"Irreverence is easy--what's hard is wit."--Tom Lehrer
Monday, April 8, 2013
MacLaren Wine Company: Steve Law, and Order
MacLaren Wines I’m Using to Write About Me
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Russian River Valley $28
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Drouthy Neebors Sonoma County $35
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Samantha’s Vineyard Russian River Valley $38
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Judge Family Vineyard Bennett Valley $38
I first met Steve Law, owner/winemaker/impressionist, when I was working freelance for Lot18. I never did find out what “Lot18” meant. I always thought it was a partial score. Lot18, Mets7. I was close. Turns out it’s a partial success. It’s a strange business, the online flash wine sales business. Originally on Lot18, a wine would be available for 48 hours only. It was a good way for a new winery to reach a lot of new eyes and move a significant amount of wine at an attractive discount price. But it was always a mystery which wines would sell out and which wines would just lay there like a bad date.
When I met Steve for the first time, I had just started at Lot18. I think I’d had one wine I'd curated featured on the site. It did very well, but it was Pinot Noir. You can sell Pinot Noir from a floor stack in a gas station rest room. (I bought the 2011 Pinot Noir from Cupcake’s sister brand, Urinalcake, at a Shell station. It was $8.99.9/bottle.) I was optimistic that Syrah might do as well, but, let’s face it, Syrah is tougher to get rid of than a cop you once dated. But, as I recall, I think we sold 100 cases of MacLaren Syrah on Lot18.
I love Syrah. My wine cellar probably has more Syrah than any other variety. So I’m grateful that it hasn’t really ever caught on to the degree that Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir have. In just the past few months, I’ve been able to buy absolutely world class red wines for ridiculously low prices, wines that are every bit as great, age every bit as long, as any Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Great Syrahs from the likes of Gramercy Cellars, Maison Bleue, The Ojai Vineyard (Ojai’s Roll Ranch Vineyard Syrah might be the best Syrah in California—and it’s a lousy $40), Carlisle, Peay, Rhys and, yup, MacLaren. It’s an amazing bit of luck that one of my favorite varieties is so undervalued. What can you get for $40 Pinot Noir? Usually, a Pinot Noir with Syrah in it. The wine business is full of irony.
When I began to cultivate my interest in fine wine back in the mid-70's, there weren’t any California Syrahs. There wasn’t an Internet, there weren’t cellphones, and there wasn’t gay marriage. My hunch is that planting Syrah in California is what brought about gay marriage. (Think about it--much of the work of propagating Syrah in California was done by Gary Eberle at the old Estrella River Winery, and, well, don’t we all want to live Eberle happy after?) Without any California examples available, it was the Syrah-based wines of the Rhône Valley that captivated me. And still captivate me.
I’m a fool for Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, and adore the wines of Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph. I have an emotional connection with Saint-Joseph. Though I’m not Catholic, my parents were devout jugglers, St. Joseph is my patron saint. My father’s name was Joseph, my middle name is Joseph, my father was from St. Joseph, Missouri, I was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California, my gorgeous wife and I were married on St. Joseph’s Day, my high school girlfriend (oh, man, I still have it bad for her) lived on St. Joseph Avenue in Long Beach, and I loved to gobble St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children when I was a kid. I used to sneak into the medicine chest and eat them like candy. It explains why, to this day, I don’t need sunglasses. My eyes are tinted orange.
Steve Law lived in France for ten years and also fell in love with the wines of the Rhône Valley. You can certainly find their influence in his wonderful MacLaren Syrahs. In 2010, he bottled four different Syrahs. That’s it. That’s his game plan. He apparently arrived in California from France with a love of Syrah, and a death wish. I’m reminded, for some reason, of the original Charles Shaw Winery in Napa Valley, back before Fred Franzia bought the brand and then, many years later, created Two Buck Chuck--which is to wine what Cheese Whiz is to cheese. I’m not sure which Whiz I’d rather take. Anyway, Mr. Shaw was determined to make the best Gamay in Napa Valley, going to the trouble of obtaining cuttings from Georges DuBoeuf in Beaujolais. Brilliant! Why not make the best Cabernet in Champagne? The finest orange wine in Chablis? Along those same lines, I always loved the winery model of Jepson in Mendocino, too (now Jaxon Keys), which was to make Sauvignon Blanc, Sparkling Wine, and Brandy! Three totally different sets of equipment, and not a profitable wine in the place. Sounds like a married couple and a transsexual opening a wine bar in Arkansas.
Well, it’s Steve’s collection of dimes, so if he wants to specialize in Syrah, I wish him well. I visited with him recently, and he gifted me with all four of his new releases, the 2010 MacLaren Syrahs. I don’t know how anyone could taste these wines and not fall in love with Syrah. I always ask people who claim to love Syrah, “When was the last time you ordered Syrah in a restaurant?” Usually it’s about as often as they ordered Botulism (for years, I thought Botulism was the deep religious belief in robots made from tin cans). People pay Syrah lip service, as if to seem knowledgeable and cool, and yet rarely buy it--but those fools are simply missing out.
The MacLaren 2010 Syrah Russian River Valley is Steve’s gateway Syrah. It reflects his deft touch with Syrah. The grapes are sourced from Saralee’s Trenton Station Vineyard, but it’s not vineyard designated. I guess somebody doesn’t like Saralee’s. It has great aromatics, mixing berries and herbs with flowers. That’s hitting all the right notes for Syrah from the cooler parts of the Russian River. You’d never mistake it for the youthful linearity and nerve of extremely cool climate Syrah, but it also never ventures into the upper registers of ripeness. The MacLaren is the sort of Syrah that makes the case for Syrah being the next “hot” grape in restaurants, though it never will be. Syrah’s success in the United States has been predicted for twenty-five years, and yet it just seems to get less popular—it’s the Ralph Nader of grapes. (They’re both sort of leathery.) But MacLaren’s Russian River Syrah is delicious, and complex enough to be beguiling. Even the second day its freshness and length weren’t diminished. All that for $28. Really? And you don’t want to drink that?
