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Find Shiraz at Azari Vineyards

Azari Cottage

There was a time when Shiraz seemed poised to trump Syrah as the most popular name for that varietal wine. That time has passed. The tide of enthusiasm for Australian Shiraz has waned, and the few Sonoma County wineries that have been successful with their Syrah programs have opted for the French version, both in name and style.

But recently I discovered at least one holdout, and the reason that Azari Vineyards has stuck with Shiraz is a very personal one: It’s a tribute to the city where Iranian-American winery founder Kamal Azari was born.

In the Gap and Under the Radar
Azari Vineyards sits on Spring Hill Road, looking out over rolling cow pastures. It’s an area better known for its dairy products than vinous ones, although the 12-acre estate vineyard is located within the Petaluma Gap, a winegrowing region that applied for official AVA status in early 2015.

Because the higher hills and mountains of the coast range take a break west of Petaluma, there are only low hills in between here and the Pacific Ocean, so summer weather is only slightly warmer than San Francisco — you’d best bring a sweater to a barbecue in July.

Or a pizza cookout. Kaveh Azari has that covered on summer weekends, serving up crispy, thin crust pizza from a wood-fired oven on the patio adjacent the tasting room. On an unseasonably warm day last February, Azari fired up the oven and opened some wines for a media open house.

Kaveh, a soft-spoken former tech worker who returned to the family estate to help run the winery, explained that his father has stepped back to focus on his philanthropic and scholarly efforts, such as Kamal Azari’s recently published book, Axis of Hope: A Prospective for Community Centric Government for Iran & Other MENA Countries.

(Update: Kaveh is pursuing another business opportunity. His younger brother, Cyrus, has taken on this role at the winery.)

Meanwhile, Azari’s new winemaker Chris Albin explained why he’s enthusiastic about this special vineyard. A 2011 graduate of the wine school at Cal-State Fresno, Albin has worked with cult Syrah specialists Donelan and ran the Pinot Noir program for a big Lodi wine company. He’s expecting to make some great wines in this little 5,000-case cellar, from a vineyard that he says excites him as much as Donelan’s Obsidian Vineyard.

Shiraz by Any Other Name
Azari makes two brands, Azari Vineyards and Corkscrew, a lower price point label for younger wines. Both were under my radar, but they tell me that they’re big sellers in Calgary, Canada — like I said, under the radar.

The 2013 Corkscrew Luma Blanc ($18) was an especially nice surprise — it’s 100 percent Riesling from estate vines that we saw, just starting to bud, on a tour of the vineyard with Chris. “Luma” is a local contraction of Petaluma, and a necessary ruse, said Azari, to sell a nice, dry Riesling, because, sadly, people won’t believe you if you say it’s a dry Riesling. It’s a light, juicy style of Riesling that hints at melon and lychee — an alternative to Pinot Grigio or Albariño.

Typical of the rosé here, the 2013 Corkscrew Rosé ($18) is a luscious, dark pink, chewy style. Still for sale — the only more recent release is the 2008 — the Azari 2007 Sonoma Coast Shiraz ($60) is perfectly aged. In many other wineries, this would be a library wine. Some wineries prefer to age their wines this long before release — at least, that’s what they often say.

In any case, the benefit is to the consumer: Even though the cork in the sample bottle I received was a little compromised, the bright, ruby wine tasted fresh, and had an appealing, ripe aroma of chocolate-cherry cordial. Exceptionally soft, with a glycerin feel on the tongue, the wine has tight, cranberry-licorice flavors that stop short on an astringent finish — more of an Italian-style table wine than a showy cocktail wine, this would be great with spicy lamb dishes.

It looks like Azari is on the cusp of turning from a work-in-progress to a hidden gem, a place that adventurous wine tasters will seek out.

Hit the Road
Take your Luma Blanc to Luma Petaluma, a bistro just a few blocks from Petaluma’s Theater District by the riverfront. SonomaCounty.com’s Duane Wells has checked out the brunch angle. Still hungry for pizza, head downtown to Brixx Pizzeria. While in cheese country, stop by Petaluma Creamery.

Hit the Hay
Enjoy your own slice of Wine Country in cow country at the Azari’s furnished rental cottage. Separated from the main house by a south-facing herb and citrus garden, there’s loads of space to lounge by the pool among the flowering urn planters and have a Maxfield Parrish moment as the fog rolls in front of the late afternoon sun.

1399 Spring Hill Road, Petaluma. By appointment only. Tasting fee, $15. 707-347-9846.

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