I don't know much about MacLaren when I walk into this tasting room, except that they're new, they specialize in Syrah and their name sounds vaguely Scottish. I find them in the back of "Vine Alley" off Sonoma Plaza, past a gauntlet of retail shops and winetasting rooms. As soon as winemaker Steve Law greets me from behind the bar in the smartly but sparely decorated tasting lounge, it is confirmed: it's a Scottish thing, all right.
MacLaren, that's his clan name. Hailing from the land of another lovely, smoky beverage aged in oak casks, the former electronics engineer didn't get bit by the wine bug until he worked for Hewlett-Packard in Grenoble, France. Weekends spent exploring the northern Rhône nurtured his love for Syrah, which he took with him to California.
After a weekend jaunt to Dry Creek Valley, Law became a friend of Zinfandel specialist Michael Talty. "When I took my vacation, I'd go and help with harvest," he says. "You need to do something about this addiction," his winemaker friends said. So in 2007, he started making some of his own at Tally's winery.
Some retirement project this is not. Toward the end of the 2011 harvest, Law used up all of his vacation hours. After a productive conversation with his wife, an elementary school teacher, he switched gears to being a full-time winemaker. At just 1,000 cases a year, it was a wee bit of a gamble to open up a tasting room, Law admits. But direct-to-consumer sales are the way to go—particularly when trying to sell cool-climate, food-friendly Syrah in today's market, although Law says that when he gets a chance to pour for chefs and somms, they're instant fans.
The 2010 "Drouthy Neebors" ($30) is a blend chosen by democratic vote of wine club members. Meaning "thirsty neighbors" in the Scots language, it's aromatic and elegant, with nice tension on the finish. The 2010 Russian River Valley Syrah ($30) sports licorice and liqueur notes, and might pleasingly surprise Bordeaux-centric wine drinkers.
Law describes the 2010 Samantha's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Syrah ($40) as his biggest wine. It's complex, with spicy oak and high-toned blueberry fruit, but did not entice me as much as the 2010 Judge Family Vineyard, Bennett Valley Syrah ($40). With savory aromas of Kalamata olive, and a sensuous mouthfeel, this wine remains lively and bright throughout. Despite its location in the center of Sonoma County, this vineyard is directly in the path of the Petaluma Gap fog line. "The only place colder," jokes Law, "is probably Scotland!"
MacLaren Wine Company, 27 E. Napa St., Suite E, Sonoma. Open Monday–Thursday, noon–5pm; Friday–Sunday, noon–6pm. Tasting fee, $15. 707.938.7490.