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

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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?"

Comments

  • Cornas 4 years ago

    There's nothing "stupid" about wondering about the future of Californis syrah. Anybody who thinks otherwise (like this author?) has clearly not been talking to producers, wholesalers, retailers or sommeliers who can't give the stuff away. Do a little market reserach, it might help your article have some credibility.

  • Me 4 years ago

    I can not believe that we are having second thoughts a bout syrah vs. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it is clearly that SYRAH has so much more and is more versatile, I do wine pairings very single night and there is always a syrah included, because it goes with a lot of more foods! Perhaps you should leave these commands to the people that actually work the floor like Sommelier and Retailers! I think this is BS.

  • c 4 years ago

    Buddy - you "hold your peace." you "speak your piece."

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    C: Thanks.

    Me: Seems to me that we agree on the food versatility of syrah, so I'm not sure where you get the "BS." You don't know me, so I can't blame your reaction. But for the record, I have over thirty years of experience working as a restaurant sommelier and restaurant manager, in over thirty restaurants and hotels from Honolulu to New York. So we have a lot in common there, too.

    Cornas: There's no doubt in my mind that I spend a lot more time than the average person "talking to producers, wholesalers, retailers and sommeliers" than most people. You see, I make my living doing that. If you can say that *you* spend every week, every day with somms, walking vineyards, dealing with distributors, etc., then I'll give you some credibility, too...

  • Cornas 4 years ago

    Your bonafides are remarkable. Wow. You da man! That still doesn't address your staement that it is "stupid" (your word) to wonder if there is hope for syrah in America. I don't know who you spend your time talking to but there are very few people on the production or selling side of American syrah that aren't either worried about the future for it or in the process of giving up on it. Quite a few already have given up. But you know that, right? You spend all your time in touch with the market, right? If you haven't seen that American syrah as a category is in trouble then you are amazingly out of touch, your mind-bending credentials aside.

  • Cornas 4 years ago

    And please don't say "somms". It is "sommeliers".

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    Cornas: I think if we sommeliers are comfortable saying "somms," then it's okay (so now you have some inside-info). Let me also add: my piece definitely says syrahs are not selling as well as they should be, and that everyone needs to be patient since "nothing comes overnight." What I find "stupid" is making erroneous statements (i.e. because there's too much "variety," and because their high "alcohol" makes them less desirable) about why syrah isn't selling like hotcakes, and hurting the cause in the process.

    American syrah as a wine category is not in "trouble" because these wines are better than ever -- on the par with the finest syrah based wines in the world. It will take a little more time before the market catches up, in the same way it took categories like California zin and West Coast pinot noir to catch on. In the meantime, if someone is going to knock them in public, I think they better have a good reasons.

  • Cornas 4 years ago

    I fail to see how, since American syrah is generally of high-quality (an opinion) relates to whether or not people are buying it (a verifiable fact). They are mutually exclusive. Plenty of worthy products have been 86ed because there wasn't a market willing to support them and plenty of people involved in the production and sales of American syrah are petrified by what the market is telling them.

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    Well then, that's where we may also have to disagree, Cornas. American syrahs are far from the only great wines made in the world that are underappreciated, displaying disappointing sales in markets around the world. The great Rieslings of Germany, for instance, are often cited as being in that basket. Just because John Q. Public isn't appreciating the beauty of a Forster Jesuitengarten Riesling Spatlese, it doesn't mean it's not a beautiful wine and it doesn't deserve to be made.

    The whole crux of the Rhone Ranger movement, which began with Bonny Doon's battle cry some thirty years ago, was a matter of getting the public to recognize that certain grapes are wonderfully suited to West Coast terroirs. It's been an uphill battle for these producers, and now that they've begun to produce some seriously great wine, I think that both the sales and distribution issue need to do a better job getting behind that. And it's the responsibility of wine journalist, too!

  • Cornas 4 years ago

    We're going in circles here. The fact (not opinion, fact) is that is something doesn't sell for a long enough period of time, the producers will cease to make it. The comparison of American syrah to German riesling is specious, at best. German riesling has a world-wide market and a history of being sold around the world that goes back centuries. American syrah has neither. If Americans stop, or have stopped buying syrah then the producers can't fall back on the export market. It doesn't exist. American producers who overpaid for vineyard land in the late 80s and 90s and planted it to unsuccessful varieties like syrah (and sangiovese, for example) are coming to the point where they fish or cut bait, which is why so many are grafting their vines over to varieties that the market demands. The fact that those syrahs were high quality has absolutely nothing to do with their market viability. To think otherwise is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    You wreak with short sightedness, my friend. As for myself, I'm glad the various factions of Rhone Rangers didn't give up ten, twenty years ago. Just like I'm glad Oregon and California pinot noir producers didn't give up either, despite naysayers (not long ago, it was very common to hear that Americans would *never* produce pinot of interesting quality).

