Monday, March 5, 2012

Syrah, Part 5: The Ultimatum

In this, (mercifully) the final installment of this series on Syrah, we wrap up with a question and an ultimatum. 

Perhaps more than any other grape, Syrah reflects the the place in which it's grown in a profound and obvious way. Even novice wine drinkers can blind-read the tell of an Australian Rugby Player from the nuanced, savory game of a Napoleonic Crozes-Hermitage. On paper, this exibitionist quality ought to appeal to today's trendy preferences for more direct wines, yet Syrah's bemoaned existence in the US remains a well-documented source of frustration for winemakers and consumers alike.


As it goes with people, a grape's greatest strength in its extreme it is also its greatest weakness. So, it stands to reason that at the source of Syrah's domestic doldrums is an identity crisis of sorts.  Given the overt influence climate and place has over the Syrah grape, the public at large just doesn't know what to expect from it. And understandably so. Within California alone, the diversity of styles Syrah delivers is as dizzying as deciphering the Grand Crus of Burgundy, though Syrah hardly enjoys the same enthusiastic following. Which begs the question:

Is there a future for California Syrah?

If there is, it'll require the kind of bold, deliberate action that's guaranteed to ruffle a lot of feathers: homogenization.  There's certainly precedence for this, too:  the coalescence engineered for Chardonnay in the 80's and 90's when California Chardonnay became synonymous with extraction, malolactic exaggeration, and heavy oak influence.  Say what you want about how damaging the "buttery-oak" movement was to Chardonnay's purity, but you cannot argue its effectiveness in creating a market for the wine.  Just ask Jess Jackson's broker.

Here's the critical point, though: the solidification of this stereotype, whatever your take on it, was a necessary precursor to the success that enabled site-driven and more "pure" bottlings to become commonplace.  The result is that mainstream wine drinkers are now celebrating Chardonnay's many variations - and the shelf talker lexicon proves it: naked, buttery, stainless, minerality, creamy, and so on.

The same is true for Syrah: it needs to take a step back before it can take a step forward.

According to the USDA, there were close to 20,000 acres of Syrah in California last year, making it the fifth most planted red wine grape in the state.  On Syrah's current trajectory, the bulk of that will end up in nondescript blends on the lower shelves at the grocery store.  That is, until a few more years go by and the vines get regrafted to Merlot.

So, the ultimatum to California winemakers who love Syrah is this: homogenize it before it dies an unceremonious commercial death at the hands of a confused and indifferent consumer.

And to the rest of you who are willing to look beyond the mainstream, this I can guarantee you: your curiosity will be rewarded as you explore the incredible treasures California has to offer in Syrah.

Cheers

2 comments:

  1. Nice job on this series and you're right: Syrah's diversity is both its asset and Achilles heel. Your hypothesis regarding homogenization is interesting though I'm not sure you can definitively say that Chardonnay's success was predicted on its homogenized stereotype. It certainly may have contributed to it, because consumers knew what they were getting, but a "necessary precursor"? That is a tougher claim but good food for thought.

    Anyway, I love your passion for the variety and like you hope its rise is somewhere in the near future. In the meantime, we will work to educate our customers in instead of homogenize our wine...passion for terroir still matters!

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  2. Thanks for your compliments, Tyler! As for chardonnay's homgenization being a precursor, you're right to question that as being the sole reason for its success. There are no doubt many other factors that facilitated its metoric rise in the market. But one has to wonder if it would have been possible without simplifying it for the consumer at large.

    Either way, here's hoping for syrah!

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