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Syrah, at home on the coast

July 19, 2006|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Buellton, Calif. — 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.

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."

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.

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.

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