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What’s the problem with Syrah?

49 comments

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.

  1. David Cole says:

    Glad to see you at least writing about Syrah! The more we talk about it, the more people will drink it! There are many great Syrah’s and places to grow it in California. I agree some have gotten hot (high alc %), but you notice that when they are out of balance or lack fruit. It’s no different for Cabernet Sauvignon!

    For several years Syrah was just made into cheap wine. But now many great wineries are giving Syrah it’s due, like La Sirena, Qupe, Lewis, Core, James David Cellars (ok, selfless plug!:-)) and several more! Consumers are seeing, tasting and smelling the difference! Thank you again for just mentioning it!

  2. Thanks for bringing up a great topic; one that needs to be addressed. I love Syrah…..it’s more of a Kate Winslet in my book, though, than Anna Nicole Smith. It can be very cerebral, yet still very sexy and full of personality.
    I find, when I’m Syrah shopping, that Syrah is many things to many winemakers. Some of them make restrained, lovely, angular Syrahs, but most make overly-extracted, over-the-top Syrahs. It’s hard for the consumer to pin point what “varietal character” is in Syrah, because there are so many different kinds of Syrahs out there today, with varying flavor profiles. So, the varietal seems to remain an enigma to so many.
    Personally, I prefer cooler climate Syrahs, with more minerality and a certain violet character that can be very alluring.
    In my estimation, when done correctly, a good Syrah can offer everything a good Cab does. It seems we now have to collectively decide though…..what does Syrah taste like? What is its varietal character?

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for the blog post – ANY mention of syrah to me these days is a good thing!!!

    I love the variety and share it with as many folks as I can. Very few are disappointed when tasting a good to great one. Period.

    I’ve gotta disagree with you on a few points:

    First off, a ‘bad’ syrah is typically one devoid of varietal character . . . there truly are not that many still out there that suffer from pure alcohol burn as you describe (maybe a few years ago, but not now IMHO)

    Second, most 83-85 point cabs will still cost you somewhere north of $20, whereas you can find GREAT syrahs for the same price.

    Third, I’m a firm believer that the Aussie Shiraz explosion from 1998-9 through 2004-5 really did put in American consumers’ minds what a ‘syrah’ not only should taste like (sweet fruit bombs) but how much it should cost (under $12) . . .

    I firmly believe that 2010 will be the year of syrah and will certainly do all I can to expose as many people as possible to the variety and all that it has to offer – from floral/berry/pepper aromatics of a cool climate one to fruitier/lusher aromatics/flavors of a warmer climate one . . .

    So I hope you’ll be jumping on board as well – and talking about the ‘positives’ of the variety rather than continuing to talk about the ‘syrah malaise’ . . . .

    Cheers!

  4. We sell lots of Syrah, course they are from St. Joseph and Cornas….

  5. Domestic Syrah has identity issues– For most consumers (general and educated) no one really knows what waits in a new bottle- Beyond regions, winemaking styles vary soooo wildly– One could be thick, creature from the black lagoon styled syrup, and the next- coolish, peppery, medium bodied wine… It becomes like Burgundy with a need to know the grower / producer to make a semi-educated decision.

    Syrah is the variety that got me interested in wine, and what I think most current consumers are looking for when they flock to amp’d-up, testosterone-driven, Pinot Noir.

    The bummer about Syrah, is that the market is so grim, one of my favorite domestic Syrah producers didn’t even produce an 09 vintage.

    A save Syrah campaign is in need for sure…

  6. I couldn’t agree more. I’m hard-pressed to find Syrah in my small-town shops where I’m from… maybe an occasional Shiraz, but even the Aussies are having issues with exporting their wine now. I really feel like Sideways has partially ruined wine culture, turning people who have no knowledge of wine into wine snobs. They should be right at home drinking Andre or Miller Lite, but they’re busy extolling the virtues of some horrid Pinot Noir they got on sale at Wal-Mart because Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti once said something that sounded intelligent in a fictional movie they saw.

  7. Jason Brumley says:

    I work in a tasting room in Oregon. We make a Syrah from grapes sourced out of Washington. I generally have at least one person everyday who asks the question of what the difference is between Shiraz and Syrah. I would say that more Americans have tried or often drink Australian Shiraz, and have no clue, when faced with Syrah on a label, that they are the same varietal.

