Failla’s 2005 Estate Syrah – My “A-ha” Moment

Posted by | Posted in Terroirist | Posted on 02-09-2012

In the latest issue of SPICE, a luxury magazine published by the India Today Group, I have an article on Failla’s 2005 Estate Syrah — the wine that launched my obsession with fermented grape juice.

SPICE reaches about 2 million people in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkat — so perhaps folks in India will start paying more attention to California cool-climate Syrah!

Check out my article on the SPICE website, or below.

That “A-ha” Moment

Baseball cards. Stamps. Barbie dolls. Coins. You name it, and you’ll find a dedicated group of obsessives. Those who love wine are no different – they’ll brag about their collections, trade old and rare bottles with each other, and forever pursue perfection. They’ll travel the world and spend untold sums in pursuit of that ideal wine experience.

Until four years ago, I assumed that wine fanatics were crazy. Sure, I enjoyed wine. But it was simply a drink — an alcoholic beverage that I enjoyed having with dinner from time to time.

And then I put my nose in a glass of Syrah from Failla, a winery in California’s Napa Valley that sources its grapes from the state’s west Sonoma Coast. Specifically, it was the 2005 Failla Estate Syrah. And at that moment, I became obsessed.

It was the fall of 2007, and I was out in Napa Valley with a few friends. We had already visited a number of the area’s top wineries – Heitz Cellars, Frank Family Vineyards, and Opus One, to name just a few – but when I sampled the Failla Syrah, something clicked.

How could such a simple beverage – fermented grape juice – have such a seductive bouquet? And how could it taste so good?

I knew nothing of tasting notes at the time, but when I learned that well-known wine critic Stephen Tanzer of International Wine Cellar described the wine as “Explosive and wild” and complimented its “aromas of raspberry, game, truffle, smoke and leather, with notes of pepper and beefsteak tomato,” it all made sense.

So I dove into the world of wine — planning trips to California, Oregon, Argentina, and elsewhere just to recreate that experience. I started taking classes, attending tastings, and reading every wine book I could find.

I would soon learn that I was most attracted to the Syrah’s cool-climate characteristics, which are more typical of France’s northern Rhône than California. Failla’s estate vineyard is fewer than five kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, so breezes constantly chill the grapes. And the grapes struggle to survive.

For Failla, this has resulted in a wine that’s incredibly lively, as if the grapes themselves are bragging about their survival.

Years later, I got to spend some time with winemaker behind Failla, Ehren Jordan. And I found out that he learned to make wine in the Rhône Valley. In the mid-1990s, he worked two harvests with famed French winemaker Jean-Luc Columbo.

“While in France, I learned that winemaking isn’t that hard,” explained Jordan, who has no formal training in viniculture. “They have phenomenal vineyards there – and that’s what winemaking is about. For small-scale, artisanal winemaking, the skill sets you need are really basic. It’s all about finding great vineyard sites and not manipulating the fruit.”

When Jordan returned to the United States, he was drawn to the topography, climate, and weather of the west Sonoma Coast, as it reminded him of France’s great vineyard sites.

So when Jordan and his wife found a “gorge-laced” parcel of land just a few kilometers from the ocean that reminded them of the northern Rhône, they bought it. And in 1998, they planted the property with a small crop of Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Today, the property produces some of the best wines in California. And I remain as obsessed with wine as I did in the fall of 2007, when I first had Failla’s estate Syrah.

David White, a wine writer in Washington DC, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com.

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