Dunne on Wine: Syrah from Fields Family Wines of Lodi

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4D

Just about every vintner who makes syrah will tell you that the varietal is a tough sell. The reasons for syrah's struggles are many:

• On its own, it often produces wines one-dimensional and blunt.

• The competition is stiff, with more seasoned producers from Australia and France holding an advantage on the learning curve over their California upstarts.

• Encouraged by robust sales of Australian shiraz a decade or so ago, California growers began to plant syrah industriously, not necessarily starting with small trial plots to see if it really was appropriate for their terrain and climate, and it sometimes hasn't been.

• Consumers have been slow to warm to the varietal because of confusion over just what kind of wine they will find in an unfamiliar bottle, with interpretations ranging from light and simple to heavy and complex.

• And maybe, just maybe, vintners have been asking consumers to pay a bit more for syrah than is reasonable to expect, given the recent state of the nation's economy and the newness of the varietal on the country's wine landscape.

On the other hand, two vintners who seem to have no complaint about either the quality of their syrah or the reception it is receiving in the market are Ryan Sherman and Russ Fields of Fields Family Wines at Lodi.

Must be because their Fields Family Wines 2010 Lodi Estate Syrah is such a glowing example of what the varietal can stand for when cultivated in California: While intimidating in its dense color, it's all warm and embracing affability on the palate, displaying a dark-fruit lushness up front that trails off with taunting tang on the palate, beckoning the taster to return for another sip again and again.

Overall, it comes down solidly on the bacon-y side of syrah, but with a sunny juiciness not always seen in such meaty interpretations. On the competition circuit, it's one of those rare wines that appeals to a wide range of judges in a variety of contexts, so far gathering a string of four gold medals.

Sherman and Fields, Lodi cooking-and-tasting buddies, teamed up to establish Fields Family Wines just after Fields and his wife bought the 8-acre vineyard and its century-old farmhouse in 2005. Home winemakers, the Spencer family of Lodi's St. Amant Winery, and Tony Norskog of Nevada County Wine Guild (Orleans Hill Winery, Our Daily Red) had discovered and were buying the syrah from that vineyard at that time.

Fields is a Sacramento attorney and had been a longtime home winemaker who developed a hankering for his own vineyard, while Sherman, who formerly had been in the pharmaceutical business, was the real-estate agent who helped broker the deal.

Since then, Sherman has supplemented his own home winemaking with viticulture and enology classes at UC Davis, and today is largely responsible for managing the estate's vineyard and cellar.

The vineyard is in Lodi's Mokelumne River sub- appellation, characterized by well-drained sandy soils.

"We get no standing water, no matter how much rain we get," Sherman said.

Fields and Sherman continue to sell most of their fruit to other wineries, but keep 5 tons or so for themselves each harvest. In addition to syrah, they make a couple of proprietary blends, a tempranillo, a merlot and a cabernet sauvignon, the latter two with grapes grown in Napa Valley.

They favor a hands-on, small-lot, minimalist approach to winemaking, eschewing large tanks for small bins, sidestepping fining and filtering, and getting their juice into barrels as soon as possible.

Stylistically, they go for refinement over brashness but are keen on retaining varietal integrity. Their 2009 cabernet sauvignon, from grapes grown on the Mount Veeder estate of Dr. James Konrad, packs a concentrated mountain richness on a wiry but tightly drawn spine.

Their 2010 petite sirah defines the varietal with its floral, spicy and chewy notes. Their 2010 "old-vine" zinfandel, made with fruit from Sherman's own Lodi vineyard, is all characteristically ripe raspberries and blackberries, but with tannins unusually tamed for the appellation.

And their 2010 tempranillo is attractively perfumey, focused with blackberry and blueberry fruit, and shored up with tannins that while substantial won't interfere with the flavor and juice of a well-handled hanger steak.

The latest versions of their proprietary blends are the 2010 "Il Ladro," a lean and spicy mix of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and the 2010 "Big Red," a bright and long mix of zinfandel, carignane, syrah, merlot and petite sirah.

While "Big Red" is a popular wine by the glass at Lodi-area restaurants, Sherman and Fields just may want to tweak the blend in the future so the syrah it uses can go into their well-received stand-alone take on the varietal.

Fields Family Wines 2010 Lodi Estate Syrah

By the numbers:14.6 percent alcohol, 125 cases, $22.

Context: The sweet fruitiness, solid backbone and intriguing complexity of the 2010 syrah add up to a versatile wine at the table, as fitting for a substantial cut of beef as it would be for a slice of pizza topped with slices of one of the husky sausages from nearby Lockeford Meat & Sausage.

Availability: While Fields Family Wines are widely available in the Lodi-Stockton area, they haven't yet been picked up by restaurateurs and retailers in the Sacramento area. They can be ordered online, however: www.fieldsfamilywines.com.

More information: Fields Family Wines has two tasting rooms, one at the winery, 3803 E. Woodbridge Road, Acampo, open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, the second at 20 North School St., Lodi, open 2 p.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.-10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

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