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5 August, 2014

WBC14: Syrahs of the Ballard Canyon AVA

Comments : 2 Posted in : Events, Red Wine, Shiraz / Syrah, Wine Bloggers Conference 2014 on by : The Gourmez

My favorite educational session at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2014 (WBC14) was assuredly our introduction to the Ballard Canyon AVA. This region of Santa Barbara County was just designated as an appellation in October 2013. If this panel and tasting were any indication, Ballard Canyon’s winemakers and their syrahs are ready to prowl.

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Patrick Comiskey served as our moderator for the panel, and his introduction wrapped humor, warmth, and imagery around us like a slam poet let loose at Open Mic Night.  I’m going to thank Solo Syrah right now for his great write-up of the session because I’m pulling heavily from it, including this quote from Comiskey’s blog, which was part of that introduction.

[Syrah’s] 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.

The panelists included eight of the appellations’ nine winemakers, and how often can that be said of any region?

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Each of them, in turn, introduced the syrah they brought in for us to taste. The panelists conducted themselves as besotted lovers, though ones that recognize how much work it takes to win the affection of their betrothed: the syrah grape. I was also struck by the praise Ballard Canyon AVA President, Peter Stolpman, heaped on Ruben Solórzano, winemaker of the new Kimsey Vineyard and a man with over 20 years of experience growing vines in every nook and cranny of the canyon.

My notes will start, as the tasting did, with Ruben’s wine.

Anatoli of Talk-A-Vino evaluating our line-up.

Anatoli of Talk-A-Vino evaluating our line-up.

Kimsey Vineyard ($60): I found Ruben’s Syrah 2012 young but full of potential with aging. In time, its spice and tight berry will unwrap to offer the most inviting of embraces.

Beckman ($32): The second-most affordable selection, Steve Beckman’s La Purisima Mountain Syrah 2012 is likewise young, but its wildness is already apparent. I couldn’t drink it without imagining something dripping juices over a spit. The tannins and acidity were approachable, mainly due to the mocha layer and savory spice.

Stolpman Vineyards ($42): Ballard Canyon AVA’s president brought us his Originals Syrah 2012. A forest full of wildflowers is what tasting it invoked.

Rusack ($36): The 2012 Reserve Syrah from winemaker Steve Gerbac lacked character for me, mainly boasting boysenberry and dark chocolate notes that left me yearning for something more…wild, I suppose.

Harrison Clarke ($55): This glass was the spiciest of our samples, brought our way by the single female winemaker of the group, Hilarie Clarke. Rich, red licorice dominated the nose, though it mellowed in the glass. Clove and blueberries made for a well-rounded blend, and if I liked blueberries more, I would have loved it.

Larner ($30): Michael Larner’s Estate Syrah 2010 was one of the oldest bottlings in the group, and the benefits of aging shone in this most affordable option. I found it a wine capable of pleasing a wide range of drinkers, easy to take but enjoyable to linger over with lasting violet finish.

Jonata ($125): The Sangre de Jonata Syrah 2010 is an amazing wine. I hear from my compatriots that it had its detractors, but there was nothing but love for it from my table of tasters. At $125, love is all it’s getting from me, unfortunately. A syrah this complex and layered will often punch its drinker in the nose, but this one holds you in a headlock, making you beg for more. Dense cardamom and black pepper most caught my attention. Imagine that with the tasting notes’ blackberry candies and a finish that’s all crème anglaise, and you can imagine the treat in store if you can afford it. If you can, I’m just saying, remember me…

Unfortunately, Saarloos & Sons Syrah was unavailable, but for the best of reasons—it’s already sold out! Winemaker Keith Saarloos didn’t look too broken up about that fact. Pleased is the more appropriate description. Regardless, he talked with us a bit about his work, and akin to his Ballard Canyon peers, Saarloos’ excitement over the region’s potential was infectious.

I found myself a true believer in the Ballard Canyon AVA, and indeed, in some of the finished wines we sampled. These wild, maverick grapes give unexpected and thrilling rides to whoever pours them in a glass. I can’t wait until I have the chance to poke at another vintage between the bars of its cage.

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