Robert Sinskey Abraxas 2003-2013
Recently, we had the honor of celebrating ten years of Robert Sinskey Abraxas at The Modern with Maria Sinskey. “A once in a life time event, even for me,” said Maria, “with so little reserves at the winery.” A white vin de terroir from Robert Sinskey’s organic Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard that is planted to three of the four noble grapes of Alsace (Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer with a touch of Pinot Blanc), Abraxas is a blend whose composition depends on how each varietal reacts to the vintage. As Maria discussed the history and inspiration of the wine along with Sinskey’s commitment to organic and biodynamic viticulture, we tasted through the vintages, beginning with the first, Abraxas 2003.
“When we were thinking about doing this wine,” said Maria, “we were at Marcel Deiss, who’d gotten into biodynamics heavily. Rob really liked what Marcel had to say, with his terroir wines reflecting single vineyards vs single varietals. It’s how Alsace used to be, everything was a terroir wine. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that they started separating the grapes and choosing the Grand Cru vineyards. Rob would taste it and say, I really want to grow this in Napa. And I’d say, You’re really high,” she added and laughed.
So Rob decided to try it.
Looking for a property close to the water with ample fog, Rob found Scintilla, a cool site that had been a Christmas tree farm without a harvest in 40 years. With fog cover from the Pacific, Scintilla has clay-loam, stony soil to which he planted Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat to his only vineyard in Sonoma, “Not knowing if they would survive.”
“He really wanted to make Abraxas because he was tired of making Chardonnay,” she said. “We made a fabulous Chardonnay with no malolactic fermentation, and 20% new oak. A beautiful Chardonnay, but this was in 1999 when people identified California Chardonnay with something rich, buttery and high in alcohol.” And Robert wanted to escape the expectations.
Desiring a complex wine with longevity, Robert was intrigued by the idea of growing a vin de terroir, a blend. Named for a Gnostic god of the 365 heavens, Abraxas is also the name of a Santana album, added Maria and laughed.
“I’m a chef, my trade is in the kitchen,” said Maria. “The food I cook keeps the wine in check. I started getting involved in the blending and tasting maybe eight years ago. It’s really about the table. It’s not about cocktail wines, or 100 points. It’s about the blend, it’s about the aromatics; it’s about how it’s going to evolve. It’s a blend of the vineyard, because we want to represent what’s produced that year. It all happens in the vineyard and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Married to Rob 18 years ago, Abraxas is the first wine that Maria has witnessed since its inception. In 2003 they made just 250 cases because they didn’t know what to expect. “In 2003, we didn’t have any Riesling, because it didn’t set. It’s been by far the most difficult thing to do. Riesling is very sensitive.” With the capacity to yield 2800 cases of Abraxas from the Scintilla Vineyard in the most generous of vintages like 2012, the Sinskey’s are committed to making their wines in the vineyard.
“We use the natural acidity in the grapes to balance the blend, versus having to add bags of acidity. That’s why we don’t do a lot of co-fermentations,” she said. “We could pick together and throw them all into the same tank, but I’m not a fan of grapes that taste like Sauvignon Blanc when they’re not Sauvignon Blanc. I find that if you pick too early, like with some rosés that have a Sauvignon Blanc note, it’s all because they’re getting picked really, really early, for the alcohol and acidity levels, but it’s neglecting the fruit. I’m really against hanging grapes longer than you need to,” she continued, “and I’m against manipulation. We don’t do any manipulations in the winery. Our goal is to grow it well, so when the grapes get to the crush pad, they’re full of nutrients so we don’t have stressed yeasts.”
At Sinskey Vineyards, growing well means organic farming. And as luck would have it, it was phylloxera that led them to it. In 1990, Rob and Jeff Virnig, the Sinskey’s winemaker, realized that one of their Chardonnay vineyards had become infested with phylloxera and when they went to dig up a vine to view its roots, the shovel’s handle broke. “They had to use a pic axe to get the clay up,” said Maria. “There was nothing alive. It was completely compacted, and the vines were essentially living on fertilizer and water. You could probably have pulled up a vine and gotten a tiny root ball, because that’s all there was. The roots had everything they wanted right there.” There had to be a better way, they thought, so they started right away working with Rudolf Steiner’s principles of biodynamic farming and with organic consultants, “to get the organic mass back to the soil,” she added, “to get nutrients into the soil naturally with compost, because soil is about texture and roots need access to air. It’s what launched our organic/biodynamic practices. Now when you walk in the vineyard after the rain, you can hear it. It’s spongy.”
And while all of the vintages were singing examples of just how age-worthy Abraxas can be, there were a few standouts across the room.
Robert Sinskey Abraxas 2003
44% Pinot Gris, 30% Pinot Blanc, 26% Gewurztraminer
So fresh and balanced with bright acidity, candied apricot, yellow apple, pear, white blossoms and great minerality. A real beauty.
Robert Sinskey Abraxas 2005
35% Pinot Blanc, 35% Pinot Gris, 25% Gewurztraminer, 5% Riesling
Fruit forward with peach and lemon aromas, petrol and white blossoms. Elegant, lean and bright, the minerally finish lingers long with a hint of fennel.
Robert Sinskey Abraxas 2009
47% Pinot Gris, 23% Riesling, 17% Gewurztraminer, 13% Pinot Blanc
Mineral aromas of petrol and slate with ripe stone fruit on the palate. Creamy and fresh with a slightly waxy viscosity, there’s apricot blossom and white pepper on the finish that lingers long.
Robert Sinskey Abraxas 2012
35% Riesling, 33% Pinot Blanc, 18% Pinot Gris, 14% Gewurztraminer
Super fresh with donut peach and white blossom aromas that also appear on the palate with wet river stone notes. Slightly tight when tasted against the older vintages, it’s bright now and will certainly develop in years to come.