it turns into. Either way, this wine is for those looking for a walk on the wild side. $42
Rating: 3 Stars (3 / 5)

While rereading my tasting notes from this event I was reminded of how much I enjoy the wonderful, complex, exciting wine that is Syrah. I don’t understand why it hasn’t caught on with American consumers. I suppose it will remain one of the great mysteries, like what’s the meaning of life, or why doesn’t Ken Burns get a better haircut?

Que Syrah, Syrah.



  1. Alan Donaldson
    Nov 13, 2014

    “tighter than an eskimo’s sphincter” made me spit coffee all over the table. Where do you get this stuff?

    • Don Carter
      Nov 13, 2014

      Sorry about the mess. I stole that line from Jancis Robinson. It reeks of her style.