May 1st, 2018

Pax Syrah: The Hills Are Alive

2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

No two words in the wine industry have incited more spirited debate than ’Robert Parker’. A close second, and far from mutually exclusive, would be ‘100 points’. After all, the man in question created the system; a rating scale whereby 100 represents the pinnacle of wine achievement in a given bottle, and 50, well, pretty much means you’ve put arsenic under cork. We mostly accept such institutions in the art world – billboard charts, the Oscars – unless of course you’re the Marlon Brando type, turning an Academy Award moment into a boycott of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. And while I love such joltingly defiant activism, while there is a little birdie on my shoulder that squaks, “Yes, stop worshipping your idols and focus on real problems”, there is another birdie that rejoices when someone’s hard work is recognized.

There are some key differences with art appreciation in this particular medium. First, Robert Parker’s 100-point scale is not an award show. Neither was it designed to tabulate popularity. The function has always been one of consumer advocacy in a field whose practices are mysterious, disconnected from the everyday drinker. How much more so in 1978, when the first issue of the Wine Advocate hit the press? And in that inaugural newsletter are the assemblage of one man’s travels, tasting barrels and bottles at wineries around the world. There was no panel of critics with wide-ranging perspectives on what style of wine constitutes greatness. It was one impressive human, whose palate, more often than not, slanted toward rich, hedonistic, fruit-laden wines. And he was not wrong to stick to his guns. No more or no less than the one who values the other end of the spectrum: lighter-bodied, wines of restraint and finesse.

As the years rolled on, the landscape of American wine criticism gained some new voices, but the ‘Parker palate’ ruled the day. For the minority opinion, watching winemakers start to paint by numbers, gaming up Parker’s preferences and crafting the cocktail they believe would beget a high score; witnessing the rise of power-consultants, globetrotting at a healthy per diem to assist in such endeavors, became the proverbial match to kerosene. By 2013, sommeliers with newfound popularity and the In Pursuit of Balance brigade had mobilized at an opportune time, winning enough of a consumer that was already fatigued from fruit bomb overload. A militant position was taken against wines that were, in their eyes, imbalanced with alcohol and extract. To confuse matters, the natural wine movement had tiptoed onto the battlefield. In response, Parker took to twitter calling the movement “jihadist”… “non-sulphured wines, green, underripe, low alcohol, insipid stuff promoted by the anti-pleasure police...”

Such were the days of our lives, stumbling over the stumbling stone; soiled by an art appreciation that is doubly divergent in that it’s consumed. A person’s physical sensitivities, let’s call it palate DNA, are fostered by a uniquely intimate food culture, which in turn, shapes what a human being likes to drink. For 10% of the population, cilantro tastes like soap. Does that mean 10% of the population has a bad palate? Is the litmus test for refinement of one’s taste whether they prefer lighter foods to richer foods or both? Is there an army of anarchists screaming “Down with the cheeseburger!” Furthermore, wine is special in that it lives, which means it changes. From day to day, bottle to bottle, that can mean a very different subjective experience. And how a wine ages over time is as much a literal conversation as it is an assessment of an art work’s relevance in the fashion world. Lastly, I’m not going to say that wine is an inferior art form; its commercial significance in our neck of the woods is a recent phenomenon by historical standards. But its direct appreciation, outside of liquid courage, has not to my knowledge inspired social and political change in the same way that music, art, and film have. Nor has wine consumption been a truly reliable medication for personal issues, unless there are emails that I’m unaware of from fans to winemakers saying, “I was thinking of ending it all until I tasted your single vineyard Pinot.”

We make, sell, and drink an agricultural product. And the good news is, the consumer and, to a great extent, social media have restored harmony to the galaxy of said agricultural product. They have supported winemakers that dare to make wine transcendently. They have supplied a platform for restaurants and retailers who are trying to live out singular visions, and they have embraced a whole new stable of wine criticism with fresh voices. There is now room for creative thought in our marketplace, which perhaps was the balance people were in pursuit of all along. Today’s blog covers one such critique of one such wine, and those hopefully less contentious two words: 100 points


2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole
2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

“I taste a lot of brilliant wines in California each and every year.” states Vinous founder Antonio Galloni in our recent interview. “2016 produced many superb Syrahs, Pinots, Cabernets and Zinfandel/Zinfandel-based blends, among others. This particular wine stood out, but so did many others.”

