By Wendy Thies Sell
On special assignment for the Santa Barbara Vintners.
What is it about syrah that winemakers spend decades of their lives dedicated to this noble Rhône variety? It could be because syrah combines fruit and spice, and at the same time is powerful and complex. In addition, it is a vigorous and versatile wine grape variety, flourishing in a range of climates. Syrah is the rock-star red grape in France’s northern Rhône Valley, where the variety dates back centuries. In Santa Barbara County, the adaptable grape succeeds countywide, where 1,928 acres are planted to syrah, compared to 7,529 acres of chardonnay and 5,561 acres of pinot noir.
The oldest syrah vines in the county can be found at Zaca Mesa Vineyards, in Foxen Canyon. The estate’s earliest syrah vineyard, the celebrated Black Bear Block, dates back to 1978. “It is an honor to be able to farm and work with this iconic block. These old vines are slowing down and we are working to preserve and ensure its longevity,” says Zaca Mesa’s director of winemaking and vineyard operations, Eric Mohseni. “When you are in the block you can't help being mesmerized by their massive trunks and cordons. This block has reinforced my beliefs in the importance of location. This site was made for syrah, and despite the old school farming, (wide rows and wide spacing), the fruit that these vines produce is amazing!” “The Black Bear Syrah has a multitude of flavors; red and black fruit spectrum, but also has savory components. I'm always amazed at the tannin structure from this block. They are firm yet elegant. This old boy is refined and sophisticated. I guess it's a lot like people, with age there is wisdom.” Zaca Mesa Vineyards now has 10 different syrah clones on a total of 85 acres. “We are seeing the diversity that clones are bringing to the table. It's similar to what pinot noir producers were seeing with pinot noir clones,” adds Mohseni.
Bob Lindquist, the revered winemaker and founder of Qupé Wine Cellars, was the first in the county to make syrah, in 1982, from grapes that he bought from Gary Eberle at Estrella River in Paso Robles. Today, more than three decades after Lindquist’s first syrah vintage, he is still enthusiastic about the variety; each year 60-70% of Qupé’s production is syrah. “Syrah can be elegant, spicy, savory and very food friendly,” Lindquist explains. “Sure, we can still make big, jammy syrahs here, much like they have in Paso Robles, but most of them are not in that style. For the most part, Santa Barbara County syrahs have softer tannins as well, kind of like pinot noir tannins.”Qupé’s winery is located in the middle of Bien Nacido Vineyards in the maritime-influenced Santa Maria Valley, the northernmost AVA in Santa Barbara County. “Because of our cool climate and long growing season. We’ve got this long, cool summer, which is ideal for early ripeners like chard and pinot,” says Lindquist. “And then some of our best weather is September through October, which allows syrah to ripen slowly and evenly. The cool climate maintains the fresh acidity and low pH and ripeness occurs at lower sugar levels, allowing balanced alcohols.” In 1986, Bien Nacido grafted seven acres of its ‘X Block’ riesling vines to syrah, making it the first vineyard in California to grow what is considered ‘cool climate’ syrah. Then, in 1993 and 1994, Bien Nacido planted the hillside syrah vines famously known as ‘Z Block.’
Ballard Canyon, a north-south oriented canyon in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, is ‘all in’ on syrah. 60% of the vines growing in the Ballard Canyon AVA are syrah. Wine growers here say their “mixed climate” is ideal. “Ballard Canyon, being right in the heart of the greater wine growing area, it perfectly represents the cold nights and short, peak heat, ocean wind; all combining to create concentrated, rich syrahs while maintaining freshness, acid, and liveliness,” says Pete Stolpman, managing partner of Stolpman Vineyards. The 153-acre Stolpman Vineyards planted syrah in 1992 and 1994 along their Ballard Canyon limestone ridgelines.
At nearby Larner Vineyards, founded in 1997, most of their 35-acre vineyard is planted to syrah. Michael Larner, a geologist with a Master’s degree from UC-Davis in viticulture and enology, believes the land speaks louder than the winemaker. “The amazing thing about syrah in Santa Barbara County is that it grows in every AVA we have. Of course, we think it's best expression is in Ballard Canyon, but you can find great syrahs from all over the valley. What differentiates Ballard is not only do we get full ripeness and balance but we also don't have to overwork it to succeed.” Starting with the 2012 vintage, wine producers in Ballard Canyon are packaging their estate-grown syrahs in a specially designed bottle with the words ‘Ballard Canyon’ raised in the glass.
In western Santa Barbara County, syrah ripens slowly in the more extreme, coastal conditions of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Mark Horvath of Crawford Family Wines handcrafts small lots of wine, focusing on fruit from Sta. Rita Hills. He sources syrah grapes from Zotovich Vineyard with its deep, sandy soils, along the 246 corridor between Buellton and Lompoc. “I love promoting cool, or even cold climate syrah! I love its versatility. It can be made in many different styles, from the big, rich, heavy style to a lighter and very easy drinking Côtes du Rhône style,” says Horvath.
Syrah producer and UC-Davis alum, Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines in Los Olivos, believes that syrah is a wine consumer’s best buy. “For the price, there’s no better value in red wine in California,” states Schaffer. Schaffer tirelessly travels, spreading the word about the wonderful wines grown in Santa Barbara County and the unlimited potential here. “I love this county,” he says. “I don’t believe there’s a more exciting county to be making wine in California!”
Passionate syrah producers, along with ideal growing conditions, make for a winning combination in Santa Barbara County.
Wendy Thies Sell is a familiar face on the Central Coast, having anchored the local television news for a dozen years at KSBY and KCOY. The four-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and longtime wine country writer has strolled through vineyards and sipped in cellars from Santa Ynez to San Miguel over the last 20 years, interviewing hundreds of intriguing wine producers from Michel Chapoutier to Michael Bonaccorsi to Fess Parker.
Her wine-focused articles have been published in Wine Enthusiast, Santa Barbara Seasons, Santa Barbara Magazine, Edible Santa Barbara, Edible San Luis Obispo, The Sun and her recent wide-ranging feature profiling the Santa Barbara County wine region, Our Valleys of Wine, is the cover story in the spring issue of Santa Barbara Seasons magazine.
Looking to discover more Santa Barbara County syrah? Try wines from these producers.
Alta Maria Vineyards
Andrew Murray Vineyards
Au Bon Climat
Babcock Winery & Vineyards
Blackjack Ranch Vineyards and Winery
Blair Fox Cellars & Fox Wine Co.
Brophy Clark Cellars
Cambria Estate Vineyards & Winery
Carr Vineyards & Winery
Casa Dumetz Wines
Cinque Stelle Winery
Consilience, Marianello, & Tre Anelli
Costa de Oro WineryDascomb Cellars
Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards
Dreamcôte Wine Co.
Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard
Foxen Vineyard & Winery
Hitching Post Wines
Jaffurs Wine Cellars
Ken Brown Wines
Kenneth Volk Vineyards
Larner Vineyard & Winery
Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards
Margerum Wine Company
Martian Ranch & Vineyard
Qupe Wine Cellars
Refugio Ranch Vineyards
Santa Barbara Winery
Sunstone Vineyard and Winery
the Central Coast Group Project
The Valley Project
Zaca Mesa Winery
Zotovich Estate Vineyard and Winery
Interesting stories from Santa Barbara Wine County.