Two Shepherds, Two Philosophies, One Great Wine

William Allen in action
William Allen in action

It’s kind of a long story why this particular post got kicked repeatedly to the back burner when we actually tasted William Allen’s awesome syrahs last June at a Rhone Rangers tasting event. The Rhone Rangers is an advocacy group touting wines made in the style of France’s Rhone Valley. Rhone-style wines usually mean syrahs, mourvedres and grenaches or a blend of those three also known as GSM.

Allen’s wines, under his label Two Shepherds, really stood out because while the syrahs were nice and meaty, they were also well-balanced and smooth, unlike several of the other wines we tasted that day. But what makes Allen even more interesting is that he is not a full-time winemaker. He works a day job as an engineer to pay the bills while building his winemaking business.

“I don’t have much of one,” he joked about his life. “The most challenging time of year is harvest.”

And given that he’s leased blocks of grapes from seven different larger vineyards in five different counties, you can imagine he’s putting in some very long hours when it’s time to bring the grapes in. He also works with a custom crush facility, Inspiration Vineyards and Custom Crush.

But it works for him for the time being. He told us that he doesn’t have to put in the huge overhead most wineries require to do business for winemaking facilities, vineyards, storage and bottling equipment.

“It’s all money in advance,” he said.

The Two Shepherds are the two goals Allen works toward. One is Shepherding the Palate – Allen is also an active wine blogger and works actively with the Rhone Rangers to promote Old-World style wines. That usually means wines that are more balanced and subtle than many of the traditional California-style wines. The second shepherd is Shepherding the Grape – using minimal intervention to make his wines, including native fermentation (not adding yeast to get the sugars in the wine to ferment), and doing little more than protecting the wine from harm as it goes through the various processes on the way to us, the consumers.

The only problem is that he doesn’t really have a tasting room, but he will make appointments to taste at the Sheldon Winery in Santa Rosa, California. You can also buy his wines on the website

Tablas Creek 2006 Cotes de Tablas


Courtesy Tablas Creek Vineyards

Type: Dry Red
Made: In Paso Robles, California with grenache, syrah, mourvedre, counoise grapes
Plays well with: Slightly spicy beef dishes, anything laced with garlic.

With Tablas Creek Vineyard GM Jason Haas one of the honchos behind the Rhone Rangers and Hospice du Rhone, you think maybe he and his family are into Rhone-style wines?  Like the winery’s portfolio is based on these food friendly wines of the Rhone valley of southern France.  The Cotes de Tablas is a typical Rhone-style blend of syrah, mourvedre and counoise built on a foundation grenache. The nose is full of dark bramble fruit – think blackberry – with a hint of cedar. Taste it, and the nose comes through with the same flavors and a nice medium-weight mouthfeel.

The wine also felt a tidge warm in the mouth – like a lot of “hot” or high-alcohol wines, which was kind of odd because it wasn’t particularly heavy on that end at 14.8 percent, and the wine was otherwise balanced.  So it may have been a fluke and the wine was very tasty in spite of the warmth.

This is a good food wine and can stand up to some spiciness, maybe a Steak au Poivre (which is the steak with the black pepper) or Pepper steak (which is the steak with bell peppers).  The wine might even be a candidate for the Ultimate Garlic Experience – take a garlic-stuffed olive, eat it and knock back the wine over it.  Wow!

You can get the Cote de Tablas through the winery at

Consensio 2008 Rosé “Harmony”

Type: Dry rosé
Made with: Syrah and Grenache
Plays well with: Seafood, salmon, chicken, pork, it’s rose – anything goes!

This rosé is so spectacular that you can’t help feeling a little smug when folks who supposedly “know” sneer that they don’t drink rosé. Good. More for us.

Bone dry, it’s made up of sixty percent syrah and forty percent grenache with a scant .02 percent residual sugar. You won’t taste even the slightest hint of sweetness.

The salmon color is typical of a rosé from the French region of Provence. The nose is full of guava and watermelon – promising fruit but not sweet. The resulting mouthfeel is dry – very dry. The fruit is there in the middle palate, along with good acids and a modest alcohol which we remember being in the twelve and a half percent range.

Food is the only way to serve this wine. We think that, while it is a good gulper, the addition of a seafood salad, light chicken or pork dish simply prepared or a risotto full of spring or summer vegetables completes the wine and makes for a lovely meal experience that the San Francisco Chronicle wine judges could only wish for.

Rounding Up the Paso Rhone Rangers

Well, we’re back home and mostly recovered from checking out the 30-odd wineries present at the 2010 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience, which happened this past Sunday.

It was a particularly good day for us. We caught up with some old friends, discovered a new-to-us boutique winery and that’s before we got to the event tasting!

