What’s the problem with Syrah?
We had a lot of wine at the old groaning board on Christmas Day: Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, sparkling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. But no Syrah. I know, because I brought all the wine, and there was no Syrah.
Of all the major varieties grown in California, Syrah’s the poor cousin. Nobody wants it. Winemakers tell me what a problem sell it is. Distributors grimace when they have to peddle it. It’s a fairly easy grape to grow, not fussy like Pinot Noir. Syrah throws a good crop, although it responds well to limiting yields, and it doesn’t seem to mind being grown in both cooler and warmer climates.
It should sell well because it’s got a pretty, easy-to-pronounce, French-sounding name, which Americans love. Merlot’s pretty, too, but Syrah is even sexier. It sounds like somebody whispering something in your ear. Ssssyyyrr-rarrrhhh. So what’s the problem?
For one, Americans have a fairly limited imagination when it comes to wine. Everybody’s heard of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the go-to red wine if you want something dry and fancy. Merlot’s probably #2. With Pinot Noir, of course, we in the industry have clubbed the consumer over the head like baby seals so many times since “Sideways” that there’s probably no one conscious who hasn’t heard favorable things about it. Zinfandel? Everybody knows something about it, too. But that’s when the brain starts getting pretty crowded with grape names. It’s about as easy trying to wedge Syrah in there as it is stuffing an overcoat into your already-full suitcase.
I looked up my highest scoring Syrahs in Wine Enthusiast over the last two years. Highest is a Qupe 2005 Bien Nacido, followed by a clutch of Faillas, a Chateau Potelle (are they still in business?), then a Rubicon, an Ojai (also from Bien Nacido), a pair of Zaca Mesas (gosh, their Black Bear Block is good) and a Heintz, which I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) comes from not too far from Ehren Jordan’s Failla. So these are all from relatively cool places.
They’re all rich, elaborate wines that deserve their high scores, and one of these days, you never know, a 100-point Syrah might come along (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was from one of the wineries mentioned above). At its best, Syrah is slightly soft, with velvety, ultra-refined tannins and a chocolate-biscuit taste to the berry fruit flavors, which can range from red cherries and currants through blueberries and blackberries, all the way into cassis. There is also often that savory hint of black pepper that only a cool climate can coax out.
I like a good California Syrah but when it comes to pitting it against its nearest neighbor in the noble, full-bodied red wine sweepstakes, I’ll take a great Cabernet Sauvignon every time. As lush as Syrah can be it never seems to have the structural depth of Cabernet. It’s like (pardon the analogy) the Anna Nicole Smith of red wine (may she rest in peace), beautiful, fascinating, exotic, opulent, curvaceous, eye candy (or in Syrah’s case, mouth candy), but somehow missing something essential. The greatest Cabernets are not missing anything, which is why they are so great.
I doubt if this “missing” quality, however, is why more Americans don’t buy Syrah. The masses wouldn’t know that, nor would they know that very few critics ever give perfect scores to Syrah, as opposed to Cabernet and Pinot Noir. So it remains a mystery why Syrah isn’t more popular. Someone once suggested to me that Syrah has been hurt by Aussie Shiraz’s cheap image, which may be partly true, but that assumes people know that Shiraz is Syrah. There was an article last summer, in winebusiness.com, which implied a certain indecisiveness on the part of American consumers, who seem not to know exactly what Syrah is, or what it ought to taste like, or how much a good bottle should cost, or why precisely they ought to buy it when they’re not quite sure they should (which is a violation of the First Law of Marketing: Convince the consumer he must buy the product, or suffer irreparable loss). There also is the implication that selling Syrah is a bit like trench warfare: each sommelier or merchant has got to hand-sell it to each customer, in a never-ending scrim that occurs on the one-yard line where getting past the cash register, not the goal post, is the goal.
Then there are Syrah’s weaknesses, which are greater than Cabernet’s. The worst you can say about a minor Cabernet is that it’s overcropped. That leaves plenty of room for them to score in the 83-85 point range, which isn’t bad. There are millions of glasses of such Cabernet Sauvignon sold every day at the nation’s Denny’s, Popeye’s, Red Lobsters, Longhorn Steakhouses and Tony Roma’s. A poor Syrah on the other hand is a truly dreadful wine. High alcohol can burn the finish, excessive sweetness make it insipid, and if you include green flavors with high alcohol and residual sugar you have something not even fit for vinegar. There are many such Syrahs and they come, surprisingly enough, not just from hot climates (Paso Robles, Livermore, Lodi) but cool ones (Edna Valley), although the truth is you’re more likely to get a bad Syrah from a hot climate than a cool one.
I don’t know what the answer is for selling more Syrah. Maybe that orphan variety needs a trade and promotion event, like ZAP or the Rhône Rangers or the World of Pinot Noir. Something that would raise Syrah’s profile in the consumer’s mind would be a good thing.