I served a very metrosexual quiche at a dinner party last week, and guess what wine I served alongside it? A hefty syrah from Michael Gill Cellars in Paso Robles.
Now, among wine circles, such an abominable pairing is a faux pas comparable to being on trial for intent-to-distribute and attempting to sell meth to the jury. But, rest assured that I do not run with such crowds as give a flying fork about trivialities and propriety and decorum and tradition—rather, I dine with real men.
Never mind that most of them are of the double-X chromosomatic persuasion (five daughters and a daughter-in-law). When it comes to drinking with daddy, it’s all Y-factor power pixilation.
And speaking alphabetically, what better path to the above referenced A to Z than a hot-climate syrah picked at an astonishing 28 brix? Somehow, my basement dago red is made of stuff less stern, and although I generally tend to shy from 17.5% non-fortified wines, it’s because they often lack finesse, character and layers of confab-fodder subtlety that makes for interesting table talk.
Using traditional yeast strains and standard fermentation processes, wine tends to top-out at around 15% alcohol per unit volume; that’s the point where it doesn’t pay to defecate where you habitate. The metabolic process through which species Saccharomyces cerevisiae converts sugars to carbon dioxide and ethanol stops when the concentration of hootch becomes lethal. For the most part, that’s been sufficient oomph to please the palate without poaching the parietal lobe. For those in love with gusto, fortified wine fills their niche—it’s made by adding a distilled spirit to kill the yeast midway through the fermentation process, generally leaving behind residual sugars, which is why these wines—ranging from 17.5% to 20-something percent abv—are often referred to as ‘dessert wines’.
Somewhere in the nineties or thereabouts, a primordial—almost cult-like—fascination with ripeness began to emerge from the wine soup. When we were kids, a ripe grape was sweet and an unripe grape was sour, and that’s all us and our Suzy Baked Wine-Making Kit needed to know. Turns out that the process is a bit more complicated than that, and winemakers like to throw around terms like véraison and brix and phenolic ripeness, and cork dorks like to memorize these words and act like they’d known about them all along. It’s the latter term—phenolic ripeness—which leads to the power inherent in the Michael Gill wines we consumed after feeding the quiche to the goldfische.
In fact, Michael Gill himself, in his hill-studded vineyard in west Paso, made it physically manifest around the middle of last October, when he crushed a lone syrah grape in his palm. The seeds, which had previously been pond-scum green, had recently turned a nice autumn russet brown.
“That’s a ripe grape,” he said.
Indeed, whereas gauging rising sugar levels and falling acid levels is indispensible to the creation of balanced wines, the phenolics within the grape, largely concentrated in the seeds and skins, ripen at a schedule that is slightly red-shifted (pun intended). The key to a grapevine’s innate IQ is understanding that fruit does not have the slightest interest in appealing to a winemaker’s endgame, which is useless to a species’ propagation. Rather, a grape’s genius is in making itself irresistible to seed-spreading birds. When they are green and acidic, grapes are camouflaged and unpalatable; when they pass through the color-changing, acid-degrading phase known as véraison, they become visible to birds among the foliage and are then, fully loaded with succulent sugar.
The race is then on between European starlings and South American migrants to bring home the fruit.
During phenolic ripening, many of the complex flavors prized by wine lovers develop alongside compounds affecting color and mouthfeel. This tends to coincide with the onset of autumn rains, likely because that’s the best time for seeds to be sown. To obtain the highest concentration of these vital phenols, grapes need to hit the primary fermenter prior to their dilution at the onset of these rains. This simple maxim gives vineyard managers two anxious reasons to scan the skies in the fall: Birds and clouds.