    I could be wrong on this American syrah thing, but I don't think so, given the perspective of several decades of being involved in the industry (on the journalistic, sales as well as winemaking side). Hopefully, you'll remember this conversation ten years from now and think: geez, I'm glad these syrah guys kept the faith, because these wines sure are good!

  • C. 4 years ago

    I liked the Asimov piece. I don't dislike the point of your piece.

    But do you think the high-alcohol, big-score Cali Syrahs are remotely food versatile?

    I like those wines on occasion. (As I like many varietals and styles of wine.) But the wines that Asimov was promoting are much more food-friendly, IMHO.

    CA Syrah's "problem" is similar to the Aussie wine problem - again, IMHO. Too many high-octane wines that people think they are supposed to like. But when they experiment with them, they don't go with food, so they unfortunately walk away from the grape because of this style.

    Syrah also lacks its "Sideways," of course. But it also lacks the "romantic" Burg or BDX "story" that can be a nice selling point for American Cab or Pinot.

    It's a shame for the producers - and for the novice consumers who are missing out. But I'm enjoying the opportunity to grab cases of good wine for a song, because they are otherwise just sitting, ignored by a confused general public.

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    Very good points, C. Yesterday we ate roast chicken, and a bottle of Verdejo was perfect for it. But next weekend we're planning a picnic in a park, and we're going for charcoal grilled ribs slathered in sweet-spicy-vinegary bbq sauce. The best wine for that? Either a big, rich, black zin, or a big, spicy California syrah.

    I always say there are perfect dishes for every wine, and vice-versa. Meaning, there's lotsa room for full blooded wines like zin, syrah, and even cabernet sauvignon -- which is why zin and cabs are so popular these days! Many of these ultra-premium CA syrah guys are saying that their wines are selling out every year, but others say sales could be better. I wrote the piece because I hope all the producers of great American syrah get their due, but one thing I'd say: they do go great with certain foods, too, the same way that zins, cabs, Priorats, Barolos, etc. do. Thanks!

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    C, one more thing:: I don't think the best West Coast grown syrahs resemble those over-the-top Aussie Shiraz types popular not too long ago. For one thing, the Aussies are generally grown in even warmer regions than, say, the CA North and Central Coasts, or Southern Oregon and Eastern WA. There's also clonal differences, but beyond that: the best American syrahs have more of that floral-violet perfume and roasted meat/bacon and pepper qualities, recalling Northern Rhone syrahs (but different, of course) rather than the overripe, jammy qualities of syrahs from Down Under.

    Frankly, I don't think there is any more chance of American consumers being "turned off" by this style than they would be by big, West Coast style cabs and zin. If anything, the rising quality of American syrahs has been so sudden, consumers other than collectors, geeks, etc. just haven't caught on yet. But like I said, it's only a matter of time, since these wines are true to the grape and their terroirs.

  • Patrick Comiskey 4 years ago

    Randy:

    With respect, I believe you completely mischaracterized my argument. My objection with ripe syrahs is ripeness, not alcohol. Syrah's nuances, I believe, are baked out of the wines at higher ripeness levels. They lose complexity. I like my wines to be complex, and ripe wines just ain't.

    I don't believe I used the 'A' word once in the NYT piece (though I have elsewhere). I'm personally not opposed to 14.5%; 15.5%, though, is another matter altogether. In fact any wine above 15% is going to get scrutiny from me - that doesn't mean I will reject it, but you better believe I'm going to look closely to determine whether the alcohol is integrated, whether that ripeness is 'earned.'

    That includes the wines of Sine Qua Non, which I find fascinating, despite their constantly courting excess.

    pjc

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    Fair enough, Patrick, although as we well know, when you say "ripeness" you are, in fact, talking about alcohol, since higher ripeness translates into higher alcohol (where else does it go?). Perhaps, too, your statement lent itself to misinterpretation since the rest of the piece went out of its way to suggest that elevated ripeness somehow automatically diminishes varietal definition; which, of course, is nonsense. It *might* do that, but in many cases -- including in some of the cooler West Coast terroirs -- it does not.

