Back in the ’80s, when syrah, grenache, and mourvèdre were hardly known outside their traditional home in France’s Rhône Valley, a group of winemakers advocated growing them in California.
One of these Rhône Rangers was Byron ”Ken” Brown, who introduced Rhône varieties into the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County while working at Zaca Mesa Winery. He started his winery, Byron Vineyards & Winery, in 1984, and, ironically, produced exceptional pinot noir and chardonnay — grapes native to Burgundy, not to the Rhône Valley.
Byron Vineyards was eventually acquired by the Robert Mondavi Winery. One result of that acquisition was the formation of Io (pronounced ”eye-oh,” after the princess in Greek mythology), a winery in Santa Barbara that would produce a Rhône-style red wine, with Brown as winemaker.
The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys in Santa Barbara are excellent sites for premium grape-growing despite their southern — and potentially too-hot — California location. These valleys lie between mountain ranges that run east to west, as opposed to the usual north-south, opening directly onto the Pacific Ocean, which means that the temperature in the vineyards varies depending on the proximity to water.
A blend of mostly syrah mixed with a pinch of mourvèdre and grenache, the 2001 Io is an exceptional wine. It’s always surprising to me how small components — 3.5 percent each of mourvèdre and grenache in this case — have such a large influence on the finished wine, imparting layers of flavors. Brown captured additional complexity by blending wines made from syrah grown in different vineyards, one slightly warmer than the other, to utilize the grape’s adaptability. When syrah is grown in cooler climates, the wine has peppery flavors as opposed to the ripe, plumlike flavors found in syrah from warmer locales.
The 2001 Io, silky and smooth, has plush, plumlike flavors mixed with peppery notes and an alluring smoky component. Although not inexpensive, it’s an excellent value in this price range.
Io, 2001 (about $35). Distributed by Martignetti Cos., 800-872-9463, and Horizon Beverage Co., 800-696-2337.
December 1, 2005