At A&B, we spent almost twelve months assessing regions and producers from places as diverse as Washington State, Patagonia, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. All the time searching for that sense of place, that lightness of touch and that downright drinkability which (we think) makes the A&B portfolio what it is. Northern California’s close proximity to the Willamette Valley makes it an obvious target and we chatted hypothetically about exploring Pinot and Chardonnay in the likes of Sonoma. However, it just seemed pointless to cannibalise our work in Oregon without really adding anything ‘new’. We remember once posing the question to a Willamette grower and were met with a narrow-eyed glare, “why would you be interested in Palm Tree Pinot when you’ve a whole valley here in Oregon to explore”. We never mentioned the topic again. The Northern Rhône has always been a sort of spiritual nexus for us. Simon had his vinous epiphany with a Côte Rôtie two decades ago and John gets misty-eyed – in a way he doesn’t always with Burgundy – when speaking about old bottles of Chave, Allemand, Gentaz, Trollat etc. Great Northern Rhône wines possess ‘soul’ in a way somehow nothing else in the world of wine can, and so we wondered whether in California we could find some light-footed alternatives to our beloved Cote Rôtie, St Joseph, Hermitage and Cornas. Early research and extensive tasting focussed on the foggy Santa Barbera hills close to Los Angeles but, alas, yielded nothing we could hang our hats on.
Then we had an unexpected epiphany, in of all places the Hostellerie de Levernois in Beaune!
We met an old West Coast friend for dinner who brought a bottle of 2016 Pax Mahle Sonoma Hillsides Syrah. We were smitten! It was so light on its feet, so beautifully crafted. Like a 3-minute pop song, it was just so easy to enjoy. A sort of distillation of everything we like about Syrah…we had a lead! Another tip came from a buddy living the good life on the West Coast. He mentioned a bloke north of San Francisco who was making “crazy Syrahs at the top of a mountain…you’ll believe you’re drinking Cote Rotie when you taste them”. This was late spring 2020, hopping on a plane simply wasn’t an option, so we booked video calls with Paul Gordon at Halcon Vineyards (the crazy mountain bloke) and Pax Mahle. Deals were sealed over transatlantic tastings. Suddenly we had a California portfolio…gulp! As we wrote in the original Oregon offer, “it’s early days” and we’re certainly not looking to replace or dislodge any of our much-loved Rhône growers but a little diversity is fun, no? What’s great about both these producers is their sense of place; despite what my West Coast friend said, these don’t really taste like they come from the Northern Rhône, even if they share similarities in weight and texture. No, these are Cali Syrahs (and a little Grenache/Mourvèdre too!) and so they should be.