Winemakers looking to make great Syrah should take a page out of Relic Wines owner/winemaker Mike Hirby's book. Furthermore, readers traveling to the Napa Valley should try to schedule a tasting with Mike. If the thought of tasting with the owner and winemaker conjures up images of sitting around a white tablecloth with a stuffy, old, self-important, elitist then you've got the wrong guy. Mike is committed to one thing only when it comes to Relic, and it is not his ego - it is making great wine. When tasting with Mike his passion and enthusiasm for wine are apparent, and his laid back demeanor and affable personality will immediately put you at ease. Currently, he tastes by appointment only at Behrens and Hitchcock, which is at the top of Spring Mountain on the Napa/Sonoma county line. Try to schedule back to back tastings with Relic and B&H, but plan on either spitting or having a designated driver. Spring Mtn. Road is narrow and steep with numerous tight curves.
Before becoming a winemaker, Mike was a sommelier at Primitivo in Colorado Springs. I sat down with him for a brief, virtual interview earlier this week to learn a bit more.
How did you become interested in wine?
I was first introduced to quality wine in college when a friend told me about a wine sale at the local wine shop. We were on a budget, so this was pertinent. I became entranced by a particular bottle of Ridge Zinfandel from Geyserville, and my life has never been the same!
What was your first winemaking gig?
After an ill-fated trip to learn how to make wine in the Cotes Du Rhone in Cairanne, I moved to Napa Valley and started working for Behrens and Hitchcock. I was the Assistant winemaker from 2000-2002. I was hired as the Winemaker for Realm Cellars in 2002.
How did you become involved with Behrens & Hitchcock?
A friend I met at a local wine shop my second day in Napa Valley told me to apply to work harvest at a GREAT winery, not just a good winery, so I called Les, met him in my loaded-down, dented 1988 VW at his winery. He jokes that he took one look at my beat-up car and hired me on the spot, which is more or less true.
Relic's motto is "Modern wines the old way." What is it about using primitive winemaking techniques that compels you to do so?
Making wine the old way, I have a chance to experience the miracle of winemaking - the sense of working with nature and looking through the "magnifying glass" to taste the communion of earth and human endeavor. You could call this terroir. As soon as I start to make a wine simply to sell, the miracle has vanished. By taking the risks that are inherent in "the old way," the wines are not simply products, but expressions of something else entirely. Something ancient.
What is your favorite varietal to work with?
My favorite varietal to work with is Syrah! It can be made so many different ways, with dramatically different results. It is a fantastic paintbrush.
Outside of the B&H umbrella, what is your favorite wine?
Today that would be a 2002 Joseph Roty Mazy-Chambertin enjoyed recently,because it had the modernity of CA Pinot Noir, but with a fantastic focus that I just have not seen in CA. My mind will probably change tomorrow!
What is your favorite appellation outside of California?
Tough question! My favorite appellation outside of the US is probably one of the following depending on the day: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Chevalier-Montrachet, Chambertin-Clos-du-Beze, or Cote-Rotie.
What is Relic's production?
Relic's 2006 production will be around 750 cases. We may grow to about 1500 cases eventually, but not anytime soon.
Where can readers find Relic wines?
People can buy Relic Wines directly from us via our mailing list! But there are also great restaurants in NY, Las Vegas, and HI that have our wines. Look for Union Square Café in NY and Alec's at the Wynn in Vegas.
Producer: Relic Wines
Wine: 2004 Alder Springs Syrah, Mendecino County
Winemaker: Mike Hirby
Estimated Cost: $54
Tasting Notes: A huge wine. Deep purple to the rim. Notes of white pepper, plum, blueberry, raspberry, smoke and game with grippy tannins. Finish goes on and on. Still very young. Some may find the tannins to be too much at this point, but they will mellow with a little bit of time in the cellar. I have had very few California Syrahs which are its equal. 93 points