California Innovator: Pax Mahle and Wind Gap Wines

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California gets a bad rap, especially amongst the wine cognoscenti. The criticisms are both cliche and simplistic, lumping a state with over 3,000 wineries and a plethora of terroirs and micro-climates into a single category of “big, highly extracted, high alcohol, fruit bombs”. The time has come to move beyond this simplistic notion of one of the world’s most important wine regions.

California remains a diverse sea of possibilities, and, as a new breed of winemakers takes hold across the state, that diversity is set to increase even more. The cool-climate vineyards in Sonoma county are home to some of the most exciting and important innovators in the state, including Pax Mahle, former winemaker for the cult producer “Pax”, known for its robust Syrahs. Pax has developed his views since those times, and with Wind Gap he has fully embraced cool climate sites, minimal intervention winemaking, naturalist techniques and obscure varieties. Of course, Syrah remains the benchmark wine at Wind Gap, and Pax continues to make some of the best Syrahs in the United States.

Humble Innovation

For all his successes, reputation and skill, Pax is a centred, quietly confident and easily approachable man. It is obvious he possesses real love for the craft, the grapes and the community in which he works. I met him first very briefly at the Wind Gap Hospice du Rhone tasting table and he was direct, humble and happy to chat despite the throngs of tasters. A few days later I visited Pax at his winery in Forestville, Sonoma County where he was prepping a keg of sans soufre old vine Grenache to bring to the opening of Comal restaurant in Berkeley, which was to pour the wine on tap (Wind Gap on tap? Yes, please). We chatted and he very openly answered my questions while sharing a taste of the highly tannic but absolutely characterful kegged Grenache.

This mindfulness and respect translates into his wines. These are not showy things, seeking to please with the obvious. Yet they are delicious, highly drinkable wines that are true to their variety and their site. Pax’s vineyard sources are amongst the best in California (developed over long years in the business). The prices are outstanding for the quality and character you get in each wine.

I asked Pax if he felt his philosophy shift from when he was making bigger, richer wines at Pax Winery. His response was typically humble, but also revealing. He told me that his philosophy hasn’t changed but that his wines reflect a learning process. If he were still at Pax he would be making the same sort of wines he is making now. That is to say, he is not consciously making a lean style, but rather choosing extremely cool sites where even someone like John Alban couldn’t make rich wines if he wanted to. Pax was quick to point out a contradiction, however, noting that he does seek to make a leaner style of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, which he could choose to make richer if he wanted. To some, this may seem a jumble of approaches. To me it reflects Pax’s thoughtfulness and self-awareness: qualities that serve to enhance his “learning process” to a level of innovation that many fail to reach.

True to his passion for learning, Pax is always experimenting with new varieties and techniques. You’ll find small batches of wines like Trousseau Gris and Nebbiolo. Pax uses all natural ferments, very low sulfur levels (ranging from 25 to 40ppm for the Syrahs – though Pax told me he was probably going to increase this a bit because he finds the wines taste better with slightly higher sulphur levels), stem inclusion, minimal pump-overs, no inoculation and almost no racking. Fermentation vessels include a mix of concrete, steel, old wood and new wood, tailored to the specific wine. Pax will often begin with concrete fermentation (as with his Trousseau Gris and certain Chardonnays) but will vary his wood levels depending on the wine: the Trousseau sees all old wood, while the Chardonnays see long elevage in a mix of old and new barrels (a very Burgundian technique).

Conclusion and Tasting Notes

Wind Gap makes some of my favourite wines in California. They have incredible soul and character and tremendous diversity. This is exactly the sort of winery that proves California’s ability to constantly reinvent itself. It is men like Pax Mahle that keep the state’s wine scene dynamic and engaging. We are lucky that Liquid Art imports some Wind Gap wines into B.C., which are available at some private shops around town.

While at the winery, I tasted a wide variety of wines and was impressed with all of them. My tasting notes are as follows.

Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard 2010: 18 months elevage. Minerally, long and lean but with subtle roundness. $25. Very Good+

Pinot Gris Windsor Oaks Vineyard Chalk Hill 2010: Organic. Orange wine alert. 90 days of skin contact brings out florals, peach, pear, and pinot gris spice. A fantastic orange wine that is not overly aggressive and is also varietally true. Very Good+. $32.

Trousseau Gris 2011: Rich, nutty, leesy. Some pear, apricot, minerals. An amazing wine. Very Good+ to Excellent. $21.

Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2010: Stem character is evident. Raspberry, strawberry. Clean, pure and very pretty with good length. Excellent. $50.

Old Vine Sans Soufre Grenache 2011 (from keg): 70 year old vines. Absolutely delicious, serious wine. Pretty Grenache fruit on the nose, but seriously tanninc on the palate. Great concentration. Destemmed. 14.3% abv. Excellent.

Syrah Sonoma Coast 2009: Peppery like St. Joseph (esp. from the northern vineyards). Quite minerally, very pretty and fine grained tannin. 100% whole cluster. Harvested 2nd week of November. 12.6% ABV. Excellent. $36.

Syrah Griffin’s Lair 2009: Closer to the coast than other vineyards Pax uses. 100% whole cluster. This is a dense wine with more felt-like tannin than the Sonoma Coast Syrah. Rich umami flavours, but also black fruits and sauvage underbrush. A hint of animal. This wine is still young and the tannins are now firm, but will integrate with time. Excellent. $48.

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