Photo: l to r; Pax, Norm, Duncan
I have been drinking wine since I turned 19 (Pre-Reagan era Idaho). I had been to Napa, Sonoma, Monterrey and even France (2001) before the wine bug really hit me. I had always enjoyed wine, but I had never really thought (deeply) about what I was drinking and tasting. Once that tipping point occurred, there was no looking back.
Old Vine Zinfandel is what finally threw me over the edge. I was in a wine shop in Calistoga, Ca. and had come across an Oregon Zinfandel from "The Pines" vineyard. That led me to discover Owen Roe, Sineann and like a gateway drug this Zinfandel led me to Walla Walla Cabernets, a 15 case futures purchase of Cru Classe & Petit Chateau 2000 vintage Bordeaux, a 35 case wine cellar (suprising how fast that 5 case undercounter model seemed to fill up) and finally winemaking (100+cases of Dundee Hills-Pinot Noir, Southern Oregon-Del Rio, Syrah and Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon).
My wine "journey" had started with high alcohol, fruit bombs from literally my back yard and then with a bit of time, effort and much tasting, my journey left the wine Interstate and headed for paths less taken.
I was lucky enough to come across an article in Food & Wine Magazine that profiled a winemaker named Pax Mahle. Pax had been a wine buyer for Dean & DeLuca and had by chance been presented with some really exceptional Syrah grapes. What did he do?, of course he made wine. Following is excerpted from that Food & Wine article published in October 2005:
Pax Mahle got a good idea of what it was like to be a cult winemaker when a special five-case lot of his 2004 Pax Wine Cellars Syrah sold for an auction-high $18,000 at the Paso Robles Hospice du Rhône benefit this past spring. Word has gotten out fast about this talented, ultratraditionalist 34-year-old who released his first wines just five years ago. "We take a very pure approach," explains Mahle, "one that was more commonplace 100 years ago in France than it is today." That approach includes organic farming, foot-crushing the grapes, natural fermentations and absolutely no fining or filtering. Though he's new to winemaking itself, Mahle says, "Wine is the only business I've ever been in." His résumé includes stints as a waiter, sommelier, cellar rat and, finally, wine buyer at Napa specialty market Dean & DeLuca. After tasting a few thousand wines for his job at D&D, Mahle became convinced that the cool coastal vineyards of northern California could produce his beloved Rhône style of nuanced, layered Syrah. While working at D&D, Mahle met the owner of the renowned Alder Springs Vineyard, Stuart Bewley, who asked Mahle who he thought would one day make California's best Syrah. "I will," answered Mahle. "At the time I was kind of joking," he says. Today Pax Wine Cellars produces 15 small-production Rhône-style wines in a converted warehouse space in Santa Rosa. Among these wines are 11 vineyard-designated Syrahs from sources all over Sonoma and Mendocino counties, including the much sought-after Alder Springs Vineyard "The Terraces" ($75), a bottling that evokes descriptors such as marzipan, baked blueberries and roasted coffee.
Photo: Sharon, Norm, Larry -ZAP 2007
Fast forward to January 2007 when I was in San Francisco for ZAP (yes, that is me with Larry Turley...what a really nice guy!). I had been in loose email contact with one of Pax's associates (Tripp Donelan). Tripp had extended an invitation to "Stop by when you are in the area", and I had taken him for his word. I scheduled a morning appointment to stop by the winery and meet Pax and tour the "winery". I had been smart enough to join the mailing list after I had read the F & W article and had been buying Pax's Sonoma Hillsides Syrah online. I also thanked my lucky stars that I was smart enough to Mapquest the location of the winery before venturing out, because driving around Santa Rosa in a funky residential/industrial neighborhood I would have thought I was lost. No vineyards, no tasting room, heck, I think one of Pax's neighbors in this tilt -up concrete, flex space, office park is a garage door manufacturer/screen door repair business (Although to be fair, Copain Cellars is less than a mile away).
Okay, so it is my 48th Birthday, I am amped up on coffee, and I am FINALLY getting to actually meet Pax. We walk up to the glass entry door (which is locked), Pax lets us in, and introduces us to his assistant winemaker Duncan. I don't know what I was expecting, but these guys are super nice, down to earth and after I hand them a 2003 Sineann Old Vine "The Pines" Zinfandel we head back to the production area. However funky the outside of this facility is, the wine production and barrel storage area is 1st class. Clean, well organized and I could tell these guys weren't flying by the seat of their pants.
A quick look at the facities and then we proceed to taste (and spit.....well mostly spit) about 10 different wines. Pax is modeling his wines along the lines of a Northern Rhone Syrah in California. When I took a bottle of his Kohbler Vineyard Syrah to a large BYOB cellar party with a ton of wine people in attendance, the response was that this wine "Kicks ass" and if it had a French label it would be selling for $100+/bottle.
I regret I didn't take notes, but we tasted though nearly all the single vineyard wines in barrel.
We talked about his wine, wine we collect, wine we drink, how if we made more money it would be invested in more wine. I sensed an intense passion and drive for what they are trying to do. These wines are very "Terroir" driven wines. These wines have good acid, a nice tannin structure to age well, lower alcohol, flavors of game, smoked meat, dark purple fruit, plums, blackberry, blueberry's, earth, tobacco, baking spices, minerals, tar (and a partridge in a pear tree...just kidding) and a REALLY light hand with oak (love that). These wines are part of what I have been discovering this past couple of years and describing as "cool climate Syrah". John Alban was a pioneer and now the next generation that includes labels like Pax, Copain, Saxum, Peay and the like are producing Syrah like we in Oregon produce Pinot Noir. That means the wine is made in the vineyard, with attention paid to how much fruit is grown (2 tons or less per acre), sorting of fruit prior to fermentation, minimal handling, natural fermentation, no fining or filtration with bottling. These wines are unlike any other Syrah, in fact it is almost an injustice to call this just "Syrah", it is like calling a Lamborgheni a "car". Interestingly enough there are several vineyard growing these "cool climate" Syrah grapes that also make a dynamite Pinot Noir (Peay sells fruit to Williams Selyem.......nuff said?) I admit to having had few, if any Northern Rhone wines from France but my feeling about these California Syrahs is that they are attractive with a ton of depth and interest and complexity-kind of like if Heidi Klum the supermodel had a Ph.D in quantum physics, had a show on the Food Network, played professional beach volleyball and also happened to be the U.S. Secretary of State.
Lets just say that if I made more money from selling the wine I make, I would be buying more wine from the above group of producers (anyone wanna buy some Oregon Pinot?).
By the way, Pax is a super fun guy to hang out with, plus, since I brought an offering (Sineann 2003 Old Vine "The Pines" Zinfandel) he sent me home with a Kohbler Family Vineyard Syrah-(I love it when that happens!)