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Syrah, at home on the coast

Times Staff Writer

RON MELVILLE and his son, Chad, can’t both be right about Santa Rita Hills Syrah.

It’s too cold here to grow Syrah, according to the elder Melville, who used his stock-market fortune to build the family winery just north of Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s. The Santa Rita Hills region should focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, he says. It’s smart marketing to limit the varietals produced here.

The younger Melville looks down at his lap as his father talks about tearing out three acres of Syrah grapevines last year to expand Melville Vineyard and Winery’s Pinot Noir plantings. Chad lost that battle. Melville’s vineyard manager, Chad is also an aspiring winemaker who’s bet his future on Santa Rita Hills Syrah. To succeed, he has to prove his father wrong.

Chad, 35, may feel like an outcast in his family, but he is far from alone in his passion for Santa Rita Hills Syrahs. Two of the Central Coast’s most celebrated vintners -- Manfred Krankl, owner of Sine Qua Non, and Adam Tolmach, owner of the Ojai Vineyard -- are shifting from making Syrah from grapes grown in warmer regions to focus on Santa Rita Hills fruit. Cool-climate Syrahs, they say, are among California’s most exciting emerging wines. These sophisticated wines offer connoisseurs complex aromas and flavors. Yet the wines have California’s signature sun-powered bravura, setting them apart from the Syrahs produced in France’s Rhone Valley.

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Syrah may be difficult to grow this close to the cold Pacific Ocean, Chad says later on a walk through Melville Vineyards’ few remaining Syrah acres. But the spicy, aromatic wines are worth the risk. He’s buying Syrah grapes from a new grower in the region, Ampelos Cellars and Vineyards, to be able to make enough wine to support his fledgling Samsara label. It’s a project he works on in a rented garage he shares with two other winemakers in the region.

The region’s Syrah supporters include other emerging winemakers too. A core group of Santa Barbara County’s young “garagista” winemakers are bypassing the area’s mainstay, Pinot Noir, to champion cool-climate Syrah, scouring the Santa Rita Hills for the best fruit and hoping to prove their winemaking prowess with these challenging wines. A handful of new vineyard owners have planted new Syrah vineyards.

“When grapes are grown on the edge of where they will ripen, you are in the right place,” Tolmach says. With Syrah, that’s where the grapes produce wines with enough acids and tannins for firm structure to support inky, white pepper, lilac, lavender, and wild game flavors. “Any warmer, and you lose the exotic qualities.”

In this family feud, “Chad’s got it right,” says Tolmach, who has a long-term contract for Syrah from Melville vineyards. “Dad’s a businessman.”

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Choosing varieties

RON MELVILLE has done the math. Demand for Pinot Noir is skyrocketing and Syrah, he says, has become a costly distraction. He and other members of the Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance voted in 2002 to exclude from membership anyone who didn’t focus on Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. Catholic monks spent centuries experimenting with vineyards in Burgundy before they declared Pinot and Chardonnay to be God’s chosen wines for the region. A calculator and a few quick meetings were all the group needed to come to a similar conclusion.

That means Krankl won’t be allowed to join their group. After 12 years of buying Syrah from vineyards throughout California’s Central Coast region, Krankl is now homing in on cool-climate Syrah and is pouring his energies into developing his own Syrah vineyards in Santa Rita Hills.

“I wouldn’t have joined their group anyway,” Krankl says. As a winemaker, he’s never had much interest in conventional wisdom. Working in a converted chicken shack in Ojai, Krankl has mailing-list customers eager to buy every wine he makes. He switches fruit sources whenever he finds grapes he prefers, never making exactly the same wine twice. “People buy Sine Qua Non. They don’t seem to give a toot where it’s from,” he says.

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Working with so many vineyards over so many years, says Krankl, “has allowed me to see what fruit does in different climates. I’m drawn to the cooler areas. I like the way the fruit expresses itself.” In general, cool-climate fruit is more acidic and tannic, he says. Syrah from warmer regions is fruitier and less complex.

Santa Rita Hills Syrah ripens very slowly. “We are always at the end of October or into November when we pick fruit,” he says. In a cold year, fruit may not ripen until December. Though the chances of mold and mildew increase with the late date, Krankl says he’s willing to make the trade-off for the distinctive white pepper and floral aromatics and flavors.

