Raising the bar for Sonoma Syrah

A former business partner of Kermit Lynch and ex-husband of chef Alice Waters has set his sights on realising Sonoma’s potential for top quality Syrah.

Having produced the first harvest from his Sebastopol-based Baker Lane Vineyards back in 2004, winemaker and owner Stephen Singer now makes just 2,000 cases a year, split evenly between Syrah from his own property and Pinot Noir bought in from a neighbour so close “I can throw a stone into their vineyards.”

Although the Pinot Noir is a concession to Sonoma’s most prestigious grape variety, Singer remarked: “It was always my mission to make Syrah,” clarifying: “I have affection for Pinot Noir; I have passion for Syrah.”

While the concept of planting Syrah in Sonoma is hardly a new idea – as Singer remarked, “It’s not a niche variety; there are 1000s of acres planted in California” – he believes that the variety’s image still needs a boost.

“Syrah is such a charming grape that it was too readily over-planted in California,” he observed. “A proliferation of that and cheap, imported Syrah really cut the legs off high end Syrah.”

Part of the problem, Singer believes, stems from a misunderstanding of where the variety performs best. He explained: “Because Syrah is grown in Provence, people exported it to warmer parts of other regions, but warm in California is not the same as warm in France.”

By contrast, Singer argued: “It’s a grape that does the best in places where it barely gets ripe.” The cool temperatures in his own corner of Sonoma are evidenced by that fact that Singer’s 2010 Syrah reached just 12.6% abv.

“I’m loathe to say we’re Côte Rôtie – we’re not,” he said, “but that’s a wine that inspires me.” It is therefore no coincidence that the Baker Lane Syrah includes a small proportion of Viognier.

Singer’s passion for Syrah developed during the regular tastings he used to share with Waters and Lynch, the acclaimed Berkeley wine merchant and French specialist whose wholesale business he used to represent.

Recalling an encounter with a wine from Santa Barbara back in the mid-1980s, Singer remarked: “it was the first time I’d ever had a Californian Syrah that I thought was not just drinkable but really had a lot of promise.”

As well as broadening his knowledge of a wide variety of fine wines, these tastings combined with his job at the time ensured Singer also developed his commercial antennae.

“We tasted tens of thousands of wines to learn about flavour, but also value,” he emphasised. Indeed, compared to many Sonoma wines, his own are relatively modest in price, with retail prices ranging from around $28 to $45.

For the moment, Singer accepts that his approach and conviction about Sonoma Syrah is not shared by all. However, setting his mission within a wider climate-focused context, he suggested: “What we’re doing is still a little at the vanguard, but if you look at California’s cooler sites, that’s where the vanguard is.”

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