The Rhone Rangers is a national education and advocacy group of about 200 wineries and other folks dedicated to educating the wine-buying public about wines made from the 22 varieties of grapes that come from France’s Rhone Valley. The principal grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvedre on the red side, with viognier, roussanne and marsanne on the white. The wine we Californians are producing do tend to heavier and fruitier than, say, a Chateauneuf du Pape (one of the major producing areas in the Rhone Valley, it’s pronounced shah-toe-nerf doo pop and means the Pope’s new castle).

But one of the things we’re getting excited about is that more and more wineries are working toward developing a food-friendly style that’s closer to the original French style. And we certainly saw that at Sunday’s event, put on by the Paso Robles chapter of the Rhone Rangers.

Imagine two rooms, with tables ringing the walls, and behind each table is someone from a winery pouring wine into your glass and trying to talk over the noise in the room and answer questions, while you’re trying to balance a wine glass, your notepad and pen, and… It’s a real blast.

We did get in on a press pass because these events are about selling wine and introducing people to some of the smaller wineries that are not as easily found on the magic maps. As for who we tasted, well, we’ll be posting those over the next few weeks. But if you want to check out the Rhone Rangers, click here for their website. And, no, we did not taste all the offerings, nor can we get to every event out there. Our livers would never forgive us.

Irish Family Vineyard “Pog Mo Thoin”

Type: Dry Red
Made: In Calaveras County, California, With cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and malvasia grapes
Plays well with: Beef, lamb, winter stews, on its own

The Irish Family red blend called Pog Mo Thoin – Gaelic for “kiss my ass” – was a sample we tasted from the tank in April 2009 at the winery in Vallecito, CA. It’s pronounced Pog (with the long o sound), Mo (another long o) Hoyn (no t or th).  A blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and a bit of malvasia – a OBG grape if there is one – it’s now available for sale.

As noted in our previous post, we tasted this one right from the fermenting tank and this is the kind of special treat that is well worth it. From the romantic tradition of a barrel sample to the more modern steel tank, getting the invitation to try something before anyone else – except the dozens, hundreds or thousands of club members or visitors before YOU walked in – is insanely cool. The only catch is that what we tasted that day might be somewhat different if you buy it, (which you can by going to the winery website).
The wine had a brown sugar sweetness and lots of fruit in the nose. Those same red fruits turned up in the glass along with gentle hints of oak in the background. But the most impressive part of the wine was the balance. All three elements – alcohol, tannin and acid – were in perfect balance so that no one quality stuck out. Which augers well for the recently released bottles.
How to enjoy? Beef, lamb or winter stews come to mind. This is also one of those wines that can be enjoyed by itself as a cocktail. The level of alcohol was not recorded but we remember it being modest. We haven’t tried it since it was bottled last summer and it may be a different vintage than what is available on the website.

Halter Ranch 2006 GSM

hrgsmGSM is shorthand – 1980s Australian shorthand –  for a classic Rhone blend of three grapes – Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The basic formula will vary from year to year as one grape stands out over the others. The 2006 contains 45 percent grenache, 33 percent syrah and 22 percent mourvedre. The nose is full of cedar, cherries and berry fruit. The fruits are dry in the mouth with no residual sweetness but lots of flavor and acids that show off the brightness of the grenache and yet allows the spiciness of the syrah to display itself on the back of the palate.
The syrah is the part that would make this a great wine for a steak au poivre – steak with a pepper sauce. As great as this wine is right now, it can lift the gloom of a winter’s night alongside a stew or a standing rib roast.  Try it instead of a cabernet sauvignon. The Halter Ranch GSM should age nicely over the next several years if you can’t decide on the perfect occasion.

Halter Ranch – Growing the Good Stuff

Courtesy Halter Ranch
Courtesy Halter Ranch

Every so often, it doesn’t hurt to remember that wine is, ultimately, an agricultural product and that you get grapes by farming them.  Fortunately, when Mitch Wyss came in to grow grapes for Halter Ranch Winery owner Hansjorg Wyss, he came in as a farmer.  However, one with not much experience growing wine grapes.

“It was a real trial by fire,” said Leslie Wyss, Mitch’s wife.  But Mitch is still there and it’s not because of a family connection.  He and Hansjorg are not related.  Leslie explained that Mitch is of Swiss ancestry and Hansjorg is Swiss.

“It’s not an uncommon name there,” Leslie explained.

She said that they are farming 250 acres, but their production is actually rather small, about 5,000 cases.  The wine, itself, is made by winemaker Bill Sheffer.  Leslie said that one of the reasons the grapes are so good is the soil, which is rich in limestone, not unlike some of France’s most renowned grape-growing regions in Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley.

