2004 San Sakana Cellars “Los Madres Vineyard” Syrah, Carneros, Sonoma

There are only a few people who wake up one morning after a long professional career and decide that they want to become cabinetmakers. In fact there may be less than a few. But there’s something about the pull and the passion of wine that inspires people every day to quit their jobs, or come out of retirement, and become winemakers. It used to be that most of these people had been harboring lifelong dreams of making wine, and after a lot of hard work and savings, they bought an estate in Napa or Sonoma and set about living a wine country lifestyle in their retirement.

These days are different, however. With Napa and Sonoma land selling for sometimes millions per acre, the only lifelong dreams being realized are those that can be financed at venture-capital-like levels.

Paradoxically (and perhaps inevitably if you believe in market forces) just as it has gotten more difficult and expensive to make wine the old fashioned way — buying a plot of land, harvesting your grapes, and then making your wine — it has also gotten easier and less expensive. Many new wine labels are actually virtual wineries — winemakers who negotiate contracts for grapes from growers and then rent a “custom crush” facility (basically just space at an operational winery) to make their wines. But most of the time, these labels are started by folks who know what they’re doing, and have a history as winemakers or professionals in the wine industry.

San Sakana Cellars represents still another evolutionary step in the winemaking and wine label creation process. When Bettina Briz, her husband Peter, and their friend Leslie (the three fish of San Sakana, as it is translated from the Japanese) decided they were interested in making wine as an outlet from and alternative to their high-tech Silicon Valley jobs, the closest experience they had to winemaking were Bettina’s chemistry experiments in college and various levels of competence in the kitchen between the three of them.

This is the 21st Century, though, and modern technology, business models, and entrepreneurial spirit have all conspired to make it possible for these three friends to go from being wine lovers to successful winemakers of a high quality label literally overnight.

San Sakana is one of the first (of what will be likely many) such success stories born from a business called Crushpad. The brainchild of Michael Brill, a wine-loving Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Crushpad is a turnkey winemaking facility that essentially offers support in every step of the winemaking process from sourcing the grapes to selling the wine commercially when finished (if that is what the winemaker wants to do). Many of their customers are individuals with no commercial aspirations who just want some wine to call their own and to share with friends, but a few, like the San Sakana team, have made the full effort to launch successful brands.

With the help of Crushpad, the San Sakana team purchased grapes from several top-tier vineyard sites in Carneros and Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. When the grapes were harvested they were trucked down to the Crushpad facility in San Francisco where Bettina, Peter, and Leslie sorted, destemmed, and crushed their lots of grapes, making all the winemaking decisions along the way with the help of consulting winemaker Kian Tavakoli, formerly of Opus One and Clos Du Val.

The grapes for this wine come from the Los Madres vineyard in Carneros. Carneros has long been a “secret” source for cool-climate Syrah. Only a few Carneros Syrahs are made, but thanks to the success of some of them, it is gaining increasing recognition for producing Syrahs of great distinction. San Sakana has made the decision to limit the oak influence on this wine, aging it for 16 months in 50% neutral French oak and 50% 1-year-old barrels.

This bottle represents the first release from this new label, and received enough critical success (or just tasted good enough) to cause the three fishes to fully dive into the business of winemaking. The winery’s current releases are the 2005 vintage.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a rich nose of black cherry, tobacco, and a very appealing hint of a gamey scent as it opens to the air. In the mouth it is very nicely balanced with good acidity and a silky cool feel on the tongue. Primary flavors are black cherry and black plum with a hint of earthiness as the wine heads into a finish that is pleasant but lacking the length to fully impress.

Food Pairing:
The gamey quality of this wine made me think of serving it with a dark, rich game bird like pheasant or squab. I might try it with this braised pheasant with cabbage and wild rice.

Overall Score: 8.5/9

How Much?: $45

This wine is hard to find, as it is the inaugural vintage and has been sold out for some time. However current vintages are available for purchase on the internet.