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Further musings on Syrah/Rhone-style wines

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Considering that Rhone-style wines from California are such a hard sell, it’s strange that Rhone Valley wines–real ones, from France–“celebrated record levels of growth in the U.S.,” according to Inter Rhone, a marketing group, as reported here on Yahoo Finance.

The brief report doesn’t specify which appellations in the vast Rhone Valley so many Americans are buying, except it adds, almost as a side note, that “wines in the $10-$20 segment” are popular, which leads me to believe they’re from the Cotes du Rhone, (including Villages), Luberon, Vacqueyras, perhaps Crozes Hermitages and places like that, rather than the higher quality and pricier Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Saint-Joseph and Hermitage.

Well, nothing unusual about that. More Americans buy cheaper wines from the Central Valley than cult Napa Valley Cabernets.

But why are they opting for Rhone Valley wines while spurning California Rhone-style wines? That’s the question.

That Syrah and its sisters are hard sells in this country is largely anecdotal, but the anecdotes are frequent and convincing. Planted acreage of Syrah in California actually fell between 2009-2011, as it did for Grenache. (Mourvedre held its own in those years.) This was, I suspect, because growers budded their Syrah and Grenache over to more sellable varieties, such as–climate permitting–Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

The answer is complex, but it can be boiled down to two factors: the continuing appeal of French wines to American wine consumers who may not have particularly sophisticated palates, but know what they like; and the sad fact that so many California Rhone-style wines just aren’t very good.

The appeal of French wines is longstanding and understandable. When you put it together with a price between $10-$20, you’ve got a marketing green light. The lighter alcohol of French wines also appeals to many supermarket buyers (which is where most of these wines are sold), who are looking for a medium-bodied, dry red wine to drink with roasted chicken, a backyard barbecue of steak and burgers, or even Mexican food.

California Rhone-style wines on the other hand are often heavy-handed, clumsily sweet and sometimes even vegetal (given the difficulties of ripening Mourvedre and Grenache). Since January, 2011, I’ve tasted about 100 of what could be called “Cotes-du-Rhone”-style bottlings, and gave 90 points or higher only to ten (my highest score was a Sanguis 2008 “Endangered Species,” but then, it costs $70 retail). More typical was a Paso Robles blend, which I won’t name, that was “soft, sweet and unripe.” I scored it 81 points.

There are far more varietal Syrahs bottled than Rhone-style blends, which means far more high-scoring Syrahs, such as almost anything from Qupe, Failla and Donelan. But these are destination wines: pricy, beyond the means of the average American, and even at its absolute best, California Syrah is, well, a peculiar wine. It’s full-bodied, but not as much so as Cabernet Sauvignon; velvety and soft, but so is Merlot, which has better structure; and rich in fruit (but what well-made California wine isn’t?). Dramatic, yes, even stunning, but a one-off, like a men’s velvet smoking jacket or (to drag in a culinary metaphor), a rich soufflé with shaved truffle: not something you wear or eat every day.

Hooray for the Rhone Valley people, I say, for making good wines at an affordable price. I used to drink a lot of Cotes-du-Rhone myself, back in the day (not to mention the Languedoc), and if I didn’t have this gig, I’d probably still be drinking it.

  1. You do realize that Crozes-Hermitage is in the north and CdP is in the south? Regardless, yes the supposed discrepancy between the increase in sales of Cotes-du-Rhone wine vs. the sagging sales of domestic Rhone-style wines is odd. Lack of Americans’ wine knowledge is probably the real reason. How many people hate all Chardonnay but love Chablis?

  2. Was just at the Avila wine festival this last sunday and was pouring two Rhone blends and several people came up and said, ‘oh no, those aren’t my varietals… do you have any Cabernet?’. The lack of consumer’s knowledge coupled with their inability to try something other than chocolate or vanilla will continue to cast a shadow on the demand for Rhone varietals in California, no matter how good they continue to get.