“Drouthy Neebors” is Scots for “Thirsty Friends.” It’s also the name of MacLaren’s wine club. Catchy, right? Steve is a Scot (and, really, if you have the great fortune to meet Steve, you need to ask him to do his Sean Connery/James Bond impression—it kills, but it has a license), so it makes perfect sense to him. To me, Drouthy Neebors sounds like Gomer Pyle’s slow sister. OK, that’s reaching. Moving on, the MacLaren 2010 Drouthy Neebors Syrah is a blend of the three MacLaren vineyard sources, Samantha’s, Judge Family and Trenton Station. I think that it’s a common perception that blends like this are made after the fact, put together from the leftover barrels from the single-vineyard wines. That’s not usually the case, in my experience. I know Steve puts together the Drouthy Neebors Syrah before he assembles the single-vineyard Syrahs. Like all of Steve’s fabulous Syrahs, it has a freshness, a racy backbone of acidity, that carries the deep, rich, black fruit all the way to the finish. One thing I noted about all of MacLaren’s wines is their mouth-watering freshness. They pop in your mouth. It’s what makes them so damned tasty. The Drouthy Neebors has a darker tone than the Russian River Syrah, which I would attribute to the Samantha’s in the blend, and is spicier. I’d say I liked them equally, but, if anything, the Drouthy Neebors, name aside, is more elegant.
It always seems strange to use "elegant" as an adjective when referring to wine, though I use it all the time. We use so many words like that in our endeavor to make sense of wine. But just as we might agree that Fred Astaire is elegant where Gene Kelly is athletic, we might agree that one wine is elegant while another is certainly graceful, but not necessarily elegant. I know what I mean, but I’m not sure anyone else does. (This is true of everything I write on HoseMaster of Wine™.) Describing wine is much like trying to capture a character’s essence in a novel. You can list the character’s traits straightforwardly, or you can create a character in the reader’s mind in a more meaningful way by illustrating who he is by his mannerisms, clothes, speech patterns, actions… You’re trying for an impression, not specifics. Because specifics, such as a laundry list of adjectives, don’t leave room for the imagination; and wine, and fiction, are all about capturing our imagination. So I’ll leave you to imagine the elegance of the Drouthy Neebors.
Perhaps it’s the influence of the vineyard’s name, but I loved the MacLaren 2010 Samantha’s Vineyard Syrah. How could I not love something named Samantha? If you’ve ever had DuMol’s “Eddie’s Patch” Syrah, another great Syrah, then I'll mention that this wine is sourced from the same vineyard (but is about half the price). Andy Smith, DuMol’s winemaker, is also a Scot, and he’s the one who introduced Steve to the vineyard. Those Scots stick together like the pages of a Playboy Playmate fold-out. This Syrah, and the MacLaren Judge Family Syrah, are two of the best Syrahs I’ve tasted in quite a while. It blossomed over the course of dinner, improving with every single sip. My wife and I couldn’t stop mentioning how good it was. Wine as oral sex. “Yeah, that’s good, wow, yeah, really, that’s perfect. Damn, I finished too quickly.” So, not elegant. More voluptuous. The vineyard is very steep, Steve tells me, as steep as those crazy vineyards you see in Côte-Rôtie. There’s an old saying, “Syrah loves a view,” and these grapes had quite the view. What did it taste like? Plums and berries, a luscious juiciness, layer upon layer of flavor on the palate, and a long and generous finish. We’d have easily finished a second bottle if one had been around.
I just looked at the description of this wine on MacLaren’s website. It has a classic final line, “This is our boldest Syrah in 2010 and can be enjoyed alone or with friends.” So, unless you’re really limber, not like oral sex. Steve, if you’re reading this, a simple question. What wine can’t be enjoyed alone or with friends?
Finally, the MacLaren 2010 Judge Family Vineyard Syrah. The first time I smelled this wine, my wine memory bank immediately thought, “Saint-Joseph.” It has the floral, powdery, herbal, austere character of those wonderful Syrahs. But it's also loaded with black fruit. Here is the very definition of cool climate Syrah. And Bennett Valley is very cool. The grapes for the Judge Family Syrah were picked in November, yet the alcohol is only 13%! Makes LeBron James’ hangtime seem pitiful. It’s very different from the Samantha’s, but I love them both. This Syrah took me back to my old love, the wines of the Northern Rhône. I thought Saint-Joseph, but others might think Hermitage. It’s great wine, but doesn’t quite have the drama of the best Hermitage. It has everything else though. I'm confident you could put it in a blind lineup of Northern Rhônes and not be able to pick it out. I know I couldn't. It has intensity, length, mouthfeel, and was sensational, and I mean sensational, with the lamb we were having for dinner. It’s all of $38. For world class Syrah! I know I’ll be laying some down to see where it goes. Give it six or seven years, and I’m guessing it will be gangbusters.
Altogether, MacLaren produces about 800 cases of wine. And you can drink them alone or with Drouthy Neebors.
As an aside, I know Steve is looking for a broker/distributor in Southern California. I know, just what you need, more Syrah in your book. But these are gorgeous wines at very fair prices, and even you can sell them. So don't hesitate to get in touch with him.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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