As seen on Forbes.
Part One of the Not Popular, but Very Cool Wines Under the Radar Series. We all know what the movie Sideways did for Pinot Noir’s popularity; it’s nigh impossible to find a balanced, delightful one for less than $40. if you want a collector’s Pinot, well, you’ll really need to open that wallet. In an effort to help you stock your cellar, cabinet or basement storage room with great juice, I’ve composed a series on wines to buy now before they reach celebrity status.
Right now, the best deal in California wine might very well be a Rhone blend from the Santa Ynez region.
Bear in mind that a similar quality estate grown French Rhone wines, (or Napa Cabernet Sauvignons) typically start at $80 and go up from there. Eric Mohseni, winemaker for Zaca Mesa Winery, insists his Santa Ynez winery has the ideal climate for growing Rhone grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, and Cinsault. Situated between two climate extremes the winery balances heat from Paso Robles to the north with cool from the Santa Rita Hills to the south. But climate isn’t everything, Mohseni also has old vines (Zaca Mesa Winery does have the distinct advantage of owning the oldest Syrah plantings, circa 1978, in Santa Barbara County), and some pretty cool dirt.
This magical combination does indeed make California’s Santa Ynez Valley a special place. Some even refer to this region as France’s Other Rhone Zone; Northern Rhone to be exact, where Syrah dominates the blends and a more balanced climate results in refined, more structured wines.
Climate, dirt and vines aside, I asked Mohseni why California Rhone wines are today’s best deal in wine.
Spend your money on a Rhone blend instead of a Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll get more bang for your buck, especially the way pricing is now. There’s so much going on in our wines: dried herbs, pomegranate, blueberry and black pepper. It’s a very different experience. Our blended wines deliver layers of taste and personality (as many Cabernet’s do), but for far less money. Don’t get me wrong Cabernet is lovely, but it can be one-dimensional.
Our growing location is absolutely ideal. We aren’t a totally cool climate and we aren’t an entirely hot climate; we are in the enviable position of being in the geographic middle. Hence our wines get a bit of opulence, not too much alcohol and the high tones I like from cooler climates.
Paso Robles wines have big fruits and opulence, but also issues with too much alcohol. Purely cool climate wines (from Santa Rita Hills, for example) have elegance and refinement but can almost be too austere. We enjoy a balance of both worlds.
My wine making style is definitely more old school. I use Old World wines as inspiration. I don’t copy or mimic, you just can’t mimic other wines because you have to work with and respect the vineyard site you are on.
My job is not to screw things up. I take what Mother Nature gives me and am always mindful of how I influence the outcome. For example, I’ve spent 11 years experimenting with different oak barrels, weighing tight grained oak versus medium grained oak, trying different coopers and tasting for how each detail changes the wine.
Every year is different and there are so many variables that are hard to control, that’s why I love about the business.
I think the term terroir is overused. You really can’t honesty discuss terroir until you see commonality in the wines year after year. There is a bit of rusticity in my wines that’s reminiscent of the sagebrush and tobacco in true Rhone wines.
If I weren’t making wine I’d be rescuing bulldogs (well, any dogs) —but my wife and I love bulldogs.
When you taste my wines you’ll get high tone notes. They tend to be jovial with minerality and acid.
Talk is nice, but it’s all in the taste at the end of the day. I did taste, and must say kudos to the team at Zaca Mesa…they’re doing a fine job of crafting refreshing riffs on old world styled Rhone blends, right here in the good ol’ USA. The sweet spot is the price, a bargain when put up against parallel French wines.
Zaca Mesa Z Three, 2007, $42. Like a lush blueberry patch with high notes and velvety fruits and steady threads of clean freshness that keep you interested. This is a darker, denser, more round version of its French counterparts.A blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache, received a 92 point score from The Wine Spectator.
Zaca Mesa Reserve Syrah, 2008, $44, Tastes like a blackberry pie served with a shot of espresso. This wine has some serious muscle that gets nicely balanced with dried herb and cedar notes. Buy it and wait a few years to let complexity build. It’s a keeper for sure, 92 points from Wine Spectator and labeled a ‘Smart Buy’.
Zaca Mesa Black Bear Block Syrah, 2008, $60. Made from the region’s oldest Syrah vineyard, this wine is the most age-worthy of them all. Imagine lush dark berry fruits, leather and mocha woven together and finished with whiff of dried herbs for complexity and you have this wine. 90 points fr