2011 Sonoma Valley Syrah

I first met Nichole Dishman nearly five years ago at a weekly sommelier tasting group at Spruce restaurant. Every Sunday morning, up to 10 of us would gather to practice what is known as the deductive tasting format. Verbally describing a wine over the course of four minutes, we then make an educated guest as to the grape varietal, region of origin and vintage of the wine. While the group included some of the most talented blind tasters in San Francisco, Nichole stood out for several reasons. She and her chef-husband Preston had lived in several locations around the country, revitalizing the culinary and beverage programs of local restaurants. Her unique relationship to the kitchen seemed to add detail and refinement to her palate. She could notice things in wines that others of us may have missed. Her vocabulary of descriptors was broad and accurate, having been surrounded by so many unique fruits, vegetables, and herbs thanks to her close connection with the kitchen.

In addition to continuing her impressive restaurant career at this time, she was also entering the world of wine production. Nichole spent time working harvest at highly regarded producers such as Whetstone and Thomas Fogarty. This allowed her to look for certain clues to the wine’s identity, based on indicators that show certain winemaking techniques were used in the wine’s production. Were the stems kept in the tank as the wine fermented? If so, this pointed to the wine coming from only a handful of regions, greatly narrowing the possibilities. Was the wine aged in oak? If so, this could point you towards a certain direction or two. Since this time, I have been fortunate enough to practice blind tasting with dozens of sommeliers, wine sales representatives, and others in the trade. Over the years, I have consistently noticed that those with some sort of background in winemaking had better instincts, descriptors, and conclusions when blind tasting compared to those without any experience in wine production. If being a winemaker can make you a better sommelier, than it should also make sense that being a sommelier can also make you a better winemaker.

Nichole always showed a genuine passion for wine, and it was clear that her husband was a chef who recognized the importance of wine at the dinner table as well. The combination of their passion and experience has come to fruition in the creation of Atsina Cellars.  Why atsina? “Atsina is the Cherokee word for cedar tree. There is a story that really resonated for us from Cherokee lore that tells of the people asking God for days and nights of sunshine, to allow them to be more productive, for crops to be more generous. The request was granted, the sun shone down, crops flourished, there was no time for rest. The people went back to God and asked for days and nights of darkness, to allow them to rest and enjoy the fruits of their labor. The request was granted, the world was dark, night reigned, and soon sickness and weakness took hold. The people went back to God and told him that he had been right all along, that the balance of day and night was best. The natural order was restored. It is said that the cedar tree represents to the Cherokee people the importance of balance and the memory of their lost ancestors.”

We are so honored to be working with this beautiful Syrah that she made from the 2011 vintage. The vineyard sits on a hillside within the Sonoma Valley American Viticultural Area of southern Sonoma County. It is farmed by Phil Coturri, a vineyard manager renowned in the industry for his adherence to organic and biodynamic techniques. This particular vineyard is farmed along biodynamic lines. Biodynamic viticulture was developed by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900’s. It is a little different than just growing grapes organically. Biodynamic growing requires that certain “treatments” made with components ranging from manure to chamomile tea be applied to the vineyard. These “treatments”, as well as standard vineyard maintenance such as pruning and picking must be conducted in accordance with a special calendar based on lunar movements. It may sound a little whacky, but the results are unmistakable. In the past thirty years, these practices have been adopted by some of the most renowned producers in the world, from Chateau Palmer in Bordeaux, to Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, to Littorai on California’s Sonoma Coast. The consensus among wine professionals is that fruit from vineyards farmed Biodynamically is often more densely flavored and characterful than fruit from vineyards farmed conventionally. We think this Syrah provides great evidence of that.

Syrah clusters on the vine. Picture courtesy of Nichole Dishman.

Syrah clusters on the vine. Picture courtesy of Nichole Dishman.

Syrah, often called Shiraz in the Southern Hemisphere, is one of the world’s most noble red grapes. Recent testing shows that Syrah, originated in France’s Rhone Valley, where it has continued to create some of the world’s best wines since Roman times. The name Shiraz, is thought to be linked to a city in present-day Iran, an area where some of the world’s first viticulture was practiced. Although Syrah and Shiraz are exactly the same grape, these labeling differences are often an indicator of a differing wine style as well. Whereas French examples are often medium-bodied, with bright, fresh fruits and intense herbal and savory tones, Australian versions are almost always full-bodied, with jammy black fruit character dominating accented by notes of chocolate and molasses. There are certainly excepetions to this rule, and compelling bottlings in a range of styles also come from locales such as South Africa, California, and Washington State.

Because the grapes for this bottling come from a relatively cool site for Syrah, this wine maintains great freshness. Classic Syrah aromas of red plum, rose petals, and cracked pepper come through on the nose. On the palate, the wine shows Syrah’s suave texture, never overly tannic. It is juicy without being jammy and refreshing without being tart. It is an incredibly balanced wine in its own right, but one that was literally made to go with food. We recommend a rosemary-rubbed lamb chop or smoky barbecued ribs.