Time in a Bottle: Why Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah Matters to Me

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/17/15

A proud oak abutting Zaca Mesa vines
I remember that balmy night, 13 years ago, quite well.  The sun dipped slowly in the distance, making this quiet stretch of Malibu beach glow.  Dolphins – a large, energetic pod – swam unusually close to shore, as if at play.  And, much to my heart’s content, she said, “Yes.”

There was something else about the night I proposed to my wife that stands out.  To mark this surprise occasion, I’d popped the cork on a special wine – a ’99 vintage Black Bear Block Syrah from Zaca Mesa.  Sharing a bottle that we’d discovered together, and that we both loved, made perfect romantic sense.

I guess you could say we’ve felt a connection to Zaca Mesa ever since; we’ve been to their tasting room off Foxen Canyon Road often, and we buy their wine regularly.  And, on the heels of the news that the 700-acre estate is now up for sale, I popped in for a repeat visit earlier this month.

Zaca's historic Black Bear Block
Driving through this beautiful property with winemakers Eric Mohseni and Kristin Bryden, and with brand ambassador Dane Campbell, was an important reminder of where Zaca’s been, and where it’s going.  Founded in the mid-1970s, this was one of Santa Barbara County’s very first estate wineries.  With more than 150 acres planted to grapes that stretch toward an elevation of 1500 feet, it exudes diversity.  And with a list of former winemakers that includes greats like Jim Clendenen, Bob Lindquist, Adam Tolmach, Daniel Gehrs and Chuck Carlson, the “Zaca U” nickname fits.

These days, Mohseni is spearheading thoughtful but sweeping replanting projects that will bring in a bevy of new clones; periodic grafting is on tap for 2016 and a major turnover is likely in 2017.  The barn-style winery and visitor center have just finished a substantial refurbishment.  And fermenters made of cement and clay are being used to experiment with new expressions of familiar grapes.

The gnarly vines of Black Beat Block

The most memorable stop on my tour, of course, was that fabled Black Bear Block.  Planted by winemaker Ken Brown in 1978, these 3-1/2 acres are a historical snapshot of Santa Barbara viticulture – the area’s very first syrah vines.  Legend has it a black bear was spotted here years ago -- on a morning when grapes were near-perfect ripeness -- chomping away on handfuls of sweet fruit. “I still see large bear prints along these rows every so often,” Mohseni tells me.  The Black Bear Block moniker, a nod to nature’s imprint here, is a fitting tribute to be sure.

The vines still produce, though yields have diminished with age to a couple hundred cases a year.  They are warped and gnarly, and there are even signs of rot in spots.  But there’s something gorgeous about them nonetheless, and something poignant.  They are as old, after all, as Santa Barbara’s wine industry itself, and they still produce delicious wine.

The rows that line Zaca's Black Bear Block
We taste through several wines after our tour, but I’m most excited to sip the latest Black Bear Block release.  The 2011 vintage produced a rich, serious wine, full of floral aromas.  It’s teeming with dark berry, mocha and pepper flavors.  The tannins are silky.  The mouth feel is clean and refined.  Suddenly, I realize why it was so easy, more than a decade ago, for us to fall in love with this old-vine syrah.  (Since my visit, the 2012 vintage Black Bear Block syrah was released, and it's available at the winery and on its website for $68.)

As I’m leaving, the Zaca team takes me by surprise with a generous gesture.  From their cellar, they gift me a bottle of that momentous 1999 Black Bear Block syrah, and an emotional chord is struck.  Great wines often have a way of doing that.

My wife and I are excited to share this wine over the upcoming holiday season.  That defining Malibu beach will likely be replaced by the sands of our current home town, Carpinteria.  And that frolicking pod – that’ll be our three kids.  But, somewhere between the sips and the refills, I’m hoping for at least a brief throwback to that moment when one word – “Yes” – changed everything.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Check out the Zaca Mesa website.

Check out my story that broke the news that Zaca Mesa was up for sale.


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