The Greatly Exaggerated Demise of Syrah

Harvest 2010For the past several years when I have shown our wines to distributors, brokers and retailers I have heard the refrain: “Pinot? Sure. Blend? Maybe. But I (we) can’t move any Syrah… especially not at your price point.” It seems to me that many (most?) critic types have piled on, at the very best damning with faint praise many examples of New World Syrah, and parroting the laments of the middle tier.

Not So Fast

Simply put, in my experience these people are out of touch with our consumer demographic.

I admit that I responded to the despair of wholesalers and retailers over Syrah, and cut our production in half from one vintage to the next. Well, surprise—the current vintage sold out last week, months before we had anticipated. We had even imposed a 15% increase to the retail price. Paradoxically, this increased the rate of sales on the wine in our tasting room. Since then we have been selling the previous vintage without pause.

I sort of saw this coming. Back in April we were pouring our Estate Pinot, Rhône blend and Syrah for the SF Vinters Market at Ft. Mason. To our astonishment, visitors to our table asked to taste the Syrah first, by a margin of 3- or 4-to-1. At the time I thought it might be relevant that the crowd seemed to trend younger than usual for these events. Since then I’ve concluded that age is not a factor—my observations suggest one does not have to be a Millennial to appreciate our particular expression of properly-aged, no-new-oak, cool-climate Syrah.

So, hey gatekeepers! It’s past time to give up the tired “Syrah doesn’t sell” meme. Syrah DOES sell. You guys are just a day late and a dollar short to realize it.

14 thoughts on “The Greatly Exaggerated Demise of Syrah

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Yeah Joe—that’s the danger of the long tail. It’s not just us, though—many of my small-producer colleagues have been telling me their Syrahs are doing better with consumers than media reports and distributor response would suggest.

      But in terms of overall volume? I would bet that sales of industrial Syrah continue to decline, and that planted acreage continues to decrease. All I have to say about that is, “yippee!”

      BTW – you’re welcome love.

      Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Good call, James! BTW – I grew those grapes for Geordie at Bump. Different block than goes into our Syrah bottling, though.

      Reply
  1. Peter O'Connor

    John,
    In your opinion, which wine (or region) is the benchmark most Syrah producers in CA try to emulate?
    Do you believe these growers and producers have a solid understanding of Northern Rhône’s red wines (i.e., red Hermitage, Cornas and Côte Rôtie) and winemaking practices (e.g., your mention to Chave, Jaboulet and Clape’s “little or no new oak” approach), so that they know what the variety is capable of and can set the bar appropriately high?
    For it seems to me that it has been mostly grown in the wrong areas: which are too warm and more suitable for Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan.
    Syrah’s success as a varietal in the Northern Rhône, with its unique character and impeccable structure, balance, elegance, finesse…, has been mostly credited to the region’s somewhat cooler, more marginal climate – with a continental tendency – where farming risks (and rewards) are greater.
    It is a shame though, since I could mention dozens of areas in CA that perfectly fit this particular climate profile.
    Still, there is good reason to believe that the last two growing seasons in Northern California (especially 2011), which were shorter and cooler, might have been particularly good for Syrah.
    Cheers,

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Hi Peter –
      I don’t know that there is one particular style or archetype that a majority of California producers are inspired by. I’ve tasted examples that remind me of everything from Australia to the Rhône to big California Cabernets or Zinfandels.

      I am unapologetically inspired by the wines of the Northern Rhône in my winemaking, and the Syrahs I personally enjoy drinking share characteristics with these archetypes, wherever they may come from. It is my belief that a thousand years of tradition deserves attention and respect, and wines from other regions that are slanted to the established model are likely to be the most successful in the long run. That’s not to say that good wine can’t be made from Syrah grown in the “wrong” areas and produced with different methods—just that these wines aren’t inspiring to me, personally.

      RE: Syrah grown in warmer climes—there is plenty grown in the Southern Rhône as well, no? Syrah from warmer regions may find it’s highest calling in blends with Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignan, etc.

      Reply
  2. Peter O'Connor

    John,
    As you correctly pointed out, in the warmer climes of Southern France Syrah is mostly used as a blending/supporting/improving variety; while the main characters are Mourvèdre, Grenache and to a lesser degree, and mostly confined to the regions of Languedoc and Roussillon, Carignan.
    My impression of (mid to high-end) California Syrah matches exactly your description: one cannot predict what kind of wine will be in the bottle. This lack of identity creates uncertainty, and introduces a new risk factor in the decision process for distributors, retailers and consumers.
    So far, it looks like market participants are expecting someone to come up with a megahit and set the path for others to follow.
    BTW, I feel the same way as you about N. Rhône reds: my favorite wines, by far.

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      @Peter: “This lack of identity creates uncertainty, and introduces a new risk factor in the decision process for distributors, retailers and consumers.”

      Absolutely. The lack of identity is at the crux of California Syrah’s lack of luster. Seems to me that Washington state Syrahs tend to be more homogenous (however much I don’t care for the style).