Paso’s Pursuit of Perfection
Paso Robles sits in a geological zone that is, to lovers of testosterone-charged, high-octane, supremely-nuanced red wines, what that last bowl of porridge was to Goldilocks: Just-rightamundo. Cool marine air sliding through the Templeton Gap and along the Salinas River Valley offer it the largest temperature swings in any viticultural region in California, packing on the sugar during hot days and preserving the pH during cold nights. Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that in Paso, the autumn rains which define the time of optimal picking are delayed significantly—around two weeks later than in either Napa and Sonoma. This allows a winemaker the option, if not the obligation, of producing a wine which can be picked—in certain years, among certain varieties, using certain vigorous yeast strains—at 28°Bx, resulting in wines that naturally reach alcohol levels above 17%.
Normally, such wines would do a Lizzie Borden on your neocortex, leaving you with more scars than talking points. Fermenting based on high-fiving the buzz without regard to balance is a frat-boy game, and very few regions can carry off the tight-rope walk of paying homage both. Very few winemakers either.
Enter Mike Gill…
If ever there was a guy born to make big wines, it’s Mike Gill. Everything about him—personality, moustache, handshake, mounted megafauna in his tasting room—screams ginormous. He comes from a Southern California oil town where (by his own admission) the drink of choice is bourbon and beer, and if you start nattering on about the other two ‘B’ words—Bordeaux and Burgundy—you might wind up in some rich petro-pasha’s trophy room.
As a result, he didn’t discover his enological Eldorado until after college.
Make that dental school, as Gill opted out of the family business, choosing a career lubricated with spit instead of fossil fuel.
And wine. In 1977, he bought twenty-two acres of hilly, oak-studded land on the west side of Paso Robles (El Paso de Robles is Spanish for ‘Pass of the Oaks’), and although it was a convoluted path to actually planting a vineyard, wine made from his first vintage was stellar, award-winning stuff, and he’d seen a future that could include both malocclusions and malolactic, brux and brix, tooth decay and noble rot, bicuspids and biodynamics. I’d add ‘gingivitis vinifera’, but you’d accuse me of milking a joke.
“We’re not trying to mass produce everything,” says Gill. “Or get on a treadmill and be married to budget and expectations. If one grape takes extra care, it gets extra care; we make the time.”
For the most part, Mother Nature is on board with this mission statement, but when she kicks up her heels a bit, the fallout is in the glass. The syrahs we sampled—labeled ‘Tuxedo’ and ‘Big Rock’—were from back to back vintages, 2010 and 2011, and were superb illustrators of the phenolic ripeness vs. sugar level ripeness claptrap mentioned above.
According to Gill, the differences between the wines (which I’ll get to) was entirely due to vineyard conditions. 2010 was a warmer year, and yields were higher (two tons per acre) and sugars—and as a result, alcohol by volume—was higher. 2011 was cooler throughout the region, with a little rain before the pick. Although less than half an inch does little damage to thick-skinned syrah grapes, yields were about half of 2010. At a ton per acre, you’re only going to wind up with a bottle of wine per vine; the attendant cost for these wines—(around $40 for the Big Rock; $65 for the Tuxedo) is to be expected.
So, true to expectation, the syrahs with the longer hang time showed profiles that were slightly less acidic, providing density, but without heaviness. The Big Rock was rich, deeply crimson-colored and concentrated, packed with smoky licorice and plum; the Tuxedo was rich, but not jammy, and showed the multi-layered savor-strata of a vintage Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, with lots of black fruit, velvety chocolate, tobacco and a deep mineral-ash backbone: A serious wine with major potential.
2011 showed a tart underpinning that was, on balance, more compelling, although the fruits were lighter—less plum, more black raspberry and cherry. The Big Rock presented fine-grained tannins and the fruit was opulent, well-delineated on the palate and there was a floral perfume that makes me wonder if a whisper of viognier was blended in, since this is another Rhônish variety at which Gill excels.
I’d call these wines toothsome, but that would be an awful pun, and gratefully, I have recently learned to transcend dental connotation.
n any case, Gill is pulling down heavyweight praise for these heavyweight selections—brawny, brainy and big, inky and saturated— Paso wines all the way.
Although, if you take a look at the color of your incisors after the fact, he’s not doing much in the way of PR for his teeth-cleaning gig.