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Syrah: A Phoenix or Just The Ashes

By Stephen Eliot

We here at Connoisseurs’ Guide have just finished putting the final touches on our July issue featuring Chardonnay, Syrah and new Rosés, and I am once again confronted with the paradox that California Syrah has become. It has for several years now been dismissed as having failed in the sweepstakes for “Next Big Thing” status, but the number of fine examples is growing, and the overall quality manifest in those that still manage to make their ways to market impresses me as being clearly on the rise. There are simply more and much better bottlings to be had than at any time I can recall, and yet the monotonous laments of its death go on unabated.

There will be no argument from me that Syrah has proven to be a far-from-interesting stuff when planted in warm regions and farmed on an industrial scale with the high yields demanded of a mass-market player, but what is missed by those too quick to eulogize its passing is the undeniable successes now seen in the serious, small-production efforts of its many true-believing, artisinally minded champions. Its better versions are made in small lots that typically do not exceed a few hundred cases, and commodity bottlings of plonk made in the hundreds of thousands most certainly bring the average down but when has the success of any fine wine been defined by some theoretical yet utterly meaningless average?

The worth of any variety can only be measured by the success of its best efforts, and to ignore the Syrahs from such producers as Stolpman, Ramey, Terre Rouge, MacLaren, du Mol, the Ojai Vineyard, Dehlinger, Jeff Cohn and Qupé, to name but a few, is to turn a blind eye to enormously satisfying wines of great range and depth that rank with the best produced anywhere in the world.

I am tired of hearing that California Syrah is a grand experiment that has failed. It has not. It may not be stacked in towering columns at the end of supermarket aisles or sold by the pallet at big-box retailers, and it may evoke frowns from the corporate bosses of big business, but so long as there are dedicated growers and vintners who refuse to give up, those with both feet planted firmly in the world of great wine could not care in the least. And, if fickle consumers do not flock to Syrah as the winds of fashion continually shift, that simply means there is a little more for the rest of us.


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