Good news for Byron

In the past few years, poor Byron Vineyard and Winery has really been put through the wringer, in terms of who's the boss. Byron, of course, is one of the most storied wineries in Santa Barbara County, ideally situated on the far reaches of Tepusquet Road in the Santa Maria Valley. Byron Ken Brown, the first winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery, parted company with them to begin his own winery and label, Byron (1984).

Mr. Brown did such a heckuva job that eventually he attracted the attention of the Robert Mondavi folks who bought him out (1990), but kept him on and provided him with the resources and capital to take the vineyards and the wines to the next level. In 1996, a new gravity-flow winery, designed by Scott Johnson (Opus One) was built into the hillside (just down the road from the old Byron facility) with the expressed goal of making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the gentlest way possible.

But recently the Robert Mondavi corporation had problems of its own. One of the largest liquor/wine conglomerates, Constellation Brands, made a successful takeover bid for Robert Mondavi. However they only wanted to acquire the Mondavi brand, intending to resell Mondavi's individual winery holdings, Byron among them. Of all the potential buyers, they sold it to a seemingly well capitalized farming family, who later defaulted on their loans and declared bankruptcy.

A protracted bankruptcy auction ensued, with potential bidders trying to outfox each other. When the dust settled in court, Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke of Kendall-Jackson swooped in with the highest bid. Byron will not be integrated in the larger Kendall-Jackson brand, however; instead it will remain a separate and distinct brand under the Jackson Family Farms banner, just like its (now) sister winery up the road, Cambria.

Through it all, winemaker Jonathan Nagy (who once worked at Cambria) and his winemaking team have persevered, despite all the financial uncertainty and distractions, keeping their nose to the grindstone. Mr. Nagy worked as assistant winemaker under Ken Brown and took the reins upon his departure in the spring of 2003.

I tasted through the current releases of Byron and found them to be their strongest line-up in recent years.

Byron Pinot Gris, Santa Maria Valley 2005 ($24): Honey notes of apples and pears with hints of spices are the dominant aromatics. White peach and pear flavors on the palate with good concentration and plenty of Pinot Gris character, unlike many California versions. The honeyed aspect of this wine makes it seem sweet and thus will appeal to a wide cross section of wine drinkers (but it's actually dry).

Byron Pinot Blanc, Santa Maria Valley 2004 ($24): Aromas of orange blossom, lemon-lime, mineral and spice come on strong; this is not a shy Pinot Blanc. In the mouth, honey, clove, brown baking spices, and citrus zest are all over the vibrant lemon-lime flavors. With nearly two years in bottle, it's had time to grow into its clothes and expand its initial flavor profile. The flavors extend the entire range of the palate with excellent depth and length; this well-balanced wine is very food-oriented.

Byron Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley 2004 ($25): This entry level Chardonnay opens with plenty of toasty oak on the nose but also shows orange blossom and pear too. In the flavor department, the oak hits first followed by peach, orange blossom and toasted hazelnuts (from the toasty oak barrels). Full bodied and rich in the mouth, it has everything you've come to expect in a Santa Maria Chard.

Byron Chardonnay, Nielson Vineyard 2003 ($30): From the oldest vineyard in Santa Barbara County (planted in 1964), this Chard has plenty of aromatics including mandarin orange, lemon cream and brown baking spices, the latter from one-third new French barrels. It's creamy and dreamy in the mouth, with citrus, pear, mineral and oak. Very giving and very luxurious, its flavors are sustained all the way to the finish. Exceptionally concentrated and well balanced.

Byron Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2004 ($25): The Byron entry level Pinot Noir gives off earthy and dark fruit aromatics, including plum, leather and clove. With flavors of damson plums, black cherry and just the right amount of wood spice, it glides over the palate as a soft and silky elixir, with tannins resolved but still plenty of oomph on the finish. Truly a bargain for what's in the bottle.

Byron Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard 2003 ($45): Easily detectable aromas of cedar, cherry, cardamom and other brown spices seem vibrant and muscular, nearly jumping out of the glass. In the mouth, it's very generous, fruity and chewy. Bing cherry and cranberry flavors are complimented by the toastiness of the French oak, making a big flavor impression. This one is more complex, rich and layered with levels of red fruits. Full bodied, it nevertheless displays an incredible silkiness, along with smooth tannins and great natural acidity.

Byron Pinot Noir, Nielson Vineyard 2003 ($40): Old vine Pinot from Dijon clones shows aromatics of dark cherry and rose petal partnered with toasty oak. Both red and black cherry fruit resounds on the palate with plum and brown spices. Possibly more balanced than the Bien Nacido, but also a bit lighter. Not a bruiser, but really more elegant and subtle, it's from the “run silent, run deep” category of Pinot. It continues to reveal itself and its greater personality over the course of dinner. The smoldering beauty queen of this group.

IO Syrah, Santa Barbara County 2003 ($30): IO is the moniker given to the Syrah program at the winery, to distinguish it from Byron's Burgundian thrust (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). 2003 may be the watershed vintage for IO, as all the releases seem outstanding. The Santa Barbara County version shows raspberry, rhubarb and white pepper on the nose, along with exotic brown spices and leather. This Syrah is all about blending and a balancing of flavors, with plenty of black fruits and well integrated spice; the leather and earthy components are also contribute grace notes, making for plenty of diverse flavor interest.

IO Syrah, Upper Bench 2003 ($35): Plenty of blueberry, vanilla, espresso and leather on the nose; Syrah aromatics don't get much better than this. Blackberry jam, black/dark plum, spice and leather all come together on the mid palate, with a background of lavender and violets. There's plenty to like here: dark fruits and the complex layering of spices. A nearly perfect expression of the grape.

IO Syrah, Ryan Road Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County 2003 ($35): Boysenberry and cherry-cola aromas as well as Dr. Pepper too! Big, big flavors in the mouth with dark berry, plum and hints of vanilla, pepper and leather. With a lot of wild and wooly berry flavors, the wine is maybe a little too big for its britches (14.9% alcohol), but it's very much like an exciting roller coaster ride for the palate. If you're a fan of high-octane Aussie Shiraz, you'll find this IO version to be very interesting.

Dec. 18, 2006

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