Syrah in the Shadows

California’s bottlings of this great Rhône variety are stellar and well priced, yet consumers are reacting with a collective yawn. Why? And what can be done?


Poor California Syrah. It’s the wine everybody loves to bash. Sommeliers seem to have forgotten it exists. Bloggers write about the Syrah “conundrum” and that it is “suffering an identity crisis.” Critics bash it; the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné recently declared that Syrah “has hit a brick wall.” Most tellingly, growers are fed up with it, budding it over to more popular varieties, like Pinot Noir.

I’ve heard anecdotes for several years now from winemakers who put their hearts and souls into Syrah, only to find no buyers, and from salesmen with the same problem. Statistics bear this out. The average price per ton declined more than 8% in 2009 and 2010, while 5,500 fewer tons were crushed in those same years by California vintners.

So what’s wrong with Syrah?

Quality-wise, nothing. To me, the problem is with perception. It’s easy for the average consumer to confuse Syrah with Petite Sirah and/or with Shiraz, the Aussie version of Syrah (and incidentally, a name sometimes used by U.S. Syrah producers, as well as some in Chile, Argentina and Sicily, thereby adding to consumer confusion). It’s also possible that the variety is simply being crowded out of the limelight in consumer minds by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

It’s too bad, because a good California Syrah can be a real treat. What do I mean by a good Syrah? The grapes have to be grown in a cool climate, usually—but not always—near the coast. There’s plenty of Syrah grown in warm climates, but those wines tend to be soft and flabby, and they often have residual sugar. They can also have pruny, raisiny tastes that come from sunburned grapes. Consumers are wise to shy away from these wines, especially when the price is high.

But California’s temperate coastal hills and valleys can be sources of excellent Syrahs. From the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys and the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County up through the Santa Lucia Highlands, to Napa Valley, Carneros and the Russian River, Dry Creek and Green valleys of Sonoma County, rich, savory Syrahs abound.

The Santa Maria Valley is worth mention as a superior growing region. With an east-west physical orientation, it’s wide open to the chilly maritime influence that sweeps in from the Pacific coast with such reliable certainty all summer long. And if there’s one place in the Santa Maria Valley where Syrah excels, it’s at Bien Nacido Vineyard, which is located on the northern bench of the valley, where the soils are exceptionally well drained (and the viticulture is extraordinary). I’ve given four of my ten highest Syrah scores over the past year to Bien Nacido bottlings.

I defy anyone who thinks he doesn’t like Syrah to try Qupé’s 2006 25th Anniversary Bien Nacido X Block, Bien Nacido’s own 2007 or Bonaccorsi’s 2008 Syrah. These are wines of great complexity. I would describe a good Syrah as having the weight of Cabernet Sauvignon, but a little softer, and while both wines are marked by the aromas and flavors of blackberries, Syrah’s meaty, peppery notes distinguish it. I’d seldom, if ever, describe Cabernet Sauvignon as “sexy,” but a great California Syrah has a velvety warmth that oozes decadence.

Nor does a good Syrah need to be expensive, at least compared to equally high scoring Cabernet. Although the occasional $90-$100 bottle is out there, you can easily get a very good Syrah in the $40-$50 range, and there are many—Samsara, Vineyard of Pasterick, MacRostie, Andrew Murray, Novy, Gamble Family, Dutton Estate, Rusack, Krutz—that retail in the $30s and even $20s. In the premium price range, say, $12-$20, I’ve given Best Buys to the likes of Cameron Hughes and Babcock. Even below $10, you can get reliable Syrahs from McManis, Smoking Loon or Fetzer.

There are signs that Syrah may be poised for a comeback. I think it is. The wines are everything consumers say they want: round, full, soft and rich. What’s needed is for gatekeepers, including critics, sommeliers and merchants, to get that message across to consumers.

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Reader Comments:
Oct 13, 2011 09:04 am
 Posted by  Larry Chandler

Syrahs, especially cool climate versions, have always been extraordinary. Qupe's entry level Syrah at under $20 is unsurpassed, except by Qupe's single vineyard Syrahs.I've never understood why Syrah is not appreciated. Cheap Aussie Shiraz may hurt California Syrah producers, but that can't be the only reason.

Maybe there needs to be a Syrah Festival, the way Pinot Noir has festivals. The Rhone-Varietal festivals are fine, but Syrah needs to be made a star and have its own events. The wines are worth it.

Oct 14, 2011 05:43 am
 Posted by  Robert E

Steve, my assumption has always been that the grape varietal known as Syrah only uses that name when the grape was actually grown in the Rhone Valley region of France. Any Syrah grape that is grown in another region of the world (Chile, Australia, etc) forfeits use of the name Syrah and must use the name Shiraz. i can't remember where I read that but I challenged an online wine library in France once and they agreed that this was the case.

Any thought on that?

Oct 25, 2011 11:20 am
 Posted by  Erika Szymanski

Robert, I can attest that the naming convention you suggest exists is far, far from common practice at least in Eastern Washington. Syrah is a very popular varietal in this area both with winemakers and customers at price points from under $10 to upwards of $100 on occasion. Virtually everyone bottles under the name "Syrah" both, I expect, for marketing/recognition reasons and because the majority of WA winemakers align more closely with French than Australian models.

On a tangential note, reading about marketing problems with CA Syrah surprises me expressly because WA Syrah enjoys such popularity in its home state. Bottles of $8-15 Syrah are popular choices for bring-a-bottle potluck events among the twenty-something young professional crowd, and winemakers in Walla Walla, in particular, routinely show off their $30-50 exemplars that fall into my "nice dinner" category. While I suspect that a large pat of the difference is that WA isn't overwhelmingly known for something else (like Cab Sauv), it still makes me wonder what CA could learn from WA about Syrah.

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Nov 17, 2011 10:16 pm
 Posted by  Chris Wallace

I too am a big fan of California Syrah, particularly from the Central Coast. I wonder if it is possible that the wineries release the wines a bit too early? Very young Syrah can be grapey and teeth-staining and almost wild in flavour. But with a few years bottle age it smooths out and becomes more complex more quickly (IMHO) than does Cabernet. Perhaps that would improve things, but I just cannot understand its relative lack of success given its quality and price point.

Nov 21, 2011 01:15 pm
 Posted by  mejensen1

I learned very much from the discussion!

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