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Wednesday Warblings
Do The Many Personalities of Syrah Confuse The Issue?

By Stephen Eliot

I tend to drink episodically. It is in large part owing to the way we do things here at CGCW. We generally focus on two or three varietals in a given month, and, I mean, really, who would pour the “left-overs” of the best stuff down the drain? More importantly, however, the intense scrutiny given to this or that grape is always a catalyst to further investigation and drives real enthusiasm when the going is good.

Lately, Syrah has been making a regular appearance at my table, and, for the life of me, I just do not understand how it has fallen so far out of favor with folks who like to talk about wine. While it may be a little less fashionable to view it with scorn and derision as it was several years back, it is still seems caught in a lengthy spell of the doldrums and is too rarely regarded with much more than benign neglect. The good news, however, is that the people who know how to make it have not thrown in the towel…not by a long shot.

Now, I understand that the word “Syrah” can be downright confounding on a label. There as many styles of West Coast Syrah to be had, from ripe and dramatic to sleek and refined, as there are places in which to grow it, and some have argued that the confusion raised by its too-many faces is a big reason for its lack of widespread success. But, putting aside the sleep-inducing debate that there is a right way and a wrong way that it should taste, Syrah is showing remarkable resilience for a grape that has by many accounts become hopelessly stalled in the market, and its stubborn refusal to fade from discussion may well be owing to the very fact that there are such widely varying expressions to be had.

Provenance unquestionably accounts for much of the difference. Syrahs born of warmer climes such as Paso Robles, Rockpile, Eastern Santa Barbara County and much of the Sierra Foothills run naturally to ripeness and unabashed richness, while their racy cousins that call cooler districts like the Sta. Rita Hills and the western reaches of Sonoma County home find great vibrancy and brightness in leaner, less bulky, more elegant renditions. But, for all of the reasonable claims that place is paramount, it must remembered that the effects of place can be tempered and shaped by winemaker preference; and make no mistake, the people who make Syrah leave their own indelible mark. There are more things in a great bottle than can be wholly explained by terroir.

Some, like those from Dehlinger, JC Cellars, Dierberg, Terre Rouge, Rusack and Ramey, to name but a few, aim for and achieve richness and balance in ripe, boldly flavored renditions, while those more mannerly, equally noteworthy offerings from the likes of Red Car, Nagy, Qupé and the Ojai Vineyard steer to refinement while keeping raw power in check. In each case, Syrah’s voice is clear, whether hitting the high notes or showing the deep tones and implied muscle of a booming bass.

As is the case with most other varietals, there are partisans aplenty for this or that style of Syrah, and, so long as the stones thrown between warring camps do not do lethal damage, I think the debate is healthy. Where some hear cacophony, I hear joyful noise. The danger, it seems to me, lies with those who advocate some sort of Syrah sameness, a distinct and predictable “California” version as the cure for its supposed market woes, and I do not accept that the state of local Syrah is such that a “cure” is required.

The very premise that Syrah is down for the count is without merit, and it strikes me as woefully short-sighted and silly to proclaim that its day has come and gone; especially when, as I have been reminded many times over the last several weeks, there are so many deeply satisfying versions to be had.


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by TomHill
Posted on:10/30/2013 10:42:53 AM

Yup, very well stated, Steve. And totally agree w/ every word you say.

Especially: "....its stubborn refusal to fade from discussion may well be owing to the very fact that there are such widely varying expressions to be had.".

   I've seen any number of wine writers who attribute Syrah's torper in the marketplace to its diversity in style...that they never know what to expect when they open a Syrah. I've long thought this to be baloney. And this is a deficiency they also ascribe to Zinfandel...which doesn't seem to be a drug on the market these days.

   Like you, there is a diversity in style in Syrah from Calif. A diversity you & I both embrace. But, like Zin, they also speak loud & clear of of the Syrah variety.

   We just had a very/very atypical Syrah last week. The Solminer Rubellite '12. Unlike any SantaYnezVlly/LosOlivos Syrah I've had. What David deLaski terms a "skinny" Syrah. Low in alcohol , quite delicate/light/elegant, drinkable. Lovely floral aromatics suggestive of Cote-Rorie. It actually resembled a Langhe Nebbiolo w/o the tannic bite. Lovely stuff. But not everybody's cup of tea.

   Like you, Steve, still drinking a lot of Syrahs. And enjoying every one of them (mostly).



No Question
by Mark McKenna
Posted on:10/31/2013 10:58:21 AM



Couldn't agree more.  Ironic that one of the best things about Syrah, it's ability to produce an incredibly wide range of delicious wine styles, is also possible its downfall in a wider consumer audience.  We make a good amount of syrah each year but do not yet bottle it as a varietal as we are unsure of the demand.  Well that and Terre Rourge is right across the street and Bill does one heck of a job with the grape : ).  That said it is an incredible blending grape to round out some other varietals and wonderful as a base for blends.  Don't think syrah is going away anytime soon.  Just need to keep the conversation alive so more folks get comfortable giving it a shot.


Mark mcKenna, Winemaker

Andis Wines

No Subject
by Deborah Parker Wong
Posted on:10/31/2013 11:57:43 AM

Bob Lindquist was quoted recently saying, “We’re bullish on syrah, especially cool-climate Central Coast syrah.”  His devotion to this variety has won so many converts over the years and he believes that the best examples of Northern Rhone-style California wines are beginning to gain a larger and more accepting audience.  Like his Burgundian-chardonnays, his syrahs have never gone out of style because they have never been particularly fashionable.  And therein lies the beauty of being a classic.

by Mary Rocca
Posted on:10/31/2013 4:00:37 PM

Yes, I agree with everything you say...  

The hard thing though is that wineries don't want to make Syrah if it isn't sustainable- that is, it needs to sell. 

One of my somm friends told me that he'll ask people what they are looking for in a wine, and they will describe a Syrah. And when he tells them that, they say "oh no, we don't like Syrah!"   Which has made me consider bottling my Syrah under a proprietary name instead of as a Syrah.  

Ah well- it's a wonderful wine, let's just hope more people will discover it!

Mary Rocca, vintner

Rocca Family Vineyards, Napa Valley 

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