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Left out in the cold

Many industry insiders believe that syrah is the most interesting wine produced in California, but consumers aren’t buying. Our wine and spirits writer ventures into the vineyards to find out whether this varietal can survive the market meltdown.

“If I meet one more salesperson who says ‘I can’t sell syrah,’ I’m going to f—ing kill him.” Bob Lindquist, the founder of Qupé Wine Cellars, is known by most of his colleagues as soft-spoken and gentle, but this past March, a roomful of journalists and winemakers saw a different side of the man whom many consider the father of modern California syrah. The hastily convened meeting was called to discuss the fate of the grape on which Lindquist has staked his career, and the 57-year-old winemaker made it clear that he takes the defeatist claims of salespeople personally—almost as if another dad had told him, “Your son isn’t good enough for my daughter.”

The meeting, titled “A Question of Balance,” was held in the airy dining room of syrah producer Stephen Singer’s Sebastopol restaurant, Pizzavino 707. We tasted syrahs from seven California producers (and one from France) who subscribe to the notion of balance, in this context a synonym for restrained. It’s also a code word for syrahs made in the paradigm of the northern Rhône region of France, rather than in the unbalanced style of shiraz (the name for syrah in Australia), deemed by some to be over the top on alcohol, ripeness, and extract. The event was a trial run for a possible informal national tasting tour intended to promote balanced syrah, and the wines we tried that day were delicious—dark, spicy, complex. This style of syrah is the most exciting wine produced in California today. But the meeting was also called to discuss the subject of Lindquist’s ire: why California syrah has largely stopped selling, despite the extraordinary flavor of these wines.

In April, I walked with Singer through his vineyard, Baker Lane, just two miles from his restaurant and straight out the back door of his light-filled house. Singer, looking youthful in faded jeans and a white T-shirt, despite his wave of thick gray hair, is known as much for having been married to Alice Waters as he is for his lengthy career as a restaurateur, wine retailer, and olive-oil importer. The vines on his estate look young, too, even though they’re seven years old. This suggests that Singer’s site is good: not too much vigor in the soil, a sandy loam that gives this part of western Sonoma its vinous identity. The syrahs that come off those vines are mag­isterial, redolent of wild blackberry, tellicherry pepper, and cured meat—but when it comes to selling them, Singer tells me, “We’ve had a hellish time.”

In 2007, unaware of the impending economic buzz saw, Singer decided to up his syrah production by 50 percent. “Everything ground to a halt,” he says. “I had to hold wine longer, which is terrible for cash flow, and then I had to bang on doors and practically give the wine away.” The costs—both financial and emotional—of liquidating a product into which he had poured so much time, sweat, and capital are evident in the winemaker’s voice. It feels all the more poignant because his syrah is worth getting excited about.  

Singer’s experience is hardly an isolated one. “With regard to retail sales, forget it,” says John Lancaster, co-owner of syrah-oriented label Skylark and the sommelier at Boulevard. “[Buyers] don’t want to talk; they won’t even let you pull it out of the bag. And that’s in California. It’s much worse in the Midwest—we can’t give syrah away.” Recounts Alex MacGregor, the winemaker at Mendocino’s Saracina, “[Winery owner] John Fetzer just took a trip to New York. People loved the wines, but I don’t think he sold a single box.”

The numbers back up these firsthand accounts. Data from market-research firm the Nielsen Company shows that while overall table-wine sales in the U.S. were up almost 3 percent for the 52 weeks ending on March 6, 2010, the syrah category was down more than 7.5 percent during that same period. Last year, Wine Business Monthly reported that a major grape producer had uprooted his syrah vines. Reported the magazine: “His best year growing syrah could not compare to his worst year growing almonds.”

Syrah’s problems seem all the more shocking because less than a decade ago, the great red grape of the northern Rhône was considered California’s rising star. Expec­ta­tions soared as syrah plantings around the state exploded more than tenfold in an eight-year period, with the media cheering on the expansion. In a 2003 Wine Spectator column headlined “The Next Really Big Red,” celebrated wine writer Matt Kramer argued that syrah was poised to become “something bigger than just the newest wine darling...a different order from just popular.” His predictions for the grape’s ascent were based on its versa­tility: According to Kramer, syrah makes decent wine in both extremely hot and decidedly cool climates, and it can ably produce both high-yielding commercial wine and artisanal “pinnacle” wine. And, he added, syrahs are “obvious”—this was meant as a compliment, since “subtle wines don’t sell.”

