Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why Syrah doesn't sell: A theory and a suggestion

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.


Arthur said...

Interesting to see others thinking the same way, Blake:

W. Blake Gray said...

I want to address an interesting point somebody made about this post on Twitter.

This is not just about Syrah showing typicity of its region. For one thing, Walla Walla Valley is part of Columbia Valley. But forget that specific example -- I could line up 10 Syrahs from Santa Barbara or Sonoma or any region on the West Coast and get some that are New World and some that are Northern Rhone. That's not typicity, that's winemaker choice.

Arthur said...

Right. That is why the graphic borrowed from Riesling would work: it focuses on the style of wine regardless of origin (although, as an aside, style should be reflective of region of origin, or consistent within that region).

Anonymous said...

IMHO, there are 3 types of Syrah; good cool climate Syrah, good worm climate Syrah and a lot of bad Syrah from both cool and worm climate out there.
Within the 10 to 25 dollars Syrahs you find mostly simple, one dimensional wines, within the 25 to 45 dollars Syrahs you find a lot of wines with high VA, some of them sweet and some over extracted. This leaves a very small percentage of Syrahs available to the public that are worth the money.
I believe one of the problems is that Syrah is been grown in newish viticultural areas with lots of new winemakers and owners-winemakers that are just learning how to make high end wines. If we talk about scores for Syrah, you will find that most of the high scoring Syrahs are from areas where winemakers have solid background and knowledge, Napa and Sonoma.
We got a lot to learn about Syrah.


W. Blake Gray said...

Arthur: The problem with the graphic is that it's not the same as Riesling, where only one quality -- sweetness -- is being measured on a linear scale. It's just not the same to measure, say, "earthiness" or "fruitiness."

Arthur said...


Fair enough, but don't you think that some symbolic indicator of what type of Syrah is in the bottle would be useful to the consumer?

Fruity, Earthy, Spicy, whatever the rubric, it would be better than the stab in the dark many consumers have to take when selecting Syrahs on the shelves of stores.

Arthur said...

I guess I should elaborate that the styles can (however loosely) fall along some continuum. Whether it is the region, harvesting or production decisions, the styles or characters of the resulting wines will fall somewhere along that continuum.

W. Blake Gray said...

But it's not a continuum; that's the problem.

Arthur said...

OK, how about "spectrum"? I think we're looking at the same idea. And if it helps, we should set aside the notion of 'continuum' or 'spectrum' and just look at two extremes: hot and cool climate, ignoring the intermediates.

That said, climate will dominate production choices.

Let's look at San Luis Obispo County Syrah for example.

In the cooler end of the climatic spectrum is Edna Valley. Those wines will have more in common with each other than they would with those made from grapes grown in Creston, for example.

So you are right about your SBC example. There will be some variability but it will not be all winemaking-driven. Micro-climate and macro-climate will be the overriding factors.

But in cooler corners of SBC you will not have the same character of grapes as you do in Paso Robles. You can pick at different times but you will not replicate one style growing in the other region.

Now, the final dots to connect are that climate, the dominating factor, will drive much of that earthiness, fruitiness and spiciness. Thus, you can see these styles aligning with the climatic spectrum.

Arthur said...

I should add that we can probably agree that there will be more commonality by region than there will be outliers.
It's the generalizations that will benefit the consumer and ultimately the industry who cannot move their inventory.

W. Blake Gray said...

Arthur: Have you ever tried asking customers on the East Coast the difference between cool-climate and warm-climate Syrah?

Moreover, if I agreed with you that there's commonality by region, I would not have written this post. Have you ever sat down and tasted 25 Sonoma County Syrahs?

Arthur said...


To your first point: your comment about East-Coast consumers illustrates the level of non-understanding of Syrah on the part of consumers.

Talking to producers who are trying to sell in various markets, this appears to be the crux of the problem. And that is where bodies like the Rhone Rangers have to come in: they need to educate consumers, retailers and writers on these differences.