Krankl planted here in 2000 and, gradually, as the vineyards mature, he says, he’s using the fruit in his Syrah blends, dropping his grape contracts with other vineyards. Papa Syrah, his latest release, includes 28% Santa Rita Hills fruit.

This unannounced shift to Santa Rita Hills has gone largely unnoticed by his new neighbors, most of whom don’t know that Krankl has planted 10 acres of Syrah, seven acres of Grenache, three acres of Roussanne and one acre of Viognier in the southeastern corner of the region, near the original Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. It’s not a secret, he says. “I’m just not on the circuit with the other winemakers.”

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Equally out of sync with mainstream thinking, Tolmach makes a wide variety of single-vineyard Syrahs with fruit he buys from vineyards throughout the Central Coast. One of the warmest regions from which he’s bought grapes is Happy Canyon near Lake Cachuma in the eastern part of Santa Barbara County. Moving west from there, the temperature drops a degree every mile or so for the 20 miles to the western edge of Santa Rita Hills. Along that continuum, the resulting Syrahs transform from big, juicy fruit bombs to tight, tannic wines with firm acids and spicy aromas that, in some wines, you can discern at arm’s length.

Syrahs in the middle range -- complex but still fruity -- are the signature of Ballard Canyon, halfway between Happy Canyon and Santa Rita Hills. And “cool climate” doesn’t just refer to Santa Rita Hills. In the hills west of Ballard Canyon, Bien Nacido, Alisos, Thompson and Whitehawk vineyards produce cool-climate Syrah. Bob Lindquist makes his well-regarded Qupe Syrah with Bien Nacido Vineyard fruit.

It’s just that Santa Rita Hills is chillier than those other vineyards, Tolmach says. “And that makes those wines just so much more interesting.”

In his quest to find the edge of where Syrah will grow, Tolmach is making a new Ojai Vineyard Syrah from fruit grown at Presidio Vineyard & Winery, west of Santa Rita Hills, closer to the Pacific Ocean and a few degrees cooler. In barrel now, the wine is showing signs that this further extreme climate may produce an even more exotic wine, he says. (Presidio Winery’s Syrah produced by vineyard owner Douglas Braun was the favorite wine in a Times tasting. See box.)

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That doesn’t mean cool-climate Syrahs are always crowd pleasers, Tolmach says. “Syrahs from cool climates can be pretty wacky in their youth. They show a lot better after some time in the bottle,” he says.

Time in the bottle

DEPENDING on the vintage, that need for extra time in the bottle can be dramatic. At lunch recently, Tolmach opened one of his Melville Vineyard Syrahs from the 2000 vintage, a year when he delayed harvest until well into November waiting for the grapes to ripen.

The wine delivered heady aromas but, on the palate, was tight and tannic -- seriously in need, he said, of another year or two in the cellar. He then opened a 2003 Melville Syrah, a warmer year when harvest was finished in October. The wine was generous and fruity while still exotically spicy.

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“Syrah is the grape variety in California that Merlot was supposed to be,” Tolmach says. “It makes dramatically different wines depending on the climate.”

Easy to cultivate in a wide variety of places, Syrah started out as a warm-climate grape in California, and consumers familiar with Australia’s jammy Shiraz wines could easily relate to the early California Syrahs.

But few wine lovers are familiar yet with the more complex cool-climate Syrahs, says Bruce McGuire, winemaker at Lafond Winery and Vineyards, a Santa Rita Hills winery specializing in Syrah since 1992. He thinks that, once educated, consumers will embrace the cool-climate versions. Lafond is expanding its Santa Rita Hills Syrah vineyards.

That’s a relief, says garagista Mark Horvath, who already buys fruit from Lafond and would like to buy more. He and his partner in Kenneth-Crawford Wines, Kenneth Gummere, make 1,500 cases of Syrah in a rented storage space in Buellton. Half of the wines are from the Santa Rita Hills. The other half are from Ballard Canyon.

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“Pinot Noir is king in Santa Rita Hills,” Horvath says. Almost all of the 1,400 vineyard acres in the region are planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The acreage devoted to those grape varieties is expected to double in the next couple of years. Syrah is planted on a mere 50 acres. There isn’t the critical mass of Syrah fruit in the region necessary to steal even a little of the limelight.

