Syrah is the butt of jokes among California wine salesmen; i.e.: “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of the crabs? The crabs go away.”
The question for those of us who love Syrah is “why?” Why hasn’t Syrah been embraced by Americans? Many of us have thrown out theories.
In 1995, Syrah was the 24th most planted grape in California, with just 1331 total acres, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.But there’s a really simple answer that I discovered after visiting a sparsely attended Rhône Rangers event in San Francisco, at which I had a conversation with Patrick Comiskey, author of the book “American Rhône”. Comiskey talked about how much Syrah was planted when it was considered the Next Big Thing. And in fact, the numbers are compelling.
By the year 2000, California had nearly 10 times as much Syrah as in 1995: 12,699 acres. Three counties – Madera, San Joaquin and San Luis Obispo (home of Paso Robles) – each had more Syrah on their own than the whole state had in 1995. Madera and San Joaquin are in the hot central valley; Paso Robles is the state’s warmest fine wine region. And the planting continued.
By 2005, California had 50 percent more Syrah than in 2000, and 14 times as much as in 1995. Syrah had become the seventh-most planted grape in California, which it still is today. San Luis Obispo County had the most Syrah in the state, and it still does.
“It was untenable,” Comiskey told Wine-Searcher. “They were planting it everywhere. They were planting a lot of it in Paso.”
This is the problem. There are a few great Syrahs from Paso Robles, mostly from areas with a cooling breeze, but the grape didn’t do as well there overall as people expected, and it hasn’t done well in the extreme heat of the central valley.
There was also, Comiskey says, a “Sideways” effect on Syrah sales. The wine trade thought California Syrah was the next big thing, which spurred the crazy planting rush. But just as all those new vines started delivering big crops – 10 times as much as five years earlier! – the movie “Sideways” came out and California wine drinkers had their own Next Big Thing, Pinot Noir. And when that fervor cooled, uncommon varieties became the Next Big Thing, a phase we’re still in.
“When the Rhône movement was in its heyday, it was the most exciting thing,” Comiskey said. “Now we’ve got a lot of exciting things.”
Ironically, Pinot Noir’s boom has proven to be more sustainable because the grape once thought to be ungrowable outside of Burgundy turns out to adapt rather well to California, at least on the coast. It may not always (or even often) be the type of wine Burgundy drinkers prize, but it’s nice on its own terms. Syrah, though, seems a victim of California’s climate.
The Syrah vines are still there, of course, and many of the low-tannin, slightly sweet red blends that millennials love are composed of hot-climate Syrah along with Merlot and Zinfandel. That is a major comedown for one of the world’s greatest wine grapes. And Syrah’s cool reception in the US market has also posed a problem in export-focused countries: if Americans don’t want California Syrah, they’re not likely to be interested in Syrah from Australia, Chile or South Africa, no matter how good they are.
Comiskey chaired a panel of some of the pioneers of Rhône wine in the US. The stories were interesting, but even from a group of Syrah lovers, you can hear the seeds of its downfall from the very beginning.
Comiskey said the first major modern effort to make Syrah was by Joseph Phelps in Napa Valley in 1974 through 1976 “from this difficult virus-infected vineyard. The wines pretty much sucked.”
Gary Eberle planted 40 acres of Syrah in the warmer east side of Paso Robles in the late 1970s, giving him by far the largest plantings in the state.
“Nobody’s ever heard of the variety,” Comiskey said. “One of his solutions was to grow the variety. He knocked on doors and said: ‘I have cuttings of Syrah.'”
Syrah’s future was nearly put on a good course by a group of hedonistic businesses in Berkeley. Importer Kermit Lynch suggested that San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County vineyard owners plant Syrah instead of Cabernet and Chardonnay.
“Berkeley was definitely the center of the movement,” said Ethan Lindquist, son of Qupé founder Bob Lindquist. “My dad’s first three accounts were in Berkeley. When he sold to Alice Waters ([at the restaurant Chez Panisse] it was a feather in his cap.”
But the trade has always loved Syrah; it’s consumers who haven’t come along.
Author: W Blake Gray