The Syrah Boom That Wasn’t

Paul Blow

In a 2003 Wine Spectator column titled “The Next Really Big Red,” my favorite wine writer, Matt Kramer, said: “The most exciting wine in America today is Syrah. I’d love to say that it’s Pinot Noir, but I cannot tell a lie. It’s Syrah that’s slated for stardom.” Kramer has been right about a lot of things, but his prophecy about Syrah’s popularity was very, very wrong.

In his defense, he couldn’t have predicted the Pinot Noir craze that the movie Sideways (first shown at film festivals the following year) would help ignite. California growers gambled on Syrah’s future popularity too, increasing their acreage by 600 percent during the past decade. But one prominent retailer told me that Syrahs are “unsellable—even the bottles of very good wine.” So what happened?

Another retailer I talked to, this one from a chain store, said that it’s Syrah’s versatility that has worked against it. It grows well in both hot and cool climates, but the wine from each ends up tasting wildly different. Hot-climate Syrah tends to be blah and fruity, while cool-climate Syrah can be quite distinctive and balanced. But unless a consumer is familiar with winegrowing regions, the chain retailer says, “no one knows what they’re getting when they buy a bottle of Syrah. Are they getting something blowzy with jammy fruit, or are they getting something more lean and peppery?” So instead of chancing it, he says, people are “not buying the wine at all.”

The steady, cheap, decade-long flow of the former style from Australia—under the name Shiraz—hasn’t helped. Many Americans now think of Syrah as an inexpensive, disposable wine, as Mike Steinberger recently discussed in Slate. But insipid Syrah is boring no matter where it’s from. It’s also the only wine that pisses me off enough to inspire rants. It’s really that bad; tasting it makes me feel like I’m being taken advantage of.

Syrah needs to ripen slowly enough to develop some complexity. In California this happens in regions like the Sonoma Coast, Carneros, and Santa Barbara County. Syrah also tastes better at the lower alcohol level that typically prevails in cool-climate winegrowing. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of land in these places, and it’s not cheap to make wine there. But cool-climate Syrah is worth seeking out. One clue you can look for is the word pepper in the tasting notes, which often indicates a cool climate; try the 2006 Qupé Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Syrah or the 2006 Cep Sonoma Coast Syrah.

Perhaps Syrah was never meant to be big. As winemaker Ehren Jordan (whose Failla Syrah from the Sonoma Coast is great) reminded me, good Syrah is actually a precious commodity. “Northern Rhône Syrah,” he said, referring to the original cool-climate version, “makes up less than 5 percent of all Rhône wine. That’s not much wine.” To get Syrah back on its feet, California winegrowers need to focus not on being the next really big red, but on being a small, really good one.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.