That will change, says winemaker Craig Jaffurs, who lost a supply of cool-climate Syrah for his Jaffurs Wine Cellars when Ron Melville pulled those vines to plant more Pinot Noir. He has a contract for Ampelos fruit now. More newcomers to the region are going to be willing to plant Syrah.

“There’s still a lot of land left to develop into vineyards in Santa Rita Hills,” he says.

Ampelos Cellars, owned by Peter Work and his wife Rebecca, has a new 25-acre vineyard at the eastern edge of Santa Rita Hills, that is a third planted to Syrah and has enthusiasts hopeful that more newcomers to the region will give Syrah a chance. “Peter likes Pinot and I like Syrah,” says Rebecca Work. “We found a site that can grow both.”

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Syrah and Pinot existing side by side? Perhaps there’s a compromise in the future for Chad Melville and his dad as well.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

10 that stand out:

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THE Times tasting panel met recently for a blind tasting of Syrahs made with grapes grown in or near the Santa Rita Hills region of Santa Barbara County. These limited-production wines are not widely available; contact wineries to purchase. Joining me on the panel were Times columnist Russ Parsons, Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila and wine retailer George Cossette, co-owner of Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles.

The panel was impressed with the integrity of the 10 wines tasted. These muscular, highly structured wines were graceful and balanced. White pepper aromas and spicy, gamey flavors with plenty of acidity -- signatures of cool-climate Syrah -- were evident in most of the wines. Pairing them with foods other than grilled meats could be a challenge, however.

Our favorite wine was the 2004 Presidio Syrah, $39. Prices start at $32, with Sine Qua Non’s Papa Syrah priced at a whopping $207. Unfortunately, the Sine Qua Non bottle was corked. (We tasted another later and were delighted by the wine’s silky texture, flavors of tart berries and gamey meats and bracing finish.) Wines are listed in order of the panel’s preference.

Corie Brown

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2004 Presidio Syrah, Presidio Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley. Inviting white pepper aromas with blackberry flavors. A complex, light-bodied wine with nice texture, firm acids and a long finish. At www.presidiowinery.com, $39; and Silverlake Wine, (323) 662-9024, $39.

2003 Ojai Vineyard Syrah, Melville Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. Gamey, smoky aromas with a slight barnyard funk. Red meat and leather flavors in an intense, well-knit, delicate wine with a subtle finish. At www.ojaivineyard.com, $56.

2003 Kenneth-Crawford Syrah, Evans Ranch, Santa Rita Hills. Soft, light, white pepper nose with a touch of funkiness. Silky tannins, flavors of citrus and spice. At www.kennethcrawford.com, $32.

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2004 Jaffurs Syrah, Ampelos Cellars, Santa Rita Hills. A rich, tannic wine; slight menthol aroma with a whiff of dark chocolate on the nose. At www.jaffurswine.com, $42; and at Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, (805) 966-9463, $39.

2004 Ampelos Syrah, Ampelos Cellars, Santa Rita Hills. Christmas mulling-spice aromas; black licorice and jammy fruit flavors. A long, syrupy finish. At www.ampeloscellars.com, $38.

2004 Melville Syrah, Donna’s Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. Smoky aromas with a touch of sour barnyard give way to wild game flavors laced with flowers and white pepper on the palate. At www.melvillewinery.com, $36.

2003 Lafond Syrah, Lafond Winery and Vineyards, Santa Rita Hills. A complex nose of menthol, cedar and a hint of white pepper. Chocolate and black cherry flavors; a very rich wine. At www.lafondwinery.com, $38.

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2004 Samsara Syrah, Melville Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. An alluring perfume of black and white pepper with sweet cherry and caramel flavors. At www.samsarawine.com, $40.

2003 Jaffurs Syrah, Melville Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. Allspice, bay leaf and smoked cedar aromas in a wine with sweet blueberry and raspberry flavors and a spicy finish. At www.jaffurswine.com, $38; and at Wally’s Wine in Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606, about $40.

2003 Sine Qua Non Papa Syrah. (Corked.) At Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles, (323) 662-9024, $207.


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