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2002 Carlisle Syrah, Sonoma

As you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for struggling family wineries, those that have grown up in fits and starts powered by the passion, ingenuity, sweat, and tears of normal folks who decide to follow their dream.

Mike Officer and his wife Kendall Carlisle, who lends her last name to their Carlisle Winery & Vineyards, have lived that story. It's a story that has become almost a cliché over time: young man has his first sip of real wine, falls in love, dreams of making wine, starts making it in his kitchen, then the garage, then at a winery, then starts his own. Even though there are more than a few wineries built on a lifelong dream, that doesn't make it any less impressive or special that a winery like Carlisle has become a success.

Mike Officer was that proverbial kid who tasted a good wine one day and suddenly found himself awake to a whole new world of exploration. Going from "active collecting" of wine in college to making a barrel of Zinfandel at a time, to moving with his wife to Sonoma to be "closer to the source," Officer has been slowly shaping his life around wine, to the point at which just last year he has finally left his corporate job to become a full time winery owner.

Carlisle's first commercial vintage was in 1998, but for several years previous to that Officer and his wife had been making several barrels of old-vine Zinfandel, many of which had begun to win critical acclaim on the county fair and amateur competition circuit. Since 1998 Officer and a select crew of family and friends have been slowly scaling the operation to the point at which they now produce around 5,000 cases of wine.

One thing that has marked the Carlisle operation from the beginning, (and is most likely a testament to Officer's relationship building skills and passion for what he does) has been the fantastic vineyard sources that provide the grapes for their wine. Feeney Ranch, Teldeschi Ranch, Barbieri Ranch -- some of the best old-vine Zinfandel sources in Sonoma County have been selling fruit to Officer for years. With good reason, too. The Carlisle Zinfandels are world class, including this past vintage, which was one of the best wines I tasted at the 2005 ZAP festival.

I was interested, then, when I saw a bottle of Syrah on offer from Carlisle, and picked up a couple to check out. This wine was made from several Syrah vineyards throughout Sonoma. Specifically, the Ray Teldeschi Ranch, Unti Vineyards, Pelkan Ranch in Knights Valley, and Del Carlo Ranch in Dry Creek Valley. The vines from each of these vineyards are relatively young (6 to 15 years old) and have been lightly cropped (some grapes removed) to concentrate the fruit. The grapes were cold soaked for 5 days before fermentation was induced and mid-way through fermentation the juice was pressed into new French oak to finish fermentation and to age for 20 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. 380 cases produced.

Tasting Notes:
A dark ruby color in the glass this wine has a heady nose of tobacco, dark black cherry, and sweet vanilla scented oak. In the mouth it is very high-toned with primary flavors of black cherry and vanilla, that make up a slightly unbalanced flavor profile that is dominated by sweet oak components. This is New World winemaking at its most extreme, and unfortunately suffers a little for it. To my palate the fruit is clearly excellent, but the wine has too much oak, and comes off slightly more like Tammy Faye Baker than a nicely put together, sophisticated Syrah, which is what the winemaker intended, I'm sure.

Food Pairing:
This wine needs something a bit heavy to balance it out. I'd suggest a substantial dish like a classic beef daube.

Overall Score: 8.5/9

How Much?: $36

I get mine through Porthos.

Comments (8)

Terry Hughes wrote:
04.03.05 at 11:09 AM

Alder, this wine sounds like a pretty typically overdone New Worlder, based on your description. (All that oak, oy.) Why would you give it such a high rating?

Alder wrote:
04.03.05 at 12:02 PM


Good question. The wine, while "overdone" is not seriously flawed. I'm not into docking points simply for style, and I'm not one of those people that despises the new world style as a whole. Despite being over-oaked, this wine is still better than almost every Syrah you'd find in a supermarket.

Terry Hughes wrote:
04.03.05 at 12:12 PM

Fair enough. I didn't used to have a dogmatic position on "New World" wines, but I do find that oak-sweetened wines, red and especially white, have lost their appeal to me...tending to a dull uniformity that, to my taste buds at least, attempts to hide a lot of flaws. It's the extreme pendulum swing from those thin, hard wines of 30-40 years ago, and maybe a new sense of balance needs to be part of the wine-lovers' consensus.

I know I've been affected by the international style myself when I open a nice bottle of NZ pinot noir and wonder what's wrong because it isn't inky and doesn't mount a frontal assault on my palate!

Mike wrote:
04.03.05 at 2:27 PM

The Carlisle Syrah is a wine you need to taste among other California Syrah to get an idea of its potential. I did that recently (http://tastingnotes.blogspot.com/2005/01/syrah-from-california.html) and while it was one of the most expensive wines tasted it was clearly worth the $s. Its not in the class of something like the Lagier-Meredith, but then its not in that style either. The Carlisle will be interesting to come back to in 5 years or so when its dropped all its baby fat.


Mike Officer wrote:
04.05.05 at 2:15 PM

Hi Alder. Nice synopsis! Regarding the '02 syrah, I agree with you. Suffers from the oak treatment a bit. We had issues with the cooperage we used in '02. We didn't realize it right away but we did pull the wine from the 60% new wood and let it finish the last 12 months of aging in all neutral oak. Our '03 syrahs have the oak back in check. The oak in the '02 will eventually subside but it will take a number of years. Not to worry though, a bottle left open for 8 days showed no oxidation. Surprised the hell out of me.

As for your comment Terry about this being a "typically overdone New Worlder", I can understand why you would say that but if you tried this wine with a bunch of other California syrahs, I'd bet you'd find it anything but typical.


Alder wrote:
04.05.05 at 2:27 PM


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I always enjoy it when winemakers find their way here to talk about their wines.

Terry Hughes wrote:
04.05.05 at 4:16 PM

Thanks for the comment and advice, Mike. I sure didn't mean to impugn your wine, I was just reacting to Alder's description...and, hell, I did just see Mondovino and I loved The Accidental Connoisseur.

I have a confession to make. I almost never look for California wines in the NYC wine shops. What sort of distribution does your wine have here?

Cheers... (as I drink some NZ savvy blanc, aka nouveau plonk.)


Mike Officer wrote:
04.06.05 at 8:00 AM

Hi Terry. No worries. I have no problem with someone not liking our wines. Just wanted to try to set the record straight. Yes, our wines are New World (kind of hard not to be since we're in California ;-)) but we try really hard to make wines that are distinctive (hopefully in a good way!) and that are not necessarily typical.

As for distribution, New York happens to be one of the few states we're in.

By the way, I'm a huge fan of NZ sauvignon blanc too. In fact, in terms of whites, that and Austrian gruner are the whites I drink most often. Refreshing stuff!


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