These winemakers are sticking with ‘pariah to underdog’ syrah

Many California winemakers have dropped out of the syrah game, and those who remain have a penchant for Old World versions of the varietal.|

Many California winemakers have dropped out of the syrah game, and those who remain have a penchant for Old World versions of the varietal.

When winemaker Pax Mahle began making syrah in 2000, it wasn’t because it was the varietal of the moment.

“Syrah is just the grape I’ve always loved most,” said Mahle, founder of Pax Wines in Sebastopol and one of the foremost syrah producers in the country. “I’ve never cared about its popularity.”

Even so, in 2000 in California, the varietal was on an upswing. By 2003, it had grown significantly, to become the seventh most-planted grape in the state. What followed, of course, was a precipitous decline, a consequence of over-production.

Yet despite the grape’s ebb and flow in popularity over the past 20-plus years, Mahle’s passion remains steadfast for the Northern Rhône varietal. He’s not alone.

Smitten with syrah

In Sonoma County, where chardonnay and pinot noir have traditionally reigned supreme, syrah has a quiet, yet devout following of local winemakers turned on by the grape’s fresh-to-feral character. Among them, there is a distinct disregard for wines driven by trends or made for the masses. Instead, these winemakers embrace syrah for their own selfish pleasure.

For winemaker Eric Sussman of Radio-Coteau in Sebastopol, syrah is a muse he embraced in the early 2000s. After formative internships in Burgundy and Bordeaux in the mid 1990s, Sussman went on to develop what he calls “an Old-World winemaking style that highlights New-World fruit.”

At Radio-Coteau, that translates into three Sonoma Coast syrahs that straddle the best of both worlds: Dusty Lane syrah shines with bright red fruit, white pepper, dried herbs and salted black olive. Harrison Grade Estate delivers robust blackberry aromas, with smoked game, black plum and cacao. Las Colinas is a blessed marriage of the two.

“I’ve always been passionate about syrah,” Sussman said. “It’s a very dynamic wine with many layers and hidden characteristics that reveal themselves over time. Drinking it can be an unknown, but enjoyable, adventure.”

Sussman, who also makes pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals, said customers frequently seek out Radio-Coteau for his syrah.

“The people who come for our syrah already know they love the varietal,” he said. “We’ve developed many long-term customer relationships because of syrah.”

Pendulum of popularity

Over the past 40 years, syrah’s popularity has waxed and waned as frequently as the moon. While there isn’t one definitive answer that explains the fluctuation, many, like Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, point to the glut of syrah that flooded the marketplace from the early 2000s through the aughts.

Tablas Creek, a pioneer of California’s Rhône movement, launched in 1989 as a partnership between the Haas family and the Perrins of Château de Beaucastel in France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Syrah has always been an integral part of Tablas Creek’s wine program, both in their single-varietal bottlings and Rhône-style blends, so Haas has witnessed the grape’s reputation rise and fall during past two decades.

“Syrah has gone from the next great hope to pariah to an underdog winemakers love,” Haas said. “We put the majority of our syrah into blends, so fortunately we haven’t been at the mercy of trends.”

While the first significant syrah planting in California occurred around 1975 courtesy of Gary Eberle, broad American interest in the varietal didn’t begin until around 1989 with the rise of Rhône-centric winemakers like Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, whom “Wine Spectator” deemed the first “Rhône Ranger.”

Between 1994 to 2003, syrah skyrocketed from the 30th most-planted varietal in the state to seventh, as California grape growers clambered to ride the American Rhône wave, when this style became popular. By the early 2000s, a surplus of mediocre, high-production syrah had flooded the market, which spelled doom for sellers.

Also, syrah grapes are greatly impacted by climate and soil composition, so different vineyard sites and geographic regions can generate completely different styles of wine. This confounded consumers who couldn’t figure out whether they were purchasing a racy, vibrant syrah or one that was savory and dense.

In 2010, a New York Times article by writer Eric Asimov titled, “Is there Still Hope for Syrah?” expressed the sheer difficulty of selling the varietal at that time.

