Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Synapse Winery - Discovering Syrah Gold in California's El Dorado

A cool, dark refuge from the sun. Might make a good wine cellar?
The July sun had warmed up the the hills of El Dorado County, but a hundred feet below the rock the air felt cool and crisp. I was exploring an old gold mine near Placerville, California, with my fiancée and my brother, sister-in-law and their three-week-old boy. I’d never been to this part of Northern California before, and I got a kick out of seeing the carved-up veins and mineral deposits in the rock. Judging from the length and depth of the cave, it was easy to see why so many gold rushers flocked to this spot.

With abundant sunshine, a dry climate and a complex puzzle of rocky soils, it’s also easy to see why grapegrowers and winemakers have picked this area to put down roots. This part of El Dorado County falls within the massive Sierra Foothills appellation, which encompasses the western parts of eight counties from Yuba County in the north to Mariposa County in the south. The El Dorado American Viticultural Area (AVA), a subset of the Sierra Foothills appellation, covers a western portion of the county that sits between 1,200 feet and 3,500 feet above sea level. I’ve long been fascinated by the Zinfandels, Syrahs and other Rhone variety-based wines from this rugged region of California. But exploring the land itself was a rich and memorable experience.

Synapse’s tasting room in Placerville. © Synapse, used with permission.
El Dorado is not Napa. It’s not the Sonoma Valley. There’s not much of a “wine route” and I didn’t see any billboards advertising tasting rooms or posh vineyard tours. This off-the-beaten-track feel was refreshing. But I did get a chance to stroll down Placerville’s Main Street, a quaint strip that houses galleries, old hotels, craft stores, a cheese shop. Placerville’s Main Street is also home to the Synapse Winery tasting room. After hiking around old gold mines, I was looking forward to trying some local wines, so my family and I went in and grabbed a table. We were the only people there on a Tuesday afternoon, so the tasting room attendant gave us the whole treatment. He was generous, knowledgeable and his enthusiasm for Synapse wines seemed genuine. When tasting wines I’ve never heard of, I try to keep my expectations low. So I was even more excited when the wines turned out to be really good.

Synapse is a relatively new project that focuses on El Dorado Syrah, although they make wine from other varieties and source grapes from other Northern California spots. Husband and wife duos Bruce and Alisa Ginier and Randy and Debbi Knutzon comprise the Synapse team. Bruce and Randy, both neuroradiologists, kicked off the project when they bought a spot near Somerset they thought would be perfect for a vineyard. They planted their first vines in 2002 and crushed their first grapes in 2005. Randy’s wife Debbie Knutzon, a molecular biologist, makes the wines, and she seems to bring a sense of scientific rigor to the winemaking. I think it shows in the glass. Deliciousness aside, Synapse Syrahs taste precise and focused, like all chemical processes occurred exactly as they were supposed to. The tight-knit team’s medical background also shows itself in Synapse’s brain-themed label art.

I was less impressed with the wines sourced from outside of the Sierra Foothills. Although I think they’re generally decent, the outside fruit just doesn’t possess that higher level of quality, in my opinion (of course). But as I sipped the El Dorado bottles, two things became clear to me: 1) these Synapse folks grow some solid estate fruit; and 2) Knutzon makes some solid wine. The Hangman and Diffusion Syrahs wowed me most of all with their pure fruit and kicking earth tones. They’re delicious right now, but I would put both the 2007s and the 2008s sideways for two years or so. While they’re drinkable young, these babies are nowhere near full maturity.

Here are my notes on some Synapse wines…

2011 Synapse Sauvignon Blanc - California, North Coast, Mendocino County ($18)
Honey, white peach and a hint of grass on the nose. Really tangy palate, medium-bodied, with creamy white peach and honeysuckle. Slight herbal kick. Simple but good. (86 points)

2012 Synapse Symphony - California, Central Valley, Lodi ($20)
Really fruity and floral on the nose (mango, peach, acacia flowers). Juicy and full on the palate, with fresh peaches, lychee and cantaloupe. A plush patio pounder that would be a hit at summer parties. Symphony is a UC Davis cross between Grenache Gris and Muscat. (82 points)

