Andrew Murray Vineyards is located in the Santa Ynez Valley, which was the first AVA in Santa Barbara County. The eastern end, where Andrew is located, is farther from the influence of the Pacific Ocean. It is a moderate climate well suited to grapes from the Rhone Valley in the south of France. Andrew took me on a tour of two vineyards and talked about the growing conditions in the valley.
The soils are former sea beds composed of shale and gravel raised from the ocean by tectonic collisions. Most of California’s coastal mountain ranges run parallel to the coast and keep much of the cool ocean air on their western side. The Santa Ynez Valley lies between two exceptional ranges that run from east to west and act as a funnel for the cool air to reach much further inland. As a result, the region has one of the longest growing seasons in the world, with budbreak in February and grapes often hanging on the vine into November. The rainy season is in the winter and they are currently in a drought cycle. The last three vintages have all been very dry, which has led to low yields, concentrated fruit and a particularly high quality vintage in 2007. A late-spring frost in 2008 damaged much of the valley’s early season growth and led to a small and difficult harvest.
We visited the Thompson vineyard, which was planted in the early 1990s and Watch Hill, planted later in the decade. I never realized that the California hills turn brown in the summertime, and the vineyard showed the progression. The low-lying, water-retentive areas still had green grass growing between the rows of Chardonnay whose growth was already vigorous. A visible line between these soils and those that drain well could be seen where the lush green ground abruptly turned brown and the better suited Syrah vines were just beginning to sprout.
After the tour of the vineyards, I left Andrew and headed into nearby Los Olivos to visit his tasting room. Eleven wines were available, including those from his Days Off label. The Andrew Murray label is dedicated solely to Rhone grape varieties, so on his “days off” he makes wine from other grapes like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese. My favorite of them was a wine called Road Trip – a Sangiovese-based wine with twenty percent Syrah.
The Andrew Murray label offered one white, one rosé and five reds. The rosé,made from Carignan and Cinsault, was just what I needed to wake up my palate. His winery is best known for a Syrah called Tous les Jours that retails for less than $20. The wine is meant to be consumed in its youth and is very approachable, it doesn’t have any of the aggressive elements that would lead me to say “I’d love to try that in five years.” Rather it is a fleshy, soft wine with a meaty nose. It is the best value I have come across on the journey thus far.
The single-vineyard Syrahs were from 2006 and came from Watch Hill, Oak Savanna and McGinley. All were dense, well-structured, elegant and age-worthy. I prefered the Oak Savanna, since it brought out my favorite Syrah adjective – ‘brooding’.