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Pax Wines

Rhône-inspired Gems from California’s Shaman of Syrah

It’s hard to think of a producer who’s had more impact on Californian Syrah than Pax Mahle. After years as a sommelier and wine buyer on the US east coast, Pax and his wife Pam moved to California in 1997, where he would take the coveted role as corporate wine buyer with prestigious epicurean purveyor Dean & DeLuca. He needed a deep understanding of Californian wine, a topic Pax freely admits to knowing close to nothing about at the time—his expertise and personal drinking preferences were decidedly Eurocentric. Long story short, his prospecting led him to the north coast of California, where he fell hard for the cool freshness of Syrah. These were wines that resembled his favourite wines from the northern Rhône.

Stunned by the region’s untapped potential, in 2000, Mahle realised he needed to be on the frontlines of winemaking rather than behind the scenes. Drawing on his many visits to the northern Rhône, he wanted to make wines his heroes would be proud of. To this end, Sonoma Coast's cool, foggy AVAs provided the perfect combination of terroir and grape. The soulful wines of Raymond Trollat and Pierre Gonon served as significant influences, and the experience of tasting in the cellars of these great producers stands as some of Pax’s most cherished. As an ex-Master Sommelier student, he delightfully quips that he tries to return to the Rhône Valley each year to “relearn the things that are correct and unlearn the things I’ve always been told”.

The Sonoma Hillsides Syrah is the estate's flagship wine. Described by Antonio Galloni as “one of the very finest wines in Northern California for a number of years now”, it also has the distinction of having once been awarded a rare 100-point score from the same reviewer.

Initially, Pax leased nearly all his vineyards to ensure they were farmed to his high standards. Roll on 20 years, and the vineyards Pax sources from are independently owned by small, like-minded growers and are farmed organically, although certification is not deemed necessary. Pax spends a lot of time in these vineyards and is involved in every aspect of decision-making regarding his fruit. “It’s a partnership, a relationship of trust,” he says. “When things get tough, you need to be able to trust that they will do the right thing.” Although his rich, powerful expressions of Syrah put him on the map, by 2006, Pax had recalibrated his style towards fresher, lower-alcohol profiles and began working with new vineyard sources in cooler, coastal areas of Sonoma. Pax’s all-star line-up now includes vineyards such as Alder Springs, Castelli-Knight Ranch, Walker Vine Hill and Griffin’s Lair.

Within a tiered classification approach, the cream of the crop is designated Hillsides. The single-vineyard wines follow, then the North Coast and Sonoma Coast blends. In the cellar, Pax plays Syrah with a straight bat: 100% whole clusters crushed by foot. Nothing that could change the natural environment of the winery is permitted, so no commercial yeasts are used. He adds more stems in cooler vintages to buttress the Syrah and provide textural richness. He never destems unless necessary (he has a very expensive destemmer in his winery that’s been used twice in 10 years!).

As one of our Californian friends put it, if there’s something Pax doesn’t know on the topic, it’s not worth knowing—25 years of honing his craft, spanning the length and breadth of Sonoma County, have served him well. Although he exudes confidence derived from expertise, he remains a portrait of self-effacement, attributing his success and the universal acclaim for his wines to his sites rather than himself. Full of tone and sinew, these wines not only express a purity of fruit and expression of place you seldom encounter, but they are also impressively structured and balanced.

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Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2020

Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2020

Pax Mahle did not make his top Syrah in 2020, instead declassifying those barrels into a new label called Sonoma Coast—so, you could call this a ‘baby Hillsides’, with all that entails. Initially thought to be a one-off vintage, Pax loved the wine’s spicy vibrancy so much that the Sonoma Coast Syrah will now be a permanent fixture in the range – provided he can source sufficient fruit. The blend sees contributions from several coastal vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA: the organically farmed, sandy Nellessen Vineyard was planted in 2000 and located west of Sebastopol (where the Pax Wines Cellar Door is located) in the Russian River Valley; the coastal Armagh Vineyard, planted in 1997, which is farmed organically and situated in the cool centre of the Petaluma Gap; and the Griffins Lair Vineyard, also located in the cool Petaluma Gap, planted in 1990 and farmed organically.The winemaking is similar to the North Coast Syrah.  Clocking in at a cool 12.5%, Pax describes this as a true “coastal Syrah”, with nervy freshness and slightly lighter body. Given the recent series of solar vintages in France, one could wager our friends in the Northern Rhône would love to be making something as vibrant and drinkable as this each year.

Clocking in at a cool 12.5%, Pax describes this as a true “coastal Syrah”, with nervy freshness and slightly lighter body. Given the recent series of solar vintages in France, one could wager our friends in the Northern Rhône would love to be making something as vibrant and drinkable as this each year.

“Racy and intense nose, full of wild cherries, bayberries and haw fruit with a tangy lift of white pepper. Bright and juicy on the palate, with soft and fresh tannins carrying through to a vivid, savory finish. So bright, crunchy and drinkable! Enjoy now.”
92 points, jamessuckling.com
Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2020
Pax Wines Sonoma Alta Monte Gamay 2021

Pax Wines Sonoma Alta Monte Gamay 2021

Now California is getting its act together with Gamay (most of the state’s original plantings turned out to be a grape called Valdiguié and a Pinot Noir cultivar) this grape will be playing an increasing role in the Pax story. This particular bottling is a blend of fruit from two vineyards. The first is the Black-Knight Vineyard located on Alta Monte Road, above the intersection of the Bennett Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs. Situated on a ranch that dates back to 1880, the soils are volcanic with cobbly clay loams, and the vines are dry-farmed where possible. The second source is the Rancho Coda Vineyard, a very steep, high vineyard (just over 300 metres) above the Russian River Valley. The soils are sandstone with quartz and schist and a layer of sandy clay loam.Fermented in the style of Beaujolais, this saw 100% whole bunches and was then aged in neutral French puncheons for 10 months. It’s a delightful and lip-smacking rendition of the grape, with spicy red fruit, impressive focus and fine length.

It’s a delightful and lip-smacking rendition of the grape, with spicy red fruit, impressive focus and fine length.

“The 2021 Gamay Noir Alta Monte is bright and effusive. Red-toned fruit, chalk, mint and white flowers give the 2021 a bright upper-register of aromas and flavors. Sinewy and focused in feel, the Alta Monte is striking for its transparency. The 2021 is absolutely gorgeous.” 91-93 points
Antonio Galloni, Vinous
Pax Wines Sonoma Alta Monte Gamay 2021
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“Although their wines are different, they all lean toward delicacy and grace, and they share a sense of exploration and curiosity, an aesthetic of sculptural discovery that looks at vineyards and grapes and asks what they want to become rather than molding them to fit some predetermined ideal.” Eric Asimov, The New York Times

“ In my view, the Sonoma Hillsides is the most compelling wine in this range and one of Syrah's great expressions in the United States.” Antonio Galloni, Vinous

Country

USA

Primary Region

Sonoma Coast, California

People

Winemaker: Pax Mahle

Availability

National

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