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Whither Syrah? Nobody really knows, and neither do I

9 comments

 

There, I said it. When it comes to predictions about Syrah, it’s the blind leading the blind.

When you’ve been around this industry for a while, as I have, you hear certain memes resurrected over and over. One is “Zinfandel’s new face.” Another is “Why don’t Americans like Riesling?” Still another is some variation of “Up-and-Coming Varieties.” But perhaps the most regular is exemplified by Wines & Vines’ new blog post, “Is Syrah Hitting Bottom or Finding Its Niche?” written by a talented writer, Andrew Adams, who’s been with W&V since 2012, and—unlike many wine writers—has actual dirt-in-the-boots winemaking experience.

Andrew was coming off a Washington State trip and so naturally had good things to say about Syrah. He struggled in his mind to understand how the Syrahs he tasted could be so good, while at the same time, Syrah sales have been tanking for years.” How can this be? It is, as the King of Siam said, a puzzlement.

We can begin explanations with the theory that Americans don’t understand what Syrah is because they’ve heard of Petite Sirah and Shiraz and can’t tell the difference. That is perfectly understandable. Most consumers are busy enough without having to understand such arcane distinctions. This suggests that the “wine industry,” whatever that is, needs to do a better job of explaining Syrah to people, but that’s easier said than done. Wine writers have tried for years, with very little success; writers have to do more, but wineries should not depend on them to solve their Syrah problems.

Gatekeepers such as sommeliers and merchants are also part of the solution, but the problem there is that, being sales-oriented, they’re not going to put much energy into pushing a variety they perceive as a poor seller. Can’t blame them for that. So, given the under-performance or under-interest of the media and gatekeeper sellers, there’s not much more than can be done.

But what of quality, you ask? Well, as Andrew correctly notes, there are fabulous Syrahs out there, not only from Washington State but California (my bailiwick). Individual wineries that have developed a reputation for Syrah will be able to sell it, but overall, I think the challenge here is that Syrah isn’t different enough from Cabernet Sauvignon for consumers to “discover” it. Cabernet is so embedded in their heads as the #1 full-bodied red table wine that it will take a gargantuan effort to make them think of Syrah as an alternative. When it comes to lighter-bodied wines, there’s no shortage: Pinot Noir is the undisputed leader, Tempranillo is coming on strong, and there are many other candidates; but Syrah is not lighter-bodied. For Big Reds, Cabernet Sauvignon is like FDR during the ‘30s and ‘40s: so dominant a force, so overwhelming, that no other candidates found the oxygen to break through.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.

  1. Syrah lacks identity. Its problem is that it does well wherever you plant it. There aren’t really strong enough tell-tale signs of a Syrah so consumers don’t know what to expect.

    The only major Syrah-growing area most consumers are familiar with is Australia and so much of that association is kangaroos and g’day mate, that Syrah simply isn’t cool. And the meltdown of Australia’s warm climate style makes it doubly uncool.

    Unfortunately, Cote-Rotie doesn’t have the brand recognition for riding coattails. Having said that, if Australia’s Shiraz rebound can be driven by cool climate examples from Victoria (critics now seem to love them after hating them 10-15 years ago) then maybe that’s what US producers need. Let Australia spend the money fixing their own Shiraz problem and then ride that wave. That’ll take patience though.

  2. My comment on: Wines & Vines’ new blog post, “Is Syrah Hitting Bottom or Finding Its Niche?” written by Andrew Adams:

    We have been doing this for years in California with great success: “make wines that are more earthy, meaty and restrained rather than big and jammy.” Greg Harrington at Gramercy Cellars in Washington has followed the same path for years. It works! Syrah is one of the three great red wine grapes in the world for complexity, flavor, and longevity. – Bill Easton (Terre Rouge & Easton Wines)

  3. I think the “problem” with Syrah is that it is ultra sensitive to terroir – even more than Pinot Noir. Most Americans want their Budweiser to taste just like the last one. Syrah is so sensitive to temporal terroir (vintage) and physical terroir that it is highly unlikely that two bottles from different vintages or vineyards will have similar sensory profiles. Hence, if you really liked a certain Syrah, and purchased a different Syrah hoping to have the same experience, the chances you’ll succeed are pretty slim. That will turn off those looking for consistency. They come to feel like buying a Syrah is a crap shoot. Terroir geeks like myself cherish the grape for those same qualities. Vive la différence!

  4. Bill, I was up this past Sunday and was very impressed with the longevity of your 07 HighSlopes Syrah. Peppered beef jerky was in my notes… So, I’d say you hit your mark of “meaty” spot-on. Cheers!

  5. Michael Brill, the thing is, we have great Syrahs in California (not to mention Washington State). But people don’t try hard enough to sell it, IMHO.

  6. Yes, Syrah does well in a range of climates. I have worked with it the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, in the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, and now in Sebastopol. It makes a distinctive wine in each of these climates…

  7. I have been successful selling syrah one person at a time, but it never goes viral. I learned working at a restaurant in the 80s that if someone has a good meal, they tell one person, if they have a bad meal, they tell 10. Because syrah is successful in so many areas, it cannot be defined. The insecurity prevents most people from promoting it. The analogy I use is SB. It ranges from citrus, grassy, high acid to lush, tropical stone fruit. All great. Same with syrah, from northern Rhone to Australia to Santa Barbera to Russian River to Napa, they may as well be different grapes their character is so different. Once people understand the dynamics of syrah, it is loved and appreciated.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Rather than organizing a beer summit to debate Syrah’s merit/demerits, host a few glasses at this Rhone Rangers event coming to The City:

    http://www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/SF%202016.php

    Or at this Rhone Rangers event coming to Los Angeles:

    http://www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/LA2015.php

    Maybe what is needed is an “Elevating Syrah” trade and consumer tasting akin to the upcoming “Elevating Zinfandel” event?

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Rather than organizing a beer summit to debate Syrah’s merits/demerits, hoist a few glasses at this Rhone Rangers event coming to The City:

    http://www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/SF%202016.php

    Or at this Rhone Rangers event coming to Los Angeles:

    http://www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/LA2015.php

    Maybe what is needed is an “Elevating Syrah” trade and consumer tasting akin to the upcoming “Elevating Zinfandel” event?:

    http://www.winela.com/elevating-zinfandel/

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