Sebastapol, California, North America
Spotlight No. 11
One of my favorite questions to ask a winemaker is “If you were a wine, what would you be?” Some people are perplexed, but others, like Pax Mahle, know right away. When I asked Pax, he said, “ Syrah — we understand each other.” In fact, he realized he is very much like Syrah. They are both wild, savory, transparent to their experiences and sensitive to oak. Perhaps it was kismet that they found their lives entangled in success.
Pax did not come from anything wine. His father was in insurance; his mother, a nurse. He grew up a regular guy who studied art history because he liked the stories. His first job happened to be in a restaurant, where he discovered wine and all the history and culture it possessed and was inspired to become a master sommelier. He met Pam, now his wife, who was also studying for the exam. They fell in love and went to France, where they experienced life with the vines in the European tradition. Forgetting all about the commercial side of selling and presenting wines, they enjoyed working with the earth, side by side with the vines. But when fiscal reality set in, they headed back to the US.
Pax found a job as a buyer for Dean & DeLuca. He spent his days tasting wines and meeting winemakers and growers, comparing what he knew from Europe to what he was experiencing in California. His favorite wines came from wild, eccentric vineyards like Nellessen, Majik and Griffin’s Lair, where the growers did things their own way. These vineyards were full of a distinction that, unbeknownst to him, was forming the foundation of his future.
Figuring out the California equivalent of wines from Europe became a pastime for Pax. Oakville might be Pauillac. Carneros Merlot was something like Pomerol. And what about the inky, rich Syrahs of Cornas, in the Northern Rhône, that Pax loved so much? The more Syrah he tasted, the more intrigued he was by how its expression varied depending on where it was grown. He was smitten, and when grapes from one of his favorite Syrah vineyards came up for sale, he talked it over with Pam and then bought them, found backers, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
The first vintage for this new venture, 2000, produced under Pax’s name, was a defining one. Pax had never made wine before, so naturally he hired a winemaker. But when the first grapes arrived at the cellar, the winemaker wanted to add all kinds of things to them. Pax was sure this was wrong, so he “forgot” to tell the winemaker when the next grapes were coming in, and he and his team did what came naturally, by instinct. Pax’s inclinations were right; the wine was a huge success.
Pax believes wine becomes a part of who you are, and he is undeniably one with Syrah. His first wines came from warm climates that produce big wines like the ones from Cornas. But he was also attracted to lighter, brighter Syrah from cooler climates. At one point he was making 18 different Syrahs! But he does not consider himself a winemaker; he is simply its steward, the mediator between vineyard and wine. Pax is Latin for peace, and he has certainly found his.