Yet something happened in the span between Kramer’s column and Lindquist’s outburst. There are no simple answers as to why, but theories abound, and the most obvious one is just two words long: pinot noir. A year after Kramer’s prophecy of the impending syrah boom hit magazine racks, Sideways hit the theaters. The popular indie film’s unprecedented impact on pinot noir sales became known as “the Sideways effect.” Nevertheless, six years after its release, the film can only explain half the story. Yes, pinot noir—a lighter, brighter, more accessible wine—succeeded, but syrah, so dark and brooding, also failed.

Syrah’s impasse most likely connects to bewilderment in the marketplace, as well as to America’s slowly evolving taste in wine. “There’s a lot of confusion surrounding shiraz and syrah,” says Jon Fredrikson, of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a wine-industry consulting and market-research firm. “Plenty of people don’t know that it’s the same wine.” But even though Aussie shiraz and French-style syrah are made with the same grape, they’re hardly the same wine. The former is generally big, sweet, and blowsy, while the latter is peppery, lean, and structured. Yet the word shiraz or syrah on a label offers no legal indication of the wine’s style. Many wines labeled as syrah in California are modeled after jammy Australian shiraz.

But lately, the latter has also fallen out of favor. Over the past two years, Aussie shiraz has failed even more dramatically than domestic syrah. “Part of the problem is that most California syrahs are too big, too extracted, and too alcoholic,” says Wilfred Wong, the cellarmaster for retail booze giant Beverages & More! “People are looking more for elegance. It began in restaurants, but now that a chain like BevMo! is experiencing it, too, it’s [proof that] tastes have definitely changed.” By this logic, the pinot craze wasn’t a Hollywood-induced fluke but a leading indicator.

Yet even if the turn in the American palate wasn’t foreseen, the trendiness that fueled the boom in syrah planting in the ’90s represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the grape. As the tanking of Aussie shiraz indicates, syrah may not be the easy-to-grow crowd-pleaser that Kramer predicted. Years ago, “people were saying that syrah was the next coming of merlot,” says Ehren Jordan (who produces wonderful Rhône-style syrahs under his label, Failla) of the grape that makes mostly soft, innocuous red wines that nevertheless became a favorite of new wine drinkers as popularity of the beverage expanded in the U.S. in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But Jordan disagrees: “If you look at it, syrah is a pretty esoteric grape. I think people should modify their expectations because of that.”

The winemakers who gathered in Sebastopol this past March revere syrah’s esoteric side and believe that the varietal should be considered similar to pinot noir: a cool-climate, site-specific grape that needs a controlled yield, rather than a versatile, high-production grape that can be produced anywhere. This, after all, is how syrah is treated in France. “You can’t grow syrah everywhere and make great wine,” says Qupé’s Lindquist. “If you look at France, the most important place for syrah, the best wines are from a very limited area. Those wines are incredible, and there isn’t that much of them.” Of course, had the grape growers following the ’90s trend known this, they probably wouldn’t have inspired a syrah boom.

But the syrah-as-pinot approach has its drawbacks: The wines tend to be more expensive, since growing syrah grapes in cool climates is both labor-intensive and risky, and it produces relatively scant amounts. Also, these syrahs can be an acquired taste. What other wine regularly solicits such flavor descriptors as game, smoked meat, pepper, Band-Aid, and asphalt?

The epicenter for California syrah comprises the coastal regions of Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, plus Santa Barbara. Along the Central Coast, Lindquist—who founded Qupé in 1982 to specialize in cool-climate syrah—is the most devoted proponent of the Rhône style. In 1992, he planted a syrah block in the Santa Maria Valley’s Bien Nacido Vineyards that he bottles separately as Hillside Estate, a wine that many consider California’s greatest syrah. Bien Nacido, a vineyard famous mostly for pinot noir and chardonnay, is a chilly place. Between the vineyard and ocean lie only about 20 miles of flatland, with absolutely nothing to prevent the bluster from blowing through. The sun is ample, but so are cold sea air and wind. The Hillside Estate is a brooding wine—powerful, with deep, dark fruits and an earthy, tannic growl—whose striking Rhône credentials don’t go on full display until the wine is several years old, when it becomes a symphony of mushrooms, game, flowers, and blackberries.

Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina group, also practices the extreme Rhône style on the Central Coast; making wines in the French manner but with more typically Californian size and richness is a list of boutique producers including Alban, Beckmen, Stolpman, Margerum, and Melville.

