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.

This is your Steve Law, and Order website:



Charlie Olken said...

I have wondered about this idea--the Hosemaster as wine reviewer, and not really loved it.

But, this latest is proof that you can do it and still be the Hosemaster and not some latter day version of Robert Finigan with verbal diarrhea or George Carlin getting lost in a vineyard and not knowing how to find his way out.

I would prefer that there be some form of qualitative rating to accompany all this brilliant work, but every since you gave up on the very promising million-point system, you have been pretty adamant that you don't like ratings anymore.

Your love of St. Jospeh makes me want to go to church--or to take more aspirin.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Puff Daddy,
I always think about the Million Point Scale when I write these self-indulgent winery reviews. Maybe you're right, maybe I should bring it back. I always loved writing, "543,219+ --I may have underestimated it."

The comedy comes easy to me, but the wine essays are far more challenging. To make them interesting, first of all (and I'm still working on that...obviously), and also to write about wine in a way that more accurately reflects, in my opinion, how we really talk about wine.

And, aside from that, it's this kind of piece that keeps me at HoseMaster. Cranking out satire is not much of a challenge for me, and, therefore, doing it all the time feels thankless and tiresome. I make others laugh, but only rarely do I make myself laugh. So, there you have it, I review wines because, clearly, it's laughable.

And, beyond that, MacLaren makes damned fine Syrah.

Daniel said...

Master Hose,
If you had given these wines a score (91! 93! 96! or the dreaded 89+!), I would have allowed them to fade from my memory, or any desire to drink them.
Somehow you managed to write as if you were actually talking to a friend about why you love these wines, and that makes me actually consider drinking California wine like these. Up in the PNW, and working for an importer, I rarely drink anything I don't sell or am forced to drink where a restaurant is all about 'local'...

I think wine should be rated as such:
(from worst to first)
I wouldn't clean my car’s engine with it
I’d drink it as a bet
I’d drink it if there was no other wine
I’d drink it quickly and hope the alcohol kills my taste buds (like Bud)
I’ll drink a few glasses
I’ll drink a bottle
I’ll buy some bottles and lay them down
I want cases in my cellar
I want a barrel of my own
I want to buy the vineyard
Naturally, most wines we really like will fall into the middle somewhere, but every once in a while…
Happy Monday!

Thomas said...

I got the Neebors reference, but you knew that i would.

The prices you lit really do look good relative to your impressions of the wiens. What's the Samantha's Vineyard price?

Incidentally, I once had a wine alone that I didn't enjoy and so I had it with friends that I didn't enjoy and that made the wine much better.

Thomas said...

that's pronounced weens, but it should be wines.

Drouthy Steve said...

Drouthy Hosemaster,
I appreciate you taking the time to put into words, the thoughts and memories that drinking my Syrahs conjured up. Reading them makes the death wish feel worth it. It is a terrible affliction to be as passionate about a single varietal, especially when you look at it from a Sales perspective. However, I have been thinking of adding a tasty Gruner or a drinkable Orange wine to flesh out my sales portfolio. That should do it…
As to which wines cannot be enjoyed alone or with Neebors… the two wines above would certainly fit that bill.
Your Neebor,

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Your scale makes as much sense as any other. I've never liked numbers with wines, but we all do have internal responses to wines, rate them on some personal scale, but I'd rather just talk about them. That's what's fun about wine for me.

Sure, you get the really stupid Gomer Pyle reference, but can't find the price of Samantha's at the top of the page--$38. Unless you mean My Gorgeous Samantha, who is priceless.

Thanks, and thanks for the wines. I think you'd be wise to have a Gruner in your portfolio just to serve at winemaker dinners. Gruner tastes good with winemaker, especially one that's been spit-roasted.

Thomas said...


No, I meant the price of the vineyard...

It's a weird thing, but I hate lists so much that I usually don't read them--and so, I didn't read the list.

I know, I know.

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed the wine review, especially the love story about syrah. i do have to say that a $40 bottle does not seem inexpensive to me; not sure if it's because I'm outside of California or if it's just because I'm young and broke. But anything more than $20 loses any chance at the value category in my book.
I loved the idea of the million point scale. Today we were talking about how funny it would be to walk into a tasting room and just start spitting out numbers to the people pouring wine for you. "nice pinot gris, i'm gonna give you guys 88-points on this". you would probably get some sort of douchebag award from the winery.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Yeah, I sort of figured that. Next time I'll put the price in the body of the piece, though it will cut back the number of comments. Samantha's is a very nice, very steeply terraced, old vineyard. It just looks like a great Syrah spot, and seems to be. NBut it's not for sale, like all things Samantha.

