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Teaching the French About Syrah

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Bob Lindquist dedicated himself to making Syrah in California’s Central Coast during the early ‘80s, many considered him a fool. Nobody’s laughing anymore. He’s made such a name for himself with this grape that he has been recruited by a promising new estate in France to take his expertise back to Provence, the motherland of Syrah.

An American winemaker in Provence?

No one would have predicted that in 1982, when Lindquist founded Qupe winery. Syrah, one of the noble red grapes of the Rho^ne Valley, was a mere peasant in California, an orphan of the jug-wine set. Lindquist remembers when he first called Estrella River winery in Paso Robles to buy Syrah grapes. “They weren’t just willing to sell me the grapes,” he says. “They were ecstatic!”

Estrella River is no more, but Lindquist has gone on to become one of California’s most influential winemakers, producing a range of Rho^ne-style wines (and some Chardonnay) out of the cavernous Santa Maria facility he shares with Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat.

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A founding Rho^ne Ranger, Lindquist has been key in establishing the Central Coast--especially from Santa Barbara County to San Luis Obispo County--as prime ground for Rho^ne grapes like Viognier, Mourvedre, Grenache, Roussanne and, of course, Syrah, the undisputed champion.

Long before he launched Qupe, Lindquist had become hooked on Syrah from repeated visits to Berkeley importer Kermit Lynch, from whom he would procure rare Rho^ne wines from Jean-Louis Chave, August Clape and Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe. While Lindquist perused the aisles of the tiny shop, Lynch would insist, “Syrah is a natural for California. Somebody should be doing this in California.”

An improbable notion at the time, but one that would start Lindquist on a passionate crusade to spread the good word about Syrah, methodically converting one wine drinker at a time.

Lindquist was busy championing the cause at the 1994 Aspen Food and Wine Classic when he was introduced to international entrepreneur Philippe Bieler, a Swiss-Canadian wine lover who had just concluded a worldwide search for prime vineyard property.

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Bieler was charmed by the wines he had tasted from the South of France, particularly those made from Syrah. Scouring the region, Bieler happened on an 800-acre property in the Provencal appellation of Co^teaux Varois, a wide swath of land east of Marseilles and north of Bandol. The property already had a winery, Cha^teau Routas, and 100 acres of mature vines, a great portion of which were Syrah. Bieler quickly closed the deal.

When Bieler met Lindquist, a few vintages had been bottled with only a modicum of success, particularly in the States, which he had hoped would be his primary market. The current winemaker at Cha^teau Routas was producing austere and unyielding wines, rather than the soft and seductive ones favored by American wine drinkers. Bieler knew he needed help and sensed that he may have found it in Lindquist.

The two Syrah devotees bonded quickly, and Bieler invited Lindquist and his wife, Louisa, to visit him at Routas. In the spring of 1995, they traveled to Provence with plans to stay at Routas for just one night.

They ended up spending nearly a week. “The whole time, Philippe was asking about the wines, about the style,” Lindquist says. “I said that if you are targeting the American market, the wines are too high in acid, they don’t have enough flesh, they’re too simple; they might age well, but they are not what the U.S. wants.”

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Lindquist sensed that Bieler wanted more from him, but the last thing he envisioned was a bi-continental commitment. The logistical absurdity and the chance that the quality of his own wines would suffer made the notion seem impossible. (In addition to the Qupe line, Lindquist teams with Clendenen to produce the labels Nova and Il Podere dell’Olivos.)

Bieler kept at it, however. He visited Lindquist at Qupe in spring 1996 and asked Lindquist to become winemaker for Cha^teau Routas.

“I said, ‘That’s impossible,’ ” Lindquist recalls with a laugh. “ ‘You can see what we’ve got going on around here. Besides, you harvest at the same time we do, and that is the most critical time for me to be here.’

