With three developing labels, Pax Mahle needed some new digs. So he just recently moved his Wind Gap operation (6,000 cases annually and growing) into a gentrified section of old warehouses called the Barlow in Sebastopol, replete with Kosta Browne as neighbor and surrounded by busy hipster coffeeshops and breweries. Add in his 1,200-case Pax label and 1,000-case Agharta label, and Mahle is busy.
"But it's still about how much [my wife] Pam and I can handle, without it consuming us," said Mahle, who wants to stay hands-on with all his projects.
Mahle, 43, was an East Coast sommelier who took a job on the West Coast as the corporate wine buyer for Dean & Deluca in 1997. A couple of years there and he was bitten with the wine bug severely enough to tackle the production side of things for himself.
"I'd spent some time in France too," said Mahle. "And after all that I realized I needed to be the guy with the dirty boots making the wine, not the guy with the bowtie serving the wine."
Mahle broke onto the scene in part thanks to the powerful, muscular reds he fashioned under the Pax label. But as he developed newer vineyard sources in cooler, coastal areas of Sonoma, some of Mahle's wines took a decidely different track, with fresher, lower alcohol profiles. The change in style was not due to a conscious shift in Mahle's overall philosophy though.
"By 2004, 2005, the Pax portfolio had 12.5 percent alcohol wines and 15.5 percent alcohol wines. It made sense to me because I was educated by the Old World model of wine, so I was comfortable knowing you can have a Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage that are drastically different in depth and ripeness, even though they are right next to each other. But for our clients, it was becoming confusing. People thought I was changing my style, when it was really a function of adding newer vineyard sources that produced ripeness at lower levels. So that's why we started the Wind Gap label, to focus on the cooler sites. It wasn't some come-to-Jesus moment to make low-alcohol wines."
"There has been some subtle shift, but Pax is still for the bigger wines from warmer sites," Mahle said. "In the end it's about site, not style, and working with what the vineyard gives you. I'm trying to make subtle perfections as I tweak things, not huge pendulum changes in style."
"Still, that notwithstanding, I'd rather pick on the underripe side than the overripe side of things. There's always decision making in the process, and I'd rather not go overripe, then have to water back or acidify or manipulate it in some way to fix the wine. But on the flip side, wines don't just make themselves. Even deciding not to do something is a decision, and thus interventionist in a way."
From the winery we headed out west and up into the rolling hills that run about 10 to 12 miles from the coast. We stopped in the Majik Vineyard, a 1-acre parcel of Syrah that Mahle said really opened his eyes to ripeness at lower alcohol levels.
"We have to wait until November to pick this fruit, and still we only get 21 Brix or so [about 12 percent potential alcohol]. So we have to manage the canopy in a different way, as the leaves that form early won't make it that long through the season. We encourage lateral shoot growth late in the season to keep sugar production going. Even though it's a cooler site, I still want to maximize the ripeness I get here," said Mahle. (For more on how he manages this site, watch the video below.)
A few minutes away is the Nellessen Vineyard, also planted to Syrah and situated n the same Goldridge soils, a sandy soil with a drop of loam in it. But while the Majik Vineyard is north-facing and thus cooler, the Nellessen parcel faces south and is a bit steeper, resulting in richer dark fruit flavors.
In addition to the Syrah, a few vines of Frappato, Lacrima del Morro and Gamay are also planted, a curious mix for a producer who has earned his chops on blue chips like Syrah and Pinot.
"Sure Pinot and, to a lesser extent, Syrah, obviously do well here. And people plant them because they know they can sell them. But the last thing the wine world needs is another $60 Pinot Noir. I think aromatic reds are something the Sonoma Coast can really do well. Trying these grapes, even though they're not popular, is the equivalent of adding Viognier and Riesling to the mix, instead of just relying on Chardonnay all the time."
For the Wind Gap whites, the Chardonnay Paso Robles James Berry Vineyard 2012 is fermented in concrete and aged in neutral oak. It goes through full malolactic fermentation, though you'd be hard pressed to guess it as such, as the wine shows a steely persona, with racy green almond, citrus rind and grapefruit oil notes lined with honeysuckle and talc hints that add length and definition on the finish. In contrast, the Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Woodruff Vineyard 2012 is fermented in a mix of concrete, steel and neutral oak, then aged in used barrels. It shows a plumper edge, with star fruit, pineapple and melon notes, but still has a good bracing edge with floral, quinine and hazelnut husk hints.
"Wood, whether it's new or old, makes Chardonnay taste like Chardonnay," said Mahle. "All concrete or steel aging just won't give you those honeyed, rounded edges."