‘This particular wine’ was  Pax Mahle’s 2016 Hillsides Syrah, and it stood out enough for Galloni to warrant a perfect 100-point score. While this is hardly a Copernican moment for the wine industry – by Antonio’s own admission, he’s merely giving credit where credit is due – in many ways, some of us, whether we’re attuned to ratings or not, have felt like the sun revolved around the earth until now. Winemakers and sales reps are petrified to cite scores in front of most sommeliers; the mere mention can be as inflammatory as whispering ‘Voldemort’ to a Hogwarts student. And why? Because sommeliers feel the rating system stifles art appreciation? Because they won’t be told how to appreciate a wine that may be up for consideration on their wine list? It may in part be the Montessori effect, but could it also be that the wines they like don’t tend to get love from critics. Witnessing the better part of my colleagues, chest bumping on social media, the rest rejoicing with their inside voices, seems to suggest a portion of the somm community just needed a hug.

I can’t speak to whether Antonio is a hugger, but he’s the first to admit this is one man’s opinion; one man’s visceral reaction to a given bottle of wine, nothing more. And yet, the economic effects are immediate. The 2016 Pax Hillsides Syrah is nearly sold out of every retailer nationwide, with buyers currently bidding upwards of 2-3x the price on the auction market.

As one who loves Pax’s Syrah as much as Antonio, sampling it first out of cement tank, and in bottle, blind tasting European winemakers every chance I got – as one who walked the vineyard rows, up and down the Sonoma Coast with Pax, feeling compelled to collaborate with him on a custom bottling of the same wine, long before a score was ascribed to it, maybe I have enough of a dog in the fight to want it to be more than just a lesson in supply and demand. I certainly wonder how this wine would have been received by critics twenty years ago. Would they have gotten it? In an era of molecular gastronomy, would they have considered a minimally-intervened, sub 13% alcohol, cement-aged California wine the apex of merit? Has any modern-era California wine, fitting that description, ever garnered such acclaim from the critical mainstream? All I know is that it happened. And it happened to someone I know. And I’m happy for him. And for me, it feels like Antonio has articulated rather resoundingly a hidden truth; that a restrained and “natural” approach to winemaking is no less essential than any other style in the marketplace.

Consumers have been seconding this motion for a while now. Wine culture tends to follow food culture. The world is eating lighter and cleaner than it ever has, rationing animal-protein intake. And Pax’s arc as a winemaker is, in part, a reflection of his arc with diet, “As much as I love to fire up the BBQ and still do, I can’t eat like that all the time. My body craves vegetables for fuel and I’ve had to make that adjustment.”


2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

Wine styles have softened as the food world has found virtue in simplicity, but the two cultures have also discovered variety. I first heard the word ‘pho’ in my 30’s, having existed in the restaurant industry for over 10 years. Not only do millennials know pho but they know ramen, and al pastor, and bulgogi, and can rattle off common distinctions between Northern and Southern Indian food, while frequenting their local farmer’s market for the best organic produce.

The modern market exudes a sense of adventure and just look at the wine frenzy it has stirred up in the Golden State; Cabernet, Pinot, and Chard, continue to roll on in California, but alongside so many other fresh faces:  Arnot Roberts Trousseau is allocated.  Tatomer Riesling is allocated. Gamay and Chenin Blanc are making a splash.  Dirty & Rowdy with Mourvedre, Michael Cruse with domestic sparkling wine, Jaimee Motley with Mondeuse and Jolie Laide with Trousseau Gris.  Rajat Parr and Tegan Passalacqua are resurrecting the Mission grape. Zinfandel is making a comeback thanks to the Morgan Petersons of the world. The list goes on. And of all the grapes Galloni could have had his nirvana moment with, the chosen delegate of California 2.0 is a Syrah?

