One of the best parts of wine blogging is getting to talk with winemakers about their wines and what makes them special. While most of the winemakers I talk to are understandably passionate about their wines, every now and then you meet someone who is not only passionate but also seems to embody the entire experience around their wines and the land they come from. Michael Lancaster of Tin Barn Vineyards in Sonoma is one of those people and I recently got to talk with him about his wines which are all sourced from single Sonoma County vineyards. Following is an edited version of our conversation followed by my tasting notes of his wines.
How did you get interested in wine?
“I blame my dad. My mom liked to cook and my dad liked wine so I grew up with it and since we lived in Toronto, much of the wine we had was European in nature (which means a leaner palate and restrained styles) so I grew up liking wine made in that style. At some point in my 30s I was sitting in my corporate office in a suit and tie continually looking out the window thinking about making wine.
So finally, I went out to California and figured out how to get an enology degree. They told me to do a harvest in Canada first so I did two, one regular fall harvest then the ice wine harvest. The next spring, I headed out to California and started my degree at University of California at Davis while interning at Gloria Ferrer. Fast forward to 2000 when we started Tin Barn.”
What wines do you like making the best?
“All of them! However, I love the aromas that come from fermenting Sauvignon Blanc. I also love the inherent challenges that come from making Pinot Noir and Syrah. Both are thin-skinned grapes with tight clusters and those present their own complexities in winemaking. Making cool-climate Syrah like we do also has a wonderful animal smell which I love and coming from a vineyard near Tin Barn Road (our namesake), this is a special wine to us.
Zinfandel is also interesting as it has so much sugar that fermentations can become stuck which is always a challenge to solve. Zinfandel also ripens unevenly on the vine which is one of the reasons we pick it at higher sugar levels.”
What is your general philosophy on wine-making?
“On the reds, I prefer to be mostly hands-off in winemaking. I don’t fine as I think if things are done right that you don’t need to fine. (Fining, often using egg whites, can help a wine appear clearer but it can also strip away some of the wine’s character and freshness). I don’t care for too much racking other than to get the wine off the heavy lees and I don’t like heavy-handedness with oak or crazy tannins.”
Tell me about your stunning Syrah?
“The Syrah is from Coryelle Vineyard. I met Carolyn Coryelle in the 1990s and she was planting a few acres of Syrah in an area near Sonoma Coast (which was unheard of at that time) but today you can see many well-known Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards such as Hirsch, Marcassin, and Flowers from her 700-foot elevation site of Coryelle which is a cool climate site but has only struggled with ripening one time. Syrah is a bit more versatile than Pinot Noir or Cabernet and is able to express itself differently in varying climates (think French Syrah versus Australia Barosssa Shiraz).
Due to this, the Syrah ripens well here as the vines can sit above fog level (this helps with ripening). The soil at Coryelle is small chipped rocks on hillside (unlike the larger stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape). The vineyard’s elevation, wind, and cooler temperatures make it a laborious vineyard and Carolyn has to put up bird netting as the birds love the grapes too. Yields are also small due to the cool temperatures. All in all, you get a unique site that plays a key role in this amazing Syrah.”
Where do you want to go with Tin Barn in the future?
“I am still very hands-on with the wine (and the cellar) which I like. I never want to get so big that I can’t do that. I also never want to lose the association people come to have with our wines that sometimes happen when wineries get too big. It’s so rewarding to know that people enjoy our wine with their families, meals, and celebrations. Being part of those moments is very special.”
How do you think your wines differ from the many others in Sonoma?
“I think I’m able to blend my somewhat understated and restrained style and palate to the output of California’s beautiful weather in a compelling way through our wines.”
I tasted 5 of Mike’s wines (most of which are distributed in Illinois). The reds all have a lovely distinctive spicy note that varies from sweet to savory as well as a vivid freshness about them. The reds are also filtered but not fined which contributes to the fresh palate and purity of flavors.
The 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Carneros, Hi Vista Vineyard ($21) is exceptional and stands out among a sea of this varietal in the marketplace. This wine manages to blend the best characteristics of both lean and fuller-bodied styles through its neutral barrel fermentation of a small portion of the wine which is then combined with concrete and stainless fermented wine. The results are a wonderful grip on the palate, vibrant acidity (from omitting malolactic fermentation) and preservation of the clean fresh fruit notes of citrus, tart apple, and melon that Sauvignon Blanc exhibits so well. This is a style that satisfies any Sauvignon Blanc lover and is exceptionally well-made.
The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Pickberry Vineyard reflects its volcanic growing site of warm days and cool nights with its robust and warm character. This wine is round and full with juicy black fruit, sweet spice, tobacco, and menthol on the palate. Smooth firm tannins with zesty acidity and a long warm sweet vanilla finish manage to capture a bright summer day in a bottle. The 2014 is made from 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Merlot however Pickberry Vineyard grows all of the Bordeaux varieties so this blend may vary in the future depending on the vintage. This wine spends 22 months in 30% new French oak which adds to its smooth tannins and complexity.
Russian River Valley is a well-known Zinfandel growing region and its cooler climate produces its own unique profile. One of two Zinfandels produced by Tin Barn, the 2014 Zinfandel Russian River Valley ($29) is from Gilsson Vineyard’s sandy loam soil and 65-year old vines. Both the soil and older vines contribute to the wine’s aromatic nose of alluring plum, jam, black pepper, and herbal notes while the palate continues the theme with lush black peppercorn and raspberry flavors wrapped in wild tannins, vibrant acidity, and a long raspberry-infused spicy finish. This Zinfandel spends 19 months in 20% new American oak and weighs in at 15.6% alcohol which, while high, blends in seamlessly with the wine.
The 2014 Syrah Coryelle Fields Vineyard ($32) is one of those wines that reaches out and grabs a taster with its immediate “wow” factor. Syrah is a grape varietal that is very expressive of its natural features as well as where it is grown. In this case, the wine comes from Coryelle Fields Vineyard in the Fort Ross Seaview AVA which is located at 1,000 feet in a cool, fog-shrouded remote area off Tin Barn Road. The road was the inspiration for the winery’s name and the area is where the first Tin Barn wine was sourced from.
It’s easy to see why this vineyard inspired Mike to make wine when you taste his Syrah. It’s an elegant, cool-climate expression of Syrah that positively sings with black olive, blackberry, iron earth, leather, and mineral flavors while its silky tannins and fresh acidity carry it along to a black pepper-laced ethereal finish. Reminiscent of a Northern Rhone style Syrah, this wine is its own special version and a real standout.
The easiest way to buy these terrific wines is direct through the Tin Barn website below. Enjoy!