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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.


Remembering a Rhône event, 22 years ago today

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There was so much hope in the air on May 16-17, 1990, exactly 22 years ago, at the International Colloquium on Rhône Varietals, which I was privileged to cover as my first major feature story when I became a professional wine writer.

Syrah and its fellow Rhône grapes and wines, Mourvedre and Grenache, weren’t widely planted in California, and certainly weren’t known by a large segment of the wine-drinking community. But experts understood the importance of those grapes in the Rhône Valley, and adherents were tinkering with them right here in California, and up into Washington State.

The three-day conference, which was held at Meadowood, in the Napa Valley, was organized by Richard Keehn, then proprietor of McDowell Valley Vineyards, which at the time was an important outpost of Rhône-style wines; Bruce Neyers, the then president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and, on the French side, Gerard Pierrefeu, president of the Comité Interprofessionel des Vins, and a high ranking member of the A.O.C. organization.

I was contributing short articles at that time to another wine magazine, when the phone rang one day. It was my editor. He had an emergency. The writer who had been assigned to go to the conference had fallen ill; my editor wanted to know if I could substitute in his place. When is it? I asked. Tomorrow. Well, I knew I could do a good job and that if I did, it would advance me in the esteem of my editor and publisher. So I went, and I did a good job.

The first thing a writer should do, on going to something like that conference, is sniff the air. I don’t mean literally, I mean that metaphorically. Take the pulse of the occasion; feel it out. Is there tension? Follow it. Tension means conflict, which translates to good, strong writing–if you can capture that lightning in a can.

And I felt plenty of tension. This was 1990, mind you. If I can characterize the psychology on both sides–the Californians and the French–it was this: the Californians wanted to learn (steal) as much as they could from the French, about everything from rootstocks and weed control to pruning and maceration times. The French? They felt they had nothing whatsoever to learn from the upstart Californians–rien! But they had been hearing things across the pond, rumors that these Californians were rich, ambitious, and coming on strong–and that they had great weather all the time. That was scary. After all, it hadn’t been that long since the Paris Tasting had scandalized tout France. So the French came over to see what the heck was going on.

They were a haughty, supercilious lot, those Frenchmen. I think they came prepared to do war. Pierrefeu later wrote that he had expected “hostile behavior” to ensue; that’s how heated was the potential for explosion.

Mercifully, no explosions occurred. People in general behaved themselves quite well. The point of all this is, however, a sad one. Expectations among the Californians (Randall Grahm, Bob Lindquist, Craig Williams, Kevin Hamel, John Buechsenstein, Fred and Matt Cline, John MacReady and Lou Preston) were enormous. These were men who had staked their claims, not on Cabernet Sauvignon, but on Syrah as the red wine of the future. (Well, Craig was also making top Cabernets at Phelps, so I should exclude him from that generalization.) They were as sure as sure can be that Syrah (and maybe even Chateauneuf-style blends) was the Next Big Thing. It was their excitement I sniffed in the air alongside the hauteur of the French. I tried to capture that sensation in my article.

We all know what happened. Syrah was not the Next Big Thing. In fact, some of the wineries represented at Meadowood began a decline when Syrah tanked, or failed to take off. They simply put their money on the wrong horse.

Still, I look at the International Colloquium on Rhône Varietals as a milestone in the history of California wine. It wasn’t as dramatic as The French Paradox episode on Sixty Minutes, or as impactful as the phylloxera epidemic (both of those events also occurred in the 1990s). But symbolically, it placed California on an equal footing with some of the greatest names in French wine, and it did so on a California stage. The French, despite themselves, by their very presence acknowledged that they had to treat the Californians as equals.


Santa Cruz Mountains: high quality, low acreage

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Came across this blog post in the San Francisco edition of the Huffington Post on the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s well written and makes some good points, but is a little incomplete, so I wanted to round out the picture.

The writer, Richard Jennings, correctly notes that “a few driven producers over the years have made some brilliant, minerally, complex, cool climate Pinot in these parts.” He refers particularly to Mount Eden and Rhys, whom he calls the “only two exceptional producers.” The others, he laments, “score from average to below average.”

I would add Thomas Fogarty (whom Jennings does not mention) and Clos LaChance (whom he does) to the list. Both produce very good Pinot Noirs, although they are vintage-driven. So does Bargetto, on occasion, and Cumbre of Vine Hill. I’ve also enjoyed good Pinots from Ghostwriter, Windy Oaks, Sonnet and Heart O’The Mountain.

The challenge of growing Pinot Noir in this sprawling appelllation (besides weather variation) is a lack of vineyard acreage. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA covers 408,000 acres (making it the eight biggest in California), planted acreage, as Jennings points out, is only 1,500 acres, of which only 375 acres are planted to Pinot Noir. The reason for this paucity is mainly due to the fact that the region, which used to be a major wine-producing one, has sprouted suburban housing developments over the decades. There’s many a ranch house in Cupertino, Saratoga, Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and so on that sits on land that could produce incredible Pinot Noirs, but we’ll never know.