2010 Synapse Chardonnay - California, North Coast, Mendocino ($24)
Interesting nose of green pear, wildflowers and mint. Fresh and clean on the palate, with crisp acid. A salty note combines with the green melon fruit. A simple, brisk chardonnay. (84 points)

2009 Synapse Zinfandel - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($19)
An impressive Zinfandel, with aromas of fresh cherries, raspberry candy, sweet roses and vanilla. Firm tannins combine with surprisingly fresh acid. This Zin has tons of bright red fruit and shots of black and green pepper. Endlessly drinkable but held together with solid structure. (89 points)

2009 Synapse Grenache - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($28)
What an impressive Grenache. Smells of cherries, red plums, BBQ sauce, dried flowers and pepper. Full on the palate with firm tannins. Dense, but the plum fruit tastes cool and clean. Black licorice, cracked pepper and sweet BBQ sauce make this a really complex wine. I bought a bottle and drank it the next day with some barbecued ribs, and the pairing was excellent. (90 points)

2007 Synapse Syrah Diffusion - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($26)
I wasn’t expecting this Syrah to be so damn good, but the wine persisted and convinced me. Intoxicating aromas of red and black fruit, flowers and rich earth. Firm tannins on the palate, with fleshy plum and cherry fruit, and it all combines to form a mouthfeel of pure silk. Vanilla and earth accent the fruit. Long finish. Really delicious stuff. The Diffusion is made in a Côte-Rôtie style by co-fermenting 90% Syrah with 10% Viognier. (91 points)

2008 Synapse Syrah Diffusion - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($28)
More Old World aromas than the 2007, showing pepper and beefy notes along with rich blackberry fruit. Firm tannins and fresh acid make way for the pure black cherry and plum fruit. A pretty approach, with notes of cola, pepper and meat. Long and pure, and worthy of a good decant or a year or two in the cellar. (90 points)

2007 Synapse Syrah Hangman’s - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($30)
Just as good as the Diffusion Syrah, but this 100% Syrah shows darker, richer themes. Aromas of plums, dense blackberries, dark chocolate and molasses. Plush and creamy texture on the palate, but firm tannins solidify the structure. Gobs of rich blueberry and blackberry fruit coat the palate, backed up by pepper, loam and mocha. I was reminded of Walla Walla Syrah while drinking this, because it has that density and purity of fruit. Ridiculously long finish. The 2007 shows a much more bombastic style than the 2008, but I can’t help but love this wine. Long time ahead of it, too. (91 points)

2008 Synapse Syrah Hangman’s - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($28)
Complex nose of blueberry, peppered steak, charcoal and earth. Pure and silky on the palate with juicy acid and fine-grained tannins. The blueberry fruit mixes with cranberry, making this lighter and fresher than the 2007. Beef broth, pepper and charcoal notes add complexity. Seamless finish with a streak of minerals. Obviously California, but this wine pays homage to the Rhone Valley with its minerality and meaty tones. Loving this stuff. (92 points)

2011 Synapse Syrah CDI - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($30)
This dessert-style Syrah is a lot of fun. An explosion of sweet, ripe berries on the nose. Juicy on the palate with rich black fruit and lots of molasses and chocolate. Also a flavor that reminds me of those raspberry Haribo candies. Hints of earth make this more than a simple sticky. 4% residual sugar. I can’t remember what “CDI” actually stands for, but the tasting room attendant quipped that it should mean “chicks dig it” because of its easy-drinking, sweet approach. (87 points)

2011 Synapse Syrah Indulgence - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($30)
Normally I’m skeptical of such sticky-sweet California “port” style wines, but this is one hooked me. Aromas of fig, molasses, dark chocolate and nuts. My brother mentioned a chalky aroma, and I think he’s right. Dense on the palate. Rich, but easy to drink, with blackberry and fig combined with pepper and that same chalky aspect I get on the nose. A dessert-style wine with 11% residual sugar and 18% alcohol. (88 points)

The Synapse tasting room is open seven days a week, and the winery provides a coupon for a free tasting flight at this link. If you’re ever in California gold country, it’s definitely worth checking out. If you’re in Sacramento, it’s an easy drive. You may be the only ones there, but the staff is pleasant and helpful, and they should treat you well.

Last note: I can’t find much discussion about Synapse wines on the interwebs, so if anyone reading has some more experience with their wines, please chime in with your thoughts. Cheers!