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March 14-20, 2007

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Paul Stroth

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Que syrah, syrah: Campbell's Paul Stroth wants wine lovers to discover the 'underperforming' grape.

Pruneyard Meets Vineyard

Campbell is now wine country, thanks to tiny Stroth-Hall

By Stett Holbrook


CRISTICH Lane doesn't look like wine country. The Campbell street parallels Highway 17 and is lined with auto shops, contractors and warehouses. The wine barrel standing sentinel outside the bay of a nondescript garage is the only sign that there's more to this industrial strip of town than gears and grease.

Inside the cold, cement floor garage stands a man on a mission. Paul Stroth wants the world—or at least the Bay Area—to know what syrah can taste like if you set it free in choice Northern California vineyards.

"This is a grape that is really underperforming," says Stroth, a 33-year-old San Jose resident with thin cropped, graying hair. "It's got a lot of potential."

Stroth, who oversees wine, beer and cheese buying at Whole Foods in Los Altos, spent years volunteering at local wineries like David Bruce Winery, Kathryn Kennedy Winery and has taken numerous winemaking classes to feed his passion for wine.

It was back in 1997 over a few glasses of wine one night with neighbor Sequoia Hall that the two struck upon a crazy idea: Let's make our own wine. They did, and after pronouncing it good enough to drink, they hit upon an even crazier notion: Let's start a winery. Thus Stroth-Hall Cellars was born.

It was a crazy idea because operating a winery requires huge amounts of money and time, neither of which they had in abundance. But they did it by starting small, renting equipment and working out of the less than prestigious winemaking city of Campbell.

Stroth-Hall shares its garage complex with three other microwineries: Travieso, Pinder and Heart's Fire. The wineries have banded together to create what they call the Campbell Winemakers Studio (campbellwine.com).

Stroth-Hall's first commercial vintage was 2000 and it was zinfandel, because they couldn't get their hands on enough syrah but they still wanted to make wine. It wasn't until 2002 that they bottled their first syrah. Since then it's been popping up on wine lists at top South Bay restaurants like Manresa, Chez T.J., Lavande and Forbes Mill. It's also available at markets like Grapevine in Willow Glen and Uncorked in Saratoga.

The winery makes about 200 to 300 cases of wine a year, a tiny number that doesn't live much room for error.

"As a small producer, I can't afford to make something that's just OK," says Stroth. "I've got to shoot for the best."

When it came to deciding what kind of wine to make, Stroth wanted to do syrah—vineyard-designated syrah in particular.

Why syrah? Pinot noir has always held a special place in the hearts of winemakers, and it's currently riding a wave of popularity. It's a notoriously difficult grape to grow, but it can reward the dedicated and lucky winemaker with one of the world's most luxurious wines. Trouble is, its popularity has made finding grapes an expensive proposition.

So Stroth set his sights on the lesser-appreciated syrah. Not only are the grapes more affordable, but he believes the varietal can really shine when you let the vineyard and essence of place come through.

"You should be able to taste the vineyard, not any winemaker's tricks," he says. "Not that I have many tricks," he adds with a laugh.

The power and beauty of syrah had stuck with him since he barrel-tasted a 1996 Kathryn Kennedy Syrah sourced from the tiny Maridon vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "I said to myself, 'That's some good fucking syrah.'"

And the hook was set.

To the extent that most American wine drinkers are familiar with syrah, it's shiraz. Shiraz is what syrah is called in Australia, and the Aussies turn out tanker ships full of the stuff. Some of it is quite good, but a lot of it is fruity, sweet, oak-lashed, high-alcohol plonk.

At its best, syrah like that produced in France's Rhone region displays soft and elegant flavors of herbs, pepper, chocolate and berries. But as Stroth-Hall's vineyard-specific syrahs reveal, the grape is a bit of a chameleon. Flavors and nuances change depending on where it's produced.

Stroth-Hall uses grapes from several vineyards in El Dorado, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and Napa counties. The wines sell for between $20 and $30, making them an affordable luxury. Several I tasted stood out.

The 2002 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah is grown in the volcanic soils of El Dorado County and the wine displays delicious, lingering flavors of cocoa and blueberry. It's rich, almost creamy on the approach but is balanced with lively acidity and light tannins. This is the wine to drink with grilled meat, especially lamb.

The 2004 Sapphire Ridge Syrah was sourced from grapes in Sonoma's Russian River Valley. I tasted lush, juicy flavors of plum and blueberry balanced with crisp acidity and structure.

The wine that really thrilled me was the 2005 Nelson Family Vineyard Syrah. It wasn't bottled yet, and I tasted it from the barrel. The grapes come from a 1,600-foot vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The subsoil of the vineyard is exposed with chunks of sandstone and ancient ocean floor. The adjectives used to describe wine are sometime laughable and subjective, but when Stroth said pepper was the dominant flavor and aroma he wasn't kidding. The wine tasted like it had been dusted with a few cranks from a pepper mill. But that bold spice was beautifully integrated and I'm sure it will blossom once it's bottled and matures a bit more. Look for this wine to hit the market around Christmas time. I know I will.


For more information, go to www.strothhallcellars.com.


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