Another piece of wine journalism to file under don't-believe-everything-you-read: The New York Times' Is There Still Hope for Syrah? (by Eric Asimov; June 1, 2010). When gauntlets like this 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, and insulting to consumers. 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 California zinfandel, and zinfandel is more popular than ever!
Second, it doesn't help to have stories printed like The New York Times piece that insinuate that there's something "wrong" with, say, California syrahs (let's not forget, Washington and Oregon makes fabulous syrahs, too). The statement quoted from wine journalist Patrick 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, or just average, syrahs, whether or not they are picked at higher levels of ripeness.
All those great Sine Qua Non syrahs the cult wine collectors positively swoon over? None of them have been "low" or even "moderate" in ripeness level, but they sure have pushed the envelope in saturation of tremendous syrah character. 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 (and so-o-o much more)? Virtually every one of these wines -- beautifully intense in varietal definition and expression of terroir -- fall in extremely high ripeness levels, between 14% and 15% alcohol or higher. So what does that make these syrahs: duck soup?
As pointed out in that very same piece in the Times, "cool climate" more than anything leads to well defined, world class syrah. Cooler climates in California, however, still produce ultra-ripe styles of syrah, a good 2% or 3% more 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 American grown Rhone style wines (he's writing a book). But misleading inferences, like California-syrah-is-too-ripe-or-full, printed in widely read papers only serve to turn off potential syrah consumers (heck, many wine professionals) who might not know better and, yes, often believe what 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: we all (syrah producers, and lovers of syrah, from consumers to sommeliers, distributors and retailers, etc.) just have to be patient. Nothing comes overnight; but judging from the outstanding quality of the wines we are seeing, it's all a matter of time before American grown syrah is the big thing, not the next one.
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 ideal 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.
So if you're a true believer: get out of from your kitchen and rattle those pots and pans. Let your favorite restaurants know they need to get into great American syrahs, and serve your best bottles at home with pomp and circumstance. This doesn't mean you need to forgo your favorite pinot noirs or zinfandels: just set them up as preliminaries before your fine syrahs. Then maybe, next year or hopefully soon after, we won't be sitting around talking about things like, "is there hope for syrah?"