Randall Grahm told me this: "What's the difference between a case of the crabs and a case of Syrah? The crabs go away."
Syrah isn't selling, and hasn't for several years. Throughout the wine industry people know this, except on the production end -- wineries haven't stopped making Syrah. There's a lot of great Syrah available. And yet, the general public goes, "Which way to the Cabernet?"
A popular theory is to blame Yellow Tail, which taught consumers that competent Shiraz could be had for $7, so why pay $30? I don't buy it: Charles Shaw sells $2 Cabernet and Chardonnay, and that doesn't seem to have hurt those wines' popularity or prices.
I have a different theory, one that occurred to me in Washington after spending a few days at Riesling Rendezvous.
I had this epiphany at L'Ecole No. 41. They have two Syrahs that look nearly the same on the shelf. One is a Columbia Valley Syrah from 2007; the other is a Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Estate Syrah from 2008. Sure, the wine lover notices that the latter is a single-vineyard wine. But bear with me.
With the same label and the same alcohol percentage (14.8%), you'd expect the two wines to be similar; perhaps the single-vineyard wine would be more complex.
Instead, it was like the two wines were from different continents. The Columbia Valley wine was rich and ripe, all dark cherry with some pepper. The Walla Walla Valley wine was gamy, earthy, and animalistic -- like a northern Rhone wine.
"We're working on creating an identity for the Walla Walla wines that is different from the Columbia Valley," said owner/winemaker Martin Clubb.
A bell went off over my head (we were in an old schoolhouse). That's what's wrong with Syrah!
I don't mean that there's anything wrong with the grape. I love the fact that the same grape that makes ripe but balanced fruit bombs in Barossa Valley can make rugged, savory wines in Cornas.
But when I pick up a bottle from Walla Walla Valley, or Sonoma County, or Santa Barbara County, I have no idea which I'm getting.
Whenever I order a Syrah from a wine list, I must ask the sommelier about it first. I don't have to do that with most major grapes/appellations. If I see Russian River Valley Chardonnay, or Paso Robles Zinfandel, or Central Otago Pinot Noir, I don't know if I'm getting a good version or not, but I have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be like. Not the case with Syrah.
Riesling marketers faced a similar problem with sweetness, which led to the development of the Riesling Rules: a subjective scale of perceived sweetness. It's a great idea that will help consumers know how sweet a Riesling is.
I submit that Syrah/Shiraz has the same problem as Riesling. Increasing sales for Riesling, and unending buzz, should give hope to Syrah producers that it's solvable.
What's needed is to tell consumers what kind of Syrah they're getting. Is it one of the savory, lean Syrahs, that taste like preserved meat? Or is it a full-fruited wine, maybe with a hint of black pepper?
I also submit that the solution is right in front of us.
Syrah/Shiraz is not the only grape with two widely accepted names in English. With another -- Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio -- sales continue to be hot. I think that's largely due to widespread perception, among both consumers and the wine trade, that the name chosen for the wine gives some indication of how it will taste. Pinot Grigio tends to be innocuous, a chilled refreshing mouth-rinse for times when that's called for. Producers who want to make a spicier, more expressive version usually call it Pinot Gris; the public has picked up on that.
Why not do the same for Syrah/Shiraz?
If the two main styles of the grape, in broad strokes, are defined by the northern Rhone and Barossa Valley, why not just call the wine whatever it's closest to? If you're making a ripe fruity one, call it Shiraz. If you're making a savory one, call it Syrah. Simple.
What if it's one in the middle? I submit that in today's wine environment, any red wine that has savory notes is unusual; hence it's Syrah.
I believe there's a stigma about the name Shiraz right now for producers outside of Australia who don't want to be associated with the meltdown in the Australian wine market, and who fear that Yellow Tail has told people that Shiraz is only worth $7.
It's a fear that has to be conquered, because the situation now isn't working for anyone. California and Washington both make plenty of great Shiraz -- and Syrah -- and really should grow more of it than Cabernet because it's better suited to more areas. But the market isn't there for it. Using a more clear system of naming would help build that market.
Moreover, if there is a backlash against the word "Shiraz," seeing the name used on top-quality bottlings that people enjoy would help address that.
Here's my proposal in full:
1) A top Syrah/Shiraz producer needs to take the lead in pulling together the industry. Chateau Ste. Michelle has done this for Riesling, and it has made a huge difference for everyone selling it. Volunteers?
2) Host an international symposium. Put this naming issue on the agenda front and center.
3) Try to get most producers to agree. Some won't; let them be outliers, and let them complain their case. This will bring publicity to both the grape and the issue, which can use more press right now.
4) For people who do agree, come up with a very simple marketing campaign. "We call it Shiraz," for example (wow, I just shorted myself out of 6 figures in consulting fees.)
That's it. Like many wine lovers, I'd like to see the public buy and enjoy more of the great Syrah/Shiraz that's available. Making the name mean something would be a step in the right direction.