Zaca Mesa pursues the elegant course

Zaca Mesa Winery, one of the oldest wineries in Santa Barbara County, has been through some changes over the years. It served as a de facto Wine University to many former employees, now graduates, who are well known in the wine world, including Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach, Bob Lindquist, Lane Tanner, Ken Brown and Ben Silver. But in recent times, with the installation of Brook Williams as president and Clay Brock as winemaker, there is a renewed focus on what Zaca Mesa does best.

First, the estate vineyard at Zaca, just down the road from Firestone, Fess Parker, and Andrew Murray on Foxen Caunyon Road, is a true mesa, elevated and well drained. About a third of the vineyard has been ripped out and replanted in the last few years: the 246 producing acres (of 750) have been reduced to 160 producing acres and 28 non-bearing. The newer plantings (on their own roots) take advantage of tighter spacing in a move towards increasing the quality factor over quantity. Although Zaca produces a Chardonnay, their focus is on Rhone varieties. As well it should be, since Zaca planted the first Syrah in Santa Barbara County, way back in 1978.

Now, about winemaker Clay Brock: I'm sure many wine aficionados (myself included) were fans of Pinot Noirs he made during his tenure at Edna Valley Vineyards. They were fruity, smooth and, above all, elegant. Now I'm not saying that Clay Brock is a reincarnation of Cary Grant, but he brings that same sensibility to Zaca Mesa's Rhone varietals. And, in my mind, that's a good thing. When I asked him what the biggest difference he was able to make at Zaca Mesa, without hesitation, he pointed to the open top fermentors which allow him greater stylistic control over the winemaking process, resulting in what he says is "a little richer and more elegant wine, as well as a better tannin profile." Elegant is the key word here; all his red wines wear a tuxedo rather than blue jeans.

Viognier 2003 ($15): Peach, apricot, dreamsickle orange and a host of minerals come through on the nose. Ditto on the flavors with apricot and honeysuckle dominating the proceedings. Rich, viscous and full bodied, the fruit flavors show great length on the palate, as does the estate vineyard's trademark minerality. This is about as perfect a Viognier as you'll find, especially at this price; in fact, it drinks like it costs twice as much!

Roussanne 2003 ($25): As opposed to the Viognier; this wine was totally barrel fermented, much of it new French oak. Consequently the initial aromatics are of cloves and brown spices, obviously picked up from the barrels. Closer examination reveals a flavor profile that includes nectarine, apricot, honey and a bit of fig, in addition to its spiciness. Bigger and more unctuous than the Viognier, it has a textural chewiness on mid palate that is surprising, but bodes well for some aging. The flavors do a nice slow, lazy fade in the finish. Great with grilled rosemary chicken or it can be sipped alone and enjoyed just for the beauty of its structure.

Syrah 2001 ($20): Read my lips on this one: "no new oak." That's what really makes this Syrah stand out as being different from most everything else out there. Dark berries on the nose with some spice, then raspberry fruit on the palate with plenty of spice character that both adds to and supports the fruit. The tannins have softened up, so this Syrah is in its sweet spot right now, with no hard edges. Again, this is how an elegant and smooth Syrah is done; those who want something bombastic and over the top should apply elsewhere.

Z Cuvee 2002 ($16): This bottling is Zaca's blended Rhone style wine, with Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Cinsault grapes all in the mix. Each varietal component seems to bring something to the party. A panoply of aromas and flavors include raspberry, blackberry. blueberry, along with spice, earthiness and what the French call "sauvage," a kind of wild, savage quality. It's not just a lot of bright, pretty fruit; there's something deeper and more complex going on here in this chewy and substantial wine. By the way, I came across an 1992 Z Cuvee in my cellar this past week and, while its up front fruit flavors had expectedly faded, that earthy, spicy, savage effect was still there, much like you might find in good French Cotes du Rhone.

Black Bear Block Syrah 2001 ($50): From the oldest block of Syrah vines in the county, this bottling is the top of the line. Starting with its spicy and darkly fruited aromas and segueing into its tarry blueberry/blackberry flavors, it really shows intensity and concentration. Having spent twenty-one months in all new French barrels, it has a sheen of oak that pervades the dark, dark fruit with a streak of minerality and spice trailing. Rich and full bodied, the finish goes on and on. In keeping with the Cary Grant image, it's suave and more in the style of a French Cote Rotie rather than an Aussie fruit and oak bomb. My last time dining at the Hitching Post II (the "Sideways" restaurant), I opened the 1999 version and it was showing multiple levels of flavors and complexity; rich and almost liqueur-like, it was like spreading the most decadent jam on your palate. Without a doubt, this bottling will always be a fine ager.

The Mesa O & N Syrah 2001 ($40): The O & N in the title stand for "old" and "new," in this blend of Syrah from the oldest vineyard block coupled with the first harvest of the newest vineyard block. Only 250 cases are available at the winery only. An incredible nose of sweet dark currants, black plums and dark berries is apparent and thankfully it follows through on the palate too. The fruit flavors are smooth and rich with a fine shading of vanilla and hints of cocoa powder and herbs de provence. Plush and heady stuff, this Syrah is another smooth operator, showing great length and breadth; its fruit compote like concentration make it a pleasure to drink right now. Bright yet deep, it's the perfect mixture of old and new.

Sept. 14, 2005

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