That said, I find it helpful to consider the relationship between condition or shape of starting raw materials (the grapes) and their origin (climate) in determining the phenolic, aromatic and other structural characteristics of the finished wines. (That needs to be separated from elevage influence). When you do that, you will begin to see how climate relates to character of wines more clearly (outliers being what they are).

A consequence of that is a rearrangement of the 'earthy'-‘fruity'-'spicy' rubric of the character of Syrah into something that more closely parallels the climatic spectrum (outliers being what they are).

John M. Kelly said...

Speaking as a guy who actually makes Syrah... The wine is an easy sell when people sit down and taste it. The problem is not with the consumer - it is with the frickin' middle tier of distribution. And it is a Yellow Tail problem.

Blake, I have heard the quote you attribute to RG many times, though I have more often heard it as a case of the clap - which you can get rid of.

IMHO the problem with Syrah has very little to do with regional identity. Let's assume that a producer is not a complete reprobate who insists that the grapes must be raisins before making their wine... choices made in fermentation and in raising the wine make a much bigger difference to Syrah than to other varietals.

Of special importance is the size of cooperage, the amount of new oak and the type of oak used. Want to make Shiraz? Use a lot of 60 gal new American oak barrels. Want to make something approximating Cornas? Age in tank or large French oak cooperage, with a low percentage of new wood.

Arthur said...


You know I respect your knowledge and experience but I suspect that you'd agree that when you make Syrah from a site where the clusters get baked but are picked before they raisin, they have a phenolic profile that is dramatically different from that of grapes grown in some of the "fringe" locations, those two resulting wines will be drastically different. In that situation, no amount )or size/capacity) of wood will be enough for that wine to escape the gravity of its origins.

Anonymous said...

While I do not fault his theory... I do find his proposed solution problematic... His solution suggests a dumbing down so that the simplest of people can buy a Syrah/Shiraz. The beauty or better yet mystique of Syrah/Shiraz is that it forces you to think and experience the wine in its many expressions and learn for yourself what you like or do not like!

I for one am not a fan of a solution that treats the product like widgets and the people who purchase it like sheep must be spoon fed like babies and told what they should like and why.... Let people be responsible to discover the answers on their own! AND if that idea runs counter to a wine distributors goal of selling a few thousand more cases of Syrah/Shiraz, well that's ok - just more great wines at great prices for people who take the trip to discover Syrah/Shiraz! : )

John M. Kelly said...

Arthur - I agree that there are differences between warm climate and cool climate Syrah, but assert that they are relatively small compared to the effects of elevage.

Another issue with Syrah is that, like Sangiovese, when it is run out of water during ripening it forms a barrier to water flow at the pedicel. Once this occurs the development of the tannins in the seed coat is arrested at an underdeveloped stage, and the juice of the grape can only increase in sugar through dehydration.

Arthur said...

Well, John

I find the differences (inherent to grape not winemaking) to be quite dramatic and my earlier example is a very good illustration.

I wonder how much the degree of difference is related to the degree of difference in climate of varying sites.

I get your point about dessication and arrested seed tannin maturation, but what about the impact of high heat and sun exposure shifting some of Krebs cycle to the skin of the berries (in some circumstances) - not only affecting the acids and sugars but the character of skin phenolic?

tercero wines said...

Another blog about Syrah - I could not be happier to see this much attention given to a variety that I love to make and love to drink.

Lots of good points here, but I do believe that Arthur has hit the nail on the head when talking about climatic and microclimate issues,

Can you 'overcome' or 'obliterate' these differences during elevage as John asserts? Yes and no. The use of a lot of new oak will alter the wine tremendously . . . The use of stems alter the wine as well . . . But site and microclimate will trump a lot of these 'winemaking variables' IMHO.

And as far as 'dumbing down' the variety, I truly feel the issue is one of perception more than anything - not just the 'yellow tail phenomenon' but also the fact that many domestic producers followed in those footsteps in the early part of last decade, with some going so far as to call their California syrahs 'shiraz'.

