Features Remaking C?te R?tie in Mendocino

Remaking C?te R?tie in Mendocino

The mountaintop appealed to the Gordons when they were looking to start out winemaking.
© Halcón Vineyards | The mountaintop appealed to the Gordons when they were looking to start out winemaking.
A UK couple are pushing the envelope on a California mountaintop, making a very different style of wine.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 24-Nov-2020

This is the best type of wine story: I discovered some fantastic wines. The story behind them is interesting, they're world-class in the glass AND they're not too expensive.

In fact, only once every few years do I tell a winery owner: "You're not charging enough for these", but that's what I said to Halcón Vineyards owner Paul Gordon about his Syrahs.

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Gordon claims the climate and soil for his vineyard in California's Mendocino County are nearly identical to those of Côte Rôtie. The wines taste like it. This is Syrah as you rarely find it anywhere else: aromatic, floral, light-bodied but full-flavored, with notes both pretty and feral that keep bringing you back to the glass.

Yet here is a sign that it's still difficult to sell great Syrah in the United States. Halcón, which is basically a two-person operation, only makes 500 to 600 cases of Syrah a year, and Gordon actually exports some of that to Europe because people who tasted the wine asked him to send it and Americans aren't queueing up to buy them. These are wines for the Europhile palate, and anybody else who likes truly cool-climate Syrah.

"I believe grapes should be grown on the edge of their viability," Gordon told Wine-Searcher. "You wouldn't see us buying fruit from Lodi and picking in July. That's not our style. The French learned some things over the centuries from planting on the edge. And we truly are the edge. Except in '16, since 2015 ([C?te-R?tie has] been distinctively warmer than us. I've been telling people that if you want cool-climate Syrah, you should come to us rather than the northern Rhone because we're cooler."

Hard scrabble

The Halcón property is in the Yorkville Highlands AVA about 750 meters above sea level near Anderson Valley. Anderson Valley is known for being cool-climate Pinot Noir terroir. Now drive uphill for 20 minutes.

After multiple switchbacks, you arrive at a windswept ranch with thin soils. Sometimes it feels warmer at night than during the day because it's above the fog line. During the day, wear a warm jacket, even mid-summer.

Gordon and his wife Jackie found the place while looking at properties in Anderson Valley. They're both originally from the UK, but moved separately to Silicon Valley; they met online while both were in California. He works in tech; she works in real estate. They still have their day jobs because so far making world-class Syrah isn't profitable.

"All techies migrate here eventually," Gordon said. "Like many people you get sucked into the food and wine culture. We've got such good examples of both. We had some wine growing up. We used to go to northern France for vacations, like in the Loire, for example. There was wine around, but liking cooler-climate wines was a preference from being here. Just a palate preference. I liked what Wells Guthrie was doing with Copain and Ted Lemon from Littorai. I was buying wine from them. I gravitated toward the Anderson Valley area. I had this romantic notion of planting a vineyard and making wine."

Gordon looked in Anderson Valley itself but he liked the ridgetop property high above it. The previous owner hadn't planted grapevines, perhaps daunted by the financial challenge, but had done soil studies. The Gordons bought it in 2004. They considered planting Pinot Noir, but decided the variety wasn't tough enough for the site.

"We recognized early that we needed some vigorous plants to survive in this environment: very windy, very thin soils," Gordon said. "We're struggling to get more than a ton per acre from Syrah from some parts. God knows what we'd have got from Pinot. It is financially challenging and has been. They say give it 10 years. It's really on the edge. I read about people talking about thin soils and think, they haven't seen what we have."

Life above the fog line is at the edge of what grapevines can cope with.
© Halcón Vineyards | Life above the fog line is at the edge of what grapevines can cope with.

This is why I told Gordon he's not charging enough for these wines. The yields are small enough that his business may not be sustainable at retail prices under $40, which is where they are right now. This made me wonder about Gordon's tech career earnings.

"I never had that home run, but definitely made a little bit of money in the late '90s," Gordon said. "It paid for the vineyard. I worked for a company that did cable modems that got acquired. My specialty is telecoms. I've done cable modems. I ended up as CEO of a company called SkyPilot for a while." He currently works at a larger tech firm and is glad about it, because startups wouldn't allow him weekends off.

"We do about a third of the pruning ourselves. So we're there every weekend," Gordon said. "We bring the crew in after us to do the other two-thirds. They typically want to leave too much because they are used to the valley floor. If we leave too much we'll end up with unripe fruit."

Dancing on the edge

In fact, the Gordons seem to enjoy flirting with unripe fruit. In addition to Syrah, they have planted some Mourvèdre, a heat-loving vine from the southern Rh?ne; they claim theirs is the coolest Mourvèdre vineyard in the world. I can't verify that but I can say, as a Mourvèdre fan, that I've never seen a modern one before with less than 13 percent alcohol. And to be honest, I'm not really sure how I feel about Halcón Mourvèdre. I openly love the Syrahs and cannot recommend them highly enough. Their Grenache-Mourvèdre-Syrah from estate fruit is OK.

Their Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah, both from purchased fruit, are delicious and interesting and of a type with the Syrahs: leaner, more aromatic, grown in places where ripening the varieties is not a given.

"We couldn't ripen Petite [Sirah]," Gordon said. "It wouldn't work so we buy it from a vineyard that's a little further inland. We buy our Pinot from Oppenlander Vineyard, which is close to the town of Mendocino [to non-Californians: the town of Mendocino is on the Pacific Ocean and it's very chilly; Anderson Valley is comparatively a hotspot]. It's a very cold location. Oppenlander is a little cooler than our vineyard. Before we had been buying Pinot from a valley floor location but it didn't fit with what we were doing at our site."

Mourvèdre, in addition to being heat-loving, is a very late-ripening grape. Gordon says they can ripen it because the rainy season in northern California doesn't start until mid-November.

"We keep it very small and we pick it very late," Gordon said. "That's how we can get it ripe. We get a lot of benefit from plants shutting down for the year. Your color increases, the seeds harden, and you get stems starting to really ripen and also harden."

But that Mourvèdre – is it good? Is it weird? Both? It smells of citrus fruit, black fruit and pepper. It's light and lively on the palate, mostly red fruit, with nice acidity. It doesn't seem to have the brooding darkness that Mourvèdre usually brings to a wine. It's a very different take, and I didn't know how to react to it. Fortunately I'm apparently in good company, as Gordon said Jancis Robinson told him she "had a hard time getting her head around it".

The Gordons had a consulting winemaker for the first few vintages but now Jackie makes the wine.

"We follow a really light touch," Paul Gordon said. "We don't inoculate. We try to avoid any adjustments we can but we're not religious in that respect. If it takes a little acid adjustment we will do it, to make a solid stable wine. We follow a low sulfur regime. We're happy to let things go without sulfur. We're high-risk people."

If you like cool-climate Syrah, their risk is your gain.

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