Arnot-Roberts Syrah: The Sonoma Mindbender
A-R: Before it all began…
Hyphenated winery name aside, Arnot-Roberts is in every way a buddy story. Napa natives Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Roberts learned to tie their shoes together back in elementary school, later congregating in the hallowed halls of - get this - Vintage High School. It seemed written in the stars, but glorious wine enterprises would crystallize long after Reebok Pumps and Zinka Nosecoat.
One year into a lighthearted garage wine project, it took a vote of confidence from Robert Mondavi over dinner at St. Helena’s Terra to consider a life in the industry beyond their inaugural 2001 Zinfandel. Armed with the advocacy of a legend and some ever-present liquid courage the metamorphosis began…
LEFT: Robert Mondavi being legendary RIGHT: Duncan and Bowie, Nate and Django
The Golden Era of Syrah?
As I think of Robert Mondavi and some of the legendary cabs of the 60’s and 70’s (still drinking amazingly well), there is somewhat of 3-act plotline to making fine California Cabernet:
ACT 1: Like with all French varieties, there is nowhere to look to in the beginning except the birthplace. For Cabernet that was Bordeaux. We adapted the Bordeaux template as best we could here, fashioning pure, age worthy wines that were far more nuanced and expressive of site than they were physically imposing. We could call this time the Golden Era.
ACT 2: Gaining steam in the early 90’s, riper styles became en vogue, owed in great part to the wine critic whose name often precedes the era, Robert Parker. Hip hop was on the rise, foams and gels garnished restaurant plates, and a bevy of cult wineries sprouted up, generally characterized by soaring alcohol levels, heavy extraction, and vanilla latte-esque oak usage. Arnot-Roberts came along in the throes of the movement.
ACT 3: By the late 2000’s, the new guard - fatigued by palate blitzkrieg - is reminded of a bygone era (no doubt while drinking some really delicious cabernet from the old guard). “Back in the day…” became the rally cry, and so we came back full circle in a market that now glorifies those wineries that never changed (the Mayacamas and Ridge’s of the world).
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have a similar arc to Cabernet. But what about Syrah’s Golden Era? Was it around in the 70’s? Barely. Syrah and its Australian counterpart Shiraz basically flooded the mainstream when bigger was better, and outside of a few isolated examples, this has been our experience with the grape before the last decade.
The ACT 3 Renaissance is no renaissance at all for Syrah. There is no Golden Era to look back to - hence it is being forged today the same way the old hats of mid-century California forged it: by looking to the Old World and adapting their pearls to our unique oyster…
An oak tree growing sideways above Clary Ranch
A-R: The Metamorphosis…
It was double duty in the early years (circa 2003). Nate was building barrels for the family cooperage, cutting the occasional deal on behalf of the A-R oak regime. Duncan would apprentice with several key wineries, each planting their own seed. Perspectives would be colored further by a few die hard local Syrah producers. He recalls, “2001 Neyers ‘Cuvee d’honneur’ blowing (his) doors off.” That same year Duncan would dip his toe in the Northern Rhone for a wine he called “the Mindbender”. More on that in a bit. Here’s a shout out to some valley collegues, credited as an early influence:
Ehren Jordan - organic farming, fanning the flame of Syrah
John Kongsgaard - Minimal intervention, native yeasts
Pax Mahle - whole cluster fermentation
Paul Clary - site selection
The decision to work with Clary Ranch in 2006 was a huge turning point not only for Arnot-Roberts, but for the industry. Duncan recalls the day New York importer Doug Polaner put his nose in that vintage for the first time. “Doug just leaned his head in, smelled the wine, and freaked out. 'Dude, this is Northern Rhone!' He said he’d take everything we had and the wine hadn’t even finished fermenting yet.”
What was so special about Clary Ranch? Sideways oak trees and the little things…
Sexy cellar, Gents...
November 14th, 2016: A-R meets Viticole
Heading up to Healdsburg to concept a custom Viticole collaboration with Arnot-Roberts is a day complete. Running the gamut of 2015 vintage Syrah at the winery is icing on the cake.
2015 hits another level for the duo. Duncan calls it "the perfect storm - the right vintage and the sum of our experiences working with marginal vineyard sites." They had seen 3 drought years go by previously and each subsequent vintage informed their process from vine to bottle.
It was good catching up with Duncan. We’ve partnered together on a few events over the years. As the boys tend to divide and conquer quite a bit, I had to rack my brain the last time I saw both Duncan and Nate in the same room. Looking back, it was the day we all met, over 4 years ago…
LEFT: Clary Ranch in fog immortalized as the label RIGHT: Mindbender 2.0 in the flesh
Summer of 2012: Petaluma Nights
My first impression of Duncan and Nate was vineyard-casual attire and personalities to match. Gathered around a table at Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth’s house, things tend to head a certain direction. Blind tasting, naturally, would become the focal point of the evening. Geoff poured us everything from domestic Pinot to Nerello Mascallese from Sicily. But the last bottle was unmistakable: 1999 Thierry Allemand Cornas. It was Syrah unplugged. It was peppery, meaty, and rustic. But most importantly, it was the ‘mindbender’ Duncan spoke of - the wine that changed the game all those years back.
Cornas is more than a naughty six-letter word to Duncan and Nate. Stylistically, it's the Jordan to their Kobe. A few weeks later Arnot-Roberts and Cornas would square off - 1 on 1…
"Goût Américain!" says Marcel Juge. Thems is fighting words...
