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What Happened with Syrah?
By Gerald D. Boyd
Jan 25, 2011
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Last October, I left the country on an extended vacation for eight weeks and upon my return discovered that interest in Syrah apparently has plunged to new lows.  Sadly, Syrah sales are down; and just when I thought that Syrah had a shot at living up to its potential as the red wine that splits the difference between the supple fruit of Pinot Noir and the firm structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The sad Syrah statistics came with the unnerving realization that wine sales, overall, are suffering, especially for those wines over $20 which, unfortunately, includes a lot of California and Washington Syrah.  The blow was a double whammy that hit me as I was facing a mountain of mail and a long list of e-mails while still battling jet lag.  I appreciate that there are more important things to worry about, but agonizing over the reported demise of a favorite wine seems a worthy effort to me.

So, what happened with Syrah?  It’s a mystery, because for the last 50 years, wine drinkers worldwide have shown a fondness for the wine, particularly the great substantial Syrahs of the Northern Rhône Valley, like Hermitage and Côte Rôtie; if you can afford it ($200 plus), how can you not like Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle?  For many, this writer included, northern Rhône Syrahs like La Chapelle are the equal of the best Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Still, top-end Rhône wines are a hard sell.  Could it be that in these hard economic times, lofty prices for the best Rhône Syrahs have kept American wine drinkers from enjoying their pleasures?  The reality now is that all wines priced over $20 are tough to move, so price may be a factor.  Michael Traverso of Traverso’s Gourmet Foods, Wines & Liquors, in Santa Rosa, California says “any Syrah north of $20 to $25 is a tough sell.”  He maintains that most California Syrahs are “pretty much dust collectors,” but he does like California Syrahs priced under $20, like Copain’s Syrah from Mendocino grapes and Box Car, Red Car Wine Company’s second label.

Power may be another factor slowing interest for some Syrahs.  In the 1990s American wine drinkers were introduced to a style of Syrah called Shiraz, from Down Under.  Thank Paul Hogan for his movie “Crocodile Dundee” and the string of television ads for Australia tourism that followed, where Hogan encouraged folks to “put another shrimp on the barbie.”  In one of those commercials, Hogan is standing on the beach as the lovely, bikini-clad Elle McPherson emerged from the surf and slinked past Hogan, with a coy smile and whispered, “G’day Paul!”  The image is burned on my memory and I firmly believe that that ad campaign was the beginning of the American love affair with all things Australian, including Shiraz, even if the wine didn’t go with grilled shrimp. 
And maybe the love affair with Shiraz marked the beginning of the push for higher alcohols and more extract.  Australian Shiraz had a long run and still enjoys a level of popularity among American wine drinkers.  But criticism began to gather traction among those who objected to the high alcohols and heavy extraction of some Aussie Shiraz.   It was an odd complaint, because the nature of Syrah (like Zinfandel) is to lean to higher alcohols and concentrated flavors. 

At the same time, California winemakers were turning out white and red wines, including Syrah, with high alcohols and plenty of extract; wines that offered power and lots of ripe fruit but struggled to find a food partner, unless you considered roasted haunch of elephant.  But the Syrah/Shiraz juggernaut surged on.

Today, we are all painfully aware that in wine drinkers, in many parts of the world, have learned to love power and concentration (read extract) in a big way.  Nearly every country or region that makes wine recognized the rising popularity of Aussie Shiraz, so there was a mass leap onto the Syrah wine wagon, with Syrahs from Washington (still among America’s best), Syrahs from California, Syrahs from Italy, Syrahs from New Zealand, Syrahs from the South of France, Syrahs (and Shiraz) from Argentina and Chile, Shiraz from South Africa and even the odd Syrah from such wine outposts as Slovenia and Romania.  It would seem that in 2010, wine consumers were struggling to keep their heads above the surface of a flood of Syrah.

So, what happened with Syrah?  Pursuing this question, I looked back over the past year at the reviews I had submitted to WRO and was surprised to discover that while I tasted a couple dozen California Syrahs, I had recommended very few.  I also looked at the October 2010 issue of Decanter magazine for its annual report on wines.  Stephen Brook led a panel of six sommeliers and buyers of U.S. wines for the UK market in tasting 260 U.S. wines, with a meager showing of three Syrahs that medaled (no golds) and one California Syrah that was “Commended.”  The poor showing for U.S. Syrah in the Decanter tasting could be because few California Syrahs are imported into the UK, or it might be because of price and the plain fact that there are so many French Syrahs available in their local stores and restaurants.

But what goes down in the UK doesn’t explain the lack of interest in Syrah sales in the United States.  Still looking for an answer, I called a few California wineries and tasting rooms, and each of them reported that Syrah sales were down.  But when a visitor was offered a Syrah, they really liked the wine.  I can only conclude then that three factors are responsible for the downturn in Syrah interest.  It could be that because Syrah is made in so many different styles, from a range of wine regions, that consumers are confused and decide to move on to another wine.  Then, most California and Washington Syrah worth considering are selling for more than $20, so maybe price is a factor after all.  And one more thing that I’m hoping is a factor:  Consumers see California Syrahs as high in alcohol and they are tiring of big over-blown alcoholic red wines, but probably not.

Why, then, am I high on Syrah, when the wine appears to be a dud in the market?   Because Syrah deserves a second look, especially from Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and Washington’s Red Mountain, by those critics who think the wine is pricey and often over the top.  Ignoring the price debate (If you like it, then there is no debate over price), these California wineries make consistently good Syrah:  Rosenblum Cellars, Zaca Mesa, Cline, Qupe, Au Bon Climat, Andrew Murray, Edmunds St. John, Arrowood, Justin Vineyards, Joseph Phelps, Tablas Creek.   Harder to find but also consistently good are these Syrahs from Washington:  Betz Family, Dunham Cellars, Columbia Crest, Januik, Barnard Griffin, and Long Shadows Sequel, among others.  So, drop that bottle of Cabernet and give Syrah another chance.