User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Tuesday Tributes
Will The Real Syrah Ever Stand Up

By Charles Olken

I like Syrah. You like Syrah. Then why is it such a drag on the market? This is no “dog” of a grape? No “treat me right or I’ll turn on you”.

So, “Why”, I ask, are California Syrahs constantly dissed by critics, not treated with great joy by the market place and needing to be blended into everything but sparkling wine in order to use up the surplus that comes out of the vineyards? Part of the answer is found in that very nasty word, “surplus”. The imbalance between supply and demand is the result of too much Syrah being planted in too many not so good places resulting in too much wine that does very little to make itself unique.

And the concept of “unique” gives us the second part of the answer. Syrah is limited in placement in France primarily to the Rhône region, and there, primarily to the northern Rhône where it is the only red grape allowed. In the southern Rhône, of course, Grenache dominates, and while Syrah is gaining ground, it remains in an all but hidden role as a blending grape among the dozen-plus varieties that are allowed in that region. But there is more to the Syrah story in France than that. With the exception of a few overripe Bordeaux wines of the last ten years or so, Syrah has been unique in France among red grapes in its ability to give the world a supply of sturdy, fleshy red wines of quality. Such is simply not the case here in California where we can get and do get almost everything ripe. Thus, Syrah is not as "unique" here as it is there.

To me, however, the biggest hurdle Syrah faces is that its personality is simply not as interesting as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Zinfandel. It is not as widely appreciated as Merlot for its everyday use as table wine, and, over time, there are other red grapes with unique personalities like Grenache and Tempranillo that may offer more of a difference than we currently get from the majority of Syrah. I am not, and Connoisseurs’ Guide is not, in the camp of those who diss Syrah as flat, boring, dull and useless. It can be all of those things, but so too can Pinot Noir and Zinfandel and every other variety when not handled well or grown in the right places.

Syrah, I suspect and expect, will always have a place here. Indeed, as we start pulling out Syrah that is not producing wines of consequence and increase plantings in both the right warmer places like the westside of the Paso Robles AVA and some protected places in cool-climate locations in the North Coast as well as in the Sierra Foothills, we should see a gradual increase in the overall quality of “serious” Syrah bottlings. The proof behind this belief lies in the best Syrahs of the day—wines like the Terre Rouge Ascent and the JC Cellars Buffalo Hill bottling from the Rockpile AVA. And there are plenty of others. What there are also are too many “others”. Whither Syrah”? Stay tuned folks. This story is still being writ.

The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


Anyone got a corkscrew?
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:6/27/2011 9:01:11 PM

I’ll go crack open a bottle of Syrah while you finish the story. Hurry back.

A Long Wait
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/27/2011 9:41:44 PM

Hi Pam

Still heading this way soon? Hope we can get together.




Syrah Rules!
by Bill Easton
Posted on:6/28/2011 10:26:32 AM

Hi Charlie -

Thanks for the plug! We are doing perfectly fine with Syrah (we bottle 7- 8 different Syrahs) and we are committed to it in our soil and climate matrix. All grapes need to be planted in places where they excel. That was not the case during the Syrah boom a decade ago. It was not true with the Chardonnay boom in the 1970's.

Bill Easton


by Bob Lindquist
Posted on:6/28/2011 12:05:39 PM

Thanks Charles for the thoughtful article. I would argue that the cool climate areas of the Central Coast are among the best terroirs for syrah in California. The Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills have all yielded exceptional syrahs of distinct character.

Central Coast Syrah
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:6/28/2011 12:23:10 PM


Indeed they do. And the potential in cool sites is quite interesting because Syrah will ripen in cool sites and will show plenty of varietal character when it does.

Your winery, Qupe, has done well with Syrah in CGCW reviews, as have the wines from so many others from the cooler parts of the Central Coast.

by gregory graziano
Posted on:6/28/2011 1:03:17 PM

One of the main problems with Syrah in the U.S. is the lack of quality, over pricing of the wines and the inconsistancy of style. At a wine tasting a coulple of weeks ago 6 of 12 wines were slightly reduced or down-right stinky. Some of those wines were over $30.00. Many Syrahs are high PH , high alcohol and low acid, dirty earthy wines with little friut, not my syle. Too many rookie winemakers, charging too much money!


by Tim Olson
Posted on:6/28/2011 3:23:50 PM


Agree with most of what you said but disagree with the comment that Syrah lacks the personality of Cab, Pinot or Zin. Certainly true in some wines but that could be said of any varietal including the three you mentioned. When grown in the right places, made well and perhaps blended with a little of this or that, it can be as great a wine as any other. As Bill said, grape varieties planted in the spots they can excell will create great wines with lots of personality.

