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Winemaker Stephen Singer bucks the trend

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Stephen Singer does not make normal wines. However, like the weird kid in high school who goes on to become a widely influential indie-movie director, the wines he does make have the potential to shake things up.

Grown at his vineyard in Sonoma County, the Syrah and Viognier Singer crafts display a precision, angularity and expression that is wonderfully different when compared to similar wines from the region.

“Over nearly the last two decades we’ve learned and refined the vineyard and our winemaking approach,” he said. “We only make a small amount of wine, and it’s not a style for everyone, but we’ve found a tremendous audience for the wines we do make, which is gratifying and encourages me to continue.”

Emblems of taste

When Singer was growing up in Oklahoma in the 1950s and ’60s, his family found success in the pipe business, supplying equipment to the burgeoning petroleum industry. Economic success translated into greater discernment and appreciation for wine and food.

“My dad’s experience in World War II solidified his belief in the importance of global culture,” he said, "and wine, art and food were all expressions of that world view. A nice bottle of Bordeaux or even an Argentinian Cabernet at dinner was a normal and welcomed activity at our house.”

What Singer came to believe was that food, art and wine could represent “emblems of taste” and that beyond simply vehicles of self-expression, each might play a role in helping redefine cultural norms and values.

Heading west

In the 1970s Singer moved to the Bay Area to pursue a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute and a bachelor of arts in critical theory from UC Berkeley. By the 1980s he was working as an artist, but he also continued his involvement with wine and food.

“The entire region was going through a revolution of taste at that time,” he said. “It was exciting to be a part of that energy — a wonderful melding of art, food and wine.”

And while art and wine were aspects of the revolution, the growing and making of food had become a political act. At the center of that revolution was a small Berkeley restaurant called Chez Panisse. Owned by Alice Waters, the eatery was at the very heart of the discussion about how eating might become a transformative act.

Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 and by the 1980s had pioneered what came to be known as California cuisine — a farm-to-table ethos that prided itself on serving fresh, organically grown produce that showcased the region’s ability to grow diverse, delicious and nutritious food.

By then, Singer was working with other Bay Area artists, including Stephen Thomas, who would eventually go on to co-found The Oxbow School in Napa. Thomas’ wife, Patricia Curtan, worked with Waters as an illustrator for her cookbooks and also in the kitchen as a sous chef. When Thomas and Curtan introduced Singer to Waters, the pair immediately hit it off. By 1983 they were married and had a daughter, Fanny.

Singer eventually became the wine director at Chez Panisse and also started his own wine retail shop in San Francisco called Singer & Foy Wines. Influenced by Bay Area wine importer Kermit Lynch, Singer scoured the region and the world looking for high-quality wines that reflected his world view.

Eventually, opened for a few years in the early 1990s, he had his own restaurant in the Napa Valley. Called Table 29 — located in the space that is now housed by Bistro Don Giovanni — the eatery attempted to serve local farm-to-table fare with wines from around the world.

Through all these experiences, Singer had become convinced that wine might act as a “propulsive and elevating force” on every table — not only because of its ability to taste delicious but also because of its ability to reflect its intimate relationship with the earth — where it was grown and the people who tended it into existence. It also had the ability to broaden horizons and provide other points of view within an ever-conforming world.

“The table is a hallowed space for me,” Singer said. “Wine, food and good conversation are all part of that experience and have the power to inform and transform.”

Today Singer’s passion for food and wine are represented in both his wines and an olive oil that he produces. Like his art — often angular and geometric — the wine and oil express a precision and intentionality that give them a lively distinctiveness.

The wine

The labels of Singer’s wines feature his own paintings that often have distinct geometric shapes. Along with his longtime winemaker, Greg Adams, Singer crafts only a minuscule amount of wine that often sells out quickly to his wine-list members. Although he is no longer with Waters, Singer collaborates with Fanny, who is an LA-based writer and the founder of the design brand Permanent Collection. Her part in the wine business is providing design guidance and event participation.

Grown on his Baker Lane estate vineyard, the 2019 Syrah ($95 a bottle and 150 cases made) shimmers ruby in the glass with aromas of dried cherry, Pekin duck and jaggery. This is a lively wine with a vibrant acid backbone and flavors of black olive, malt and dark fruit. Try this wine paired with slow-braised lamb shanks marinated with soy, garlic, a touch of molasses and a dash of Chinese five-spice powder.

The 2021 Viognier ($65 a bottle and 50 cases made) is effervescent, pale yellow in the glass with aromatics that range from citronella to candied ginger. In the mouth, this pleasingly angular wine tastes of pear and apricot and has the wonderful steeliness that is so alluring in any of the exceptional Viogniers from the Rhône Condrieu appellation in France.

Try this wine with any seafood dish — sushi, oysters, raw clams — or Rigotte, also known as Rigotte de Condrieu, which is a soft goat cheese with a bloomy rind. With the holidays coming up, I highly encourage trying this wine alongside roast turkey with cranberry sauce.

Beyond the two wines, the olive oil ($52 for 750 ml) is worth seeking out. These locally grown and milled oils are aromatically expressive and speak to Singer’s infatuation with angularity. Try the oil drizzled over sourdough bread or on a salad made with grilled vegetables brushed with balsamic vinegar and chopped rosemary.

“My goal is to continue to work toward achieving the highest expression of this vineyard,” Singer said. “When you get to live and work in such a beautiful place as this it fuels an animated sense of wonder and curiosity, and that’s something I love to celebrate and to share.”

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