The Facets of Peay Syrah: Are You Experienced?


This past spring I presented at a seminar at Hospice du Rhône, a weekend event that showcases the myriad Rhône variety wines sourced from all over the world. It is a terrific weekend where primarily wine enthusiasts converge to taste, talk and revel for 3 days in the world of Syrah and its Rhône kith and kin. A couple of weeks before the event, I was piecing together what I would say about growing Syrah on the cold northern Sonoma Coast, when John Alban, if not the godfather of Syrah in California, the elder statesman at least, called to check up on me. John, who is the pioneering winegrower behind Alban Vineyards in Edna Valley, was the organizer and moderator for the seminar at the Hospice du Rhône. He called mainly to reassure me that even though the seminar was in front of a crowd of 400 thirsty wine lovers, I was going to do just fine. Further, contrary to my worst fears, I did not have to worry that it was going to turn out to be the wine version of American Idol where he would acidly tell me that I was the winemaking equivalent of the ebola virus and vote me off the stage.

When I asked John what he planned to ask us at the seminar, he demurred. John didn’t want us to be too rehearsed. He felt that the spontaneity would actually aid in dispelling any nervousness we might have. Seemingly to prove his point, in the middle of chatting about the seminar and the wines I planned to pour, John fired, “If you had to pick only 5 albums to bring with you to a deserted island, what would they be?” (Apparently on this deserted island i-Pods are outlawed). Feeling a tad blindsided by this line of inquiry, I stammered and then blurted out, “something by Jimi Hendrix,” the elastic bom-bom bwang strains of Foxey Lady twanging in my head. As I tried to recall the name of the album that featured Foxey Lady, John replied hesitantly, “…Uhh…that’s cool.” His response showed signs of a little surprise. I could tell that he was enjoying this mildly tortuous exercise. Feeling the pressure of the proverbial buzzer at hand and with no life-line to cast out to friends, I tried to stall for a moment, “Gosh, only five albums, that’s hard…” “What else?” John shot back, insistingly. “Err…umm…Beethoven!” “Well,” John cleared his throat, “That’s…uh… an interesting combination of choices.” I explained, “Well, I have this CD of Pablo Casals playing Beethoven’s cello sonatas and I literally listen to it over and over again.” It is true, it is the only CD I burned onto the hard drive of my laptop so that I can listen to it whenever I work on the computer. In particular, I adore the Scherzo of the Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Opus 69. It mesmerizes me. I was still stumbling for three more albums, though. I was completely stumped, oddly no other ideas came to me as naturally as the first two did. I told John I would have to go through my albums to come up with an answer. Pleased at his parlour game, John said “That’s all right and you’ll do just fine at the seminar, don’t worry.” And with that, our phone call concluded.

A few days later when I was walking through the vineyard I revisited my conversation with John. I recalled how I described to him that in the 2004 vintage I made two different Estate cuvées for the Syrah. I explained to him that the different blends weren’t really differentiated by particular Syrah clones. Nor were they sourced from different vineyard blocks. They were not two radically different styles of Syrah as they were two expressions of our one vineyard. I attempted to describe how they were different from one another: La Bruma, a classically styled Syrah perfumed with red fruits and floral notes and, Les Titans with deeper, black fruit character and meatier, brooding aromas hung on a more muscular frame. It was at that moment that John sprang his seemingly non-sequitur Deserted-Island-Record question at me. Was his question a musical version of a Rorschach Ink Blot test; some kind of subconscious free association hypnotism? It suddenly occurred to me that the first two answers I impulsively blurted out were a reflection of the thread that was already running in my head. These two seemingly incongruent musical choices were analogous to the two wines I was trying to find words to describe. Although bold and definitely raucous, at its core the music of Jimi Hendrix is a display of precise musicality. Yet, it is also brooding, primal and seductive like Les Titans. At the very mention of classical music, one imagines straight backs, hushed tones, and calm oases. The idea of Pablo Casals playing Beethoven’s cello sonatas may seem decorous but when listening to him you are enveloped by the passion of his playing; it is voracious and extremely moving. Like La Bruma, the structure and composition is very composed and pretty but it sings with a striking intensity and focus.

The revelation made me gasp. John Alban is not only a winemaker but also a psychoanalyst, no, wait, a wino-analyst, drawing out the inner workings of my mind! Wow, heavy. So heavy that I don’t think even John knew it. And let’s not tell him either (analyst/patient confidentiality thing, you know). But since we are so freely and heavily drawing psycho-analytical parallels here, let me continue. That these two disparate albums coexist in the same body of mine reflects how the varied profile of one musical taste, my own, can be just like two Syrah blends that are two expressions of the same vineyard. Okay, I won’t get too carried away with the analogies. I am not trying to defend a thesis after all, I am just explaining why I made two wines. Simply put, prior to the 2004 vintage we had been making one wine from the Syrah that we grow on our estate vineyard. We have 6 different blocks of Syrah which we not only harvest separately but sometimes pick certain parts of a block on a separate date because it doesn’t ripen at the same time as the other parts within the same block. Each lot is vinified and aged as a separate lot. As I tasted through the different lots during their 16 months of aging in barrel, I noticed that two different expressions were emerging from our one vineyard. So I decided to make two wines to showcase these distinct characteristics. They are two different wines just like there are different facets to people, music and just about everything else.

To John Alban’s query I struggled to come up with the last 3 of the 5 albums I would take with me to a deserted island.* After producing the first two picks without much hesitation, I said to him, “I thought you were going to ask me what wines would I choose if I had to pick only 5.” To that he exclaimed, “Wines? No, that would be too easy!” You see, that would be a question from John the winemaker, but John the wino-analyst was trying to free the subconscious of the winemaker in question. So now I will try my own hand at exploring the inner workings of your mind and invite you to try our La Bruma and Les Titans and let us know which one you like. And do worry, it is a personality test! Remember, the right answer is, “Both!”

* A little post-script. If you must know, here are the last 3 of the 5 albums I would take with me to a deserted island: Bill Evans: Everybody Digs Bill Evans; Bob Marley and the Wailers: Legend; and P-Funk: One Nation Under a Groove. Bet you can’t wait to taste the wines that are analogous to these beauties!

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