The New York Times on American syrah: truth or bull?

When The New York Times comes out with a piece like the one asking, Is There Still Hope for Syrah?, and gauntlets are thrown around, naturally people will talk. So now, I'm going to speak my piece...

First of all, I don't buy the line about syrah-comes-in-so-many-styles-consumers-are-confused. Pure baloney. Cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays, pinot noirs, merlots, etc. come in just as many or more styles, and consumers don't seem to have a problem with that. Too-much-variety used to be the knock on zinfandel, and zinfandel is more popular than ever!

Second, it doesn't help to have stories printed like that piece in the Times that insinuate that there's something "wrong" with, say, California syrahs (let's not forget, Washington and Oregon makes fabulous syrahs, too). The statement by Comiskey, for instance, saying that syrahs at "higher ripeness" levels "lose their character" and become "generic" is an over-simplification. It's climate, soil, topography, etc. that makes for great syrahs, whether or not they are picked at higher levels of ripeness.

What surprises me is that Comiskey was just with our sommelier group in Santa Barbara this past April, tasting a number of killer syrahs from Santa Ynez Valley's Ballard Canyon area with totally intense varietal character and terroir definition, and plenty of balance and acidity to boot -- yet all of them picked at extreme levels of ripeness.  So what were those syrahs:  duck soup?

All those great Sine Qua Non syrahs everyone raves about? None of them have been "low" or even "moderate" in ripeness and alcohol. All of the consensus "finest" syrahs of the past ten years, made by the likes of Amavi and Long Shadows in Washington, Tyrus Evan and Quady North in Oregon, Jaffurs and Stolpman in Santa Barbara, Neyers and JC on California's North Coast? Virtually every one of these wines fall somewhere between 14% and 15% alcohol or higher.

As pointed out in that very same Times piece, "cool climate" more than anything leads to well defined, world class syrah. Cooler climates in California, however, still produce ultra-ripe syrahs, ending up a good 1% to 2% higher in alcohol than what you find in Northern Rhone grown syrahs. So what? If the wine is balanced, totally delicious, true to the grape and its origin, then it's a great syrah, period.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the work Comiskey is doing promoting Rhone style wines (he's writing a book). But misleading inferences, like California-syrah-is-too-ripe-or-full, quoted in widely read papers only serve to turn off potential syrah consumers (heck, many wine professionals) who don't know better, and believe everything they read.

Exactly why should I care?  I would hate to see consumers changing their mind about buying a perfectly beautiful Neyers or Jaffurs syrah because their labels read 14.5% -- just because of something erroneous they read in the Times.  The consumer loses, and so does the producer.  I don't get it, and I just don't dig it.

California syrah, it's true, doesn't have a Sideways going for it like pinot noir. Pinot noir is also extremely food versatile, and soft and easy on the palate (btw, the average alcohol level of top rated ultra-premium pinot noir these days now tops 14% -- and they taste great!). These are all plusses for consumers. But you also have to remember: it took several decades for West Coast pinot noirs to establish themselves in the hearts, minds and palates of consumers. The big syrah push in West Coast vineyards didn't take place until the mid-1990s, and their increased presence in the market after 2001 has been hampered by two recessions, not to mention the sudden popularity of pinot noir.

Ergo, my take: all of us (producers, sommeliers, distributors, retailers, etc.) need to be patient with syrah. Nothing comes overnight; but judging from the outstanding quality of the wines we are seeing, it's all a matter of time.

Finally, it is always a huge mistake to underestimate the food versatility of syrah. Like both pinot noir and zinfandel, the best syrahs (even the biggest) are intensely perfumed and fruit-forward by the very nature of the grape. These make for wines that handle meats in intense sauces and spices -- peppercorns, chile peppers, mustards, barbecue sauces, dry rubs, herbs, Port reductions, you name it... -- with delicious ease. For a detailed treatment of syrah's food affinites, re my piece in Culinary Wine & Food Matching.

Syrah is far more food versatile than cabernet sauvignon and merlot; and in many instances (handling fattier meats in strong spices or sauces), it is more versatile than pinot noir.

Sommeliers and restaurateurs: if you're a true believer, you can do your part by highlighting a good syrah or two (or three) on your glass lists, and having your staff match them up with any one of the many dishes they go with.. To a large extent, pinot noir is already been-there-done-that. Here's a chance to blow your guests away with something sicker.

Then maybe, next year or hopefully soon after, we won't be sitting around saying things like, "is there hope for syrah?"


Dave said…
Great critique, Randy. I believe this is not the only occasion that the NYTimes has been guilty of over simplification or even outright misleading analysis and commentary. One can only hope that as consumers our votes with our dollars will be the defining statement. Keep up the great work.

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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.