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Making Syrah in Santa Barbara


In 1993, Bill Clinton was inaugurated. It's also the year of the founding of Jaffurs Wine Cellars, so that should give you some perspective. Jaffurs also makes their wines in Santa Barbara itself -- close to the now-trendy Funk Zone back when it was just funky -- in the first winery built in town (in 2001). Owner/winemaker Craig Jaffurs and his GM Dave Yates are Rhone lovers who make wines that make others Rhone lovers too.

"We all thought [syrah's moment in the hip sun] would happen but it has never broken out," Jaffurs says. "One of the things I am proudest of is that we are still successful as a winery focusing on syrah and Rhone varietal wines. Not everyone has been so lucky. These wines are obscure for most people, but that is really part of the charm."

When pushed to consider why, Jaffurs added, "Syrah is a great grape that produces fine wines in a wide variety of styles from a variety of regions and climates. Maybe this versatility has clouded the image of syrah in people's minds. The positive side of this for consumers is that people can fine reasonably priced syrah for sale that has the quality of much more expensive pinot or cab."

Depending on the year, Jaffurs can make up to eight different syrahs, mostly vineyard designates plus two blends from various sites. But no spot is more synonymous with Jaffurs syrah, and therefore Santa Barbara County syrah, than Thompson Vineyard. "It is a remarkably consistent, bullet proof vineyard that produces tannic, pure syrah," Jaffurs asserts. "By bullet proof, I mean that no matter what happens from a farming or weather perspective, the fruit is always great. We've had years like 2010 where the weather really impacted the whole wine region, but Thompson was clearly the best pick of the year. In fact, it was much like any other year -- ripe, sparse clusters with smallish berries in a naturally open canopy. Climatically, Alisos Canyon is in a sweet Rhone spot like Ballard Canyon is. It is not too cold, it is not too hot, it is just right. It is wind protected but exposed. It is a tad cooler than most folks expect, which lets the fruit ripen slower and more evenly."

The syrahs from Thompson always seem perfectly balanced, fruity, but not over-ripe, spicy but not perfumed, rich but not viscous. "Interestingly, while Thompson Vineyard syrah is not our darkest wine, it has revealed itself to have bigger tannins that the others," Jaffurs admits. "It is unique in this tobacco/cherry quality and surprises folks who equate blackness with power."

That prized vineyard also provides the grape for one of Jaffurs' pet projects -- a brilliant, teeth-staining petite sirah. "My wife, Lee [Wardlaw, an award-winning children's book author], calls it 'Manifest Destiny in a Bottle.' It should be the all American wine -- big, proud, brawny, aggressive, risky, not intelligent to a fault, with a good moral compass. It is everything that French wines are not, but in a good way. Petite sirah is the wine you need when you are doing BBQ, or camping, or just can't find the right cabernet sauvignon to do the job. It is a statement. It is big. Did I gush enough?"

Jaffurs again praises the site for this wondrous grape, claiming, "Without the Thompson fruit, we would not have a petit sirah program. I am sure other vineyard sites could work to replacement it, but the same consistency in fruit that we see in the Thompson syrah happens in the PS. It has big clusters and needs a bit more time to mature. A cooler, moister site might not get the even ripening and physiological development we are looking for. The sandy loam at Thompson controls the vigor in our blocks."

Thompson recently changed hands, but that sale doesn't worry Jaffurs. "I believe the new owners Noah and Tamara Rowles when they say they are committed to maintaining the vineyard relationships and quality standards that David and Lisa Thompson spent years developing," he says. "Importantly this includes the continued use of Coastal Vineyard Care (Larry Finkle, Jeff Newton, and team) to farm the property."

When asked what was most surprising to him in 20 years in the business he replied, "That I am still here making syrah after 20 years. No one knew what Syrah could do when I started, except maybe Bob Lindquist [of famed Qupe wines]. It has been a great ride as I transformed from cocky young winemaker who thought great winemaking was all about cellar technique, to a slower winemaker who knows that winemaking really happens in the vineyards. Technique is more like insurance that all the work in the vineyards is not wasted."

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