A LOT has changed since then - it is becoming much more difficult to find the 'over the top fruit bombs' of yesteryear being produced domestically. Can you still find some? Of course, but they are the exception, not the rule. There has been a huge shift toward more balanced syrahs that go wonderfully with all types of foods.

John, you may be right and it may be a matter of the distributor/middleman being a 'block' in the system, but to me, there is no doubt that the biggest challenge is with the consumer and changing the perception of the variety.

What can be done? I would suggest starting with creating characteristics that are common to more cool climate sites and warmer climate sites, and suggesting foods that can go with each. From there, we can start getting into more nuances - but we need to start somewhere in my opinion.

I'll be curious to hear what others have to say, and to hear what suggestions those of you may have for the Rhone Rangers (btw, I am on the Board of Directors of the organization).


John M. Kelly said...

I was on the BOD of the Rhone Rangers when it was a new organization... I suggest RR is what it is today because I left ;-).

I don't want to hijack Blake's topic here and stray too far afield, but I have tasted fruit from all over California and can say with certainty in my own mind that - absent poor farming or bad harvest decisions - the differences between the character of the fruit (incl. acids and skin phenolics) is much less than the differences imposed by barrel choices.

RE: Blake's suggestion - it would be great if the differences between Syrahs were as unambiguous as treif/kashrut - but they are not. Another objection is the issue of self awareness and self reporting. "What Syrah just got 100 points from blah-blah-blah? Well, that's the style of wine ours is."

tercero wines said...


Well come on back, I say! The Rhone Rangers is working on many things these days, and I can't wait to share some of these with you shortly.

I guess we'll agree to disagree regarding site vs elevage, especially barrel usage. There is no doubt in my mind that, as I said before, you can alter the sense of 'place' in any wine by slathering it in new oak . . . but a cooler climate syrah will generally not be as ripe, will generally have more acid, and will exhibit both fruit and non-fruit aromatic and flavor characteristics . . . and these are markedly different than a warmer climate syrah would exhibit.


Donn R said...

It is also another case of wineries wasting the oppty to say something that is relatively ACCURATE and TRUE on the label, be it the front or the back label. Don't tell me it is earthy if it is really just a high alc. bomb. Don't lie to the consumer in your blurb. My guess, of course I am hihgly religious on this, is that if wineries were to make lower alc. and low VA etc. Syrah, it would sell better. Leave the fruit bomb to other varietals. Wishful thinking.

Unknown said...

Donn R.,

Good points - and this leads to my misconception comments before. There are PLENTY of lower alcohol, more restrained syrahs on the market these days - and their alc levels are printed on the bottle for all to see.

There are also a plentitude of styles that syrah is made in these days, just as there is with pinot, zin, etc . . . it's the nature of working with fruit from very different climates and differences in winemaking styles and philosophies.

To me, the misconception that most syrahs are over-the-top fruit bombs that cannot be consumed with food or easily on their own just does not hold up - any more. Did it used to be this way? Sure - just as many many Napa Cabs used to be full of green pepper aromas.

Things change, people change, and yes, wines change as well. My challenge for you and all consumers is to explore a bit deeper instead of simply 'writing off' the variety based on misconceptions . . .


Joel Goldberg said...

Last night, I opened a California Syrah from a well thought-of producer that someone had brought as a gift, knowing my partiality toward the grape. It boasted palate-numbing 15.6% alcohol (my wife took one sip and said, "Damn, that finishes hot!), a massively over-oaked monolithic flavor profile, and, to this great fan of Cote-Rotie, was nearly undrinkable.

'Nuff said about why stuff like this doesn't -- and should't -- sel.

Unknown said...


But that's like saying that I opened a single bottle of CdP, and it was from 2003, and it was 'highly regarded' but from a very ripe year, and I didn't like . . . . and therefore I don't like CdP's . . .

