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.
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.”