I mean, it’s hardly Meghan Markle worthy news, but in our little acre, and as one who personally values the grape above all others, I’m intrigued. Syrah is neither the hotshot prospect nor the stable veteran. Syrah is the middle child, unheard and misunderstood. Wouldn’t Pinot be the more appropriate crusader? Widely planted, widely admired for its finesse, Pinot Noir, in one little movie (Sideways), put Syrah and Merlot in the commercial grave. It has since gone on to fame and fortune, dominating coastal red plantings. And yet it’s Syrah, the unsung artist, grinding out small but beautiful work in relative obscurity, that for once receives a standing o. How can you not want to savor even the smallest of victories for the underdog?


2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

Syrah suffers from two major dilemmas; one of form, the other of function. The grape’s birthplace, confirmed by geneticist Carole Meredith, resides in a narrow sliver of France’s Northern Rhone; a rugged, river valley, dismissed historically as nothing more than a backwoods outpost of small-town farmers. It was none other than Robert Parker who really helped shine a light on the area’s wines for the American market. Still, the region’s finest offerings from Cote Rotie and Hermitage carried tariffs well within reach, up until very recently. “In 2004, I went to Hospice du Rhone in Paso Robles and handed out ’69 and ‘89 Gentaz Cote Rotie as a party favor…”, Pax bemoans, of a wine that now auctions for thousands of dollars a bottle. “If only I could go back in time.”

To do so would mean encountering a tenderfoot Florida transplant, receiving a healthy dose of Francophilia at his first ever restaurant job on Nantucket Island. Owner Michael Fahey of the eponymous Fahey & Fromagerie would cart wealthy restaurant clients all around the Northern Rhone, where a teenage Pax Mahle would first carry the bags in 1991. Barely old enough to vote, Pax became well-acquainted with France’s very best Syrah, intense but suave wines, brimming with violets, cracked pepper and smoked meat. It was this spicy/savory, telltale character that early versions of Northern California Syrah were slow to conjure up.

Failla's Ehren Jordan, who worked the ’92 and ’93 harvests in the town of Cornas, recalls, “When I arrived in the Northern Rhone in September, it was 82 degrees and that was a heatwave to them, which would have been the coldest day of the summer in Calistoga. And we had a good chunk of Syrah planted in Calistoga in the early 90’s. It was my first clue that we might want to rethink our position as to where Syrah needed to be grown.” Ehren would eventually return home, laying grape vines down in Fort Ross/Seaview, a stone’s through from the Pacific Ocean. That was 1997, the year Pax came to California.

Over the next several vintages, what little Syrah was around in California, translated as a fairly monolithic creature, whose most singular expressions paid homage to the Northern Rhone within their super-sized frames. Our inability to find Syrah’s nuance and character at lower alcohol levels was as much a function of improper site selection as it was an encouraged notion of bigger is better. Assuming the wine director position at Dean & Deluca in St Helena, Pax saw potential in those primitive bottlings, while navigating what few vineyards there were, scattered all over the state. In the process, a dream of becoming a Master Sommelier gave way to a hopeless connection to the land. With the 2000 vintage, Pax Wine Cellars was born, a Syrah-based project, whose namesake was to serve as the face of the brand. Three Syrahs were made that year:

Syrah #1: destemmed with synthetic yeast, added water, added acid, added enzymes
Syrah #2 and #3: fermented with stems, natural yeast, no additions

The first was made by the hired enologist who told Pax “this is how wine is made in California.” The second and third were born in response to that statement, and marked the day Pax Mahle became a winemaker…


2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole
2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

Whether it was progressive thought or climate change insurance, Syrah vineyards started popping up in cooler coastal areas of Sonoma that were traditionally planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Following Failla’s estate vineyard was Armagh (1997), Castelli Knight Ranch (1999), Clary Ranch (2000), Griffin’s Lair (2000), Majik (2000), while sections of other vineyards were grafted over to Syrah in the coming years. Few producers at the time seemed to care, except a trio of uber Rhone geeks: Pax, Wells Guthrie of Copain, and Duncan Meyers/Nate Roberts of Arnot Roberts. They all shared a love of Rhone masters such as Allemand, Chave, and Gonon, and found, blooming amongst them, a parallel narrative that perhaps California could one day find with Syrah the high notes that France was hitting…