Or opening a highly regarded California Pinot, and being a Burgundian fan, finding it to be very unlike what you're used to . . . and drawing the conclusion that all CA pinots are like this.

There are many many choices these days, not a single one, and it is up to the industry to really get this point across - and to consumers to not 'pigeon-hole' the variety.


Ted said...

Keep it simple as a starting point. I've noted in the past that the fruitier versions were most typically labelled Shiraz and the more savory versions named Syrah. I had been able to claim that as a rule of thumb to those who asked. Obviously winemaker/marketer choice has not continued with that distinction. The mass market can handle that distinction if the industry were to use it, knowing there will always be gray area and dealing with it. Us wine geeks can argue the finer points until we're blue in the face.

tercero wines said...


More good points, but as a domestic producer, I don't like the idea of using 'shiraz' at all. This is a term that is really only used over in Australia, and even though a few producers hear starting using the term (and many were part of corporations based in Australia such as Geyser Peak), it is rarely used these days.

Consumer education is where it's at, and this is something I am working with on at the Rhone Rangers.

ANY suggestions you want to add, please do so.


Anonymous said...

There is no mystery. Syrah is the best all purpose red around. Just stay away from the jugs and you can almost never go wrong, even under$12. Cheers.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Define "go wrong."

Christian Miller said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christian Miller said...

Thanks for the props on the IRF sweetness scale, we at Wine Opinions did the consumer and trade research backing up the scale.

While the IRF scale does not measure just sweetness (there are RS AND acidity guidelines), I do agree that devising a scale to “clear up” Syrah confusion is a much more complex issue. There are many molecules that affect the attributes “gamy”, “fruit bomb”, “savory”. Perception and thresholds of detection for each of them vary quite a bit person to person, so you’ve got one heck of a multivariate problem just coming up with producer guidelines for where to place your wine on the scale, let alone whether it will work for consumers.

You could perhaps try defining “cool climate” (peppery, lower alcohol, leaner, higher acid, greener tannins) vs. “warm climate” (jammier, fuller body, less spice/pepper, more alcohol) as the two ends of the spectrum. But what do you do with the producer who has a very long hangtime in a cool climate zone, or someone who adds acid and vinifies for dryer, more “savory-spice” tones in a warm one?

There’s also the problem that, viewed in abstract, the “cool climate” tones don’t sound as appealing to many regardless of what type of wine one prefers? Will the sales/marketing folks push the winemakers towards calling their wines “warm climate”? The IRF Riesling scale isn’t impacted much by this issue, because there are fans of sweet Rieslings who want to find their wines and those who prefer dry who want to find theirs. One part of the scale isn’t necessarily preferable to another in terms of sales appeal.
All that said, without some quantitative consumer research, the question of the impact of style on consume demand for Syrah is in the realm of armchair speculation. My personal take is that the central problem for Syrah was the massive wave of oversupply generated by heavy plantings during the mid-late 1990s. Compare Syrah’s fate to Petite Sirah. Syrah (Californian, not Aussie Shiraz) has a larger market than Petite Sirah. Yet grape and bottle prices for Petite Sirah have held up much better than Syrah over the past decade, due in large part to its relatively modest growth in supply.

Christian Miller
Wine Opinions

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Christian. I am a big fan of your work at Wine Opinions. Many of us opine; you guys do research.

Christian Miller said...

Thanks for the thanks, but please feel free to delete the extra post (my mistake). No one needs to hear that much of me.

Arthur said...

Serendipitously, on the heels of this discussion comes the Australian Wine Research Institute PinotG Style Spectrum

Arthur said...

If I may, the article to which I link above says:

"Called the PinotG Style Spectrum, the label indicates to consumers whether the style of the Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris wine is ‘crisp’ or ‘luscious’ or somewhere on a scale in-between. *This gives consumers greater confidence in choosing a Grigio or Gris wine based on their own style preference.*"

So I rephrase the title of my April post:

"What's good for Riesling and PinotG, is good or Syrah"

Bill Easton said...

