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Wednesday Wanderings
Syrah—Not Going Over the Cliff

By Stephen Eliot

The state and future of Rhône varietals in California is once again in the news. Several weeks back, we wondered aloud in this column as to where local Syrah and its mates might be headed, and the questions was raised again this week in a like-minded piece penned by Patrick Comiskey for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The topic of Syrah’s seeming stagnation and less-than-robust place in the market, of course, is not at all new, and, for several years now, it has been claimed by many that Syrah has failed to win the hearts and minds of the consumer owing to California’s inability to define a singular Syrah style. This, in fact, is the most-often cited reason for Syrah’s sputtering of late, but is it true? Should California pursue a specific and singular Syrah style? Is that the answer? Is it even possible?

I would answer “no” to every one of those questions, and would instead suggest that such parochial thinking comes with dangers and pitfalls aplenty.

California is a very big place with world-class vineyards running from Mendocino to Temecula, a distance greater than that from Vouvray to Veneto. The assumption of a “one style fits all” mentality for such far-flung districts defies the very ideas of terroir and sense of place. It might be easy, as Syrah’s local critics like to do, to point to a French style, but would there be such a thing if Syrah were grown not just in the Rhône but in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace as well? I very much doubt it.

If California Syrah shows many faces, and I agree with those who believe that it does, it will take time for its makers to discover just which face looks best in each place. It just may be that its seemingly chameleon-like nature, while causing a bit of confusion now, is also the key to a very interesting future. We have already seen the heights that Syrah can reach in the hands of such notable producers as DuMol, Terre Rouge, the Ojai Vineyard and JC Cellars, to name but a few, and I expect to see many more outstanding examples as more winemakers come to master the mysteries of grape and place.

There is a constant, if hopefully inconsequential, drone from a whining few who decry the California winemaking style as inherently flawed regardless of grape or place, and they are quick to provide saving solutions to a problem that arguably does not really exist by celebrating esoteric varietals and radically different approaches to viticulture and viniculture. Think concrete eggs, “orange” wine, Ribolla Gialla and the contest to see just how low you can go with respect to alcohol. While there absolutely must always be innovation and new ideas and the excitement of a next generation driving us forward, there is also something to be said for the wisdom of practice and time. I simply cannot agree with those who preach that California Syrah has had its day and who would summarily abandon it after but one generation as they head off on a crusade for the next big thing.

A singular California style? Nope, I do not see it in the cards, but I do anticipate that we will become comfortable with the concept of regional distinction and difference. But, it will take time for those distinctions to become predictably clear. We Americans tend to be an impatient lot, and if there is anything we can learn from Old World winemaking, it is patience.

Yes, local Syrah is suffering some growing pains just now, but it is far from dead.

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