This is my second blog on the subject of syrah’s current demise, the following text having been written in an email to a leading wine writer.
In the June 1, 2010 issue of the New York Times, Eric Asimov, the newspaper’s chief wine critic, wrote a deeply troubling article regarding syrah. It begins like this: “There’s a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.”
He goes on to quote Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. “It appears to have crashed and burned in this country.” Then, he quotes Ehren Jordan, proprietor of Failla Vineyards. “There has been a collective running into a brick wall by people who make syrah.” This is personally pretty troubling for it was with Randall’s inspiration that I began to embark on my syrah journey back in 1990. We had a great lunch together in Santa Cruz and talked extensively about the grape and its potential in Washington State.
Asimov goes on to say, “It’s fair to say that much of the syrah produced in California is dreadfully generic red wine of little character.” Back in the 1970’s and ’80’s, the early efforts of American syrah pioneers … intended to emulate Rhone wines. Later entrants to the game had different ideas. In 1990 … only 164 acres of the grape were planted in the state. Then came an explosion. By the end of that Rhone-mad decade, more than 10,000 acres were planted, and since then even that number has doubled …”
“As syrah production was beginning to take off, some American wine critics were starting to award their highest scores to big, broad, powerfully fruity wines that displayed richness and opulence. The desire for critical approval … caused many American syrah producers to emulate this intensely ripe, jammy style.”
“Contributing to the confusion is the fact that a good deal of California syrah is simply planted in inappropriate places. ‘If you want it to actually have character, it needs to be grown in a very cool climate,’ said Mr. Grahm … and most top syrah producers would agree. Syrahs from warm areas lack the syrah signature of pepper, olive, meatiness, iron and mineral … from warm areas they just have this monochromatic blueberry and oak quality.”
Asimov does go on to present a guarded optimisim for syrah’s future, pointing to several winemakers who have focused on creating wines having the classic components of the Northern Rhone wines. He suggests several bottles to seek out such as, Copain Wine Cellars vineyard designated wines, Edmunds St. John, Qupe, Ojai Vineyard, Failla, Bonny Doon, Peay Vineyards, and Wind Gap.
I doubt that he would find most Washington syrah to display the characteristics he deems desirable for the grape to survive it’s downward spiral. However, I believe that taking Grahms position on climate is a fundamental requisite. Over my twenty years of having planted the grape and worked with it from a large number of locations throughout the State, I’ve instinctivly focused on cooler relms, particularly towards the central and western regions of the Yakima Valley at elevations of 1,000 feet or greater.
It’s also been clear that soil plays a primary role, and that the “typical” Washington alluvium loess-basalt conglomerate may not be very desirable. After all, the great vineyards of the Cote-Rotie and Hermitage are primarily limestone and granite with elemental schist, white and black mica, gneiss, and so on. Some of these qualities do exist in our State, but not in the same geological formations, nor in the same climate.
It looks as if I may have to postpone my “Prayer For Tempranillo” to the next installment, as this is getting pretty lengthy. But you may be beginning to “get my gist” as we used to say in Texas. Shouldn’t we “early pioneer” winemakers consider taking a more introspective view and consider the importance of what we’re attempting in order to elevate our State’s wines and of our love of the vine? Or should we simply invest roughly 15 to 20 thousand dollars per acre and see what happens?
“Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s start a winery! ‘Ya know ‘hun, we’re a lot of fun to be around and we’ve sure drunk enough wine. That’s most of the battle won right there, eh what? After all, it’s easy to find grapes to buy.”