From the Shadows of Yankee Stadium to Sun-Drenched Colson Canyon
When Joey Tensley set up our meeting with his assistant winemaker, Zac Wasserman, Tensley did what he never does. The Bakersfield schoolboy turned 96pt Syrah-maker openly gushed. "A lot of young winemakers out here are in it for the good life. The sun. The hills. The 40-hour work week. Not Zac. He reminds me of me fifteen years ago, full of passion and crazy drive." Then Tensley chuckled. "And he counts better too."
Zac's father is an orthodox Jew and an architect. When he first considered moving the family from the shadow of Yankee Stadium to the sun-dappled hillsides of Santa Ynez, he was intrigued by the opportunity to trade row houses and colonials for glassy geometry and 18' ceilings.
Mrs. Wasserman saw things differently. Her maiden name is DiPalermo, given to her parents by a particularly unimaginative immigration officer at Ellis Island in 1919. The DiPalermo family was poor, but her mother would never allow her children to think so. Her father worked two jobs -- sometimes three -- still carving out weekend time for his kids, the old wine press and the crusty barrels in the basement.
As Mrs. Wasserman prepared to move her family west, she would recall what her mother always told her. "It's better to be a poor family in rich community, than a rich family in a poor one." By middle school, Zac had figured out that Santa Ynez was uber-rich -- and that the Wassermans weren't.
After finishing college, Zac's sister, Almond (now an ABC Television producer), returned home, and like many graduates in the slumping economy, grabbed a job at a local tasting room. As to Zac, he entered UC Berkeley in 2006. An excellent student with limitless scientific curiosity, he bounced from math to physics, biology and chemistry, before finally settling on genetics. After graduating in 2009, he immediately landed a job with BP in their renewable energy research division.
It would take just three months for Zac Wasserman to see the writing on the wall. The science was fascinating. But the corporate environment and the commute to San Francisco was far less so. In the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, with only 400 bucks to his name, Zac walked away from BP and took a job waiting on tables at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse, long the Bay Area's greatest bastion of culinary invention and refinement.
At 3pm on December 10, 2009, Almond called her brother. She'd managed to work her way into Joey Tensley's good graces on Zac's behalf, and had finally convinced Tensley to sit down with her brother -- and maybe offer him a job. The next day, Zac sped up to Los Olivos. "My palms were sweating all the way up 101. I'd never been uneasy about an interview before, but to me, Tensley was like Babe Ruth. I didn't WANT to work with him. I HAD to work with him. But, after the double espresso, I guess I couldn't stop talking. As I'd learned later, Joey doesn't have much time for BS."
Tensley paid for the coffee and the scones. But as to the job offer, he couldn't have been more blunt. "He told me he didn't have anything, but he'd be in touch. I drove back to Chez Panisse pounding the steering wheel into submission. For the first time in my life, I'd failed."
But as it turned out, even if Joey Tensley couldn't wait to get up from the table, he recognized something in Zac Wasserman that he rarely sees in young winemakers. "Zac was extremely smart. But more importantly, he had fire. In the end, I've always said, the making of great wine is one part ingenuity, and a bigger part tenacity. That kid was never going to give up. I called him just before the harvest of 2010 and said I wanted him to bring him on as my assistant winemaker. He beat me to work the following morning!"
Zac Wasserman admits to being a scientific sponge and that his curiosity often makes him ask too many questions. After a year under his mentor's wing, walking each vineyard site, and experimenting tirelessly with Tensley's brilliant cellar protocol, Wasserman couldn't help himself. He asked one of America's most critically acclaimed Syrah-makers to lend him a hand with an idea he had for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend called "GSM" (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre). Tensley complied.
Zac's first release of the Frequency "GSM" is deepest ruby in color. In the unusually cool growing season of 2011, Wasserman harvested 1.5 tons of Grenache in the last week of November (!) from Camp Four Vineyard (Tensley's preferred source), offering massive, red berry opulence, weighty texture and density. Less than a single ton of Colson Canyon Syrah injects world class red fruit purity, and rich raspberry preserves into the mid-palate. But it's the marvelous, low-pH structure of high-toned sandy soil Mourvedre that really sets this one apart, bracketing all of his mentor's signature opulence with Bandol cut.
The entire production of the 2011 Frequency GSM was just 100 cases. That's all the kid born to the poorest family in Santa Ynez could afford.