Is California Syrah Misunderstood?

Though the grape boomed in the 1990s, Syrah is still suffering through an identity crisis. A community of small producers hopes to change that.
Baker Lane Vineyards / Photo courtesy Baker Lane Vineyards, Facebook

Often thought of as a quintessential winemakers wine, Syrah is a study in frustration to those who love it and hate to see it suffer, overshadowed and misunderstood. Why don’t more people love its spark of white and black pepper, its meatiness, its ability to conjure violets and licorice within its layers?

“Statewide, we all witnessed the Syrah boom of the 1990s,” says viticulturist Greg Adams, winemaker for Baker Lane Vineyards in west Sonoma County. “A planting frenzy was ignited by a few quality-focused producers, and being a high-bearing variety, every farmer seemed like they needed to get in on the Syrah gold rush before their neighbors did, only to spark an unsustainable growth of a relatively marginal grape variety.”

Adams thinks most growers are still trying to figure out what happened after the 1990s.

“The way this translated into the marketplace was with an ocean of average, overripe Syrah, which ended up being discounted due to an unmarketable oversupply,” says Adams. “It continues to be an uphill battle, because of these early consumer memories.”

“[P]erhaps we’re entering an era where quality and intriguing wines are more important than what variety they are.”  —Joe Nielsen, winemaker, Donelan Family Wines

A grower of predominantly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Adams says that Syrah gives him the most joy in the vineyard. While his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay enjoy expensive French oak and, as Adams puts it, an almost annoying attention to detail in the cellar, his Syrah enjoys relative solitude until it’s time for aging.

“Syrah needs time to age in barrel,” says Adams. “Where we might consider 15 or 18 months to be a long run in barrel for Pinot, 24 to 36 months in large-format vessels is absolutely required before bottling [Syrah]. Add another year or two in bottle, and you’ve crafted a wine worthy of sharing the varietal name Syrah.”

Syrah’s travails are among the subjects of Patrick Comiskey’s book, American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink (University of California Press, 2016). Comiskey details the American Rhône wine movement and its roots in 1960s counterculture.

“It is so exotic in some iterations that it sometimes seems out of place in the American pantheon, and for those who want a little more consistency in their wines, its exoticism might be a deal breaker,” says Comiskey.

He cites Syrah’s “weirdness” as a reason its popularity as a single-variety wine has declined over the last decade. Rising in its place? Certainly Pinot Noir, but also a range of red blends—ironically, this also includes Rhône-style red blends, many of which contain a majority of Syrah.

How hard is it for Napa and Sonoma-based producers to sell Syrah? Joanna Wells makes a tiny production Syrah called Model Farm, from the Petaluma Gap. She’s also the associate winemaker at Kutch Wines, which focuses on small-production Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast.

“From a broad perspective, there are challenges in selling Syrah, and we get that question a lot,” says Wells. “But as a small producer, we feel insulated from those difficulties.”

Our Glorious Syrah, Stems and All. #wholecluster #harvest2015

A photo posted by Model Farm (@modelfarmwines) on

What’s been missing for these drinkers and collectors?

“Syrah has long had an identity crisis, because the majority [in California] was and still is made in an indistinct way,” says Wells. “There is so much rustic charm in Syrah that we feel has been overlooked.”

Wells’s Model Farm 2014 Sonoma Coast Syrah is a study in white pepper, garrigue and blue flowers, a stunner in a light-bodied, intriguing package of delicious flavor and complexity.

Another disciple of cool-climate Syrah in Sonoma County is Steve Law, winemaker at MacLaren, who runs a tasting room off the Sonoma Square.

“I realize my perspective is a little skewed, but the majority of people coming into my tasting room have a positive opinion regarding Syrah,” he says. “However, those who haven’t enjoyed it in the past will typically tell me that Syrah is heavy, high in alcohol and not food friendly.”

Comiskey details some of Syrah’s attributes, from blue flowers to leaf smoke, smoked meat, bone and fur, burnt rubber and pigskin, likening it to the “inventory of a sadist’s pantry.”

MacLaren’s Sonoma Syrahs all show classic cool-climate characteristics: floral aromas, pepper, a meatiness that’s hard to ignore and acidity that lifts the mix of savory and fruity. The 2013 Moaveni Vineyard Syrah is sourced from a steep, cool hillside spot in Bennett Valley. Samantha’s Vineyard is in Russian River Valley, planted to the Alban clone of Syrah. Atoosa’s Vineyard is also in the Russian River Valley, located on a foggy bottomed site, and always produce the grapes Law harvests last, while his very popular Drouthy Neebors bottling is a blend of Samantha’s, Moaveni and Atoosa’s.

When he pours his Syrahs, he’s often asked, “Are you sure this isn’t Pinot?”

“[That question] illustrates that the most predominant style of Syrah is the bigger Shiraz style, but when they discover the cool-climate style, they really enjoy it,’ says Law. “It seems like Syrah is being made everywhere, which is great for the consumer as it allows access to so many different styles, but it can be a bit confusing.”

Law pours his tasting flight of Syrahs starting from vineyards with the least amount of sun to those with the most sunshine. He also describes food-pairing ideas with each, from fish to barbecue ribs, to teach the breadth of styles available.

The Changing Face of Washington Syrah

In his book, Comiskey details some of Syrah’s attributes, from blue flowers to leaf smoke, smoked meat, bone and fur, burnt rubber and pigskin, likening it to the “inventory of a sadist’s pantry.”

Those characteristics have helped Donelan Family Wines become one of the most sought cool-climate Syrah producers in Sonoma County. Winemaker Joe Nielsen has two perspectives on the variety: the one he hears in passing, and the one he observes.

“We don’t have trouble selling Syrah, and it could be for a number of reasons,” he says. “We are well established, we promote unique personalities from each of the vineyard sources we work with and we continue to strive for high quality and consistency. The conversation transcends varietal [grapes] and is about what makes the wine special—the place, the vines, [and] the people.”

But beyond a community of small producers that aficionados seek out, Nielsen says that Syrah continues to be maligned. However, he says, more sommeliers are expressing interest in cool-climate Syrah, which may help change opinions.

“Sometimes, the difficulty of Syrah sounds more like gossip at this point,” he says. “When I’m on the road meeting with wine buyers or sommeliers, I hear just as many complaints about other household varieties, so perhaps we’re entering an era where quality and intriguing wines are more important than what variety they are.”

Published on January 20, 2017
Topics: Editor Speak
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email: vboone@wineenthusiast.net



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