    In any case, I fail to see how the popularity of full throttled American syrah makes the category "less" popular. American syrahs of moderate scale from cooler climates might certainly *enhance* sales of syrah (all popular varietal categories benefit from variety), but the not-so-faint public damning of perfectly good syrahs is not the way to enhance the cause; and I'll call out any piece that distorts the quality of good wines, no matter who writes it.

  • Patrick Comiskey 4 years ago

    I don't intend to get in a back and forth with you, but please don't put words in my mouth. When I say ripeness, I'm talking about ripeness. My prior note makes that distinction quite clear, so please don't try to muddle what I'm saying so that it fits your argument.

    pjc

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    One more point, which has yet to be mentioned by me or elsewhere: it was the relative warmth (i.e. "Mediterranean" setting) of West Coast grape regions known to the industry 25 or so years that originally lent fuel to the movement we know as "Rhone Rangers," and syrah -- for both its adaptibility as a vine and versatility as a food match -- was a major part of it. I find it ironic, today, that certain critics now find it convenient, or cool, to talk about the "new," cooler growing regions, at the expense of perfectly delicious products from the climatically moderate or even downright warm regions that originally inspired vintners like Grahm, Edmunds, etc.

    I, too, love the cooler climate syrahs (like Failla and Baker Lane), and have written enthusiastically about them. But if anyone deigns to denigrate warm or moderate climate wines, they should at least apply a sensible logic if they're going to leave readers and consumers with those dubious impressions.

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    You didn't write that piece in the Times, Patrick, which is why your point about ripeness became muddled. Having read what you've written in the past, I know that you wouldn't have written anything so convoluted to the point where nuances are lost. Your knowledge and experience is too deep for that.

    So please don't take my criticism as a criticism of you. You're just the guy who was quoted so that someone else could make a case. So with sincere apologies and respect, let's raise a glass again soon!

  • rrs 4 years ago

    So, I am a producer who has a hard time "giving away" $20 Syrah from Central Coast California (cool climate); we get great scores and people who actually taste the wine love it...but we have reduced production because the shelf life is too long for retailers (and, I do not blame them). However, at the same time, we have increased our production of $45 Syrah (Reserve); it sells faster than the complimentary "estate" vintages.

    Randy is smart to remember and point out the fate of Pinot Noir in California; In the early 80s I could not give away Pinot Noir from an area that now is considered one of the best Pinot Noir Appellations...

    There is disconnect between good wines that everyone should enjoy and wines that people buy. Read a few wine columns and try recommendations from someone who appears to have an attitude about food and wine that might match yours...see if you can find a writer who has a taste that you appreciate and follow the path of discovery that writer will craft for

  • C. 4 years ago

    Thanks for the follow-up points, Randy.

    Though you reminded me of another reason that I have thought that Cali Syrah sales have suffered. The big, over-the-top, high-alcohol syrahs which generally have higher prices are competing with big, over-the-top, high alcohol Zins, which are less expensive (by comparison), so people who do want that style will go with the Zin. Just IMHO.

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    Well, C (you're welcome, btw), not exactly, since zinfandel is definitely all about "jammy" flavors (why zin drinkers love them), whereas if you find jamminess in syrah, or pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, it doesn't quite fit (which is why West Coast syrahs, as I mentioned, aren't really like South Australian syrahs).

    These days ultra-premium West Coast cabs and pinots, you know, are typically picked extremely ripe, resulting in alcohol levels in the mid-14% range. Why? Because that's when they're most flavorful, and consumers have responded enthusiastically. That's why I defend syrahs picked in that range, because this is more of the American style. But the best syrahs picked at this peak ripeness are still very perfumed and spicy -- syrah-like. I'd venture to say that if you tried them next to zins, you wouldn't see that much resemblance either.

  • Randy Caparoso 4 years ago

    Oh, one more thing, C. Sales of syrah aren't really "suffering." They're increasing, but not by enough. It's just that the planting spree of the mid-to-late '90s which has resulted in dramatic increase of American syrahs on the market has caused an oversupply. Many of today's syrah producers aren't happy with their sales, but keep in mind that 10 years ago, these syrahs weren't even around.

    The top syrah producers, ironically, all say their sales are terrific. They have people standing in line to buy them. Unfortunately, not all syrah producers are so lucky.

    They're are many great wines made today that are in oversupply -- Germany rieslings, Champagne, most of what is coming out of Italy and Australia, etc. -- but that doesn't mean there's something "wrong" with these wines. In reality, wines around the world are generally far better than ever, but production has outstripped demand. It's been boon times for consumers, and American syrah is caught up in that net.