2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

To poke the bear or not to poke the bear? That became the question. Pax found almost overnight stardom in his little Syrah niche, owed in no uncertain terms to the support of sommeliers and critics. Of the two, the latter would move the needle in a powerful way in the early years. James Laube of the Wine Spectator wrote a glowing article called Pax to the Max, which dubbed Pax the next Syrah wunderkind, and scored 15 of 16 wines from the 2003 vintage above 90 points.

But it was Robert Parker who got to him first and fell in love with “one of Northern California’s new young turks, who is proving to have a formidable ability to translate cool climate vineyard sites into terrific wines ... all with no formal training.” The relationship was one of mutual respect. Years before becoming a winemaker, Pax recalls, “I remember Robert Parker walking into Dean & Deluca…and he treated me like such an equal. He was giving and sharing and humble and just such a wine nerd, that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to sign my Parker books. It just wouldn’t have been right. You hear those stories of Jimmy Page walking into a record store and everyone freaking out, but by the end of the day, it’s just four vinyl nerds listening to records. That’s how Parker made me feel.”

The Pax style, at the time, while interesting and responsibly crafted, was still much higher octane and fruit-centric than the direction his palate was moving. But to go down the road not taken carried with it multiple implications. Could one survive by threatening to defy the engine of commerce? Could a low-alcohol style of Syrah even be achievable in California? Nature intervened with the unseasonably cool 2005 vintage, and producers like Pax and Arnot Roberts were given just enough of a shove to crawl into the test kitchen. Claims Pax, “In 2005, the wines were naturally more subtle and it began the conscious effort to tone things back and achieve that freshness.”


2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole
2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

And so, Syrah has a new face in California; the fine-tuning of which has culminated in a lovely moment of due recognition. Is the broader market ready for the makeover? Depends on how broad. Syrah is a grape that finds its true voice in a narrow range of scattered pockets, often very extreme. For that reason, it will always to some degree be more of a cult hero. And as we continue to unearth those sacred plots on our home turf, there is a constant inner monologue as to when it should be harvested…

Me: ”What happens to Syrah when it’s underripe?”

Pax: ”It’s delicious.”

Me: ”How about when it’s too underripe?”

Pax: ”It’s delicious.”

Pax is quick to qualify that statement, “At a certain point, a Syrah loses its Syrah-ness if you pick too early, but it doesn’t mean with a little chill it’s not a delicious wine.” Anika proprietor Raj Parr adds “Syrah loses its Syrah-ness when it’s picked too late. The flavors get more into the fig jam spectrum instead of that crunchy, savory, black pepper profile.”

As with any comestible, optimal ripeness is a matter of taste. Some people like their bananas green, some like their bananas with brown spots. The rest lie somewhere in the middle, and as consumers, we have the flexibility to select and ingest our fruit accordingly.


2016 Pax Cuvee Viticole Syrah Sonoma County  - Viticole

I asked Antonio Galloni if it is confusing for the consumer to see a 100-pt score of the 2016 Pax Hillsides, alongside a 100-pt score of a California Syrah at 15% abv with more extraction and oak usage? He replied:

“My hope is that merchants use our notes responsibly, in context, and that consumers take the time to read the words and not focus only on the number. At the very upper end of the rating scale, scores above 97-98 points are really mostly about a visceral reaction to a wine. A few years ago, I gave a glowing review and a 100-point score to John Kongsgaard’s Syrah from the Hudson Vineyard. Obviously, that is a wine made in a very different style, and yet the pinnacle of achievement for both wines is, in my view, the same.”

