What makes a wine worthy of a 100-point score? This April, Vinous founder Antonio Galloni awarded a rare 100-point score to winemaker Pax Mahle’s 2016 Pax Sonoma Hillsides Syrah, which he calls “a modern-day benchmark for Syrah in California.” Galloni sat down for an interview with Viticole founder Brian McClintic MS to discuss the state of California Syrah and what made Pax’s wine so spectacular. Read on for Galloni’s full Q&A with McClintic, and check out Brian’s full article on Pax’s wine on the Viticole blog . ************************************************************************************************ Brian: Traditionally, there have not been many domestic wines, none that I can recall, made in this style (sub 13% abv, cement aged, etc.) that have flirted with a 100-point score. Besides obvious technical merit: great vintage, brilliant cuvee, etc., what has changed for a wine of this nature to be even considered? Antonio: I don’t think anything has changed. The 2016 Hillsides is simply a great wine. When I first tasted it with Pax Mahle in January, I had little context for this specific bottling, although I have followed Pax for over a decade. I did not know the abv, the élevage, the vineyard blend or the price. I simply had a visceral reaction to the wine that made me immediately think, “Why doesn’t Pax make all of his Syrahs like this?” I tasted a second a bottle a few days later while still in Sonoma, and a third a few weeks later at my home in New York. The wine was riveting each and every time. That said, there is the very real and dangerous risk that other producers will seek to emulate this style, rather than finding their own voice, as Pax has. I don’t think we want to see a repeat of the 1990s, when owners in Napa Valley instructed their winemakers to buy 100-point wines and copy them. More recently, I have seen an increased use of whole clusters in Piedmont that is the result of high scores I have given to Burlotto’s Barolo Monvigliero. I see copycat wines as a very dangerous trend. We should be celebrating diversity rather than standardization. We have enough of that in the world as it is. BM: Is this perfect score as much an evolution of wine criticism, an openness to embrace a different version of what the pinnacle of wine achievement can be, as it is the evolution of Pax's craft and the community of winemakers around him? AG: I hope people take the time to read the tasting note and don’t just focus on the score. The credit for this wine goes to Pax and his team. The job of the wine critic is far easier and is simply to recognize quality, and, at this level, personality. BM: My perhaps biased experience with much of wine criticism over the years has been a healthy community of reviewers writing off wine made in a restrained, minimal style as “somm wine” or the “the somms will love it - 85 points.” Where do we find ourselves today with the current landscape of wine criticism? AG: I think there are many different types of critics, and ultimately that is a good thing. My focus is in traveling to the world’s top wine regions, visiting vineyards and spending time with people, as opposed to tasting a bunch of samples in a white room completely cut off from the world. I also come to wine with a training in music, which I think gives me a unique perspective in being able to recognize quality above style. Just as there are brilliant musicians in all idioms – classical, jazz, rock, country, etc. – the responsible critic should be able to recognize quality in all styles of wine. I also don’t subscribe to the view that a huge chasm necessarily exists between wines championed by sommeliers and those that receive high scores from the wine press. That may be true of some sommeliers and some publications, but it is not true across the board. I have given glowing reviews to many wines made in what some people might refer to as a more ‘restrained’ style, but not because of a philosophical agreement with stylistic choices a priori of quality, but because the wines said something to me. Although I worked in restaurants for years, one of my regrets is not having ever been a sommelier, because those professionals have an opportunity to taste an incredible range of wines. At the same time, a few things do trouble me about the sommelier community. These include falling in love with a wine’s story to the point of looking past obvious flaws, and wine lists that all look the same. As in any field, there are leaders and there are followers. BM: Do you think it is confusing for the consumer to see a 100-point score of the 2016 Pax Hillsides, alongside a 100-point score of a California Syrah at 15% abv with more extraction and oak usage? AG: My hope is that merchants use our notes responsibly, in context, and that consumers take the time to read the words and not focus only on the number. At