Bob and Jon
Bob Steinhauer (left) and Jon Priest
The Devil is in the Details

As senior vice president of vineyard operations for Beringer Blass Wine Estates (based at Beringer Winery in Napa Valley), Bob Steinhauer is one of the grand old men of California grape growing. Even though he's barely into his 60s, he's been planting and nurturing vineyards for over 40 years.

Steinhauer's frenetic pace, racing from vineyard to vineyard, barking orders and then disappearing in a swirl of dust, earned him the sobriquet of the Tasmanian Devil, or TAZ for short, after the Looney Tunes cartoon character. And while he makes his home in Napa Valley, Steinhauer has played a big part in the viticulture of Santa Barbara County, planting the vineyards at Cat Canyon, Cat Canyon Annex, North Canyon, White Hills and Riverbench, grapes primarily destined for Meridian Vineyards and other Beringer related labels.

His latest project, Fiddlestix Vineyard, a partnership with Kathy Joseph's Fiddlehead Cellars, is coming to fruition with the release of a 2001 Pinot Noir from a specific block of that vineyard, very near to Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. Then Beringer surprised Steinhauer by naming the new label, TAZ, after him.

Winemaker Jon Priest, an alumnus of Adelaida and Wild Horse wineries, worked with Steinhauer to select specific lots for the TAZ bottlings, which, besides the aforementioned Pinot, also include a Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from the Cat Canyon area and a Merlot and Syrah from North Canyon Vineyard.

Both winegrower and winemaker know that the devil is in the details ... and now the details are in the bottle; the result is delicious. This is top quality stuff released at extremely reasonable prices.

2002 TAZ Pinot Gris ($15): Great aromatics of orange blossom and lime seem exceedingly fresh and lively. Bright and zippy tutti fruiti flavors are the initial rush, then they dissipate and a wave of lichee nut and lime zest come through, buffered by pear and peach skins with flint and minerals in the background. This is not Pinot Gris as an afterthought; it's Pinot Gris given as much attention as Chardonnay and it acts like it. More lively and fruity than any bare-boned Pinot Gris from Oregon, the TAZ is rich, creamy and full bodied with crisp finishing acidity, much like a food-friendly Chardonnay (but at a Pinot Gris price!)

TAZ Chardonnay 2002 TAZ Chardonnay ($20): Sourced from the Cat Canyon Vineyards (as is the pinot gris) which Highway 101 intersects just north of Los Alamos, it's also the vineyard home of Meridian's wildly popular Santa Barbara County Chardonnay. TAZ, however, zeroed in on four specific vineyard blocks, which give this wine special characteristics. Totally barrel fermented in French oak and further aged eight months, this chard has a tropical fruit nose typical of the that area though heavily entwined with barrel smoke and toast; with swirling it reveals more of a lemon curd/chiffon theme than a pineapple element. A well knit wine with a good spine of acidity, the lemon-lime zest flavors come through, though other elements weave into the mix like roasted nuts, stone fruit pits, minerals and a very "custardy" quality. It finishes strong with flavors of butterscotch and creme brulee crust. Well endowed with loads of flavor, this Chard really makes a tasty statement.

2001 TAZ Merlot ($20): A nose of black fruits along with strong hints of wood smoke, cedar and earthiness is apparent in this wine that spent sixteen months aging in French oak. Very ripe and very extracted flavors of dark plum and black cherry, with a dusting of cocoa powder, make this a very appealing wine. Still tightly wound and very densely compact, this is no light weight quaffer; this is seriously crafted Merlot that will reap rewards with time in the bottle. A rarity for these parts, it's a Merlot that's very cleanly made with no distracting elements, bolstered by crisp and rewarding acidity on the finish.

2001 TAZ Syrah ($25): From the North Canyon Vineyard, very near Bien Nacido Vineyard, these grapes have been turned into some seriously extracted wine. Just from the nose, you can sense plenty of spice with oak, vanilla and jammy fruit. Fully ripe and deep flavors of plum, cherry, blackberry and blueberry give quite a spectrum of diverse but hard core of fruit that has nevertheless has easy accessibility. And while the demonstrative flavors give pleasure now, it will certainly reveal more secrets, given some additional time in the bottle. Lush, mouth filling but very deep and concentrated, the spicy extended finish is just another added attraction among the many.

2001 TAZ Pinot Noir ($25): Finally, here's the wine we've been waiting for: the first TAZ Pinot Noir to come off the ambitious Fiddlestix Vineyard project in the cool Santa Rita Hills, just down the road from Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. And the wait was worth it. The nose of strawberry, cranberry and rhubarb is beguiling, just inviting you to take the first sip. In the mouth, flavors of red and black cherry are wrapped up in wood spice (from all French barrels, half of which were brand new). Not necessarily complex but the wine does have some depth on the mid palate, as raspberry and strawberry components break through the cherry oriented flavors permeated by brown baking spices. It's very much representative of the cool climate style of Santa Rita Hills: you will not find any Santa Maria tomato or forest floor characteristics here. What may be most impressive about this Pinot is that, while it's muscular, it's also very elegant and restrained with every element in balance.

Feb. 11, 2004

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