  3. The people who are buying Cotes-du-Rhone at the supermarket may have a lack of knowledge, but that applies to French wine even more than American wine. Those people (include me) are not buying the wine for its prestige or because we know a lot about the producers and the vineyard’s terroir. We’re merely choosing a wine we can afford and which brings us the most pleasure. In a recent weeklong stay in Paris our apartment was close to a small supermarket. The wines half dozen wines they carried from the North and South of Rhone, in the 6 to 10 euro range, were terrific. Locally, our small market, Sunshine, also has a half dozen tasty Rhone choices as well. Right here in the wine country a lot of us ask, why take a chance on an American wine at twice the price? To the American winemakers who think that producing black-as-ink,tannic monsters using saignée and new oak the best advice is to start tasting and emulating the wines that are eating your lunch.

  4. Steve,

    I think you nailed the main reasons Rhone varietals are such a hard sell for Americans and so easy for the French. I just spent March visiting the Southern Rhone to educate myself on the differences. The biggest difference may be price point. As you mentioned imported wines are selling in the 10-20 range, meaning they were in the 5-10 range in France. The large wine players in the States aren’t set up to make Rhones, as different techniques and equipment are needed. The Stateside marketing and even label laws are oriented around single varietal bottling. So you only get smaller producers, myself included, shooting for a higher price point domestically (though without the name recognition of CDP or Saint Joseph).
    That Rhone varietals (blends especially) are not often done with the same finesse as in France is a shame. But, when done right, I think they can be more versatile and friendly than any other varietal/region.

  5. Kyle, you’re right, thanks for pointing out my hasty misreporting! I”ve corrected the error. Also, good point about people hating Chard but loving Chablis.

  6. Steve,

    Interesting blog post as usual, but one that I’m not sure I agree with.

    First off, it would be great to understand that increase more and how it breaks down regionally. I can honestly say that you do not see as much CdR or CdP sold on the West Coast as you do on the East Coast. Also, they allude to rose – how much of that increase are roses being dumped on the market?

    Second, I have to agree with Morton and that a lot of the sales of these wines is not necessarily due to much other than price . . .

    I’m saddened but not surprised to hear of your recent tasting results on domestic rhone blends. I know there are a bunch of them out there that do offer great value for the money, but not necessarily great value in the $10-20 range. That is simply a difficult category for small and medium sized wineries to hit with the cost structures we have. That does not mean it can’t be done – but I believe the sweet spot for many of these wines is the $0-40 range.

    Your acreage information is also interesting. There was too much syrah planted too quickly during the 90’s and therefore we are seeing these vines budded over to other things – but not necessarily what you are implying. Yes, perhaps in the Central Valley and scatterings here and there, but I’ve seen syrah budded over to grenache, to petite sirah, to Carignane, and to other rhone varieties as well.

    I hope you can make it out to the next Rhone Rangers tasting across the bay from you in San Francisco. If you do, I will personally assist you in pinpointing a wide variety of rhone blends from CA, WA, OR and elsewhere that truly stand out from the crowd . . .

    More later – gotta take care of kids that are started to destroy the house!

    Cheers!

  7. I am a great fan of both California and French Rhone-style blends. The California GSM’s (Grenche, Syrah, Mourvedre) have developed a flavor all their own and I think the terroir and the blending style of Paso winemakers gives them a unique character. They are expensive, and I agree more expensive than Rhone blends are in Europe. I think this is just market dynamics and California winemakers electing to set the prices high, since wine is a luxury item in the USA, and part of everyday life in Western Europe.

    As to the relative lack of appeal of California GSM’s in the market, I wholeheartedly agree that this is due to unsophisticated buyers – but on the high end. In other words, American consumers do a little research and discover that the oldest and finest varieties of grape cultivated in California are Cabernet and Zinfandel and they decide to spend their money on these varietals – these are the same people with disposable income that buy 6000sq ft “McMansions” when a nice townhouse of half the size is much more practical.

    Will American winos develop a taste for California GSM’s? They should – because there are some GarEAT ones out there right now – I don’t think they will because of the snootiness factor which leads domestic wine buyers to more well known wines.

  8. I agree with Larry that there are some fantastic California based Rhones out there. I’ve had two fantastic Syrahs (North Coast and Carneros sourced) as well as a simply amazing Howell Mountain Grenache in just the past few months. The problem? All were very pricey and all were under allocation which means 1/2 a case and thanks for playing. It’s funny how in the movie Bottle Shock they portrayed the wine makers as guys who smoke fattys and make killer Chards. Maybe in the 70s but not now. Those that are making Cali based Rhones are taking themselves way to seriously and completely missing the point of what a Rhone Red is. A food friendly, reasonably priced, happy fun wine. It’s a wine that one grabs on the way to the checkout with some chicken and some mop sauce not a cult wine that needs to be cellared for 10 years and sold at Christies by a trust fund knucklehead named Tad.