Syrah Does Sell!

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?

GALLO did it and I joined in at the Syrah Symposium at Bridlewood wit a host of others.

2) Host an international symposium. Put this naming issue on the agenda front and center.

Hospice du Rhone has done this ...

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.

That is happening...

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.)

5) What if every wine writer said Syah was the best wine, with the most regional typicitybeing made in California?

Call it Shiraz over my dead body..and Yellow Tails....

My normal post (4th time I think): BTW, Hi Christian, Larry:

These articles always continue to amaze. Many come off as authoritative; some relying heavily on Patrick Comiskey, who is working on a book for UC Press on the California Rhone movement. It is a reworking of ground and topic that Wolfgang Weber covered on August 28th, 2009: Asimov and, Comiskey, and Bonne are all Eurocentric.

This is what I said then:

I sell 7,500 cases of Syrah a year throughout the country and around the world. We bottle seven different Syrah cuvées. Our current release entry level Syrah (Les Côtes de l'Ouest) just was touted by Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wines as a "best buy", as it sells for about $18 a bottle. Our top cuvée (Ascent) at $85 sells out every year and was scores 90 to 100 points from all major wine publications. It is considered one of the best red wines made in California.

Many other wineries like Qupé are having similar success with the variety in California. There are many great small label Syrah's being made in California that equal or surpass French bottlings. I think it is a bit premature to write the obituary for Syrah in California. I am not tearing out my Syrah vineyards anytime soon! I like my high elevation volcanic and granitic soil for Syrah. It makes wonderful place-oriented, food-friendly wine. - Bill Easton (Terre Rouge & Easton Wines).

(We probably sell more Syrah than all the above except Qupe.)

Bil Easton

Addendum here: Are people as picky about different styles in Pinot Noir? No. Not at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Syrah sells just fine - I sell 10,000 cases + a year.
Enough of the "Syrah et Mort" articles that seem to surface every six months. Bonne, Asimov, Weber, etc.
Make good regional Syrah and sell it. Our's range in price from $18 - $85. All six top US wine mags. loved the $85 last year - so did my customers.

Come on up to see our vineyards and a visit the winery.

Bon Gusto -

Bill Easton
Terre Rouge & Easton Wines

Anonymous said...

Sorry, didn't realize the previous comments posted - so I abbreviated. Web cop said my post was too long.
Again apologies for repetition of ideas.

Drink more Syrah -

Bill Easton

W. Blake Gray said...

Bill: I'm glad for you. But the reason people keep writing that Syrah isn't selling is because other wineries keep telling us that.

10,000 cases is great for a winery of your size, but it's also only a drop in the bucket of the US market.

Re being picky about different styles of Pinot Noir: Others might not be, but I'm on the record on that topic:

Anyway, keep up the good work, and thanks for visiting.

Chris H said...

Wineries have tried this. I used to work with an Aussie winery who made a cool climate Shiraz and elected to call it a Syrah to distinguish it from the warm climate bombs...didn't work. People wanted their Australian red to be Shiraz, cool climate or not.

California wineries used to label full bodied styles as Shiraz when the variety was growing like crazy...didn't work. People wanted their Shiraz to be from Australia.

The issue as I see it, isn't that the consuming public is confused...they like (or at least liked) Australian Shiraz. That was the trend. Not Syrah/Shiraz in general.

True Syrah drinkers know where to go...whether it be domestic (Qupe, Easton, etc.) Australia, or the Rhone. There are a lot of great wines out there.

The trend always was more narrow than what we thought. Those of us "in the know" assumed it was a "Syrah thing" when really it was an "Australian thing" all along.

I predict we will see the same thing with Malbec.

Anonymous said...