    I would agree that the poor quality of most Syrahs on the market has relatively little to do with its low sales and lack of popularity; but, as a fan, myself, I would love to see less overripe, jammy, flabby Syrahs out there. When the grapes are harvested with a lower brix level and higher acid levels, the wine can be a stunning and complex joy to drink. As you know, the vast majority of appellations in France blend Syrah, which definitely produces a much more complex wine. I would love to see more blending in new world wines. There are more winemakers doing a northern Rhone style blending with a bit of Viognier. Just two percent of Viognier can help with reduction issues, and can even add floral notes to the wine.

    Ultimately, it is the job of those in the industry and lovers of wine to educate the public, friends, and family in an attempt to steer the masses in a direction that maybe a little scary, but can truly round out one’s wine drinking experience.

  8. Aww, Joshua, I wouldn’t be that hard on Sideways. It did lots of good.

  9. Ray Juskiewicz says:

    Steve, not sure when you wrote this, but you say “one of these days, you never know, a 100-point Syrah might come along”. Did you miss the December 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast? Right there on page 68 is just such a creature. The Charles Smith 2006 Royal City from Columbia Valley Washington. It also ranked number 2 on the Entusiast 100. Don’t Washington wines count?

  10. Ray, I meant from California, from me. Sorry for the confusion.

  11. As someone that has to peddle Syrah every day, you are correct that buyers love it and consumers have no idea what it is. In reflection though, I think this does start in the vineyard and winery. Too many Syrahs I have tasted taste like confused RTW of inferior Cabernets versus tasting like Syrah. The terrior that comes in French Rhone wines is usually absent in CA wines. We have a tendency to vinify CA Syrah like Zin or Cab and land up with wines that are not in balance. The “bacon fat” is wood-wacked right out of the grape and we are left with flabbiness. When done right, in the hand of a skilled winemaker Syrah is a wonderful experience. Charles Smith is a good example. As far as a sellable product, we are over saturated with mediocre Syrahs and the market is justifiably non-accepting.

    BTW: I do find it interesting too that my spell checker had to be taught the word Syrah but not Cabernet!

  12. I believe one of the factors that affected Syrah’s success is that it is really a generous grape. It can make beautiful wines with decent crops from many locations cool, warm to downright hot! Hillside to valley. The wines are often diverse but very often quite good. At the end of the day you can find more great syrah for 15-20 than many other grape varieties.

    All of these factors make it hard to define what syrah is all about. With Pinot Noir you so often have to hunt for specific region and producer then put a second on my house just to find a really nice wine. With Syrah I feel like I can walk up to the shelf blindfolded and grab just about anything while waling out with a solid wine for well under fifty dollars.

    At the end of the day the Syrah issue is a marketing problem. We just do not have a clear message. Where does a great Syrah come from? How much should it cost? What does a great Syrah taste like? What is Syrah’s true character? What are the great food pairings with Syrah? Until these questions can be answered as they can with so many of the more successful grapes it will continue to be an uphill battle.

  13. I’m a bit surprised to read your concerns about California Syrah. Perhaps you haven’t had the opportunity to check out the amazing Rhone varietals being produced in the Paso Robles area – a region replete with microclimates so diverse that growers can produce everything from Chardonnay to Zinfandel.

    Have you attended the Hospice du Rhone? http://www.hospicedurhone.org/ I think you might find some Syrahs to your taste! Among my favorites are Hug Cellars, Tablas Creek, Alban.

  14. Denise, I like all 3 of those producers also. Unfortunately there are some pretty mediocre Syrahs from Paso Robles.

  15. Shhhh-don’t let the word get out or the price will go up! All those people out there that buy Cab/Pinot because they’re following along like lemmings don’t have a clue what they’re missing.

    Syrah is a winemaker’s wine. Yes, when done poorly as with any other varietal, it’s awful but when done right, there’s nothing to touch it. It’s got everything-tannins, acid, fruit, pepper, complexity most importantly, goes well with food.

    Look for small producers who make it for the love of the wine-Loxton, Zepaltas, Renard, Leo Steen, Peay, Unti, Olson-Odgen to name a few.

  16. Thanks for the blog on Syrah! More please …
    A big fan of cool climate CA Syrah. Some great ones from Carneros, Russian River Valley …

  17. Making many Syrahs, I have heard the endless complaints from distributors regarding how hard it is to sell Syrah. (I hear the same joke over and over from distributors – Do you know the difference between Syrah and Gonorrhea? You can get rid of Gonorrhea…) I do think confusion is a factor – Petite Syrah? Shiraz? And the numerous styles, also cause confusion. Many consumers seem to think that Syrah is always over-ripe and slightly sweet. I also agree that most consumers have a limit of how much they can/will remember about wine. I have read that the number one reason someone will purchase a wine is because they have had it before. If Syrah isn’t on their radar, it is hard to get there.

