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Syrah That Will Change Your Life

Nov. 19, 2013

The Bellagio in Las Vegas recently invited me to participate in a panel discussion titled “Syrah That Will Change Your Life,” with Master Sommelier Jason Smith as part of the MGM group’s annual Food & Wine weekend. Red Car Winemaker Carroll Kemp (of the Sonoma Coast) rounded out the panel.  We tasted through eight wines (including Amavi’s Walla Walla Valley Syrah and Les Collines Vineyard Syrah) with the audience. These wines ran the spectrum from energetic and ethereal to dense and brooding:

1.       Red Car Syrah “Estate” Sonoma Coast 2010
2.       Red Car Syrah “Cuvee 22” Sonoma Coast 2010
3.       Amavi Syrah, Walla Walla 2011
4.       Amavi Syrah “Les Collines” Walla Walla 2010
5.       Barbieri Syrah “Colson Canyon” Santa Barbara 2008
6.       Domaine Jamet Cote Rotie, Rhone Valley 2008
7.       Thierry Allemand Cornas “Reynard”, Rhone Valley 2009
8.       D’Arenberg Shiraz “Dead Arm” McLaren Vale 2009
All of the wines chosen by Master Jason Smith were excellent stylistic options.  Amavi, with its intricate structure and layered aromas and flavors, represents a more restrained style than many Syrahs.  Our philosophy is to let the bold flavors of our Walla Walla Valley estate vineyards shine through but to not make overly big (fruit-forward or otherwise very ripe) wines. 
One of the items Carroll pointed out to the audience is that Syrah is the best deal going on the red side of a wine list.  Simply because the grape is not as fashionable as Cabernet Sauvignon, a Syrah of the same quality will often be found at a  price 1/3 to 1/2 of what it would be priced were it instead a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Syrah is my favorite wine.  Why?  I think because its aromas evoke happy memories from my childhood:  Rustling through the brambles, foraging for berries.  Riding my horses through freshly tilled farmers’ fields and patches of wildflowers.  Meticulously cleaning my saddle and other tack—and the brushing of the horses as well.   Wild game and peppercorns—Mom was always putting a delicious spin on the deer and elk my father brought down via a bow and arrow.  There’s such a rustic, earthy scent that belies all Syrahs, regardless of how elegantly they are crafted.
Because of my parents’ love for wine, I’m lucky to have been exposed to it when I was growing up, albeit to a narrow spectrum:  lots of California Cab and Chardonnay, and then later, Washington Cab and Merlot.  After I left my parents’ nest, I would sample wine as I could afford, which wasn’t often enough.  Slowly my palate was introduced to wines from all over the world, and the variety captivated me.  In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to taste a vertical of the late David Lake’s Red Willow Syrah.  The 1996 blew my mind.  I had no idea that wine like this was being made, or even could be made, in the United States.  I bought a bottle of that wine, which at the time was VERY expensive for me, a working grad student.  The price tag?  Forty dollars. 

I had no idea, then, that in less than two decades I would be a partner in a renowned Syrah house and sitting on an expert panel at a highbrow food-and-wine festival.  Life is such a crazy thing.  You never really know what it has in store for you; what surprise is waiting around the corner. 
When my parents (Ray and Diana) founded Amavi Cellars back in 2001 with members of the McKibben family and Winemaker Jean-François Pellet, I still wasn’t even in the wine business yet.  However, I was thrilled that the cornerstone of this new winery would be Syrah.  Like the pied piper, it lured me first into the family business and then to a life on the road, where I have been an evangelist for our beloved valley for ten years now.
As we move into the colder months and comfort food starts appearing on your plate, think Syrah.  It is a wonderful accompaniment to red meat, regardless of the preparation.  One of my favorite dishes is a savory pot roast with mashed potatoes and lots of gravy, of course with a glass of Amavi Syrah!