The other thing about the Santa Cruz Mountains is that it also produces some stellar Cabernet Sauvignons. A good example is Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. I’ve also been an admirer of Cabernets from Cinnabar, Cooper-Garrod, Martin Ray, Mount Eden [redux], Thomas Fogarty [again], La Honda and Black Ridge. Many of these wineries also produce good Chardonnay. And there’s always the interesting Syrah, from the likes of Beauregard and Kathryn Kennedy.

In general, Pinot Noir is grown on the western side of the ridges that are open to the maritime influence, while Cabernet thrives on the warmer, eastern flanks.

Lots of people don’t know that the Santa Cruz Mountains once was one of the best winegrowing regions in California. In fact, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the late 19th and early 20th century, Rixford’s La Cuesta (variously Questa), was from Woodside. The vine cuttings had been taken from Chateau Margaux, and Martin Ray in turn used cuttings from those vines to start his own winery. The present day Woodside Vineyards is still on the old Rixford site.

I don’t know if anyone’s working on sub-appellating the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a good idea, given the Pinot Noir-Cabernet Sauvignon terroir split, but maybe not worth all the hassle, given the small acreage involved. In general, if you see a Santa Cruz Mountains origin on any wine, it’s more likely than not to be very good; and because the region doesn’t have the cachet of Napa Valley or some of the other Central Coast appellations, prices have remained moderate.

 


What’s my favorite wine?

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People are always asking me, “What’s your favorite wine?”, to which I invariably reply, “The one I’m drinking now.” If they press me, I’ll say Champagne (or sparkling wine). If they really want to get down with me, I’ll tell them Pinot Noir.

I decided some years ago I liked California Pinot Noir even more than Cabernet Sauvignon, but I was never entirely sure about it. Whenever I tasted a great Pinot Noir, I’d be thrilled not only with the wine itself, but with an appreciation of how far, how fast this variety has come in California. It would have been inconceivable in the 1990s for me to have preferred Pinot over Cabernet, and I think the same could be said for most of the working critics of that time. However by the late 1990s, certainly by the early 2000s, if someone knowledgeable had said they thought Pinot had overtaken Cabernet, at least nobody would have suggested a forced trip to the psycho ward.

As much as I’ve liked Pinot, the reason I wasn’t quite sure it was my favorite was because every time I did a great Cabernet flight, it would blow my mind and remind me once again that Cabernet had been my first love and, while I might have flirted a bit with this racy young upstart, Pinot Noir, I was destined always to return to Cabernet. Dance with the one that brought ya, the old saying goes, and it was Cabernet Sauvignon that had brought me to the ball.

So I went into the database today so see what my top wines have been so far this year, and, not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the list. The top 5 are all Cabernet or Bordeaux blends. What is surprising, though, is that two of them are not from Napa Valley! Those would be Stonestreet’s 2007 Rockfall and Verité’s 2006 La Joie, both astounding wines. Of course, one could argue that both of them are from the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, separated only by an accident of geography from being in Napa County, instead of Sonoma County.

My #6 wine was Williams Selyem’s 2008 Litton Estate Pinot Noir, a wine I’ve loved ever since I first tasted it. (The name henceforth will be Estate, not Litton.) It’s a big Pinot Noir, not for the faint-hearted, and I guess you could criticize it for not being “Burgundian” enough, but that’s not a criticism I share. My #7 wine was a sweetie, Dolce 2006, and it should never be surprising to see Dolce appear on anyone’s top list. It’s consistently one of California’s great dessert wines. What perhaps is a little surprising is that my #8 wine is a sparkler: Schramsberg’s 2004 J. Schram Rosé, possibly the greatest California sparkling wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to review. After that, we revert back to Pinot Noir for the #9 wine, Joseph Swan’s 2007 Trenton Estate, which with its acids and tannins reflects its southern Russian River Valley roots. In tenth place, last but not least, is Qupe’s 2006 X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah.

This list makes me happy and proud. It certainly wasn’t premeditated for me to have Cabernets, Pinots, a sweet wine, a sparkling wine and a Syrah in my Best of 2011 (so far) list. But there you are. What it tells me is how well California is doing in many different varieties, at least at the upper tier.

After that Qupe Syrah, #11 is another Syrah, Donelan’s 2008 Richards Vineyard, from Sonoma Valley. But get ready for this: #s 12-22 are all Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. I don’t see another Pinot Noir until #27, the Babcock 2009 Microcosm. So I guess I’d have to say, if you make me put my hand on a Bible in a court of law and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth concerning my favorite wine, I’d say, “Based on the evidence, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon.” But in my heart of hearts, I wouldn’t really believe it.


What’s the problem with Syrah?

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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.


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