    It was interesting to read the last column from Dorothy and John of the WSJ on wine – http://bit.ly/4Hx4mN 9 wines made their “Delicious” list in 2009 – 5 are Syrah based. Perhaps it is more than just wine-makers who get Syrah and perhaps/hopefully, we will start to see more momentum in 2010.

    A while back we did some farcical videos about Syrah/selling Syrah – you can view them at http://www.secretagentsofsyrah.com.

  18. “What’s the problem with Syrah?”

    Well, let’s review the situation:
    *There are hundreds if not thousands of Syrahs produced in nearly every region of California.
    *Some of them suck, but a good number of them are very, very good.
    *There exists a wide range of styles from which to choose.
    *And, finally, because demand is soft, prices generally remain accessible (I cite the fact that the Lagier Meredith Syrah from Mount Veeder, IMHO the finest produced in California year in and year out, was $50 when introduced about 10 years ago and is still $50).

    “What’s the problem with Syrah?”

    My answer: What problem?

  19. CA Syrah gets a bum rap – if it’s grown & made poorly, it will be bad. But if made well…

  20. Steve:
    That Charles Smith wine, have you tried it? I know that your colleague Poul Gregutt was the one who gave it 100, but best I can tell, y’all seem to have pretty similar palates.
    I’d be very intererested in your take on California vs. Washington syrahs. Also on syrah as the primary grape in blends from places like Saxum.

  21. Extremely interesting article.

    I think one of the biggest issues with Syrah is that many (if not most) in the New World are simply picked too ripe. Syrah is a grape that requires courage in the vineyard and winery to achieve its highest levels. And, in my opinion, the practices required for Syrah greatness scare many vineyard and winemakers. In the vineyard, many picking decisions are based on taste. In my experience, if you wait for the Syrah grape to taste lush and sweet in the vineyard, you have waited too long. Syrah ripeness is about seed ripeness. In Walla Walla, mature seeds have an unpopped popcorn kernel type of taste. As soon as this flavor is detected, its time to pick. This may be well before the grape tastes sweet on the palate. The pulp itself may taste green. For reason we all know, many will simply not pick this early.

    Secondly, in my opinion, Syrah fermentations require stems to bring out Syrah’s greatness. Most winemakers (other than Pinot producers) are terrified of stems, especially green stems. But I just don’t find the results interesting without stem inclusion, giving the wine a depth of flavor and structure that it lacks.

    My standard line with Syrah is – If a few tanks don’t scare the heck out of me, I haven’t let the grape fulfill its potential. As a side note, we have done extremely well with Syrah, even in an “I can’t sell Syrah” environment. Hopefully more will recognize how special this wine is in both Washington and California.

    Greg Harrington
    Gramercy Cellars
    Walla Walla, WA

  22. Bill, I did have the Charles Smith Syrah. I like it a lot; might now have scored it quite as high as PG but that’s his palate and perogative. Also, Paul and I actually don’t have similar palates. We quarrel about Oregon vs. California Pinot Noir quite a bit.

  23. Morton Leslie says:

    Syrah has several problems, but the first and foremost is that it very often doesn’t taste good. Even if it is quaffable, there is usually little to differentiate it from a Zin or a Cab in style. Often I have found new world winemakers know Cab pretty well, but are relatively ignorant of the Cote Rotie or Hermitage. Often their model is an ordinary, heavy, dark warm climate Syrah or Napa Valley Cabernet.

    Basically there is cool climate Syrah and warm climate Syrah. Almost all California Syrah is in what I would call a warm climate. Same with almost all Australian Shiraz. Even in the warm Southern Rhone the wines are frequently just average. That means that most of the Syrah in the world is warm climate. Tough to build a reputation for a variety on that.

    Fortunately we have the Northern Rhone and the Pacific Northwest which gives the variety some hope…but only if the winemaker understands that Syrah can make a soft, velvety, luscious wine under a gentle hand. Syrah makers should part with some $$ and buy some great Cote Rotie, maybe not the single vineyard La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turques of the world, but some good negociant Cote Roties and try to imitate them.

    With an understanding of the true potential of the wine, I expect over the next decade we will see the variety flourish in Oregon and Washington. Andy Quady is a smart guy with a good palate He knows what he is up against with the variety, yet he and his son have made a big commitment to the variety in So. Oregon. I think that means there’s hope.

