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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.

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