Back when I reviewed them, I set aside a few wines to taste when they matured. In this occasional series I report on what they’re like now.
Rummaging around the cellar for something interesting for dinner with old friends, I brought up my last bottle of Kendall-Jackson Syrah Durell Vineyard 1986. I slotted it in to pour with the cheese (firm cheeses, no stinky soft ones to clash with red wines). Thus if the wine were over the hill, as by all rights it should have been, we could drink the Cabernet from the main course with the cheese or I could open the sweet wine scheduled for dessert.
The wine has quite a history, as we will get to in a minute, but all I could remember of it was that it was on our very first Wine Spectator Top 100 in 1988. It came in at No. 23, in fact. I am pretty sure I wrote the tasting note. In those days James Laube and I reviewed all the California wines together. “Supple and rich,” it said, “with spicy cherry aromas and flavors, beautiful overtones of sweet oak and cinnamon; voluptuous and succulent—you could drink now in a fit of sheer hedonism, but give it till 1991 or ’92 for the full effect.” We rated it 92 points. It cost $14.
So, here it was, some 20 years past its use-by date. The color was encouraging, a bit brown around the edge but dark purple at the core. It smelled of exotic spices, prunes and wet soil, but ripe cherries were front and center in the array of complex flavors, sparkling with glints of tomato leaf, licorice and an unusual hint of peach or nectarine as the finish lingered. This was wine of surpassing elegance and generosity, a bit tannic at first but finishing with a silky texture. Non-blind, I thought it still justified that 92-point rating. All six of us around the table were wowed.
Early on, this wine was one of the encouraging signs for Syrah in California. Joseph Phelps in Napa Valley and McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County had already made a few vintages, but there was something special about this wine. It seemed more opulent, better-integrated, had a bit more backbone to it.
Although Syrah never achieved the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot or Zinfandel, the grape has proven that it can make some fantastic wines in California. This was one of the early ones.
If memory serves, Jed Steele was the winemaker. He was at Kendall-Jackson before launching his own label in the 1990s. I phoned him to reminisce and see what he could recall about the wine. Steele had already made some head-turning Chardonnays and Cabernets, but as with everyone else in California, he had no experience with Syrah. But he did know that in the Northern Rhône, where the grape had traditionally performed best, they blended it with a touch of the white grape Viognier.
“I didn’t want to do an Aussie style,” he said. “I knew that Durell was a fairly cool site, so I figured something more akin to a Northern Rhône would be right. We didn’t have any Viognier at that time in Durell, so I actually added 8 percent barrel-fermented Durell Chardonnay, the only white grape they had, the idea being to try to imitate that style. Now it’s a common practice, back then it might have been the first time it was done in California.” That would account for that hint of peach or nectarine I detected, fruit characters associated with Chardonnay. Steele did not co-ferment white grapes with the Syrah, as they do in Côte-Rôtie. He simply blended the wines.
Steele still buys Syrah grapes and other varieties farmed by Steve Hill, Durell Vineyards’ vineyard manager through 2011, whose own vineyard, Parmalee Hill, was carved out of the Durell property in 1996.
“You ought to talk to Steve,” Steele added. “He’s a fountain of information about Durell Vineyard.”
So I phoned Hill, who said that Ed Durell bought the 400-acre property in 1977, intending to run cattle on it. But in 1979 he agreed to grow grapes for Kenwood Winery. He hired Hill, who knew nothing about grapegrowing. “Ed said we can learn together,” Hill recalled. The first grapes were picked for Kenwood in 1982.
In 1980 Kenwood asked Durell to add 5 acres of Syrah. “I didn’t know anything about Syrah,” said Hill. “I knew Phelps and McDowell Valley had some, but their vines were virused, so they advised us not to use their budwood.” Smith found some disease-free Shiraz No. 1 vine cuttings at a local nursery and grafted them onto existing rootstock.
Kenwood made the Syrah in 1982 and 1983. “They liked the wine,” Hill said, “but after two years they didn’t think they could sell it.” 1984 was such an abundant vintage that Kenwood didn’t want the grapes. Durell offered them to a new winery he was just hearing about, Kendall-Jackson.
Durell and Jess Jackson struck an unusual deal. Unsure of what the winemaking team might be able to do with Syrah, Jackson agreed to take the grapes, and promised a generous payment if the wine came out to his liking. If not, Durell would have to buy back the wine in bulk.
“Jackson called me and said that they liked it so much they said they wanted to bottle it as a vineyard-designate,” Hill recalled. “That was the first vineyard-designated Syrah in California.”
Durell has become a first-tier independent vineyard in the California landscape, selling to such wineries as Loring, Tor, Auteur, Chateau St. Jean, DeLoach, Kistler, Pali, Saxon-Browne, and Steele in the 1990s. But the only winery other than Kenwood, Kendall-Jackson and Steele to buy Syrah was Edmunds St. John.
Smith couldn’t remember when the first vineyard-designated Durell wine was bottled, but the oldest one in our database is the 1986 Kendall-Jackson Syrah. Kistler also vineyard-designated a 1986 Chardonnay from Durell.
The vineyard sits in the southwestern corner of Sonoma Valley, bordering on Sonoma-Cutrer’s Les Pierres Vineyard, known for its Chardonnays. Like Les Pierres, it has cobblestones in the soil, a microclimate somewhere between moderate and cool. “It’s warm for a cool climate but cool for a warm climate,” Hill said.
That jibes with the wine style, generous but still elegant. It’s a wine I wish all the Syrah skeptics could taste. It proved in 1986 that Syrah could be a winner in California. Today it shows that Syrah in California can age, even from young vines. It also adds a note of validation for a celebrated vineyard, and, not incidentally, to the Top 100.