“There’s a joke going around West Coast wine circles,” he wrote. “What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.”

A winemaker’s wine

Since 2015, syrah acreage in California has declined 18%, from 18,063 acres to 14,751, and down from a peak of 19,283 acres in 2010.

Yet, a select group of California winemakers remain steadfast about the underdog varietal, which many in the industry refer to as “the winemaker’s wine.”

“A lot of us like to make it, drink it and talk about it, despite it being a tough sell,” said winemaker Leo Hansen of Leo Steen Wines in Healdsburg. “For me, it’s the cool-climate syrahs that I’m really drawn to — the deep, earthy, savory aromatics, with a palate that is still lively and fresh. It invites you to take another sip.”

Haas agreed. Much of Tablas Creek’s syrah goes into their Rhône-style blends because “it provides great color and structure,” he said, but they do produce single-varietal bottlings in years when yields are plentiful.

“Syrah is a grape winemakers love to work with,” he said. “It has so much appeal — layers of complexity, fruit and great savory characters. It also provides a window into the terroir where the grapes are planted, because it’s very reflective of place. Syrah offers winemakers a really interesting palette to create their vision for the grape.”

Cool-climate and classic

While many California winemakers have dropped out of the syrah game, those who remain tend to have a penchant for the meaty, peppery Old-World syrahs of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph growing regions in the Northern Rhône. Many attest these wines are what drew them to varietal from the start.

In Sonoma County, this passion for the Old World is discernible in many syrahs produced along the cold, wind-swept Sonoma coast and high-elevation sites in Mendocino. As it turns out, the grape can thrive under marginal growing conditions, resulting in deep, savory wines reminiscent of the Rhône.

“People love to call it ‘cool-climate syrah,’ but that has become an ambiguous term,” Mahle said. “I like to think of it as ‘traditional’ or ‘classically made’ syrah, like those from the Northern Rhône.”

Last year, Mahle joined forces with wine entrepreneur Baron Ziegler to purchase Halcon Vineyards, an extreme, high-elevation site planted primarily to syrah in the Mendocino appellation of the Yorkville Highlands.

“I’ve never walked a syrah vineyard more reminiscent of the Rhône Valley,” Mahle said. “It’s a very severe location with a lot of wind and rain, and unique schist soils. Having fewer syrah vineyards in better locations like this is going to improve the overall perception and quality of syrah.”

“Having fewer syrah vineyards in better locations like this is going to improve the overall perception and quality of syrah.” — Winemaker Pax Mahle

At Peay Vineyards in the West Sonoma County appellation, husband and wife Nick Peay and Vanessa Wong grow syrah in one of the coldest syrah vineyards in California. When brothers Nick and Andy Peay purchased the property in 1996, they didn’t even know if the fruit would ripen.

“We love syrahs of the Northern Rhône,” said Andy Peay, who oversees the business. “So we wanted to produce syrahs with more earth, tea and floral notes and less fruit. That’s why we sought out the cold Sonoma Coast.”

Peay said it can be tricky to ripen syrah 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but the extended hang-time produces fruit with great complexity.

“I think syrah is one of the most unique wines to grow on the coast,” Peay said. “It has such an interesting fingerprint. I hope to see more people planting syrah here.”

A selfish passion

Mahle, who will release the first Halcon Vineyards syrah with Ziegler in the spring, believes the winemakers who remain passionate about the grape are “committed to producing high-quality syrah in a thought-provoking way.

“There are so few syrahs made these days, and the people who make them aren’t looking for the varietal to become the next big thing. The last thing I want is for syrah to become popular.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

Sarah Doyle

Wine & Lifestyle Reporter

Wine is the indelible heartbeat of Sonoma County. As the wine industry continues to evolve, my job is to share the triumphs, challenges and trends that affect our local wine region, while highlighting the people — past and present — who have contributed to its success. In addition, I cover spirits, beer and on occasion, other lifestyle topics.

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