Adam LaZarre fits the mental picture of a California winemaker, or at least a Californian, with light brown, shaggy, collar-length hair highighted by sun-bleached streaks, smile lines creasing pinkish cheeks, a joyful tone when he talks about wine--any wine-- hands comfortable with the most delicate of crystal wine glasses.
He sat across a table at Wine Styles, a West County retail store, and he squinted as the late-afternoon sun poured through a window.
LaZarre is the winemaker at Villa San-Juliette, a Paso Robles County winery that is a relative rookie in the wine world. Its products, a mostly under-$20 selection of four reds and a Sauvignon Blanc, have been on the market only a couple of years; all are fresh and clean-tasting, with good fruit. The winery is owned by Nigel Lithgoe and Ken Warwick, a pair of Englishmen--Liverpudlians like the Beatles, as a matter of fact--who have hit it big in the world of television as producers of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance."
And like so many people who go to California and find some excess cash, they decided to go into the wine business. Lithgoe and Warwick bought 168 acres near the town of San Miguel, east of the famed Hearst Castle in San Simeon. LaZarre, a 20-year veteran of the California industry, became the head winemaker, following eight years in a similar role at Hahn Estates Winery in Monterey. LaZarre developed an interest in wine while in the U. S. Navy on the Pacific Coast and after his discharge he enrolled in the enology program at Fresno State University. Like most winemakers, he advanced through the ranks at several wineries, learning varying philosophies and techniques along the way.
He thinks Paso Robles is a splendid place for grapes and wine, and that Villa San-Juliette will be a major player. He also has high hopes for the 2010 vintage, especially the Sauvignon Blanc and the Syrah, which also is a key ingredient of the winery's proprietary blend, Chorum.
"We have nine acres of Syrah," LaZarre said happily, "and we use much of it for the Chorum; it was excellent in the last three years and this year looks as good, or better. The sugars keep going up. The same thing happened with our Sauvignon Blanc, with sugars up and ph down. we picked at 23 or 24 brix and we're looking for good things." The '08 is beautifully fragrant, partly from two months of fermentation at cool temperatures and no malolactic fermentation. Grapefruit and melon are noticeable on the palate.
Interestingly, LaZarre blends some Tempranillo (8 percent) with his Cabernet Sauvignon, and the result is an interesting taste, slightly lighter, intriguing, almost frisky. He also adds some Cab to his Merlot and Petite Sirah, contributing a little more body to the tasty offerings.
But the Chorum, a proprietary wine, is his baby. He describes it as "dense, lush and velvety," which I consider a good description of a wine that is a wonderful value at under $25.
Syrah (31 percent) is the principal grape, but LaZarre then adds Cabernet Sauvignon (28), Merlot (20), Petite Sirah (10), Tempranillo (7), Mourvedre (3) and Petit Verdot (1). It's a big, rich wine, and the 2008, though very good, remains young, probably needing a year or so in the bottle. Then it will improve for many years, shedding its hard edge and becoming exactly what LaZarre claims. There's a touch of tobacco in the finish, which lasts a long and lovely time. Superior stuff.
TASTING NOTES FROM ALL OVER:
Concannon Vineyard--With more than 150 years in the Livermore Valley, the Concannon family offers some first-rate wines in its Conservancy group, in the $15 range. A couple of reds, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007, lead the way. The former, with 10 percent Cab for richness, shows dark cherry and blueberry aromas, a touch of tobacco on the tongue, a pleasing finish. The Cab, with 7 percent Syrah for smoothness, is dark and rich, and will be good company with prime rib or a good sirloin.
Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards--Based in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County, Zaca Mesa grows a lot of Rhone Valley grapes, including the tasty and versatile Roussane, a white wine with a hint of mineral that makes it work well with many dishes. It is bold enough to complement even richer fish like mackerel, and it's a fine match with roast chicken. Nice oak feeling in the flavor, and excellent alcohol-acid balance. About $25.
Clos du Bois--A veteran Sonoma County winery has an excellent '09 White Riesling ($12) that is an asset to Asian foods, especially those with some spice. A hint of sweetness cuts into the fire and blends nicely with Hunan or Sezchuan fare. Hints of mineral and grapefruit, and a smooth finish are among its assets. A 2007 north coast Merlot ($15) brings dark, plummy flavor and a long finish, just right to accompany a meat loaf.
Frei Brothers--Speaking of Merlot, Frei Brothers (one of the Gallo labels) offers a dandy Merlot ($20) from the same year, with grapes from northern Sonoma County. not that far from the North Coast appellation of Clos du Bois. The Frei Brothers were pioneer growers in northern California, and when Gallo bought the property, they took bulldozers to it and realigned a lot of the vineyards, making good grapes better. The Merlot has a lot of plum and black cherry to the aroma and flavor, and it's soft and very tasty. Merlot and meat loaf is not only an alliterative pairing, but a fine one on the dining table.