    I also disagree that American consumer ignorance is to blame. It’s precisely that ignorance that is making the French offerings fly off the shelf. Understand that a large portion of these wines are sourced from Côtes du Rhône-Villages. The basic American supermarket shopper has no idea that Villages is to Châteauneuf-du-Pape / Gigondas what Lake County is to Napa. More important, they don’t care! They get a nice fun red for a nice fun price. That’s it.

    Until California wine makers get this concept, we will have to stay with the French.

  9. Ah yes, Cotes-du-Rhones. One of the four basic food groups for a college student in the 1970s along with brown rice and tofu. I forget the fourth. ;>)

  10. Steve, you were comparing Cali-Cab with Cali Syrah! This is my comparison from a post in February comparing the great Shafer 2007 Relentless and great Cabs in general:
    “When I think of a great Cabernet, I think of a Royals Royce, but when I think of a great Syrah, I think: Ferrari, and the Relentless takes me for a brisk spin up the coast of California with warm air over my bald head and beautiful hillsides of green, a deep blue sea, and songs of larks whistling from their fence perches. Crazy to get so much out of a wine, but it is what it is. . .”

  11. A couple more points here:

    There certainly are some pretty high priced CA rhone blends and straight syrahs, but for each of those you mention over $50 you can find plenty in the $20-40 range – how about Stolpman, Beckmen, Epiphany, Piedrassai, Melville, Ojai, Jaffurs, Zaca Mesa, Andrew Murray just to name a few – and these are only (and ALL) from Santa Barbara County. I do believe that those on the upper end of the market for these varieties are doing a great job and are still relatively inexpensive for what you get compared with many ‘similar quality’ CA cabs and pinots, but they are limiting their market somewhat . . .

    That’s okay – there are plenty of us playing in that mid-priced level that are happy to be doing so.

    Cheers!

  12. For me, and this may sound very simplistic, Rhone wines–whether they be Roties and Hermitages from the North, or CDRs and their Villages and CNDP’s from the South–are “wines from a place.”

    Having visited the Rhone many years ago, I find it quite difficult, if not impossible, to not visualize and think about many of those evocative cities, towns and restaurants. It’s not Proustian, but it’s damn near.

  13. Tom,

    Good points, but the same case could certainly be made for Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italian varieties, etc.

    I think many of us in the ‘Rhone Ranger’ movement strive to make wines that speak of a certain place and time so that you can hopefully conjure up those same thoughts . . .

    Cheers!

  14. Here’s a sample listing of red Rhone-style wines that were poured at the Rhone Rangers San Francisco tasting in March — all $20 and under:

    Andrew Murray “Tous les Jours” Syrah (2009), $16
    Beckmen Red Blend “Cuvee Le Bec” (2010) $18
    Bonny Doon Red Blend “Contra” (2010) $15
    Bonny Doon Grenache “Clos de Gilroy” (2010) $18
    Bonny Doon Syrah “Le Pousseur” (2008) $20
    Chateau Ste Michelle Red Blend “Austral” (2009) $20
    Clayhouse Syrah, Paso Robles, (2009) $14
    Cline Cellars Syrah Sonoma County, (2009) $12
    Cline Cellars Syrah Cool Climate (2010) $16
    Cline Cellars Syrah Los Carneros (2009) $20
    Cline Cellars Mourvedre Ancient Vines (2010) $16
    Cline Cellars Carignan Ancient Vines (2010) $16
    Core Grenache Santa Barbara County (2008) $20
    Core Mourvedre Santa Barbara County (2008) $20
    Domaine de la Terre Rouge Red Blend “Tete-a-Tete” (2008) $18
    Domaine de la Terra Rouge Syrah “Cotes de l’Ouest” (2008) $18
    Hahn Family Wines Syrah “Cycles Gladiator” (2009) $12
    Hahn Family Wines Red Blend (GSM) (2010) $14
    Hahn Family Wines Petite Sirah Lodi (2010) $12
    Holly’s Hill Grenache Noir (2009) $20
    Holly’s Hill Mourvedre “Classique” (2009) $20
    J. Lohr Syrah (Estate) (2010) $15
    Michael-David Syrah “Sixth Sense” (2010) $16
    Michael-David Red Blend “Incognito Rouge” (2009) $18
    Michael-David Petite Sirah (2009) $18
    Morgan Winery Red Blend “Cotes du Crows” (2010) $18
    Morgan Winery Syrah (2009) $20
    Niner Wine Estates Syrah (Bootjack Ranch) (2007) $20
    Pear Valley Vineyard Syrah (Estate) (2006) $18
    Pear Valley Vineyard Grenache (Estate) (2009) $15
    Peterson Winery Carignane “Zero Manipulation” (2009) $15
    Pomar Junction Red Blend “Brooster Red” (2010) $18
    Proulx Wines Petite Sirah (2010) $16
    Robert Hall Syrah (2009) $18
    Robert Hall Red Blend “Rhone de Robles” (2008) $18
    Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah (2009) $19
    Skylark Red Blend “Red Belly” (2009) $20
    Steele Wines Grenache “Writers Block” (2010) $15
    Steele Wines Syrah “Shooting Star” (2009) $12
    Steele Wines Petite Sirah “Writers Block” (2009) $15
    Tablas Creek Red Blend “Patelin de Tablas” (2010) $20
    Treana & Hope Family Red Blend “Trouble Maker” (NV) $18
    Treana & Hope Family Red Blend “Liberty School Cuvee” (2009) $12
    Valley of the Moon Syrah (2009) $19
    Vina Robles Red Blend “RED4″ (2009) $16
    Zaca Mesa Red Blend (2007) $20

    Those are just the reds…and if you increased the category to include wines in the $20-$25 range, there would be ALOT more.

    If you like Rhone style wines, show your patriotism and buy American. I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy.

  15. money talks, and nobody is spending money on domestic syrah…

  16. Survey says . . . . price! CdR is quite reliable at $15 +/- $5. And available. There’s a long list above of CA Rhones, but how many will I see at my local shop? Chance are there will be more choices from St Cosme and Chave including some sub-$20 CdR.

  17. Recently had a bottle of Crozes from Alain Graillot at this wine bar on Hyde in SF, place is called Bacchus.
    It was a special treat btw, the wine that is.

    What’s interesting is I asked the owner if he sales much in the Rhone department…Cali or France.
    He honestly laughed out loud and said no he mostly sales Pinot and that’s it.

    No one wants to try anything else.

    I don’t think it was a reflection on the wine bar b/c he had some awesome Rhone stuff.
    Rather a reflection on what the consumer is comfortable with.

  18. Adam Lee/Siduri Wines says:

    So rather than taking the report on Rhone wine sales at face value, I’ve been searching around for specific sales figures or the specific report that backs up the PR Piece that Steve referenced early on. Thus far, I have been unable to locate anything (I’d appreciate any help on this — supposed to be on vacation with the family right now).

    I did find this article that talks specifically about Rhone wine sales in the United Kingdom, where the picture doesn’t seemm nearly as Rose’ — http://www.harpers.co.uk/news/news-headlines/11949-inter-rhone-to-consolidate-uk-market-share-with-p1m-2012-promotional-campaign.html

    I always question these PR Pieces until I see the numbers behind them.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  19. Adam Lee/Siduri Wines says:

    Oh, and this report as well on the overall French business worldwide: http://www.fevs.com/files/actu/27_210_2.pdf

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  20. John Roberts says:

    I purchase both domestic and Rhone-grown Syrahs and blends. Being into Rhone-style wines, how could I not be? I suppose when trends in purchasing are recognized the assumption is that the volume is mostly uneducated buyers, however, every educated wine drinker I know is drinking both. I may buy 2 or 3 nice Syrahs, Failla, Peay, Neyers. Then a half-case of CdP or Gigondas. The value is undeniable. Rarely can one find a California wine under $20 stored in concrete and displaying a range of flavors where fruit takes a back seat while there remains a giving yet simple flavor profile. California makes a lot of good Syrah. Still no equivalent to the legends of cote rotie or CdP, but the Sine Qua Nons and such do well for a reason. A lot of these wines are just goopy and soupy and uninteresting, even those listed above. Perhaps it needs colder, more stark conditions.

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