Of course, the word "bargain" is relative. From the point of view of a terrific wine from a classic variety that compares to many of the best wines in its category that are twice its price, it's a bargain. Semantics, gotta love 'em.

I created the Million Point Scale on a very early incarnation of HoseMaster--the theory being that you'll never taste a million wines in your lifetime so you can assign every wine you taste its own unique number. No more of those pesky 89's that take up seven pages in every issue of Wine Spectator. And the scale begins at 1, not 500,000. I've had some orange wines that rated about 11, with the labels getting 10 of the points. And, honestly, the scores look amazing on shelf talkers! What's a 95 compared to 675,986?

I once heard a guy give a number to a wine in a tasting room. I thanked him for his opinion and then rated his wife 84, which was generous considering the off aromas.

Marcia Macomber said...

Well, this is a first. I 'posted' a nice semi-witty reply about six hours ago. Damned if I remember what the bleep I said, but it seems Gmail has completely failed this time and not posted my comments.

Nevertheless, loved the review of MacLaren. Now I will seek it out. Love a good Syrah. No million point scale necessary for me! I'd rather read what you have to say...

Unknown said...

i'm 844,932 points on that!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
I can say with all honesty, that I can't think of anyone's tasting notes I'd rather read than yours. You have this brilliant balance of wit, passion and confidence that seems, to me anyway, to march across the screen that leave me feeling like I'm being happily twisted around your finger. Damn fine work Love. As for my price, as I grow dangerously close to my expiration date I feel as if a blow out sale might be in know, just to move the product before it starts to lose its freshness, but the truth is my heart responds to a cool glass of white wine, a few slices of cured meat, a gooey hunk of perfectly salty cheese and a smooth toned voice saying things like, "How's my gorgeous girl?" date right? I love you!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
Frustrating when this interwebby stuff doesn't work right. Stuff just disappears into the Cloud. I'm sure it was a brilliant comment that scientists may one day uncover, and then you will be worshiped and revered. Like I am now.

I think that's seven points too high.

My Gorgeous Girl,
Thank you, Baby. When I read my wine reviews I kind of cringe because I can hear myself struggling to be articulate about tastes and impressions and textures we just really don't have the words for. I think I'm trying to create some kind of feel for the wines, reference points that might resonate, but even that's beyond my skills. However, it's fun to struggle with it, to force myself to describe the pleasures that a good bottle of wine delivers, and try to communicate something of the wine's style and what it has to say to the poor suffering fools who read my nonsense. And, My Sweet Love, I do have to say that when you talk about wine, the way you relate to it, the insights that overflow from your work, well, you make me look like a piker.

As for you, well, who believes expiration dates? I like 'em ripe. However, if you're having a sale, I can't imagine anything sexier than you with 80% off.

Thomas said...


I'm going to have to reneg on buying that Samantha vineyard.

Just got a call to donate to the Wine Bloggers Conference Scholarship so that some poor blogger/s can attend.

Where the hell is that checkbook???

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
Dammit, now I can't help but wonder which 20% you'd have me keep...

I saw that over on Tom's blog, (well he posted a link on Facebook this morning) and simply told him that we wine bloggers, we are beyond help.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'm donating to the welfare of the Wine Bloggers Conference by not showing up. Though I could probably start a fund to pay me to not show up, I decided to fund the cost of not showing up out of my own pocket!

I know, I give, I give, I give...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Hey, after I buy you, I figured I'd leave you with a fifth...

Thomas said...

A scholarship to send someone to a self-serving conference--it's incredible, and I still can't find my checkbook.

Rogue Wino said...

Have you had the Shane syrahs yet? "the unknown" came by this morning, damn derriscious. I love a well made syrah.
Is MacLaren direct in Setting up a new wine list gig

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Rogue Baby,
I've missed your Voice. Nice to see you here.

I've had several Shane wines, but not the one you mention. He's a damn good winemaker--he's now the winemaker at Lynmar Estate after all those years assisting at Kosta Browne. (I'm hoping Google Alert kicks in and he offers to send me samples...)

Yes, MacLaren is direct in NorCal. Contact Steve Law via his website, or shoot me a PM and I'll introduce you to him. Even better, come up here and you and I will go taste with him! Anyhow, the wines are as good as I said, and the prices are more than reasonable given their quality and provenance.

Glad to hear about the new gig--I guess. Congratulations! But don't stop visiting here. I get lonely.