      How would you define a “megahit”? Parker’s influence has already made most CdP undrinkable for me.

      Reply
  3. Peter O'Connor

    John,
    In addition to having an almost perfect climate for growing (full-bodied) Syrah, the Columbia Basin (WA & OR) is a fairly homogeneous (climate and soil wise) viticultural area.
    California, on the other hand, (besides displaying a wide variety of perceptions and preferences among participants) has a multitude of climates, soils, precipitation regimes, solar radiation patterns…
    This is why I believe the market will have the final word on the mainstream style to be adopted by Syrah producers in California.
    PS: Although, in this specific case, the identity of local wines is mostly enforced, the identity/typicity factor is perhaps the greatest advantage of establishing a prescriptive appellation system in the French style. After all when buying a Corbières, based exclusively on price, one knows pretty much what one is going to get.

    Reply
  4. Dennis Tsiorbas

    John Kelly,
    I just happened upon your blog via another one, and since over the last month I’ve been tasting Syrah/Shiraz, I zeroed in on this post of yours; I’m not into wine technology, I’m into tasting, and Syrah is more consistently a good wine than just about any I’ve tried. Since I’ve not seen Westwood wines in NH, I’ll be sure to look harder, I can’t comment on your efforts, but the premise: ” Simply put, in my experience these people are out of touch with our consumer demographic.” Is true with me; I think many folks want to try something a little different, and with a little nudge they will. In the past I have had a number of so-so to poor Shiraz wines from Australia (a few very good ones too), which put a damper on my S/S exploration, but with a revived interested, especially California Syrah, I have no problem advising my readers to explore these wines with a good probability that they will come away pleased.
    Sincerely,
    Dennis

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Hi Dennis – I think we crossed paths over at STEVE! Welcome to my little zone of truthiness.

      I agree with you that Syrah has the potential to provide a more consistent high-quality consumer experience than many other varieties. The breadth of environments where it can be planted and ripen properly is far greater than Pinot and Merlot, and perhaps even than Zinfandel. It may be equal to Chardonnay and nearly equal to Cabernet Sauvignon in its aptitudes. Two things to avoid when growing the variety: quality is very sensitive to over-cropping, and Syrah vines should never be run out of water before harvest.

      We don’t distribute in NH, nor anywhere else at this time. My latest Syrah bottling—the 2007 Estate—comprised under 190 cases. Westwood wines are available online and through the Wine Club.

      Best of luck in your exploration of what the variety has to offer!

      Reply
  5. Dennis Tsiorbas

    John, you said this on SH blog: “Sad desperation is all to common in our business and political culture these days.” I hate to think that small family owned (In particular) wineries are in sad desperation. That really broke my heart to read. You’ll think I’m nuts, but I love the movie Bottle shock”, and one scene in particular: Alan Rickman ( Steven Spurrier) is visiting the wineries and he’s sitting down waiting for lunch or more probably a wine tasting, when this sweet unassuming elderly gentlemen brings him a bowl of nachos and guacamole; there was this sense of ‘earthiness’ and a frailty of effort that makes certain human being so charismatic within the context of their culture.
    John, I have a fantasy that California has large numbers of these kind of small wineries run by down-to-earth people carving and molding beautiful, creative, and distinct wines. The thought that they may be in sad desperation is a burst of reality equal to my own worn-down body. Just my reaction to your post “over there.”
    Also, I wanted thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment.
    Sincerely,
    Dennis

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      They filmed parts of “Bottle Shock” a block from my office. I walked over one morning to watch the filming and take some pictures. When the director of photography saw me using a film camera he called me over to talk gear. He ended up asking me if I wanted to sit in on the production. I spent the next two days hanging out with the crew; it was fascinating. It’s surreal to be acquainted with many of the people depicted as characters in the movie.

      The idyllic fantasy of working the earth and making wine is the lorelei that has sunk more than one gentleman farmer’s dreams. The work itself is not easy or glamorous. And then the reality hits that in order to keep doing the difficult and un-glamorous part, one actually has to make a successful business of selling the product. It’s a lot harder to do these days than it was in the late 1970s, but I imagine it was not all that easy back then, either.

      That said, most of the smaller family-owned producers I stay in touch with are doing OK just now. There isn’t as much sad desperation among them as there seems to be in the larger wineries and especially in the middle tier. They have too much wine chasing too few dollars. I’d go so far as to argue that the biggest problem in the market is not too many brands but too many big brands pumping out too many insipid products into an indifferent market. I mean, seriously, what else is happening at the big end of the curve other than Barefoot Moscato? Is that the best that the volume market can boast? At least us smaller producers on the long tail have a more engaged consumer base.

      Reply
  6. Dennis Tsiorbas

    John, you obviously have a lot of wisdom, but you are also kind. Thanks for your reply.
    Oh, on the 100 pts, you are very right-on: tasting is subjective and should not be exalted as anything else (I think that’s what you ended up with); wine lovers who find a reviewer that syncs with them have found an advocate, those who find an honest reviewer may find a friend as well.
    Sincerely,
    Dennis

    Reply

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