(Caveat: I generally try to stick to stories that were recounted to me personally on here, but I’m breaking my own rule with this one. Although I haven’t yet had a chance to meet any of the protagonists in person, I really wanted to share this before presenting some of the wines in question on Friday night in Los Angeles. Hopefully this post won’t botch my chances of meeting the players themselves on my next trip to Sonoma.)
I’m excited to announce that this Friday night is Uva Buena’s first charity event: I’ve signed on as resident “Wine Guru” for LA’s Best - After School Enrichment and will have the distinct pleasure of pouring some wines from the personal collection of Rick Kersenbrock at the VIP hour preceding their annual UnWINEd event at the Fairmont in Santa Monica. These aren’t just any wines – there is some very special stuff here! – so I’ve taken the time to do some proper research, and in the process I’ve uncovered a very interesting tale. (In the alternate reality where I have my own private air transport, I did my sleuthing in person and visited the wineries myself.)
Mr. Kersenbrock has donated some very hard-to-get vino; I’ll be speaking about 5 different single vineyard Syrahs from Pax Wine Cellars – all 2005 vintage – along with Copain’s 2006 Hacienda Secoya Pinot Noir from Mendocino, and 3 awesome Pinot bottlings from The Ojai Vineyard, as well as Mayacamas Chardonnay (which was donated by Dave Travers, whose family has owned the winery since 1968). While all of these wines are very much worthy of our attention, what I’d really like to focus on is Pax.
I first had the chance to taste the Pax wines a few years ago, for once not at a trade event but at dinner with my family on Cape Cod, when the chef at Winslow’s, my favorite restaurant in Welfleet (yes, that Welfleet) came running out of the kitchen, excited to share his new discoveries with me. Little did either of us know that the label was already no longer in production.
“Pax” has got to be one of the coolest winery monikers around – not least because it’s actually the guy’s name. But I’m not the first person to point out the irony in this word also being the Latin for “peace,” given the story I’m about to tell.
I fear there’s some danger in blogging about Pax – from what I’ve seen there’s been a fair amount of online gossip mongering over the past few years. But I’m really not into that kind of thing, and I’ll start right off with the positive takeaway: this story leaves us with not one but THREE wine labels to get excited about! Pax – which is no more but may yet live again – Donelan, and Wind Gap. (Not to mention Ryme & Verse, which are also being produced at Windgap and which I couldn’t be more excited about.)
So, sticking to facts as best as I can: Pax was founded in 2000 as a partnership between Joe Donelan and Pax and Pamela Mahle, with Pax making the wines and Joe as the financial mind. The winery was born out of a deep dedication to Syrah in all of its incarnations – they quickly obtained “cult” status as collectors fought to get their hands on the various bottlings, each with a clear expression of place.
In an interview published online in March of 2002, Pax told Allan Bree of Gang of Pour that ”The image behind ‘Pax’ (which almost wasn’t the name of the winery) is that of Pangea Ultima, which is the single land mass that all seven continents separated from 200 million years ago. The concept being that – land is land, each is distinct, some may be better than others in history or grandeur, but they are all from the same piece. What we want to do is make our mark, and make the best wines – benchmark, reference point – from our (sources)…”
Frankly, Syrah is not usually the easiest variety to sell, but these are among California’s most interesting wines – you’ll find them on the best restaurant wine lists in the county and (if you’re very lucky) at the occasional wine shops that has somehow managed to hold onto it for this long. These days, you’re more likely to see them on the auction circuit – or at a charity event sponsored by an extremely generous collector. (Thank you Rick!)
Pax, Pam, and Joe made award winning wine together from 2000 to 2007 – the kind of wine that just about everybody seemed to enjoy. Between the various cuvées and vineyard-specific bottles there were wines that were juicy enough for every day drinkers (those that could afford it, at least), as well as those compelling enough for the collectors and funky enough for the wine geeks. Then, in early 2008, the Mahles mysteriously parted ways from Joe, with Pax and Pam launching their own winery, Wind Gap, and Donelan transitioning into his own eponymous label.
Among the varying accounts of what supposedly went down I found only two quotations that seem reliable (and diplomatic) enough to share: one from Wine Spectator and one from Pax himself, via Slaked, who’s awesome piece on this subject provided much of the basis for this post.
According to WineSpectator.com, ”the partners… disagreed over the allocation of winery funds and winemaking and management decisions,” which eventually led to the split.
Slaked reports that – in the email announcing the launch of Wind Gap – “Pax had surprisingly gentle words for his former partner’s venture, saying, ‘The Concept at Pax Wine Cellars was a complete immersion in and study of Syrah—using the same grape and largely the same appellation with a focus on specific sites with differing soils and climates to make the wines unique. With the help of a dedicated team of growers (and countless hours spent in the vineyards) we produced some remarkable wines and learned a great deal. Wind Gap is the culmination of all we have learned from working so diligently with Syrah.’”
(Dr. Vino – another reliable source with a cool name – wrote last October that Pax had won his name back. Although this would have a lovely symmetry to it, I haven’t seen it corroborated anywhere and will therefore keep it inside the safety of these parentheses.)
Whatever the truth of the matter is, everybody seems to agree on two things: that the wines Pax is making at Windgap are very different in style from the ones he produced with Joe, and that all three labels – Pax, Wind Gap, and Donelan – are magnificent. There’s definitely the makings of a fascinating comparative tasting here, I’ve got to track down some more Pax before it’s too late.