When two wines of completely contradictory style can share the same podium, we are truly in a time of peace, where the life cycle of trends and viral behavior are curbed by the proliferation of more critical thought and more varied opinion. And as consumers, we are more desensitized by the information assault at our fingertips, and it has made us quicker to revise and slower to pledge loyalty. A 100-point score, its economic implications notwithstanding, is more likely to be taken today as it should be; as a call to look beyond the numbers and explore the qualitative assertions of an industry professional and the surrounding assembly, against a more reasoned belief in one’s own palate.

And at the end of the day, after we’ve toiled and strived and formulated and assessed and questioned and debated, it’s really very simple. Wine is at its best when it brings people together. Everything that opposes constructive discourse is idle chatter.

- Brian McClintic


1) Traditionally, there have not been many domestic wines, none that I can recall, made in this style (sub 13% abv, cement aged, etc.) that have flirted with a 100-pt score.  Besides obvious technical merit: great vintage, brilliant cuvee, etc., what has changed for a wine of this nature to be even considered?

"I don’t think anything has changed. The 2016 Hillsides is simply a great wine. When I first tasted it with Pax Mahle in January, I had little context for this specific bottling, although I have followed Pax for over a decade. I did not know the abv, the élevage, the vineyard blend or the price. I simply had a visceral reaction to the wine that made me immediately think, “Why doesn’t Pax make all of his Syrahs like this?” I tasted a second a bottle a few days later while still in Sonoma, and a third a few weeks later at my home in New York. The wine was riveting each and every time.

That said, there is the very real and dangerous risk that other producers will seek to emulate this style, rather than finding their own voice, as Pax has. I don’t think we want to see a repeat of the 1990s, when owners in Napa Valley instructed their winemakers to buy 100-point wines and copy them. More recently, I have seen an increased use of whole clusters in Piedmont that is the result of high scores I have given to Burlotto’s Barolo Monvigliero. I see copycat wines as a very dangerous trend. We should be celebrating diversity rather than standardization. We have enough of that in the world as it is."

2) Is this perfect score as much an evolution of wine criticism, an openness to embrace a different version of what the pinnacle of wine achievement can be, as it is the evolution of Pax's craft and the community of winemakers around him?

"I hope people take the time to read the tasting note and don’t just focus on the score. The credit for this wine goes to Pax and his team. The job of the wine critic is far easier and is simply to recognize quality, and, at this level, personality."

3) My perhaps biased experience with much of wine criticism over the years has been a healthy community of reviewers writing off wine made in a restrained, minimal style as 'somm wine' or the 'the somms will love it - 85 points'.  Where do we find ourselves today with the current landscape of wine criticism?

"I think there are many different types of critics, and ultimately that is a good thing. My focus is in traveling to the world’s top wine regions, visiting vineyards and spending time with people, as opposed to tasting a bunch of samples in a white room completely cut off from the world. I also come to wine with a training in music, which I think gives me a unique perspective in being able to recognize quality above style. Just as there are brilliant musicians in all idioms – classical, jazz, rock, country, etc. – the responsible critic should be able to recognize quality in all styles of wine.

I also don’t subscribe to the view that a huge chasm necessarily exists between wines championed by sommeliers and those that receive high scores from the wine press. That may be true of some sommeliers and some publications, but it is not true across the board. I have given glowing reviews to many wines made in what some people might refer to as a more ‘restrained’ style, but not because of a philosophical agreement with stylistic choices a priori of quality, but because the wines said something to me.

Although I worked in restaurants for years, one of my regrets is not having ever been a sommelier, because those professionals have an opportunity to taste an incredible range of wines. At the same time, a few things do trouble me about the sommelier community. These include falling in love with a wine’s story to the point of looking past obvious flaws, and wine lists that all look the same. As in any field, there are leaders and there are followers."

4) Do you think it is confusing for the consumer to see a 100-pt score of the 2016 Pax Hillsides, alongside a 100-pt score of a California Syrah at 15% abv with more extraction and oak usage?

"My hope is that merchants use our notes responsibly, in context, and that consumers take the time to read the words and not focus only on the number. At the very upper end of the rating scale, scores above 97-98 points are really mostly about a visceral reaction to a wine. A few years ago, I gave a glowing review and a 100-point score to John Kongsgaard’s Syrah from the Hudson Vineyard. Obviously, that is a wine made in a very different style, and yet the pinnacle of achievement for both wines is, in my view, the same."

