A few years ago, we started hearing the "Renard hype." Then we tasted the wines and understood what all the fuss was about: Bayard Fox's ability to (viticultulturally speaking) transpose the entire Rhone Valley onto a map of California.
When we finally met Renard's Bayard Fox, we asked him where he learned to make such incredible Syrah. First, he credited the winemakers at Chave, Voge, and Rostaing, from whom he learned about the variety. A year before he launched Renard, Bayard spent the winter with them. By spring, he knew he'd devote Renard to making Syrah. Bayard told us that he was drawn to Rhone-style wines, and Syrah in particular, because of their tremendous diversity: There is great Syrah in both the northern and the southern Rhone Valley, but these two climates can produce completely different, yet superb, wine from that one variety. Grown on the steep hillsides of the cooler north, the grape's pepper and red fruit really assert themselves, whereas in the warm south the bright sweet fruit and acidity come to the fore.
After an early exposure to winemaking in the southern Rhone Valley as a teenager, Bayard spent a number of post-collegiate years as a carpenter. His experience working with wood prepared him for his "day job" as a rep for a French cooperage firm, but it also laid the foundation for Bayard's winemaking philosophy. Eventually, he saw the two crafts as analogous: "With carpentry, there is both aesthetics and practicality. You need to make a space that's livable and attractive, and the same concept applies to wine. The aesthetic appeal is the aroma and flavor, but you also need texture, length of palate, and balance to compel you to finish the bottle. There has to be an 'inside' once you open the door."
Bayard seems to capture the Rhone by making tiny batches of single-vineyard wines from low-yielding parcels, like Peay Vineyard. (His biggest cuvee is only 693 cases, and his smallest only 48.) Peay Vineyards belongs to Nick Peay and is located along the Sonoma Coast, about 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The plot is situated on a hilltop, like an island in the coastal fog, and its soil is composed of a fine, silty, sandy loam, with a little bit of clay interspersed in the subsoils. Peay's dirt is high in inorganic matter and low in most nutrients--an ideal combination if you want to control the health of the vine, as Nick is wont to do.
Beginning with a normal budbreak in mid-March, the 2002 growing season in this corner of Sonoma County was nearly ideal. Nick dealt with the few summertime heat spells preemptively, and harvested the Syrah on schedule at the end of October.
All of Bayard's Syrahs usually impress the critics, but the 2002 Peay Vineyard cuvee stood out in particular. It was the top-rated Syrah in Wine & Sprits annual review last year, and Robert Parker gave it 91 points and called it "complete, beautifully textured, and opulent." This wine has a dark magenta color and a bouquet characterized by notes of camphor, truffles, blackberries, and cassis. The dark fruit components mingle with a vibrant spice, but above all, the palate is rich and dense with multilayered round tannins. Drink now-2010.