Cheers, Tim

No Subject
by Pamela
Posted on:6/28/2011 6:39:46 PM

I'm on my fifth bottle of Syrah. Are you done with that story yet!?! :) Yes! Head'n your direction soon, lets hook up.

Syrah standing up
by Jo Diaz
Posted on:6/29/2011 7:47:49 AM

It can't stand up (to Petite Sirah). Sorry, Charlie, I couldn't resist.

All Syrah Would Be...
by PaulG
Posted on:6/29/2011 8:40:24 AM

All Syrah would be from Washington if it could be...

by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:6/29/2011 8:47:52 AM

Ditto for are your observations, Charlie, basically saying that Syrah lacks respect.  It happens.  American grown Pinot Noirs didn't have much respect a good 20 years -- took a Hollywood movie, of all things, to change that.

Insofar as comparisons to Cabernet Sauvignon in particular:  yeah, we all love a good cab, and it's a natural for the West Coast.  But seriously:  I find even more terroir related delineations of character in American Syrahs than I do American cabs.  The big, hunky styles of Ballard Canyon, the refined, sensual styles of Petaluma Gap and Sonoma Coast, the wild, feral styles of Southern Oregon, the blustery, boisterous styles of much of Eastern Washington... and on and on...

Of course, like many a market watcher, I'm intrigued by the potential of grapes like Tempranillo and Grenache in the red wine market.  From an aesthetic perspective, I think more likely that *their* time will come even further down the road from Syrah -- the qualities of Grenache being so much more demure and subtle than that of Syrah, and Tempranillo being such a meat and soul type of thing (meaning, you really don't "get" Tempranillo's soulfulness until you have it in certain meat setting, which is really when complexities emerge).

No, variation and quality of Syrah is not really an issue.  As someone who's worked the markets, I can clearly see that the quality of American Syrahs has crept up on the public so quickly, they simply haven't had the chance to digest it.  There's just too many terrific wines out there vying for attention -- those of the U.S. being just one segment of the international bazaar of goodies available to consumers. 

Appreciation of Syrah will just take time, period.  True-blue Syrah lovers will just need to be patient -- that respect will come in due time, just as it did for Pinot Noir...

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:6/29/2011 9:01:24 AM


If it keeps raining down here, Syrah won't know the difference between Seattle and San Francisco.

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:6/29/2011 9:14:28 AM


No argument that Syrah expresses itself differently from place to place. But so far, Syrah has not found a place where it expresses itself consistently well and at high desirability levels.

At this point, with Syrah, I much more trust producers than I trust place. Nothing wrong with that, of course, because ultimately we buy wines from producers, not just from place.

But, just as Napa Valley seems to define CA Cabs and we now have half a dozen or more identifiable high level and consistent places for the expression of Pinot Noir, I see us, and WA (hi Paul), as less consistent as to place and less consistent as to high levels of quality.

And like Pinot Noir before 1990, there are plenty of good examples of the Syrah today. Sideways may have propelled Pinot Noir sales, but it was, in my humble opinion, the rise in quality of Pinot Noir that enabled Sideways to be made in the first place.

I think, despite all the quality we see from individual producers, that we are still waiting for the real Syrah to stand up. In that regard, there is a pretty good parallel to Pinot Noir and its eventual emergence. It took Pinot more than a century. Let's hope it takes less time for Syrah.

by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:6/29/2011 9:29:57 AM

Ah, but there's nothing like a good debate, Charlie.  Clearly, to me, there are even more Syrahs of surpassing quality than there were Pinot Noirs in the seventies and eighties.  And in the seventies and eighties, we all could clearly see that American pinot was going somewhere very fast, even if the examples to real quality and were relegated to three or four producers in the North Coast, three or four in Willamette Valley, and a measly one or two south of the Bay.

Guess what I'm' tryingn to say:  over the past two, three years, I'm experiencing dozens of Syrahs up and down the West Coast that absolutely bowl me over.  Syrahs that I have to say impress me as much as any from anywhere (including the Rhone and South Australia).

And so, Charlie:  if three or four impressive Syrahs from Willamette Valley 30 years ago were enough to say that an identifiable pattern of regional consistency was emerging, doesn't a good dozen producers from, say, Santa Barbara today also rate the same assessment?  Sure, there are talented individuals in Santa Barbara to explain those recently bottled phenoms, but logic also tells you that they're working with darned good material, which means there are definitely "place" expressions being made, too.