  24. “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).”

    Steve, Manfred Krankl’s SQN 2002 Just for the Love of it got 100 score from Parker as did the following Syrahs.

    Alban Vineyards Syrah Lorraine Vineyard 2005
    Sine Qua Non Atlantis Fe 203 1A 2005
    Sine Qua Non Poker Face2004
    Sine Qua Non The 17Th Nail In My Cranium Eleven Confessions Vyd 2005
    Sine Qua Non The Inaugural (Syrah) 2003

  25. Steve,
    Great topic. I agree with many here as a Syrah lover myself. The fact remains that Syrah is still treated as a secondary grape at best and doesn’t always recieve the serious attention in the vineyard and winery that might give it a fighting chance.

    But I am hopeful more and more wineries will change this approach and we will see the grape and wine reach its rightful place among the best the Earth has to offer.

  26. I started making Pinot when it was not popular, and we predicted every year that “this is the year that Pinot is going to take off” until it finally did. I still make Pinot but started making Syrah also in 1995, and every year I think “this is going to be the year…”

    The vineyard boom that followed the dot com bust did a lot to hurt Syrah here in California. Guys who made a lot of money in silicon thought they could buy marginal vineyard land at top dollar, plant Syrah and recoup their investment in 4-5 years. Through the middle of the decade we have had to deal with an ocean of true dreck. I say a little prayer of thanks every time I hear that someone has pulled or budded over their Syrah vineyard.

    In the meantime I just keep doing what I’m doing. Our vineyard is so cool it tries my courage every year – in 2009 we picked our Syrah on 10/28 and made just over 24°Brix at just over 3 tons/acre – later, a little lower and about average for us. When newbies taste our wines they sometimes mistake the Syrah for Pinot, and the Pinot for Burgundy if they have that point of reference. Of course our Syrah does not taste like Pinot and our Pinot does not taste like Burgundy – this response tells me more about what they have been drinking than it says about our stuff.

    Steve, PLEASE – just keep talking about Syrah. Someday this really will be the year…

  27. Thanks for your post on Syrah Steve. I just love this varietal, and am left scratching my head that its not readily embraced by many wine aficionados. I’d like to weigh in on an appellation that was not mentioned in your post…The Santa Lucia Highlands. While best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, there are several top notch Syrahs produced in this cool climate Monterey County appellation including releases from Hahn SLH Estate, Wrath, Lucia, Manzoni, Morqan and Paraiso.

    Philip Woodrow
    Hahn Family Wines

  28. Greg, that is interesting to read w/ respect to ripeness. It seems a lot of vintners says the grapes just aren’t ripe until the sugar is way past 25 Brix, based on flavor. Then they water back, acidulate or de-alc to restore some balance. So it seems others could harvest less ripe under 15% (instead of 16%+) potential alcohol and the green flavors wouldn’t be overwhelming in the finished wine.

    Alcohol is my primary complaint with Syrah. Even in balanced wines of 15%+ ABV, usually they have a thickness and glycerol quality that gets cloying. The other complaint is oak abuse. Syrah seems delicious on its own, so why hit it with a 2 x 4?

  29. I absolutely agree with your oak abuse comment. Most of our Syrahs get all neutral barrel/puncheon. One cuvee gets 10% new.

    We routinely harvest Syrah in our vineyards below 24 brix. All of our Syrahs are under 14%. We have one vineyard that is usually harvested last week of October in the 22-23 range. The wines will absolutely turn green in the tank. More than one winemaker has walked into the winery, smelled the tanks and given me the “you have no clue” look. But 6-12 months in barrel and the green turns to smoke and tar. That being said, not everyone enjoys the smoked meat & pepper style of Syrah.

    Also take a look at what Faillia ans Parr Selections are doing with “cool climate” Syrah in CA.

  30. Most wine consumers know what to expect from Cabernet Sauvignon but it didn’t necessarily happen in a five-1o year span. If they’ve been drinking wine for as long as I have, they had 30-35 years of understanding Cabernet or Chardonnay(for better or worse). I’ve been drinking Syrah for about ten years and only in the last few years have I gotten a good grasp of what to expect from different areas and producers.

    One of my best Syrah experiences was four or so years ago. I found a couple bottles of Qupe Central Coast Syrah at 1/2 price due to label staining. I paid $9.00 for each. The wine wasn’t something you would age for 5-10 years, but it was so damn tasty. Nice blueberry/raspberry fruit, good acidity, nice body/texture, not at all hot from alcohol, no real oak character. It was just oh-so pleasurable that I couldn’t stop drinking it.

