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WINE VARIETAL

The Grand Experiment
WINEMAKER PROFILE: CRAIG WILLIAMS| JOSEPH PHELPS

IN THE BARRELL | by TRACY DUTTON

For more than 25 years Craig Williams of Joseph Phelps Winery has stewarded Syrah along its journey in California, from bright, hot Napa Valley climates to more temperate, marine-influenced Monterey vineyards, from Rhône Valley blends to 100 percent Syrah bottlings and his impact on Syrah’s success as a California stand-out is legendary.

Williams started at the Joseph Phelps winery in 1976, just before the winery’s first California Syrah was released into the world. In 1974, new winery owner Joseph Phelps had purchased 10 tons of this Rhône River red grape from a six-acre vineyard owned by Christian Brothers. His experience as winemaker, wine collector, and his travels to France led Phelps to believe that Napa Valley had a natural affinity with the Syrah grape due to the arid growing season it shared with the Rhône River valley - France.
By 1983, when Williams took over as winemaker in charge of all wine production at Phelps, surely most of the wine cognoscenti of Northern California had been enjoying the chewy, thickly layered, sometimes smoky yet always vibrant Syrah-based wines that were being made in this country, yet influenced by world-trends. “Australian wines,” notes Williams, “had a tremendous impact, showing the diversity of Syrah in a hot climate.”

Williams says that early on, consumers confused the wine with the better known California Petite Sirah and that they were thrown by Syrah’s higher acids and lower alcohol. The American palate, slow at first to appreciate the silky red wine —not as conservative or tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon and not as delicate and mysterious as Pinot Noir —has now caught on like wildfire to this perfectly food-friendly, all at once robust, spicy, ripe, savory wine. The reason, says Williams, is that it is a truly noble grape variety and clearly “hard-wired” for quality.

“California Syrah has its own style and diversity,” Williams says, “and it’s important to bring a regional aspect to the style of the wine.” While currently he sees the Central Coast making a claim on the varietal, he believes that, despite continued mass market production, some will continue to pursue innovative interpretations of the grape, whether using a French, Australian, or purely Californian approach, and emerge as artists. The investment over the years, intellectually and creatively, has paid off and “each year we are closer to what we had first envisioned.” Williams says that there is now “a renaissance in Syrah quality” which provides the American wine drinker with what Phelps and Williams initially called “The Grand Experiment:” authentic, truthful and wholly soul-satisfying Syrah.

 


SEPT/OCT 2004
TABLE OF CONTENTS

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SOCIAL TOAST
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BITS & BITES
>> New Restaurants
>> Featured Cocktail Recipe
>> Editor's Pick: Favorite Deli's

FOOD & WINE
>> Wine & Food Pairing
>> Featured Varietal: Syrah
>> Winemaker: Craig Williams
>> Syrah Wine Picks



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