Three Syrahs


JC Cellars is small winery located in Oakland and run by Jeff Cohn, former winemaker for Rosenblum, and his wife Alexandra. A Rhone-wine specialist--meaning he works mostly with Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne--Cohn also makes a bit of Zinfandel.

I have mixed feelings about a lot of the Syrah produced in California (and elsewhere, for that matter). While it's true that the grape is flexible, meaning that it can produce decent wine in a variety of climates and terroirs, that doesn't usually translate into good wine. A lot of the Syrah produced in California is insipid, more like alcoholic fruit juice than a wine that shows the unique gamy, peppery and savory notes of a great Syrah from the grape's homeland in France's Rhone Valley.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see three of JC's Cellars' Syrahs come off with intriguing noses that go far beyond simple fruit into the world of true complexity and intrigue. My favorite of all was the Ventana vineyard Syrah, which was gamy and peppery and supremely un-Californian, except for its formidable girth. The wine from Fess Parker's vineyard in Santa Barbara had similar complexity, though its dominant aromas were more leather-like, with dried wood and pepper. The last one I tasted, the 2004 A La Cave Syrah, says on the label that its appellation is California (meaning that it could have come from anywhere), though the website claims that the wine comes from Napa. Either way, the wine is nice, on the fruity side of syrah but with some smoky, dried herb notes that make it interesting.

There's no doubt that Jeff Cohn is doing interesting stuff and should be supported. The only quibble I have is a preponderance of alcohol in the wines. The wines are not terribly unbalanced, but the high alcohol levels still create a wine that is on the thick side with too much heaviness to be great wine. Either way, though, if this is the direction in which California Syrah can go, I hope people like Jeff Cohn will continue to take it there.

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