Insofar as pre-Sideways pinots being more than worthy:  absolutely, agreed!  But same for Syrahs today.  Even in little known areas, like Oregon's Umpqua Valley, there's too much consistency of quality, even with the usual variations having more to do with individual talent, to ignore the obvious:  Syrah has found multiple homes on the West Coast, and market appreciation of that is bound to follow.

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:6/29/2011 9:34:45 AM

Whoops.  Numerous typos in previous note; and of course, I meant "three or four impressive Pinot Noirs from Willamette Valley 30 years ago" -- not Syrahs...

by Bob Lindquist
Posted on:6/29/2011 10:15:30 AM

Hi again Charles- I disagree with your assertion that "so far, syrah has not found a place where it expresses itself consistently well and at high desirability levels"...I have been making syrah from Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley since 1987, that's 24 vintages, and the quality has been consistent and distinctive. If properly cellared, each of those 24 vintages has aged well and developed as a fine syrah should.


There are few vineyards or AVA's with that lengthy track record but others come to mind such as Zaca Mesa in the Santa Ynez Valley, Hudson and Durrell Vineyards in Carneros, Bill Easton's wines from the Sierra Foothills and Dehlinger's wines from Russian River.

by Ernie Pink
Posted on:6/29/2011 10:15:53 AM

Please keep Oregon in mind when you think cool climate Syrah.



Just sayin'
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:6/29/2011 10:17:54 AM

Just did a Rhone event last Friday and I can say, without hesitation, Cornas and Cote Rotie are standing tall. Breathtaking wines that I feel are just as noble, (if not moreso for my palate) as any Cabernet, from anywhere including Bordeaux. Refinement, purity, grace and power....Syrah can have it all.

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:6/29/2011 10:34:52 AM

Hello Bob--

Thanks for coming back and keeping the ball rolling.

I have no quibble with the notion that there are combinations of vineyard and producer that have been very successful. I did mention Bill Easton's efforts above, and his latest will be once again at the top of our ratings when they appear here on July 1.

Rather, I am referring to the idea that I cannot attribute greatness to Syrah across specific AVAs the way I can with Cab, PN and Zin. Syrah in CA is still in its infancy. Our plantings are all first generation and our experience is relatively short in comparison to what it usually takes for greatness to emerge in any broad way.

Our July Issue, headlined by Syrah, will be no different in that regard. There will be plenty of Syrahs recommended. The issue for me is the future and the further discoveries about what, where and why and how. It took Pinot a century and more to find itself. Syrah has aa few years yet to go in that comparison.

Que Syrah?
by Dennis Schaefer
Posted on:6/29/2011 12:58:04 PM

Charlie: I respect you all to pieces, but I have to agree with Randy on this one.

Three words regarding Syrah: Santa Barbara County.

Did somebody say Syrah has a problem?
by Brad Harrington
Posted on:6/29/2011 4:41:05 PM

I think Syrah has already found a number of places in CA where awesome wines result with regularity.  The problem for the USA market has many angles.  There are too many wines from too many areas with too many different personalities. France, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Australia, California, Washington, Virginia, etc., etc. are all producing some interesting Syrahs.

But they are all so different.  Even in CA, there is a huge gap between the syrahs coming out of the west side of Paso and the syrahs coming out of the north end of the Sonoma Coast.  I doubt the average person would even recognize these two as the same grape, then throw in a Croze Hermitage and a huge Aussie from Barossa into the mix and people are just confused.

Only the wine geeks can even come close to getting it.

That being said, I think there are great wines coming from all these areas and in the long run, people just need to be educated about what different regions bring and an what they want out of the grape.

Of course there is a lot of lousy Syrah/Shiraz out there but in all honesty, there is a lot of lousy Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot too. 

I agree with Randy on this as well, Santa Barbara is full of wonderful, balanced Syrahs and all it is ultimately going to take is consumer recognition.  It's like there is this negative hype going around that Syrah has a problem.  I don't think it really does, other than people who make bad wine, tend to want to make it.  In a free market, I'm not quite sure what you can do about that.

Paso is a tough region because it gets so much credit for making these huge scoring Syrahs, yet I think many of the worst examples of the grape come from here.  It seems like everyone in Paso thinks they can make wines like the West Side does and that is really not happening.

