2006 Arnot-Roberts “Clary Ranch” Syrah, Sonoma Coast

The reported death of California Syrah has been greatly exaggerated. That’s the topic for a rant some other time. But it’s a fitting way to open this review of a wine that represents my favorite kind of wine discovery: a situation where someone pours me a glass that I’m not paying that much attention to, I stick my nose in it, take a sip, and then the next thirty seconds of my life are some combination of a sense of whiplash and usually more than a few very positive expletives.

I love it when wines literally turn my head, as this one did one evening a few months ago while drinking with friends. But turning my head doesn’t really quite describe the effect this wine had on me. It bowled me over.

The fact that they grew up in Napa Valley together in the shadow of some of the most prominent Napa wine families might lead you to believe that Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts would grow up to lead charmed lives making big-boned Napa Cabernet from their parents vineyards. But you’d be a long way from the truth.

Being the grandson of Margrit Biever Mondavi, and having one of California’s most accomplished wine barrel makers for a father certainly led Nathan Roberts easily down the path towards becoming a cooper himself. And Duncan Meyers, growing up with an interest in winemaking, found his way to work with accomplished winemakers like John Kongsgaard, Pax Mahle, and at wineries such as Caymus, Groth, and Acacia.

But somehow these two didn’t end up in Napa, they ended up in Sonoma. And instead of making big brash Cabernet, they’re making incredibly low-alcohol, sometimes un-sulfured, rustic wines in tiny quantities, from some of the coldest vineyard sites in the state, in what they describe as their “post-prohibition era” winery. OK, so they do make a Cabernet, but they are better known for their Syrahs and Chardonnays, and have apparently been experimenting with things like Ribolla Gialla and Trousseau.

Arnot-Roberts got its start in 2001, with these two grade-school buddies making wine in their backyard with a bit of Zinfandel they bought from some friends. But after a couple of years, and in particular after Meyers spent time working with Kongsgaard, their efforts got more serious, perhaps in conjunction with getting their hands on some serious fruit, in particular, a batch of Syrah from the famed Hudson vineyard.

This event, as well as what he learned from Kongsgaard in the process, began Meyers’ love affair with Syrah that continues to deepen with every vintage, even though he has moved on from the Hudson vineyard to even colder sources of the grape.

Meyers and Roberts share their facility, an old cider mill outside of Forestville, California, with Pax Mahle’s Wind Gap winery project. This pairing is no coincidence — Meyers worked as an assistant under Pax at his previous eponymous winery, and the two winemakers seem of like minds in trying to challenge some of the more common tenets of California winemaking, in particular the devotion to ripeness.

Calling Arnot-Roberts wines artisan products doesn’t quite capture the minuscule quantities they produce, nor the care that these two put into the wine, starting from the fact that every barrel they use is hand-made by Roberts. Not that he has to make many of them, given that the winery might use 30% new oak each vintage. When your total production is around 1500 cases, thats only about 18 new barrels each year.

The winery’s 11 different wines are all made according to the same basic principles: hand harvesting at Brix levels that would make some California winemakers shudder; meticulous sorting in the vineyard and at the winery; fermentation always with native yeasts, and for both their whites and their reds, whole clusters of grapes; no fining or filtration; and quite often no addition of sulfur dioxide until bottling. The wines are aged in the oak barrels made by Roberts, each custom tailored French oak with specific toast levels and grain density.

This particular wine was made with fruit from a somewhat unusual vineyard that is smack dab in the center of what has become known as the Petaluma Gap — a break in the Coast Range of mountains that sucks the fog off the coast like a siphon. The vineyard is set amongst the rolling hills of Two Rock, a town that can hardly be called a town, possessing so few residents and buildings as it does. I’ve driven through Two Rock many times, as visiting my father always takes me through the town north of Petaluma, but I had no idea there was a vineyard there, and certainly not one of this stature.

Many bottles of Arnot-Roberts wine (though not this one) bear a little painting of a fuchsia flower, painted by Roberts’ grandmother, Mrs. Mondavi. This elegant little flower, and the continued presence of a Cabernet in the Arnot-Roberts portfolio is the only semblance of Napa heritage in evidence at this winery, which seems to be charting a remarkable course against the current of modern Californian winemaking.

But let me return to this bottle, which I cannot recommend highly enough if you can possibly get your hands on any. Is it the best Syrah I have ever tasted? No. Is it the best Syrah from California I’ve ever tasted? It might damn well be.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has an unbelievable nose. Full stop. The wine leaps out of the glass, grabs you by the lapels with one hand, and with the other, slaps you smartly across the face with white leather gloves smelling of white pepper, blackberry and cassis. Aromatic doesn’t begin to describe the olfactory explosion that awaits. In the mouth, the wine proves just as dynamic, but rather than explosive, I lean towards the opposite physics — a deep black hole of flavor, thrumming with electromagnetic waves of dark cassis, wet loamy earth, licorice, and smoke blown in your face through a bouquet of violets. White pepper surfaces in the darkness through the finish, which is long and ringing with a metallic stony resonance that leaves me in stunned silence.The last two words of my scribbled tasting notes?: fucking fantastic. A staggering 11.5% alcohol. I can’t think of another California Syrah I have enjoyed more.

Food Pairing:
I can hardly imagine the pleasure I would enjoy, drinking this wine with charred lamb sausages of some kind or another. A fabulous food wine that could go with many things involving meat and fire.

Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10.

How Much?: $60

This wine is very difficult to find for sale online. Other 2006 Arnot-Roberts Syrahs are available for purchase on the Internet.