Courtesy Halter Ranch
Courtesy Halter Ranch

“We’re growing Bordeaux varietals and Rhone varietals that are really nice,” Leslie said.  “But I think we’ll mostly be Rhone.”

The main Bordeaux varietals, of course, are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, with syrah being the best known of the varieties of grapes grown in the Rhone Valley.

Halter Ranch is located on the west side of Paso Robles, on Adelaida Road.  You can find their website here.

Yosemite View 2005 Syrah

Like them or not, screw tops are showing up on wine bottles. No long tradition or ceremony in their extraction and no twenty-year studies on storage issues – yet. But do not let the top of the bottle distract you from the Yosemite View’s 2005 Syrah inside,  It’s ready to drink when you are.
The nose has raspberry and the sweet hint of oak with cherry underneath.
The deep red color delivers on the promise of red fruits like cherries and the aforementioned oak adds some tannins that dry the palate instead of coating it. The acids are there as well and cleanse the mouth. The finish is decent and drying. This is not a syrah meant to be kept but to be enjoyed young.  And if the big worry about screw caps is the ability to age the wines bottled with them, then it’s so not an issue here.
Any number of pasta dishes with tomato sauces or acid-based flavors would compliment the acids in the wine and the 14.5 percent alcohol should leave you able to enjoy the next bite and sip. And the next one after that.

Carmichael Sur Le Pont 2005 Monterey County

surlepont_revised_chivalryWhile the Carmichael Sur le Pont is not technically an oddball bottle of wine.  The fact that it is made up of 80 percent syrah means it can be legally called a syrah, and that’s hardly oddball these days.  But that other 20 percent of lesser known grapes adds something really special to the final product. We promise tastings of grenaches, mouvedres and carignans in the future. But for now they are all present in the 2005 Carmichael Sur Le Pont, with 14 percent mouvedre, 5 percent carignan and 1 percent grenache.
These are all Rhone varietals, meaning they are largely grown in and inspired by the winemaking in the fertile valley surrounding the Rhone River in France. Unlike the five Bordeaux grapes (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc), there are 22 grapes grown in the Rhone Valley, so you can just imagine all the possible blends. Where do we start? Right here!

The wine Sur le Pont is named after the French children’s tune “Sur le pont D’Avignon,” or On Avignon’s Bridge, Avignon being one of the primary cities in the Rhone (and also more infamously known as the base for a series of Roman Catholic popes/non-popes, who during the Middle Ages tried to take over).

The wine has the nose of blackberries and cola. The taste has some dry fruit, but it’s not jammy.  Instead the wine is lightweight in the mouth without being cloying or burning with excessive alcohol.  In fact, at 14.3 percent, it’s almost a lightweight compared to the hot (high in alcohol) syrahs that are often made today.  This makes it an excellent companion to meat off the summer grill or winter stews of lamb or beef. The acids keep the palate stimulated and can handle sauces that are not spicy or terribly sweet – a mushroom gravy comes to mind.

Ceja’s Vino de Casa, Not Your Ordinary Blend

The thing with Ceja’s 2005 Vino de Casa is that it’s a basic, food-friendly, delicious little red.  Nothing pretentious.  Even the name just means “house wine.”  Who’dathunk that it would come from 62% pinot noir and 38% Syrah?  It’s hard to imagine two more different grapes.
Pinot noir is, of course, the heartbreak grape.  Notoriously finicky, unless conditions are perfect in the vineyard and it’s treated with the right respect in the winery, you’re going to get crap.  And usually expensive crap at that.  Ask us how we know.  Syrah, on the other hand, is hardy and usually as a wine it’s slightly spicy – think black pepper, licorice, cloves instead of fruity character – and in your face.  As delicate and rich as the best pinots are, syrah is bold and almost overripe.  Blended together, the two make an intriguing combination.

With pinot noir (and since that’s the larger part of the blend, those characteristics will presumably dominate), the aromas – or nose – will generally include cherries, raspberries, violets as well as sassafras, mint, leather and mushrooms. The taste can be any of these and oak is almost always part of a winery program, as long as there isn’t too much.

In the Casa de Vino, the Syrah adds color and flavor to the blend.  There’s a nose of earth and some cedar/redwood. The medium weight mouthfeel contained pomegranate, some blueberry and dry red fruit. A good long finish lingered.  And it’s more food-friendly than a lot of other pinot-based wines. At 13.2% alcohol, it will go well with lighter meats like pork with a light pomegranate reduction glaze or even with a little bit of oak smoke from the grill with the glaze as a grilling sauce. Vegetarian options could be smoked tofu or a French-inspired salad of artichoke hearts, olives and tomatoes over baby greens sounds yummy especially if there’s good bread alongside.