Rod Byers: Hiding in plain sight: Alex Szabo of Szabo Vineyards and Winery
“Let the wines speak for themselves,” were Alex Szabo’s parting words as I left Szabo Vineyards and Winery located a few miles southwest of Grass Valley. They were the words of a man confident that he was on the right track and that his wines were proof in the bottle.
Here’s the thing about that sentence. I wrote it 11 years ago, in March of 2010.
This year will be Szabo’s fifteenth year of winemaking in Nevada County. Déja vu anyone? Those were his same parting words to me as I was leaving his winery last week.
In the late 1990s, after living and working in Europe for years, Szabo returned to California intent on planting a vineyard and starting a winery. While Szabo had a Hungarian ancestry steeped in wine, he was born in Ohio, and had never made wine.
In 2010 he told me, “I studied geological maps from California to Washington State looking for the right soils. I like Zinfandel and the Rhone varietals.” He continued. “California offered me the best options. The soil right here is among the best for the varieties I want to grow.”
After planting his 12-acre vineyard in 2004 he got a job working at Nevada City Winery as winemaker Mark Foster’s assistant. Szabo produced his first vintage there in 2006.
Now, after 15 years, I invited him to walk down memory lane. I was struck by how absolutely consistent Alex has been in his quest. And he is just as quixotic.
I had brought my last bottle of his first vintage 2006 Petite Sirah. He pulled a 2007 Syrah from his cellar. To complete the circle he brought out a 2019 Petite Sirah barrel sample.
Sitting at his dining table in his stunning new house overlooking cascading rows of vines arching steeply down to the winery below, he mused philosophically about quality. Immediate drinkability, elegance, intensity, power, longevity; what creates quality in wine?
As we talked I wondered, what would he tell his younger self to do, or not do?
As it has turned out, I don’t think he wants to change anything. Okay grudgingly, he suggested he would have done less Zinfandel but he has a soft spot for it. As far as Syrah and Petite Sirah, “Nevada County is the gold standard of anywhere in the Sierra Foothills,” he proclaimed.
“I’m a purist,” Szabo said. “It starts with the soil, carries on with the rootstock and grapes and continues with the cultural practices. Every little thing adds up to the big difference.”
To determine ripeness Szabo uses the traditional French berry measurement system including berry size, skin thickness, pulp, seeds, and cluster quality. “Brix and pH numbers don’t tell the whole story. No matter what the numbers are, the grapes are ready when they’re ready,” he emphasized.
The conversation turned more meaningful when he explained the complexities of making changes. “It takes years to establish a varietal, grow its roots, develop its character. It’s a big decision just to rip it out and start over,” he said.
Szabo explained that grape growing is a slow process. Experimenting, trying different techniques, making changes in canopy management, fertilization, and especially the timing and amount of irrigation all takes time. “Attempting too many new things at once can be confusing. You can’t tell what’s responsible for what.”
To get a feel for the land and learn viticulture firsthand he did most of the vineyard work himself. He ripped the soil, planted the vines and pulled the irrigation lines. Now, almost two decades later he is the emperor of his domain.
“I don’t rely on consultants much,” he said, gesturing out to the neatly pruned vineyard. “It’s me. It’s how I grow the grapes. It’s how I make the wine. It’s my palate.”
In the winery he believes in a light touch, “gentle persuasion” as he calls it. He uses gravity to rack his wines, rarely filters, and doesn’t use enzymes or color additives. He does all his own lab work but was quick to explain, “The real check is in the vineyard. Keeping the vines in balance keeps the winery in balance.”
Over time he has discovered that one of the keys to quality is time itself. He prefers two years, minimum, of time in the barrel and another year in the bottle before release. “The wines need time to develop, to show their personalities,” he said.
Reflecting back on what he didn’t know way back when, he explained, “grape growing is much harder, much more physical work than I thought and the winemaking is much more cerebral than I ever imagined.”
What about that proof in the bottle? At 15 years of age, his 2006 Petite Sirah was a perfect example of why you age wine in the first place. The stout tannins had softened while the acidity had kept the mature dark plum and spice flavors intact. By contrast, the 2019-barrel sample was vibrant and raw, a young, exuberant wine just starting the journey, delicious now, with so much potential.
As good as the Petite Sirah was, the 2007 Syrah was in a whole different league. Lovely balance with smoky, savory, chocolaty, raspberry notes, ya, I’d say the proof is in the bottle.
The Szabo Tasting Room is located at 316 Broad Street in Nevada City. The winery (www.szabovineyards.com) is open by appointment only.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-802-7172.
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“Let the wines speak for themselves,” were Alex Szabo’s parting words as I left Szabo Vineyards and Winery located a few miles southwest of Grass Valley. They were the words of a man confident that…