Focus on the California Coast
When I arrive at Wind Gap Winery, Pax Mahle is working on blending components for his Sonoma Coast Syrah. When he’s finished a stage of his work, we begin barrel tasting various small lot experiments that characterize the depth behind Wind Gap Wines. While maintaining focus on his label’s overall quality and central expression, from the beginning Mahle has nurtured his wine through side projects with experimental techniques.
Wind Gap began with a central goal of expressing California Syrah unique to a particular site–the Western rim of the Sonoma Coast. The definitive wine for the label, then, is the Sonoma Coast Syrah, made with a blend of wines from three different vineyard sites within a few miles of the ocean. Though Mahle explains he is invested in an appellation focus, he knows people enjoy vineyard specific bottlings as well. As a result, Wind Gap also offers component bottlings from the Sonoma Coast blend.
Majik Vineyard carries a wild, heady top note that surprises me right out of the glass with its aromatic intensity. Nellessen Vineyard gives everything I love about Syrah–cool, lean, focused fruit, all backbone. “It gives the freshness and attitude of the blend,” Mahle explains. Finally, the Armagh brings the meat. “Armagh is the guts, the bacon, the bones.”
I nod in agreement and comment how much I love Syrah.
Mahle responds, “What I love about these wines is it would be very hard to confuse any of them for anything other than Syrah.”
Each of the four wines come in around 12% alcohol. “Yes, it is low alcohol,” Mahle tells me. “But that is not the point. The site gives that result. These wines could not be more representative of this part of California.” Nellessen Vineyard, as an example, Mahle explains is picked at the very end of the season, the grapes not ripe enough to harvest until November.
In 2000, Mahle and his wife began the label Pax Wine Cellars, along with an investor, with the intention of focusing on site specific Syrah from various parts of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The methods used on each bottling were the same–whole cluster, foot tred, with similar duration of elevage. In keeping the techniques basically identical for each site, the wines expressed gave a view of the uniqueness offered from various parts of this portion of the California coast. Some of the wines came in regularly light bodied and around 12%, while other sites easily ground out 15% alcohol. The model made sense to Mahle who saw it as analogous to enjoying Northern Rhone from Hermitage, versus Cornas, for example. If one wine had higher alcohol, and another lower, it was because that was what the site naturally generated.
The wines that gained press attention for Pax Wine Cellars turned out to be the big hoofed work horse wines with higher intensity and higher alcohol. The range of offerings, however, generated some confusion among consumers that would come in expecting each of the wines to offer similar expression–those from the rim of the coast were sometimes taken by the bigger bodied wine lovers to be green. So, to offer greater brand clarity, Mahle started Wind Gap with the intention of carrying those leaner bottlings from the edge of the coast under the new label. Soon after initiating the beginnings of Wind Gap, changes occurred in the original winery partnership at Pax Wine Cellars, leading to Mahle’s attention diving full-time into his newer label, and its expansion beyond Syrah.
Wind Gap Wines arise from a focus on site expression, and the commitment to letting more delicate techniques provide a view into this portion of California. In thinking about the idea of California wine, and the oft referenced perception of more fruit focused, large bodied wines, Mahle turns again to France as a counter-example. “No one would say Languedoc wines should taste like Rhone or Bordeaux. California is much larger, a very big place [larger than those regions in France],” Mahle remarks, “so why can’t we have wines as varied?”
Two old vine bottlings showcase well-established plantings found in Sonoma County. The old vine Mourvedre draws fruit from vines planted in the 1880s at the Bedrock Vineyard of Sonoma Valley. The wine is impressively expressive while light in presentation. It’s a good, enjoyable wine. “The Mourvedre is fun to drink. I like to have fun.” Mahle remarks.
The old vine Grenache celebrates bunches grown in Alexander Valley in a vineyard entirely dry farmed in sand (an impressive feat). The vines are 70-80 years old. The wine is made partially carbonic with two different picking selections at two different levels of ripeness–the combination offering greater dimensionality to the final wine. It’s style echoes that of the Mourvedre while carrying the zest and red fruit zing of Grenache.
Two Chardonnays show other aspects of the history of California wine. The Brousseau Vineyard in Chalone grows 38 year old vines in granite and limestone offering incredibly small berries, impressive concentration and that limestone-zing finish. The Yuen blend brings the Brousseau fruit in concert with 50 year old vines from James Berry vineyard in Paso Robles, only 10 miles from the coast. The combination lifts the intensity and seriousness of the Brousseau, into a balance of juicy citrus and blossom vibrancy with an under current of nuttiness and bread crust.
The Pinot Noir surprises me. (I hadn’t realized they were making one, to be honest.) It’s an intriguing and inviting wine, with a belly of dark fruit carried on a savory expression. It’s light with still great presence.
What is common through the Wind Gap label is clean wines with strong lines. The structure is impressive throughout, the fruit allowed to speak for itself. These wines do not insist upon themselves, or demand you to listen. Instead, they compel your interest, leaving you happy to give it. There is great complexity here, and confidence. Wind Gap Wines carry intelligence dancing through a core of joy.
Thank you to Pax Mahle for taking time with me.
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