“But Philippe is not easily deterred, and he kept talking about it and talking about it. The classic line that he came up with is ‘It’s only one day on an airplane.’ ”

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Being a hands-on winemaker, Lindquist was troubled by the thought of leaving the winery at any time. But he was intrigued by the idea of making wines in a different climate and culture. So he put together a plan that might let him do both.

Bieler desperately needed marketing help and clearly needed someone who understood the American consumer. Louisa Lindquist worked as a wine wholesaler and was eager to make a move, so Lindquist proposed that Bieler hire both, with Louisa as marketing director. This would also ensure that, if he were unable to break free from Qupe at a crucial juncture, somebody he trusted implicitly could be present at Routas.

Bieler enthusiastically accepted. Lindquist’s next challenge was finding acceptance in provincial Provence. The culture shock came fast and hard.

“It’s much more difficult over there,” he says. “The French don’t see things the same way we do.” Differences began with Routas cellar master Jean-Louis Bavay, formerly the only real full-time employee, whose approach was staunchly provincial.

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“He really looked up to Luc [Sorin, the former winemaker] and Luc’s ideas,” says Lindquist. “It wasn’t that he was not willing, but he had been trained in a totally different way. So it was difficult to convince him.”

Lindquist figured he needed to reverse the playing field, so he brought Bavay over to Qupe and immersed him in the local program. “We put him to work; we showed him why we did things the way we did, un-brainwashed him from the previous regimes and brainwashed him to a whole new [system].”

However there were still two obstacles to Lindquist’s dual role. One is the weather, which so far has cooperated. In 1996, the harvest was early at Qupe and late at Routas, enabling Lindquist to leave for France in early October with nearly all of the picking already finished at home. The next year was an extended harvest at Qupe, so a window opened in the middle and he was able to spend 10 solid days at Routas.

The other element, even less predictable, is Lindquist’s beloved Los Angeles Dodgers: Post-season baseball action coincides with harvest time.

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It is virtually impossible to get a baseball score in the Co^teaux Varois, so Lindquist has to call Qupe every day, not only to check on the wines but also to find out what happened in the game the night before. Fortunately for the wines, the Dodgers have stumbled in the stretch recently.

The first wines made entirely by Lindquist are rolling out now. As advertised, Lindquist has transformed Routas’ wines into a juicier, more immediately appealing style, accentuating the fruit while attempting to maintain the intrinsic qualities of the region.

In addition to Cha^teau Routas’ straight Syrah, “Cyrano,” Lindquist is making a Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon blend called “Agrippa” (many believe this to be the best combination for the area, the Cabernet adding depth and structure to the blend), a Grenache-based wine called “Infernet,” a bottling of old-vine Carignan grapes, a rose and two whites, including an intriguing blend of Chardonnay and Viognier called “Coquelicot.”

Lest it appear that he is making California wines in Provence, Lindquist emphatically contends, “Fruit is still the key, and the fruit is Provencal and always will be. I wanted to make wines that had some influence from the kind of wines that we make here but still had their own personality and terroir [soil and climate].”

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In California’s cooler, more temperate Central Coast climates, Syrah enjoys a longer ripening period, resulting in lushly textured and deeply colored wines, with aromas and flavors of spice, game and leather. In the southern Rho^ne, a dose of Provencal herbs is added and the wines are redolent of lavender, thyme and rosemary.

“It has a little bit more spice, where [in California] we get more fruit,” Lindquist says.

Still, it is Syrah, and as much as he may feel a bit alienated by the locals, Routas is simply another weapon in Lindquist’s arsenal as he tries to sell the world on Rho^ne grapes.

With the gleam of a proud father, he says, “I foresee [Syrah] becoming one of the most important red wines that California makes. What I tell people is that it is better than Merlot, and it is. It’s a better grape and more versatile. The natural thing is that people who like wine are going to love Syrah once they are exposed to it. When I first made Syrah, there were three other Syrah producers in California. Now, there are probably 25 in Santa Barbara County alone.”

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And one lonely Dodger fan in Provence.

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Rosoff is the restaurant and wine manager at Michael’s in Santa Monica.


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