The Art of Wine: Central Coast Group Project Captain Kierk (AKA the Knightwalker) Syrah Ballard Canyon 2013

captain kierkLow and slow usually applies to barbecue and Italian red sauce. Winemaker Scott Sampler thinks it applies to wine as well. A taste of this Syrah will make anyone a believer.

Most winemakers leave red wines macerating on the skins and seeds until fermentation is finished. In some cases an extended maceration is desired for an additional week or two in order to extract more tannin and flavor. Scott keeps the wine in contact with the skins for up to 6 months! This is very old school, the way traditional Barolo was made. The problem with those old Barolos was that all that extraction would make the wines so tannic they were undrinkable for 20 years. Somehow Scott Sampler manages to make wines that are rich and powerful yet soft and supple.

I don’t know how this uber-maceration produces such elegant wines. Conventional winemaking theory would advise against it.  In poking around winemaking manuals my guess is that the tannins form long chain polymers that eventually precipitate out of the wine if you macerate long enough thus softening the mouthfeel. Scott said the science isn’t well understood but whatever the explanation, this is a method that requires constant attention, lots of stirring to keep the cap moving, and delicate decisions about when the wine is ready. “The wines go through phases”, he said. They will taste awful one day and I think they’ll never come around. Two weeks later they’re beautiful.”

central coast group projectSoft-spoken and unassuming, Scott is quite literally a “garagiste” producing less than 1000 cases annually out of a tiny, cluttered space in an industrial park in Buellton, near Santa Barbara.  He thinks of his wine as made by a network that includes friends, family, truck drivers, field workers, philosophers, scientists, etc.—anyone who has had an influence on the final product. Hence the name Central Coast Group Project. Yet, despite these humble trappings  his wines are coveted by somms and are on the list of several fine restaurants in LA and New York.

Truth be told I was predisposed to like these wines. After all Scott was a philosophy major in college at Berkeley and a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He names this Syrah “Captain Kierk (aka The Knightwalker)” after a star-fleet commander and the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. What’s not to like?  (Kierkegaard called himself the Knight of Faith and loved to take walks; hence the name “Knightwalker”.) A long quote from Kierkegaard about productive walks appears on the bottle’s back label. Sampler is really into back story.

I had no doubt the wines would be interesting as we prepared to pay Scott a visit. What I did not expect was to be bowled over, knocked out, awe-struck by the sort of wine that can induce a religious experience. This is one of the best wines I’ve tasted in the U.S.

central coast group project 2An incredibly rich, complex nose showing ripe blackberry, balsamic, wet autumn leaves, violets, dark chocolate, caramelized bacon and a lovely sweet oak top note. You could get lost for hours in these aromas. But it’s the combination of power, breadth, and tenderness on the palate that sets this wine apart. The opening is meaty with robust dark cherry, but then turns soft and luxurious at midpalate, light on its feet despite the impression of immensity left by the depth of concentration. A bright, mineral seam develops, as the wine begins to finish, with emergent tannins drying yet soft as talc, very fine grained. As the wine evolves in the mouth it acquires great dynamic range, with fruit intensity persisting showing licorice notes even as the wine fades. At terminus, about 2 minutes in, it gains a kind of spectral presence as if you sense the ghost of what had transpired before.

This is not brooding. It has too much charm to brood. But it is dark and acquires an edge on the back end even as it melts in your mouth. A wine to think about. What is it doing? There must be a meaning here. There is deliberation, stately motion, finding new directions without letting go of the past, power without bombast.

A wine thoughtful and warm, yet majestic but with a touch of the demon, a sacred wine with an intensity matched only by Peter Gabriel’s Rhythm of the Heat.

This is 100% Syrah from Santa Barbara’s Larner Vineyard. Macerated for 101 days, including the native yeast fermentation, it sees two years in neutral French oak with 18 months on gross lees.

Hurry. Only 73 cases made.

Score: 95

Price: $75 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 15.5%


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