the very upper end of the rating scale, scores above 97-98 points are really mostly about a visceral reaction to a wine. A few years ago, I gave a glowing review and a 100-point score to John Kongsgaard’s Syrah from the Hudson Vineyard. Obviously, that is a wine made in a very different style, and yet the pinnacle of achievement for both wines is, in my view, the same. BM: Of all the wines in this style to break ground in California, why Syrah? AG: I taste a lot of brilliant wines in California each and every year. Two thousand sixteen produced many superb Syrahs, Pinots, Cabernets and Zinfandel/Zinfandel-based blends, among others. This particular wine stood out, but so did many others. BM: Our relationship with domestic Syrah over the years has been an interesting one. As one who adores the grape, I have found it to be very polarizing with the consumer. Why is this the case? AG: The biggest explanation I hear for this is that Syrah is made in a range of styles that is too wide for the average consumer to grasp. I can’t agree. Pinot Noir is also made in a wide range of styles and is, of course, much more popular. I think the flavor and profile structure of Syrah demands just a bit more attention than other wines. For the consumer, Syrah offers incredible value precisely because it is a much harder sell. BM: Do you think the innate character of the Syrah grape - its peppery, olivey, smoky meatiness - poses challenges for the consumer? AG: I am sure it does to some degree, but that is why educating the consumer at all levels by sommeliers, the trade, the press, etc., is so crucial. BM: Is domestic Syrah finally having its day? AG: In my view, in terms of quality, domestic Syrah has been having its day for a while. The best wines are tremendous, but it takes time to catch on. Domestic Syrah also represents terrific value. BM: How long have you been tasting Syrah from Pax? Can you chart his evolution as a producer? AG: I think the first vintage I bought was 2004. I still have some bottles left. The wines were much bigger and extracted back then, but the same is true of many other producers in California. BM: Can we put the 2016 Pax Hillsides alongside names like Chave, Allemand, Gonon and say, "Yes, this is the same caliber." AG: It would be fun to taste them together! While it is tempting to compare U.S. wines with benchmarks from France (or elsewhere), it is my belief that the role of American wines is to express the essence of our sites and our vintages. BM: Can you perhaps comment on why the three sites in the Hillsides (Castelli, Griffins, Walker Vine Hill) are so magical? Where are the ideal spots we should be looking at to plant Syrah in the future? AG: I think Syrah can excel in a wide range of sites. But there is something magical about the blending of different vineyards that has been in lost in many regions around the world with the explosion of single-vineyard bottlings in regions like Piedmont and the Rhône. The concept of blending is based on the premise that one site might give you aromatic intensity, while another might give you fruit, and a third might excel with structure, for example, and that a blend can be greater than the sum of the parts. For example, up until the early 1960s, all Barbarescos and Barolos were blends. The concept of single-vineyard wines in Piedmont is relatively recent, and not strictly traditional, either. More than where Syrah should be planted, a producer’s job is to capture the best qualities of the sites he or she works with. Some vineyards are more marginal and naturally better suited to leaner styles, while others tend to be more generous in the wines they give. Sometimes I see producers imposing their stylistic choices and preferences on sites that aren’t totally aligned with those ideals. That is when you see wines that can fall short.
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The 2016 Syrah Sonoma-Hillsides has been nothing less than stunning on the three occasions I have tasted it so far. A wine of extraordinary purity and depth, the 2016 dazzles from the very first taste. The richness and power are simply breathtaking. Bacon fat, smoke, grilled herb and lavender are woven into a graceful, seamless core of inky blue/purplish fruit. Even with all of its intensity, the 2016 remains remarkably light on its feet. The Sonoma-Hillsides is a blend of fruit from Castelli-Knight Ranch, Griffin's Lair and Walker Vine Hill, done with 100% whole clusters and aged in a combination of concrete and neutral oak, with no SO2. I am not sure how the 2016 will age, but I am also not sure it will matter, as most bottles will be long gone before that is an issue. Quite simply, the Sonoma-Hillsides is a total pleasure bomb and a modern-day benchmark for Syrah in California. Don't miss it! (Antonio Galloni, Vinous, April 2018) — a year ago