Two wine superstars just bought 162 acres of what some consider California’s best Syrah vines


Some wine connoisseurs consider the Halcon Vineyard in Mendocino County to be the best Syrah vineyard in California. Now, two wine industry superstars have purchased the 162-acre property and plan to create a brand new one.

The new owners are winemaker Pax Mahle, the well-known owner of Pax Wines, and serial entrepreneur Baron Ziegler, who owns Marine Layer Wines of Healdsburg and importer Valkyrie Selections, among other businesses. They will keep the original name, Halcon – “falcon” in Spanish – for both the vineyard and the label they plan to create.

“The idea is to make the Pierre Gonon from Northern California,” Ziegler said. Gonon is a wine producer in the northern Rhône valley of France with a fervent and cult following for his Syrahs. “An epic wine. Boom. All Syrah.

Mahle has earned a reputation as one of the most skilled Syrah makers in the state under its Pax Wines label. He has never owned a vineyard before, instead buying fruit from other growers. But this is not the first time that Mahle has worked with these raw materials: he has purchased grapes from the Halcon vineyard several times over the years, initially in 2014 when he was producing wine for the Wilde Farm brand. He and Ziegler have a fifty-fifty partnership in the new venture.

Terms of the contract are not disclosed. Former owners Paul and Jackie Gordon, who bought the property in 2003 and planted it in 2005, said they had been looking for a buyer for about a year. “We are from the UK with aging parents,” said Paul Gordon. “We just want to go back and be close. It’s a retreat.

The Halcon vineyard is truly a wine insider’s secret. Now that he has two prominent owners, he is sure to become less of a secret; Mahle’s follow-up for his Syrahs and Ziegler’s business acumen can help increase the vineyard’s fame to a wider audience. Longtime fans of Halcon wines should be reassured that his new stewards seem interested in maintaining the same style of Syrah for which he was known as the Gordon property, which Mahle describes as “flavorful, mineral and muscular.”

Syrah Las Alturas 2018 from Halcon. Red wines from this Mendocino County vineyard have grown in popularity among wine insiders.

Esther Mobley / The Chronicle

Halcon is located in an area that many lay people have probably never heard of: the Yorkville Upland AVA, an undeveloped part of southern Mendocino County between Healdsburg and Boonville. Buying 162 acres of open land there was “high risk, high reward,” Gordon said, as it wouldn’t have the cachet of a Napa, Sonoma, or even neighboring Anderson Valley vineyard.

The purchase was also a risky proposition due to its physical end. Gordon had purchased land at an elevation of 2,500 feet – very high for a California vineyard – with rolling, uneven slopes, fast, high winds and cool temperatures. The site even had snow in some years. The soils are made up of large blue schists, a rock that is hard and difficult to work. The yields are meager.

But as Syrah aficionados well know, this red grape thrives in exactly such extreme conditions. Altitude, slopes, wind and cold can make farming difficult, but often result in wines that showcase the grape’s deeply flavorful attributes. Shale soils, a rarity in this part of the world, add pronounced minerality to wines. Halcon Syrahs often feature umami-rich flavors like olive, spicy black pepper, and bacon.

Winemaker Wells Guthrie, then owner of Copain Wines, helped the Gordons figure out how to plant the site. The Gordon’s produced their own wine from the vineyard under the Halcon Vineyards label and also sold fruit to a list of reputable wineries including Guthrie and Scott Schultz (Jolie-Laide).

In the future, however, Mahle and Ziegler will stop selling fruit to other wineries, keeping all the grapes for themselves. In addition to Syrah, the vineyard also has small quantities of other varieties of the Rhône planted, such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache and Mourvèdre; winemakers don’t know what to do with it yet, although Ziegler has said they may release a limited-production white blend.

The transition has already started. Mahle harvested all of the Halcon fruit from this year’s harvest, fermenting the Syrah in concrete vats in his cellar. These Syrahs are now in barrels, scheduled for release in early 2023.

Pax Mahle, seen in his Sevastopol cellar in 2019, has acquired a reputation as a qualified Syrah winemaker.  Now he has entered into a new partnership in the Halcon vineyard, famous for its Syrah.

Pax Mahle, seen in his Sebastopol cellar in 2019, has gained a reputation as a skilled Syrah winemaker. Now he has entered into a new partnership in the Halcon vineyard, famous for its Syrah.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019

Anyone looking to get their hands on some of the latest Halcon wines in Gordon’s tenure will need to act quickly. He still has a few wines from the 2019 vintage in stock, which are available to members of his mailing list. Although he made wine in 2020, he is not sure whether to sell it, as it may have been affected by smoke from the wildfires. This year, he did not vinify any fruit from the vineyard.

The Gordon’s, who have always kept jobs in the tech world of Silicon Valley while managing their vineyard, believe the vines have just reached their true pace, 16 years after first planting them. “It’s hard to stop at this point because in the last two vintages you can see that the vines are really establishing themselves,” Gordon said. “The wines have improved as the vines have become young adults. “

But, said Gordon, he was convinced he was leaving the vineyard in very capable hands. And he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in the Yorkville Highlands.

“In an unknown appellation, to have found a place so well suited to Syrah,” he says, “I am very proud to have taken this risk.

Esther Mobley is The Chronicle’s primary wine critic. Email: Twitter: @esther_mobley

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