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Que sera Syrah?


I was visiting Ryan over at Paul Marcus Wines, in Oakland’s Rock Ridge district. I asked how Syrah was selling and he made a long face that didn’t require any words to explain.

“In fact,” he said, “I was dusting the shelves the other day and there was more dust in the Syrah section than anyplace else.” (Ryan said Spanish reds are his hottest sellers now.)

Ryan’s quip accorded with numerous complaints I’ve heard from winemakers and winery owners that they can’t sell Syrah. Which is strange, because Syrah would seem to have everything going for it: It’s a pretty French word (like Merlot) that’s easy for Americans to pronounce. It usually makes a good wine and occasionally a great one in California. And it costs less than Cabernet Sauvignon. So why aren’t people drinking it?

Ryan speculated consumers may be confusing Syrah with Shiraz and thinking that Syrah is a big, hearty, robust and rustic wine, as Aussie Shiraz can be. If that’s how people view it, then they’re correct not to spend upwards of $20 or $30 for a bottle of something they think is boonie plonk.

Planted acreage of Syrah has been rising over the years, but not as dramatically as other premium red wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir (double since 1999). There’s 50% more Pinot Noir planted in California than Syrah, whose total statewide acreage, believe it or not, is only a little more than double that of Grenache.

And in the prime coastal areas new Syrah plantings have practically halted. Napa, Sonoma, Monterey, Mendocino and Santa Barbara have added only paltry amounts in the last 5 years. Purchased Syrah grapes actually declined in value last year, falling from $680 a ton to $660 on average. Compare that to Pinot Noir ($2,028 a ton), Cabernet Sauvignon ($998) and even Petite Sirah ($882). In fact, 42 other red varietal grapes cost more to buy in California than Syrah!

I mean, this is Syrah, one of the world’s most noble grape varieties. And people won’t drink it?

There are signs the industry is concerned about a Syrah slump and is gearing up to do something about it. In May, Gallo sponsored a Syrah Symposium in Santa Ynez, and they’re planning on investing in it in coming years to promote both it and Syrah; I know for a fact they want this Symposium to become a Very Important Event. At one of the Symposium seminars, I was struck when several of the panelist-winemakers blamed the wine media for Syrah’s failure to win hearts, minds and wallets. “You guys have to do a better job of educating consumers,” one said.

Well, it’s not the media’s job to promote any one variety, and besides, we in the wine press can only do so much. We can’t force consumers to buy a wine they don’t want.

But I’ll do my part by recommending the best Syrahs I’ve had lately. The numbers in italics are my Wine Enthusiast scores.

95 Novy Cellars 2005 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands); $27
95 Sonoma Coast Vineyards 2004 Syrah (Sonoma Coast); $45
95 Failla 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah (Napa Valley); $42
95 Signorello 2005 Estate Syrah (Napa Valley); $36
94 Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Alisos Hills Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $40
94 Rubicon Estate 2004 RC Reserve Syrah (Rutherford); $62
94 Kenneth-Crawford 2004 Lafond Vineyard Syrah (Santa Rita Hills); $32
94 Château Potelle 2005 V.G.S. Syrah (Mount Veeder); $75
93 Rusack 2004 Ballard Canyon Reserve Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $36
93 Luko 2005 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $52

  1. I found your blog on MSN Search. Nice writing. I will check back to read more.

    Eric Hundin

  2. Steve,
    Thanks for your post. CA Syrah is often in the shadow of other CA varietals. As a small producer of Syrah, I believe the ultimate responsiblity of educating the consumer about the the wine we so dearly love lies in our hands. We try to do that every time we communicate directly with our customers on our blog/website, every time we pour at events or private parties, every time we hit the streets working with wine buyers. Part of the joy of being in the wine industry is educating people and CA Syrah producers need to lead the charge!
    Part of the aim of the Syrah Symposium was to set out some guidelines for CA Syrah and god bless em. Here are ours:
    (props to Josh at Pinotblogger)

  3. David Doyle says:

    I am wondering if perhaps Syrah is just not all that good when produced from young vines. In general Californian Syrahs often seem one dimensional to me. And often they are too alcoholic due to the quest for super-ripeness.

