August 13, 2020
By Bruce Neyers
Garys’ Vineyard Syrah with the Salinas Valley in the background
I have an extensive library of wine books, but my two favorites are Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wines and The Wines of the Northern Rhône by John Livingston-Learmonth. I refer to both often enough that I own two copies of each — one for home and a second for my office. As narrow as the Livingston-Learmonth book may sound to you, it contains vast information on rootstock, budwood selections, vineyard practices, and soil types. My long-time colleague Kermit Lynch was asked to write the foreword for this scholarly work, which seems fitting as Kermit has done more than anyone to raise the public’s awareness of Rhône wines in this country.
Over the years, Kermit has imported wines from the northern Rhône’s greatest cellars: Auguste Clape, Noël Verset, Robert Jasmin, Raymond Trollat, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Marius Gentaz of Côte-Rôtie. In his book, Livingston-Learmonth writes first about the wines of Côte-Rôtie, then introduces the most prominent winemakers in the appellation. Gentaz is set apart, however, in a separate section that highlights a long and brilliant career.
I met Gentaz several times during my years with Kermit, but the most memorable meeting was in 1996. He was retired by then, and had passed along his 1.2 hectares of vines to his son-in-law René Rostaing. He joined us on a cold afternoon to taste in Rostaing’s cellars in Ampuis, then later accompanied us for dinner at Hotel Beau Rivage, a Michelin two-star retreat in Condrieu.
We were a group 12, with distributors from around the US. We shared a bottle or two of Rostaing’s Condrieu, then sat down in a quiet corner of the restaurant for dinner. Rostaing was seated in the center of the table in order to further talk us through the tasting earlier in the day, and I took a seat at the end, across from Gentaz. When the maître d’ came to take our order, he engaged in a brief discussion with Gentaz, then explained to me that the specialty of the evening was Côte de Veau, or veal chop for two, grilled over vine cuttings. Marius had ordered it but needed a second person with whom to share. I agreed.
In the meantime I had been looking at the wine list and asked Marius if any of his wines were included. They were, he replied, as the hotel was an important customer of his, with an annual allocation of 50 cases. The Gentaz wine on the list was the 1991 Côte-Rôtie, and we ordered four bottles for the table. I passed the list around for someone to select the next wine. When the wine came to the table and was opened, one of the group quickly got my attention and whispered to me: ‘Bruce, this wine is spectacular! Get more!’ The four bottles were quickly emptied, so I asked the maître d’ if we could order four more bottles. He nodded. Marius broke into the first of several wide grins.
Our meal came, and the veal chop was delicious. We ordered another four bottles of the Gentaz Côte-Rôtie. The wine just got better as the evening progressed. We finished the evening, paid the bill, and bid goodnight to our guests. We went into the bar for an after-dinner drink, where the discussion centered on the extraordinary wine we had just enjoyed, and the man with whom we had enjoyed it. What a memory.
In 2005 our winemaker Tadeo Borchardt joined me on one of my trips to France. We visited the northern Rhône, but were not able to meet with Gentaz. We still tasted several of his wines though, and while they are impossible to find in the US, we drank them often during that trip. Tadeo grew to love them as I do, and thinks of them now when making Syrah at Neyers Vineyards.
There is a quote I recall from years ago: In order to achieve excellence, one must have first experienced it. Tadeo has experienced a range of excellent wines in his career, but after Gentaz Syrah he has now tried — and knows — the best. I would never suggest that our 2018 Syrah is in league with the wines from Gentaz, but Tadeo hasn’t stopped trying, and he gets closer every year. Our 2018 Syrah ‘Garys’ Vineyard’ comes from one of the coldest Syrah vineyards in California — a steep hillside parcel with rocky, well-drained soil. It combines luscious fruit with exotic spice. It’s approachably soft, with attractive flavors.
Our 2018 Syrah ‘Garys’ Vineyard’ is a wonderful example of this variety’s enormous charm