However, for the most active and daring syrah winemaking, go to the Sonoma Coast and down into the region known as the Petaluma gap, a break in the mountains west of town that forms a wind tunnel, letting fog and sea air enter the Sonoma Valley. Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Roberts, of Arnot-Roberts, make a truly remarkable syrah on a vineyard called Clary Ranch, a mere 11 miles across windblown, fog-tormented, denuded hillsides from Tomales Bay. In this climate—which, according to Meyers, many considered too cool for pinot noir, let alone syrah—the fruit struggles to reach 21.5 brix (a measure of the sugar content in a grape and a factor in determining ripeness), a low level even for the French. In the years that it even gets ripe enough to release (makers didn’t bottle in 2008), the resulting wine is lucky to be 12 percent alcohol. Yet what a wine it is: savory with meat, pepper, and exotic spices, along with floral notes, earth, and wild blackberries. Its lean body doesn’t detract from its flavors but highlights them.

Farther inland in the gap is Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, which produces a number of great syrahs—the most notable from syrah specialist Pax Mahle, of Wind Gap. In the chillier end of the Russian River Valley, Singer’s Baker Lane syrah vines grow right next to his neighbor’s pinot noir. On the true Sonoma Coast is Peay Vineyards, whose Les Titans and La Bruma are two of the best syrahs in the state. Not far away, Jordan produces his Failla Sonoma Coast syrah. And in Mendocino County, Copain makes wonderful Rhône-style syrahs (Baker Ranch and Hawks Butte), as does Drew (Perli, Broken Leg, Ridgeline, and Valenti). Arnot-Roberts makes yet another outstanding wine from Alder Springs Vineyard, also in Mendocino County.

All told, though, it’s not a lot of wine. The marginal climates require syrah makers to take risks that most other producers refuse to face. As Arnot Meyers says, expressing a money-be-damned attitude rarely heard these days, “If we can only make a good wine from this site every few years, it’s worth the risk.” Of course, part of that risk is that consumers will continue to reject syrah. But if there’s hope for the grape’s future, it lies in these cool-climate wines. 

Recently, winemakers have come around to the idea that syrah will never be a mass-market wine. Consumers are no longer interested in the overripe, ruddy shiraz style, and, as Ehren Jordan says, cool-climate wines are just too esoteric to gain a huge audience. Growers will continue to pull out mediocre syrah vineyards, and producers of bad or average syrahs will stop making them. But the stagnancy in the market—the defeatism that leads salespeople to not even try to sell these wines—will also come to an end. Down the road, the market for syrah will be smaller, but the intriguing and complex wines that survive will become the grape’s undisputed identity.

“What’s happening is a correction,” says Andy Peay, of Peay Vineyards, “and the people who will remain standing will be the ones who make wine that has a reason for being, a personality that reflects where it’s grown and the people who grow it. That’s best done with syrah grapes that don’t get too ripe and are grown in the cooler parts of the state.”

Singer agrees. Convinced that the current syrah situ­ation is just a hiccup and not a permanent state, he’s even willing to double down to prove it. At Baker Lane, Singer makes a lovely pinot noir from the “it” grape of the past six years. Yet he tells me, standing among his syrah vines, that he’s “contemplating getting out of the pinot noir business.” They’re nice wines, he says, “but I just don’t think they’ll ever reach the heights that pinot does in Burgundy. Whereas with syrah, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. I think that as we learn more, California will have the chance to produce syrahs as worthy, distinctive, and great as any in the world.”

SIX SYRAHS WORTH SEEKING OUT

Arnot-Roberts, Clary Ranch, Son­oma Coast, 2008
From one of the state’s coolest syrah vineyards comes a wine whose unbelievably low 11.5 percent alcohol only adds to its drinkability. One of the most complex and exotic reds made in California.

Baker Lane Vineyards, Sonoma Coast, 2007
Only the third release of Stephen Singer’s estate wine, this shows bright acidity and well-integrated, tightly packed tannins.
  
Parr Wines, Cuvée Anika, Santa Barbara County, 2007
Rajat Parr makes some of California’s most interesting syrahs, fearlessly employing controversial techniques, such as fermenting with grape stems, and turning his back on sulfur.

Peay Vineyards, La Bruma, Sonoma Coast, 2007
The lighter and brighter of Peay’s two syrah bottlings (the other is the brooding Les Titans) is redolent of violets, blackberries, white pepper, and spring flowers. Peay’s syrahs consistently rank among the best in America.

Qupé, Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, Santa Maria, 2006
One of the state’s iconic wines, Bob Lindquist’s top syrah is meant for the long haul. Its true joys will become apparent after five to seven years (or more) of cellaring, which will allow even more aromas to spill out of this increasingly silky and seductive wine. 

Wind Gap, Griffin’s Lair, Sonoma Coast, 2007
The most recent project of Pax Mahle, one of California’s most ardent syrah devotees. His Wind Gap vineyard, in the low-lying hills east of Petaluma, produces a wine of outstanding depth. Black cherry and berries dominate, complemented by a dark, almost tarry and earthy savoriness.

Jordan Mackay is San Francisco’s wine and spirits writer.