    I’ve tried plenty of Australian and French Syrahs and there seems to be a strong correlation between quality and vine age, at least to me. I think with the right fruit it’s a lot easier to make an interesting Syrah.

  4. I’m pretty sure that older vines are better than younger vines but you can’t be too doctrinaire about it. Remember, that famous Stag’s Leap Cab that won the Paris Tasting came from 3 year old vines (or maybe it was 4). Certainly, California Syrahs are high in alcohol, but let’s face it, that’s how you get flavor. I simply disagree with critics who say all you can drink is one glass. I’ve drained many a bottle of Syrah!

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    I don’t think many California winemakers taste fine wines from the Rhone or have a working knowledge of the classic vineyards.I think part of the Syrah “problem” is the winemaker’s mindset. Their logic:

    1 Syrah has more color and tannin than Pinot Noir.
    2 Wines from the Cote Rotie take longer than Burgundy to soften.
    3 Wines from the Rhone were used to strengthen Burgundy.
    4 Syrah thrives in a climate that is a bit warmer than does Pinot Noir.
    5 Guigal oaks his wines up and gets big bucks for them.
    6. Bigger is better

    Therefore the California winemaker plants Syrah in their warmest, sunniest locations, let the grapes get super ripe, extract the hell out of them in fermentation, make inky black wine, put it in new oak, bottle it in two years, and then go out and see if there is anyone who wants to drink it.

    If a few would pretend that Syrah is some version of Pinot that likes a slightly warmer soil / climate, but, like Pinot, has to be handled extremely gently in an effort to make a delicate, silky, subtle, and delicious tasting product that tastes of grape not oak, they might find more success.

  6. Lisa Miller says:

    I wonder if consumers don’t like the over-ripe, thick, jammy syrahs that usually come from California? I know I don’t, and focus specifically on Syrah from cool-climate areas, which tend to be lower in alcohol, have higher acids and a beautiful smoke/pepper quality that we just love.

  7. Morton, what you say is spot on. But the same might be said of cult Cabernets: super ripe, extracted, new oaky, etc. And the public can’t get enough of cult Cabs and seemingly is willing to pay whatever price they have to. So why not Syrah? I think the answer is partly marketing, image and confusion over Syrah/Petite Sirah/Shiraz.

  8. The entire marketing thrust of the PS I Love You (Petite Sirah I Love You) advocacy group is to educate media and consumers what Petite Sirah ISN’T. (Syrah)

    When we started, many media people – although not Steve Heimoff – were confused when we started in 2002, about Syrah and Petite Sirah. That’s dramatically changed, however, for the most part with most writers.

    No more than I am identical to my father or mother, while I share some similarities – including place of birth – I’m clearly NOT my father, NOR my mother. There’s the easiest way to understand how dramatically different the two varieties are.

    The members of PSILY don’t expect media to grow the variety’s popularity; it’s our responsibility. Media just tell great stories, but the growers and producers are responsible for feeding media the statistics and ballistics.

    I remember one media person declaring – back in the early years of PSILY – that “Syrah is going to be the next big variety.” I contested that at the time in a letter to the editor, defending Petite Sirah’s ability to be more appealing. Those growing and producing it continues to quietly expand, including the price of PS per ton. I remember Dave Pramuk of Robert Biale Vineyards telling me that he’d asked his Napa growers to pull out their Napa Valley, mountain grown Cabernet, replace it with Petite Sirah, and he’d still give them their Napa Valley Cab prices in exchange.

    I’ve been watching Syrah with great interest to see if that prediction would really come true. I still don’t see that prediction going anywhere, but see Petite Sirah (the tortoise) continuing to slowing chug along to new heights each year.