5) Of all the wines in this style to break ground in California, why Syrah?

"I taste a lot of brilliant wines in California each and every year. Two thousand sixteen produced many superb Syrahs, Pinots, Cabernets and Zinfandel/Zinfandel-based blends, among others. This particular wine stood out, but so did many others."

6) Our relationship with domestic Syrah over the years has been an interesting one.  As one who adores the grape, I have found it to be very polarizing with the consumer.  Why is this the case?

"The biggest explanation I hear for this is that Syrah is made in a range of styles that is too wide for the average consumer to grasp. I can’t agree. Pinot Noir is also made in a wide range of styles and is, of course, much more popular. I think the flavor and profile structure of Syrah demands just a bit more attention than other wines. For the consumer, Syrah offers incredible value precisely because it is a much harder sell."

7) Do you think the innate character of the Syrah grape - its peppery, olivey, smoky meatiness - poses challenges for the consumer?

"I am sure it does to some degree, but that is why educating the consumer at all levels by sommeliers, the trade, the press, etc., is so crucial."

8) Is domestic Syrah finally having its day?

"In my view, in terms of quality, domestic Syrah has been having its day for a while. The best wines are tremendous, but it takes time to catch on. Domestic Syrah also represents terrific value."

9) How long have you been tasting Syrah from Pax? Can you chart his evolution as a producer?

"I think the first vintage I bought was 2004. I still have some bottles left. The wines were much bigger and extracted back then, but the same is true of many other producers in California."

10) Can we put the 2016 Pax Hillsides alongside names like Chave, Allemand, Gonon and say "yes, this is the same caliber."

"It would be fun to taste them together! While it is tempting to compare U.S. wines with benchmarks from France (or elsewhere), it is my belief that the role of American wines is to express the essence of our sites and our vintages."

11) Can you perhaps comment on why the three sites in the Hillsides (Castelli, Griffins, Walker Vine Hill) are so magical?  Where are the ideal spots we should be looking at to plant Syrah in the future?

"I think Syrah can excel in a wide range of sites. But there is something magical about the blending of different vineyards that has been in lost in many regions around the world with the explosion of single-vineyard bottlings in regions like Piedmont and the Rhône. The concept of blending is based on the premise that one site might give you aromatic intensity, while another might give you fruit, and a third might excel with structure, for example, and that a blend can be greater than the sum of the parts. For example, up until the early 1960s, all Barbarescos and Barolos were blends. The concept of single-vineyard wines in Piedmont is relatively recent, and not strictly traditional, either. More than where Syrah should be planted, a producer’s job is to capture the best qualities of the sites he or she works with. Some vineyards are more marginal and naturally better suited to leaner styles, while others tend to be more generous in the wines they give. Sometimes I see producers imposing their stylistic choices and preferences on sites that aren’t totally aligned with those ideals. That is when you see wines that can fall short."

A special thanks to Viticole operative, Lauren Hamilton, for taking all these lovely photos...

Cheat Sheet

Tasting Notes: Dark blackberry and blue plum, giving way to cracked pepper and lavender florals. Underneath, high toned stems and savory olive notes. This is a lusher more upfront version of Hillsides with a vibrant texture from a few barrels fermented carbonically…

Seasonal Pairing: Grilled lamb for the win. BBQ pork ribs, indian curries will all do well by Syrah.

When to Drink: Best now – 2027

Geeky Things: There is a kiss of Viognier in the Cuvee Viticole from a co-fermented barrel of Nellessen fruit. Our bottling also spent a longer time in wood.

Area Eats: Handline for tacos, Ramen Gaijin

Vintage Report: 2016 was a banner year for Syrah; perfect arc of ripening

Bigger Than Wine: As is customary Viticole donates $5 per case of every club shipment to a worthy cause. This month's featured charity is Reach For Home, which helps individuals and families create a path to find long-term housing, generate income, achieve sobriety, and build functional life skills. You can check them out online.

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