To offset the Chardonnays, Mahle also produces some aromatic whites, including the Trousseau Gris Russian River Valley Sonoma County Fanuchi-Wood Road Vineyard 2013. The fruit is sourced from a 5-acre vineyard planted in the early 1980s that was propagated off of cuttings from vines included in a Zinfandel vineyard that had been planted in the 1880s (Trousseau Noir was a typical component of field blends from that era and Trousseau Gris is a naturally occurring mutation). The wine is fermented and aged entirely in concrete.
While the wine has garnered cult status among hipster drinkers, Mahle is a bit more sanguine about how it came about.
"I was just looking for something white and inexpensive, that I could get an extra turn on my concrete vats from. We just wanted something fun and that could get to market quickly. And we got lucky that we found something with character. I do scratch my head at the cult of personality over the wine. Still, it's not just geeky—it is consumable and fresh and fun."
The wine shows fennel, bitter orange and pink grapefruit notes along with an echo of Chinese Five Spice on the finish, giving it a thoroughly distinctive profile.
The Pinot Gris Chalk Hill Windsor Oaks Vineyards 2012 is left on its skins in a concrete egg for up to three months, resulting in an orange-hued wine that manages to deliver fresh fennel, blood orange, and pink grapefruit notes while staying tightly focused, thanks to a strong bitter almond note on the finish. It's a pleasant anomaly, as many orange wines for me veer toward loose, cidery notes and lack freshness.
"This wine has that strong bitter component, which I find makes it ideal to serve with vegetables," said Mahle, picking a food match I wouldn't have thought of.
For the reds, the Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2012 is a blend of four vineyards. The wine is bouncy and bright, with anise, bitter cherry, pomegranate and sassafras notes in a decidedly lighter-bodied style. The Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains Woodruff Vineyard 2012 is sourced from a vineyard planted in the early 1970s, old by California standards, and particularly so for Pinot Noir. Mahle assumes it's the Mount Eden clone, though he admitted it tastes a bit more like Swan clone fruit. The profile is noticeably darker than the Sonoma Coast bottling, with more emphasis on the anise and briar notes which surround a nice core of black cherry and blackberry fruit. It's a wine that relies on texture as much as fruit, giving it length and intrigue as it lingers.
The Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Gap's Crown Vineyard 2012 has a fleshier feel, with almost velvety tannins, though an underlying briar note is still there as currant, blackberry and black cherry fruit is spiked with hints of anise, graphite and tobacco. The Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Sun Chase Vineyard 2012 is sourced from a property located above the Gap's Crown vineyard. That additional elevation helps result in a more piercing, racy, floral style, with violet, bergamot, Campari and Bing cherry notes that show nice drive and cut through a tightly focused finish. This wine, a debut, was destemmed, atypical for Mahle's red wines, as he usually ferments with whole clusters.
"As it was the first year working with the vineyard, I just wanted to see what it did unadorned, so to speak. Then in 2013, I went to all whole cluster. I just like stems and the weight and texture they give," he said. "I'm a firm believer in firmness. I like tannin. You throw tannin at tannin, stem tannin to grape skin tannin, and you add more depth and texture to the wine."
Heading into Rhône varietals, the Grenache Sonoma County Old Vine 2012 is sourced from a single parcel of 90-year-old vines planted in pure, sandy soils. Aged and fermented in concrete, the wine is very perfumy and silky, with bergamot, red cherry and rooibos tea notes lined with blood orange and singed sandalwood. It's very elegant and pure through the finish, with the fruit showing nice persistence. Fans of more elegantly styled Châteauneuf-du-Papes such as Rayas will dig this.
The Syrah Sonoma Coast 2012 is a racy, driven red loaded with singed anise, blackberry paste, violet and white pepper notes. It's bright, energetic and pure, but with lots of lingering dark fruit and graphite on the finish, a prime example of how Mahle likes to maximize ripeness from a cooler vineyard site, as per the video included in this blog (see above). The Syrah Sonoma Coast Majik Vineyard 2012 is marked by a pungent savory note, along with black pepper, tobacco leaf and dark olive notes that are very energetic. The acidity courses through the finish as blackberry and plum coulis flavors fill in. The 2012 Syrah Sonoma Coast Nellessen Vineyard 2012 is a markedly fleshier wine, with lots of plum and blackberry paste notes, offset by a racy graphite spine and backed by a mouthwatering anise note on the finish. The Syrah Sonoma Coast Armagh Vineyard 2012 is located further south on heavier soils. It's more muscular in comparison to the Majik and Nellessen bottlings, though it only tops out at 12.75 percent alcohol. There's a hint of licorice snap running through the juicy plum, blackberry and bitter cherry notes, before a savory note adds cut and range to the finish. There's a pleasant austerity here, with briary grip holding the finish.
I'll report on the Pax and Agharta wines in my next blog, along with those from a new fledgling label produced by one of Mahle's staff.