  31. David, it would be great to find a good $9 Syrah these days!

  32. Steve, Glad to see this post. I did some thinking on this topic earlier in the year after Paul Gregutt did a blog post on issues people here in Washington have had selling Syrah (although some, such as Greg Harrington have not). My conclusions are that the problems in Washington are somewhat marketing related:

    1) Lack of consumer understanding of what the wine will taste like: Syrah comes in a wide varietal of styles from big, fruity, alcohol heavy wines to earthy, smoky, low alcohol wines and many points in between. Some like some; some like all; some don’t like any. Who is to know without a lot of experimenting?

    2) Lack of consumer understanding on price: Most consumers understand that high-end Cabernet can get quite expensive (thank you Napa). But people are willing to pay the price. These wines have built up reputations and have a long trail of high scores. Can we say the same for American Syrah? The wines in Washington are often quite compelling once one gets up to $40 dollars or more, but will they get there?

    3) Lack of high quality, low cost options: Washington does not offer many quality Syrahs in the $15 and under category, what I refer to as the “gateway drugs”. Wines from other regions, such as the Rhone and Australia, compete successfully in this price category. This creates problems leading consumers up the price levels where the wines get more interesting.

    4) Lack of availability: Many of the top producers make very limited quantities of their wines making it hard for them to get broader, national exposure.

    What interests me reading this post and the comments is how California suffers from many of the same identity issues. Issues 1 and 2 above seem to be shared between Washington and California. I can’t speak to 3 and 4.

    For Washington, my feeling is that, as the Syrah continues to receive high scores and positive press, the situation will be corrected. With the high scores, I believe many will go point chasing and 1) won’t care if they know what the wine tastes like before buying it 2) will be less concerned with the price 3) will be able to find more low cost options as Washington Syrah makes a name for itself and 4) will seek these wines out making the limited availability potentially a positive for wineries.

    Time will tell whether it plays out this way, and it will be interesting to see whether the success of Washington Syrah has any effect on California.

  33. Our wholesalers and distributors have trouble with Syrah. Though, Syrah flies out of the tasting room.

    I think Syrah can be difficult to make well because it can easily become one dimensional meaty/bacony, cherry fruit, etc. It’s a great blending grape. More than one dark Pinot can thank Syrah for the color that is impossible to get on its own.

  34. This is some amazing discussion.

  35. Brad K brings up a very interesting point that I think defines consumer confusion with Syrah. It will not pull well into the wholesale market as unguided consumers may not pick it off the shelf. However in the tasting room when they can taste the product they realize the quality/value and buy.

  36. which proves it’s a hand sell.

  37. http://ampelography.blogspot.com/2009/12/problem-with-syrah.html

    Hi Steve, see above link for point by point rebuttal of your article, no offense, but I think you may need a fresh take…

  38. Tracy Preston says:

    I appreciate this article simply because I, too, rarely ever have a Syrah present for a meal. To the point, I find that there are very few producers who do a good job with it, and when done well, the bottle is usually very pricey! Once there’s more consistency with this variety, I’m sure it can and will flourish.

  39. Phil – I wish I could agree with you in general but from what I hear and see, it the tasting room, it still is a hard sell.

    Greg – I think many Californians are harvesting at much lower Brix these days. When we started and told growers our target was 23 Brix, we got the look you described as “having no clue”. Now, they tell their other buyers to think about harvesting the same day we do.

    As to Oak, I am not sure I agree. I find the cooler the climate, the more oak the wine can take. (That said, we use zero new oak.)

    This conversation reminds me of reading John Livingstone-Learmonth book about the Rhone. At one time, Hermitage was considered one of the great wines in France. For various reasons (many having to do with commerce – not wine), it fell at of favor.

  40. (Hit submit accidentally.) As Hermitage fell, so did the other great terroirs in the Northern Rhone. Cote-Rotie feel into decline, Brezeme came with in inches of losing all of its vines etc. Then, Robert Parker, starts to talk about the wonderful wines and the area turns around in a few decades.

    Perhaps Syrah does need a movie or someone like Obama drinking it.

  41. Steve
    I must say that I have always been a big syrah fan. I’d rather drink a syrah than a cab, but I know that puts me in the minority. Did you taste the Peay syrah this year? It was one of my highlights of the Wine & Spirits Top 100 tasting.

