TN: 1980 McDowell Valley Vineyards Syrah

1980 McDowell Valley Vineyards Syrah, McDowell Valley. Let me start by saying that I am not a big syrah fan. I want to like it…it just never really sings for me. That said…this was excellent!! Dark, smokey black fruits with a hint of olive and a bit of leather on the finish. Still shockingly fruit forward, but incredibly balanced by the acidity and the perfectly integrated oak. I imagine that this was a brooding monster when it was young, but it’s amazing now! Side note, it’s pretty cool that this winery was using solar power back in 1980! Talk about ahead of the curve, ha! As always, an extra point for being a birth-year.


Wow - that was one of the first varietally labeled Syrahs - maybe a few years after Phelps did theres…

Thanks for the walk down memory lane…


That’s awesome - i had no idea! Truly a great wine that i very much enjoyed :cheers:

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Calling @TomHill

Nice note as usual Rich. That wine was made from one, if not the oldest, known planting of Syrah in California Gibson Ranch. I remember having this wine a few times in the late '80s/early '90s and it wasn’t a real bruiser but well balanced. Info can be found at the Historic Vineyard Society here

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The winemaker was George Bursick. A Life in Wine

Upon graduation from UC Davis, George began his first solo winemaking job at McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County on the recommendation of John Parducci. One of his most significant accomplishments there was the first varietal release of Syrah in California. This was produced in 1980 from the 1978 vintage of 100-year-old vines, long misidentified as Petit Sirah. George suspected the mistake and brought in ampelographists to verify his opinion that the vines were in fact, Syrah and more than worthy of a special bottling.

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Thanks Sean! And thats amazing - love the history and appreciate the link as well as the real-life feedback on the wine when it was younger. Pretty amazing how well it’s held up - a real treat to drink for sure :cheers:

Thanks Truett!

This was probably my favorite winery in California back in the early/mid 1980s - Not only did they produce wonderful Syrahs, but they made an old vine Grenache Rose that was pure magic. George Bursick was a fabulous winemaker, and I could never figure out why some bigger winery didn’t snatch him up (I believe someone eventually did (If I remember right - it was Ferrari Carano) -

They were incredibly innovative back then and seemed so ahead of their time. And they had this cute little valley all to themselves. It was really an amazing enterprise.

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13.3% Syrah? Older than Me?

(Packs satchel)


Anybody who wants to follow George’s career could read A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss. It follows a year at Ferrari Carano. After FC, George worked at J for a while, then retired into consulting and playing his saxophone.

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Ha ha! You’re welcome anytime my friend!

P.s. That’s an awesome satchel :wink:

Sure would be great to have Carole Meredith test those vines. I’ve been to McDowell many times, and used the facility to custom crush. I was shown some 30-40 year old vines…on trellis, and was told they were offspring of the old vines. As it was winter time i made some marks with my pocket knife on the end post. Returning months later the vines and clusters looked like PS to this untrained hillbilly. Kinda sounds like the Sean Thackrey/Rossi Vineyard story, where Sean incorrectly…and quite possibly my accident said the vineyard was Syrah, when in fact it wasn’t.


You called, Larry??
So…the first varietally labeled Syrah in Calif was the Phelps '73. Made from badly virused vines from a ChristianBros vnyd near StHelena. The wine set the Calif Syrah market back by 10 yrs. Made by WalterShug like he was making his Pinots…a ton of toasty Fr.oak and very little Syrah fruit.
In the late '70’s, BillyCrawford was making a PetiteSirah from McDowellVllyVnyds/GibsonRanch/old vines. Maybe started about the '76 vintage. It was exceptional…but different from the PS’s of that time…much more aromatic/perfumed. Not sure exactly when GeorgeBursick stepped in…but by this '80 vintage. The PS was so exceptional that Billy did the DNA & identified those “PS” vines as Syrah & I think this '80 was the first vintage he labeled Syrah. And made by George. The wine was exceptional, classic perfumed Syrah…but not particularly big/extracted.
I did a visit w/ GaryEberle & tasted his '77 from barrel. That’s when I realized Syrah had real potential in Calif… wonderful aromatic strawberry-scented Syrah from his EstrellaRiver clone. Nothing profound, but very/very pretty/scented Syrah.
Then in '82 were the first really great Calif Syrahs. AdamTolmach from his Ojai vnyd in Oakview, BobLindquist & Randall Graham from Gary’s EstrellaRiver grapes in Paso, and John MacReady from his ElDorado vnyd. And the rest, as they say, is history.
All this directly from the horse’s ass…errrr…mouth by the person who lived it. All described in
PatrickComisky’s wonderful book. Of course, at this time I was also drinking Guigal BetB Cote-Rotie at $12/btl & Chave Hermitage at $18/btl…all pretty expensive for those wines at that time.


That old GibsonRanch had Grenache/PetiteSirah/Syrah all intermixed in there. So when they propogated onto the trellis, could very well have had PS in there.

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Yep, @Morgan_Twain-Peterson said on insta that it probably contained a chunk of Grenache, Trousseau, Peloursin, PS, and more.

I never thought the McDowell Syrah reminded me of anything from the Rhone. Of course, there are different clones of Syrah. As i recall, the Estrella River clones came from Australia. Much better than what we had before.

The Phelps Suyrah was not made in toasty French oak barrels. You can trust me on that! It was probably sterile filtered into Nadalie or Demptos barrels. As i recall, the clonal material was not all that great.

I do think people. wrongly associated Syrah with a hot climate. Cote Rotie and Hermitage are warmer than Burgundy but not that much warmer! We now see that good clones of Syrah grown in places usually associated with Burgundian varieties–like Carneros–can make very good wine.

I like the idea of Dr Carole Meredith doing DNA work on this vineyard,but she is probably too busy overseeing Steve Lagier’s chainsawing activities.

I thought the McD was the most RhonishCalif Syrah to date, but I would never mistake it for Northern Rhône.
Gary’s EstrellaRiver clone came from Olmo’s pruning at UCDavis. They called it Syrah, not Shiraz, so I expect it was French in origin.

The Phelps Syrah tasted just like Walter’s PinotNoir. However he was making that. Way too much toasty oak that dominated any Syrah fruit. The grapes came from a badly virused Christian Bros Vnyd. Phelps took cuttings, sent it to UC to clean it up. Then planted it at their Vnyd in StHelena. A bit too warm there for Syrah.

Syrah was proclaimed to be a Mediterranean climate grape. C-R & Hermitage are much colder than that.

Carole does keep Steve on a short leash.


Yes, one of the problems with Syrah is it can be/is grown in a wide variety of climates. Agree that it does better in cooler areas, gets a bit more anonymous when it’s too hot.



People always said the Estrella clone came from Australia but then where would have Gary E gotten it??
Comiskey tells a story that says he got it from Tain L hermitage via an old friend, so maybe Gary tossed out the Australian story as a smoke screen.

We didn’t sell barrels to Phelps until around 1979 and we introduced toasty oak to California. I just think a lot of the oakiness in California wines back then was due to the fact that most people filtered their wines into barrel.
In the early '80s many people started to put reds into barrel before MLF so the lees could buffer the oak.

I believe the old Heineman Mtn Ranch is now a tree farm. That’s what Mark H told me before he died.

We are not doing very well at getting the attention of Carole Meredith.