Prelude to Cornas Nights
The Northern Rhone valley in France is the birthplace of Syrah. It’s a narrow stretch of land with pockets under vine on terraced granite cliff faces. To the west and the east, you leave the valley and land becomes flat and less interesting for the grape. To the north, Gamay thrives - to the south, Syrah becomes a blending grape in a climate more suited to the late-ripening Grenache.
But home in the Rhone river valley, the view is staggering. Physically standing atop 70-degree pitches in regions like Cote Rotie and Hermitage remind me of the extremity of Riesling vineyards in Germany and Austria (another grape that only thrives in very special places). And yet in California, we haven’t dared to plant Syrah in marginal places until very recently.
Back to Clary: Oak trees don’t typically grow sideways. If you see an oak tree that looks more like a Bonzai plant, you can bet that area is windswept. If that area is six miles from the ocean, you can bet that wind is frigid. A huge fan of Northern Rhone wines, Paul Clary took a gamble planting part of his vineyard to Syrah. Just look at the opening photo in the blog. Do Duncan and I look warm?
To say Syrah has to fight to ripen here is an understatement. It explains how Arnot Roberts can make fully-developed, savory Syrah at 12.2% alcohol, after picking in October/November. Loamy soils sprinkled with quartz help flesh out its powerful structure. This is a very special place and a feather in the cap of notions that Syrah has an undeniable home in the Sonoma Coast.
LEFT: Caught off guard in Cote Rotie RIGHT: Nate creeping through the fog at Clary
July 2012: Cornas Nights
And then there’s the rugged little town of Cornas. At population 2000 and change, the vineyards of Cornas encompass roughly 104 hectares. For scale, the vineyards of Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux are bigger.
Size doesn’t always matter. We established that the wines of Cornas influenced the Arnot-Roberts style more than any other place. It’s the only region in the Northern Rhone that mandates 100% Syrah. Most of the Cornassien are extremely old school - like if you’re walking down the street you’ll get sideways glances. This mentality spills over into production which is the crux of their economy. Die-hard farmers - frequently organic - making primal whole-cluster Syrah. If we’re going to crown a winery as being the most “old school”, there are many in the running, but Marcel Juge would be at the top of the list.
Duncan and Nate met up with Marcel and importer Doug Polaner one summer day in July. Doug hands Marcel a bottle of 2008 Arnot-Roberts Clary Ranch Syrah. Marcel immediately sets it down on his desk, dismissing the gift. As they head downstairs to taste, Marcel goes on in French about how the ‘goût Américain’ the American taste won’t like his wine because it’s not big enough. He rambles on about American palates until Doug finally can’t take it anymore. He tells Duncan to go grab the bottle of 2008 Clary Ranch Syrah. Duncan looks at him like “Really?”
Duncan reluctantly retrieves the bottle and pops it for Marcel. He pours him a glass and Marcel puts his nose in. “Cornas, eh?” Marcel exclaims. Doug replies “No. California.” Marcel, “No, c’est Cornas…” Doug, “No, California." He turns around the bottle and shows him “produced and bottled in Forestville, CA...and these two guys made it…” Marcel looks at Duncan and Nate - clearly bewildered - but gives them the double fist pump, declaring “Vrai Cornassien!” (True Cornas).
For Marcel Juge, this was his mindbender. And it came all the way from Sonoma…
The day Marcel Juge became a California convert
A-R: Final Thoughts
From size-4 Velcro sneaks to muddy vineyard boots, the buddy story rolls on. Spending time with both Nate and Duncan it is apparent how well they complement each other. Duncan is extroverted, creative - an idea guy. Nate is quiet and refreshingly straight-up - as meticulous as a watchmaker. “He's Swiss”, Duncan reminds me.
In the car with Nate a few weeks ago, I asked him how he would characterize the relationship. He thought for a second and said, “Duncan’s the gas and I’m the brakes. You need both to drive a car.” Oh the place’s they’ll go…
Tasting Notes: Sonoma Coast Syrah: open and juicy with savory dark fruit and cracked black pepper. Clary Ranch: Restrained at this stage with olive, pepper, and iron-tinged meat. A powerful but integrated tannin structure is owed to the cold winds that pummel the berries on the regular.
Seasonal Pairing: Roasted Spring lamb chops. Curry-based Indian dishes
When to Drink: Sonoma Coast Syrah: Accessible now but best from 2019 - 2025+ | Clary Ranch Syrah: Accessible now but best between 2020-2035+
Geeky Things: All wines are fermented with native yeasts and vinified in neutral oak with low amounts of SO2: Sonoma Coast: Vineyard sources include Clary Ranch, Baker Lane, Solas, and Que Sryah. Clary Ranch: fermented 100% whole cluster
Area Eats: If you want to go huge in Healdsburg, make it Single Thread Farms (book in advance). The Shed for breakfast. HBG for casual burger-type things. Barndiva for dinner.
Vintage Report: 2015 is warm and dry, which is a relative term when talking about the moderating influence of vineyards just miles away from the ocean...
When In Rome: Enjoy Healdsburg square and book an appointment to taste at Arnot-Roberts, just a short walk from town center.
Bigger Than Wine: The Ceres Project in Sebastopol is an organization that cooks and delivers organic meals to cancer patients all over the North Bay. Not only will Viticole contribute $5 per every case sold but Arnot-Roberts will match the dollar value raised by the offer. You can check them out online.