    -Amy

  42. Amy, I did not review the Peay Syrah.

  43. Steve-good article on Syrah.
    I agree with the point that Aussie Shiraz has hurt CA (and every other new world producer) of Syrah. But I would suggest it is not due to the cheap image, but rather that Australia defined what new world Syrah/Shiraz is. In my experience selling for an importer of boutique Aussie wines, there were as many people who knew they were the same grape as people who had no clue. The problem is the people who were “in the know” looked to Australia for their new-world Syrah/Shiraz fix. Those who were not, had not yet had Syrah (as opposed to Shiraz) defined for them. I would note that many of the people in the latter group were already drinking, and loving, Aussie Shiraz.

    -Chris

  44. Steve, what a great topic and some great remarks from all! My experience is similar to John Kelly’s. I find it a bit perplexing that some of the lowest scores I got on any wine I ever produced came on Syrah from US publications and the SAME wine got a 5 star Decanter award in a global Syrah tasting. Go figure. At the same time, It is our biggest seller in the tasting room. From a winemaker’s point of view, I like to blend small quantities of complementary varieties in Syrah in order to “fill the hole” in the mid palate of Syrah ( I call it the doughnut variety). Carignane is my favorite. Regardless, I see the biggest problem with California cool climate Syrah is that it is drunk and reviewed too young! It is only when the fruit character attenuates a little (and only if alcohol is kept in check) that the true beauty of syrah shines through. As a wine lover, however, I would rather have a mediocre Syrah than a mediocre Pinot ANY DAY!

  45. Oded, yes I’d rather have a mediocre Syrah too. Mediocre Pinot Noir is awful. Thank goodness there’s not a lot of it. I’ve always liked your Syrah at Longboard. Your 2006 DaKine was very successful.

  46. When I hear that any wine if “flying out of the tasting room” I always snicker to myself. The problem is I cannot drive around with 20 acres of beautiful vineyards and a spectacular tasting room in the trunk of my car when I head out to sell wines. Every wine “is what it is” when you are 10th in the queue for a buyer at a retailer/restaurant. Wines ALWAYS sell & taste better at the winery when consumers are “in the zone”. You go to the winery to get away and be there. What makes your wines stand out on a shelf or menu with hundreds of other wines is all that matters. Consumers do not have the opportunity to sample before they buy so the gravitate to what they think they know. As the budget tightens they tend to buy safer bets and if a solid Cab sells for $20 (the same price as a Syrah no matter the quality) the consumer will gravitate to the Cab/Merlot/PN.

  47. Im glad you are all talking about Syrah. I have to agree with Larry, you can find a good Syrah for much less than a good Cab. I think Syrah has a potential to be all the more interesting than a good Cab. My father Bob Lindquist of Qupe, has strived to bring Syrah to the forefront of the California market for 27 years now, and I have also under my own label Ethan Wines. We will continue to make good Syrah, and we will continue to educate people in the grape. I think Syrah will soon be back on the rise, and I do agree that the best Syrah’s come from cooler climates. If you can name a grape that gives Santa Barbara County, its identity, it is Syrah. Not Pinot Noir, Pinot is only grown in very tiny portions of the county, and for the most part is not even being made varietally correct. If you want a good SBC wine next time your in a restaurant, look for a cool climate Syrah.

  48. Ethan, thanks. I will look forward to reviewing your wines if you care to send them to me.

  49. Steve,

    I agree with you that hot climate Syrah has hurt the syrah sales in that they don’t show the consumer a quality product. We here at Sierra Vista have an average temperature range almost identical to that of the northern Rhone Valley and we do have nuances of pepper that we do not have to coax out.

    I also agree with Ethan that you can get a very good Syrah for less money than a very good Cab.

    We do have an organization, whose mutual benefit corporation was instigated by Barry Bergman and me in 1997, for the express purpose of promoting Syrah and other Rhone style wines. I think it has helped but also hindered because when Syrah became popular many growers in Lodi and other hot climates planted it. And that was a detriment to Good Syrahs. When Syrah has been around as long as Cabernet I think the good growing areas will be sorted out and the poor growing areas will move to something else. If you come to the Rhone Rangers the weekend of March 27/28 you can taste some Syrahs older than 10 years that will be poured by me and others.

    Sincerely,
    John MacCready
    owner and winemaker

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  1. Is a Shiraz Rebound in the Cards? « Terroirists – probably the best wine blog in the world - [...] written off by wine drinkers. Whether or not this problem is to blame for Syrah is debatable. As Steve …

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