I have seen the entire history of syrah here in Washington, having produced the wine since 1992. Columbia Winery was the only to preceed us. On my labels, I do differentiate each wine with label color and back label descriptions. There are many reaons why the grape is misunderstood and undoubtedly they do include issues of climate, terroir, winemaking, typicity, etc., and I could expand on these factors for hours. Here in Washington State, we have gone from two syrahs in 1992 (ours and Columbia) to today's 1,000 bottlings ... in eighteen years! The grape has now risen to 4,000 acres from only about 10 at that time. In my estimation, therein lies the problem. The meteoric rise of syrah has been its demise, plain and simple. Even though there are probably as many Cabs in our State, its evolution has been far more gradual over a thirty year time span. The public has been inundated with syrah, mostly in the past five or seven year, and therefore confused as to its identity. As a past Board member of the Rhone Rangers, I would say that the organization could prove to be a very substantial asset in helping to bring understanding and clarification to the public, but this has not been the case to date. On the other hand, there is ZAP, you see? Simply stated, syrah has no specific identity in a world of mostly pedestrian bottlings ... and the bandwagon seems to continue to grow daily.

Greg Harrington said...

I think the confusion in Syrah lies in the fact that it has historically been planted in diverse (and wrong) climactic regions throughout the world. I think herein lies its demise. There is no confusion that Pinot Noir is a cool region varietal. Plant Pinot in a warm climate and the poor results are evident. Syrah is a grape that will lend itself to warmer climates, producing ripe black fruit flavors. However, the biggest issue with warm climate Syrah is its tendency to be mediocre. Its really extremely easy to make boring, bland, non descript Syrah, especially in a too warm climate. One has to pick either very early or very late to see the best of the varietal. Some producers, with modern technology, manipulation and an arsenal of new barrels are able to coax this into an exciting wine. Some are extremely successful, however, but the winemaker must really work to make this a drinkable wine – water additions, acid, possible an array of enzymes, etc. I do not believe this is Syrah’s natural state.
I believe Syrah to be a cool region varietal. Think of where Syrah’s natural home, the Rhone, lies. Yes, the name Cote Rotie implies “roasted” but the climate is definitively continental (warm days, cool nights with a distinct diurnal shift.) Wind is also a factor in the Northern Rhone, albeit not as much as in the south. We see similar climates in Washington, Sonoma’s coastal areas and parts of the Central Coast of California. Put Syrah in the right place, it will reward you. However, the winemaker must be willing to take some risk. I always say “if the Syrah fermentation didn’t scare the carp out of me, we didn’t push it hard enough. The tendency of a majority of winemakers out there is to pick on flavor (and numbers.) Syrah is not like cabernet, in which you can be rewarded by picking sweet, juicy, flavorfull berries. If the winemaker waits for flavor in the berries, its too late. Syrah must be picked on seed ripeness. One can assess the changes in the seeds on a daily basis – green turning to a roasted popcorn kernel flavor. In my opinion, its best picked soon after the change of seed flavor, far before the grape itself tastes “good.”
In the cellar, Syrah more closely resembles Pinot Noir than Cabernet. And this is where many take a wrong turn. It loves stem fermentation (up to 100%), pigeage, big, neutral barrels and gentle handling. Contrary to opinion, Syrah can be matured in barrel sans racking without developing reductive aromas. It benefits from this. It hates filtering, throwing a tantrum in bottle for many months after.
That being said, I agree that some sort of marketing initiative needs to deal with the public’s misunderstanding of the varietal. There are many worldwide examples of great varietals going into oblivion because the public was confused. Wine is difficult enough for the general consumer. Make it more difficult with a product that has no identity, and it becomes near impossible to market. I would love to see a cool climate Syrah organization developed in the coming months/years and would even volunteer to spearhead the organization and development of such a group.
Syrah is not a varietal for the faint of heart. Push the envelope, get rewarded. Miss understand or mistreat the varietal, and you’ll be writing to bloggers saying “Syrah doesn’t sell.”

Greg Harrington
Gramercy Cellars
Walla Walla, WA