    So, for the members of PS I Love You, it’s more a Petite issue of Que sera Sirah… But thanks, Steve, for giving me an opportunity to rave about Petite! I always love when that happens. ;^)

  9. Hi Jo, maybe Petite Sirah is the tortoise and Syrah is the hare. I don’t know, but I think both varieties can do well. The more choice of wine types out there, the better it is for consumers.

  10. Morton Leslie says:

    Good point about the cult Cabs. I am continually proven wrong on this, but I still believe that marketing, image, and success have their origins in the wine itself. And when I look at Syrah in California, aside from a couple in Carneros, I never know what I am going to get. Buy 12 bottles and I feel lucky to find two that I enjoy and only five I cannot swallow. This discourages purchase. In the case of unswallowable Cabernet we rationalize them as “I drank them too early. Needs more age.” Syrah doesn’t get this free pass.
    Wine drinkers have fallen over themselves for the soft, velvety Pinot Noir thanks in part to Sideways, but also because no matter the origin, you pretty much know that you are going to be able to swallow a Pinot. This can be done with Syrah as well with the same consistency. Rather than trying to be the poor cousin to Cabernet and come off as the ugly cousin, why not be the big (not the BIG) brother of Pinot. All Syrah needs is a successful market leader in a swallowable style that every one will try to emulate.

  11. Steve, I agree, with variety being the spice of life!

  12. Steve,

    I don’t think there’s an easy answer as to why syrah has not ‘taken off’ as well as many predicted it would . . . I think a lot of the previous comments are interesting and address some of the issues.

    There is no doubt that CA and WA are producing world class examples of this varietal at very reasonable prices. Many of the wines you listed as top scorers in your blog can be had for under $50, and in some cases, about half of that. On a QPR basis, they are mighty bargains in comparison with cabs or pinots with similar scores.

    I see one of the emerging trends being blending syrah with other rhone varietals and coming up with proprietary blends. Leaders in this field include Saxum, Linne Calado, Epiphany (whom I work for), McPrice Meyers, Alban, and many others. I think you will see more of these hitting in the market, and I think the market aka consumers will enjoy what they will be offered. Will they embrace these more than syrah? That is the $64,000 question . . .


  13. Larry, many of the MSG wines you mention are very expensive, no? They’re also produced in tiny quantities. I think Alban, Saxum, etc. will be coveted by a small number of upscale buyers. The problem for Syrah is whether or not it has a future for the many wineries that produce it.

  14. Steve,

    Some of the blends are more expensive than others. You can have a great syrah-based blend in the $10-15 range like Fess Parker’s Frontier Red (another winery I work for – not trying to hide anything here) or Beckmen’s Cuvee Le Bec for a few bucks more.

    I think we may see some changes in the market as pinot prices continue to ratchet up – consumers will look for an alternative and syrah producers will be waiting with open arms (-:

    I am producing a couple of syrahs under my own label and therefore am hopeful that consumers will continue to keep an open mind when it comes to the variety – and try a number of them – before deciding that it may not be for them . . .

  15. Steve – I agree with you that California Syrah suffers from stylistic confusion as well as conflation with Aussie wines and Petite Syrah. But I also don’t think these fully account for the slow Syrah market.

    I think in the mid- to late-90’s there may have been an expectation among growers that Syrah would be the next Merlot, and with the explosion of vineyards at the turn of the century (driven by the flight of capital from the deflation of the dot com bubble) expectations were very high indeed.

    A lot of Syrah got planted or budded over without regard to the aptitudes of the varietal. And then a lot of folks with newly-leveraged vineyard needed big returns, and set big crops. I tasted a lot of plonk back when we were all hoping Syrah would be the next wave. I think that hurt the image of the California-grown varietal from the get-go.

    Now when I take my Syrah to my distributors I can hear them groan. My stuff isn’t Cote-Rotie, Cornas or Hermitage, but it’s not an international-style cult Cab wannabe either – nor is it insipid plonk IMHO. And the price is right. Still, what I hear is “gee… now if you had a decent Merlot at this price…” Seriously.

  16. Distributors. You gotta love ’em. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Now, maybe if we had direct-to-consumer sales, Syrah would be doing okay.

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