The syrah industry is still a very young wine industry in the states.  Other than a few odds and ends, it seems like the first small wave of production really started in the early 90's.  The first Syrah I can remember getting some really solid press was the 1994 Ojai Santa Barbara Syrah, which Parker gave around 94 points, if my memory serves me well. ????  How long did it take the Cabs to sort things out??  I know Paso tried really hard to be a major player in Cab production back in the early days and that never really panned out for them.  Others who have a longer historical perspective than I do, may remember some of the early cab trials and errors.  It's kind of par for the course.  It takes time to figure out what works well and where it works well.

One final thought that I would like to add is that being a wine fan during the discovery period for a grape, can be one of the most satisfying situations to witness.  I think being a fan of Syrah over the past 20 years has been a fun ride, seeing the changes in the methods and the wines being released has been very educational, I wouldn't have skipped it for the world.  Walking into a mature market that has already completely run it's course is kind of like buying wines by scores.  You don't learn nearly as much for yourself.

For me, 95% of my interest in wine has been based on discovery.  It is what makes it fun for me.  If I was growing grapes, I think that would make it interesting for me as well.

Alban Reva
by Charmion
Posted on:6/29/2011 6:00:29 PM

Here is one reason that Syrah is not faring well overall.  Ten years ago, Alban Reva was $40 and probably in the mid 14% on alcohol.  Last I saw, it is 15.5% or thereabouts and costs more than a tune up on a Porsche.


Other than that, I concur with my old friends Greg Graziano and Bill Eston and with Mr Qupe.  Long live Cornas, Croze Hermitage for everyday, and so forth.

On Alban Reva
by Brad Harrington
Posted on:6/29/2011 11:28:17 PM

Hey Charmion, I have Reva's in my cellar that have the original price tag I paid for them. $17.99!!

I do agree that the high prices have really gotten out of control.  All these young winemakers see Alban and Krankl and that's what they want for themselves.

It would be nice if there was some type of hierarchy or right of passage where people had to earn their position, but that is not really the American way.

I quit buying Alban because of the prices but honestly, if anyone deserves those prices, it would be John.  He has certainly put a lot of work, effort and cash into building his winery over the years.

Alas, I am glad I did my heavy buying in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  It seems like I buy less and less because the wines are costing more and more.  With the economy the way it is, buying wines at ever increasing prices has become much more difficult.

Good thing there is still beer out there! :)

Sonoma Coast Syrahs...
by Randy
Posted on:6/30/2011 3:38:41 PM

West Sonoma County Syrahs are quite tasty as well.  The problem is there's not enough planted west of 116. 

Whither Syrah????
by TomHill
Posted on:7/6/2011 10:56:11 AM


   I've only followed Calif Syrah since '73...but I'll comment anyway.

Charlie sez: "the biggest hurdle Syrah faces is that its personality is simply not as interesting as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Zinfandel"

   Guess I'd argue that point strongly. I find Cabernet much/much more boring and homogeneous than Syrah. Haven't bought a Cab, Calif or otherwise, in years. To me, one of the beauties of Syrah is that it produces interesting wines in a huge variety of climes/terroirs...from Lodi all the way to Cambria. I find Syrah must more expressive of terroir than Cabernet, and probably Zin (as you well know...we've been told by the "authorities" that Pinot is more expressive of terroir than any other variety).

Grazi says: "and the inconsistancy of style". That argument, that the consumer doesn't know what to expect when he buys a Syarh, is one I've heard before by others lamenting the sluggish sales of Syrah. That is bad??? That's precisely what I like about Syrah, the diversity of style. As I recall, at one time that same complaint was leveled at Zin. And it seems to be doing just fine, thank you. You buy a Syrah from Lodi, from ShenandoahVlly, from FairPlay, from SantaLuciaHighlands, from BienNacido, from Annapolis, from Rockpile...and they're all pretty different and expressive of their respective terroir. Hooray for that, I say.



by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:7/6/2011 11:10:46 AM


My bigger concern with Syrah is that it has not yet hit its stride. Yes, Syrah does have the unusual ability to be expressive from Rockpile to Stagecoach, from Bien Nacido to the Santa Lucia Highlands, but greatness in Syrah is still, to me, limited to unique and special combinations of vintners and site rather than having reached the place at which we can say "Here are AVAs where the expression is predictable and consistent".

As a long-time reader of CGCW, you have seen us give very high scores to lots of Syrahs from lots of places. So, it is not Syrah in general that is the issue but rather the yet-to-emerge consistency.

And, yes, the wording to which you refer does suggest something that is belied by the scores in CGCW and could have been phrased somewhat more artfully.

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.