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California Syrah: Not the Next Big Thing, But Better For It?

Syrah on the hang in the fogged-in Clary Ranch Vineyard, one of the coolest (and best) Syrah sites in the state.
Syrah on the hang in the fogged-in Clary Ranch Vineyard, one of the coolest (and best) Syrah sites in the state.

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

California Syrah's inability to gain traction with consumers has been a well-tread topic over the past several years. Just last week, Jon Bonné, Wine Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, declared that "The grand experiment to push Syrah as California's next great red grape has hit a brick wall."

The numbers do nothing to prove him wrong. As of last month, sales of Syrah and Shiraz were down another 11% from the year before.

But the paradox in this grape's plight is that when Syrah is planted in some of California's cooler vineyard sites in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, it is responsible for some of — if not the most — interesting wines being made in the state. And while Syrah's cheerleaders continue to pack away the pom-poms, a growing crop of talented winemakers continue to hedge their bets on a downtrodden grape. Do they know something we don't? Perhaps. Giving up on Syrah as "the next big thing" is likely the best thing that could happen to California Syrah.

The Downside of Up

Syrah first popped up in California in the 1970s along the Central Coast in places like Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles, thanks to pioneers like Bob Lindquist (of Qupé), Gary Eberle (of Eberle Winery), Jim Clendenen (now of Au Bon Climat, but formerly of Zaca Mesa—the winery that put CA Syrah on the map), and John Alban (of Alban, the first winery in America to specialize in Rhône varieties). The "Rhône Rangers," as they became known, established the Central Coast as ground zero for the cultivation of Rhône Valley varieties—Syrah, of course, among them.

By the 1990s the grape began to pop up across the state and was met with plenty of buzz in the marketplace. Rumblings of Syrah as "the next big thing" traveled fast.

A trend was birthed and, inevitably, a glut followed. The grape was planted in great density in places where temperatures made it easy for its more nuanced, floral qualities and high acid to submit to fruit density—a sure fire way to turn Syrah into a grape that tastes like it could be Cabernet.

The residual effect of the grape's overplanting and subsequent loss of identity is something that Syrah's new Sonoma pioneers still feel.

Coming of Age

While out in California last week I met with Pax Mahle, the current owner of Wind Gap and the former winemaker at his namesake Pax Winery, in the cellar he shares with Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Roberts of Arnot-Roberts, in Forestville.

Mahle made a name for himself by making big, blockbuster Syrah under the Pax label, but in 2006—with the harvest of a batch of lean fruit that wouldn’t fit into the Pax style—he founded Wind Gap in order to release the wine. Eventually he left Pax winery and their full-throttle approach in search of cooler sites and a more traditional approach to winemaking—two hallmarks of the Wind Gap label.

Mahle poured the new release of his entry level Sonoma Coast Syrah, a 100% whole cluster-fermented wine sourced from several different sites in the Petaluma Wind Gap—a valley that runs from the Pacific Ocean through the town of Petaluma south to San Pablo Bay—which acts as a beltway for cool winds that ripple through the valley, challenging root systems and cooling the grapes. This effect allows for a longer growing season and Syrah that manages to be phenologically ripe (ripeness in the tannins that occur in grape skins, seeds and stems) at alcohol levels as low as 11.5%.

I was shocked that when I made a casual comment to Mahle that the wine "tastes like Syrah," that he was as flattered as he was.

You see, with nearly two decades of expectations piled on Syrah as California's next great red grape, plenty of wines have strived for mass-market appeal over varietal correctness. A California Syrah actually tasting like Syrah (or, more specifically, something reminiscent of the archetypal aromatic, high acid versions of the grape found in its spiritual home of the Northern Rhône) wasn't much of a concern.

In a recent article by Jordan Mackay in San Francisco Magazine about the promise of cooler climate California Syrah, Ehren Jordan (winemaker and proprietor of Failla, a winery that produces retrained Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast) insists that people's expectations of what Syrah can produce should be modified—that the grape is inherently "esoteric" and simply cannot produce great wines in a variety of different climates.

In other words, by nature it cannot be the next Merlot or the next Cabernet, or simply the next big thing. But thanks to what is currently happening in Sonoma and Mendocino, we are finally finding out what Syrah can be in California: it can taste like Syrah.

The Migration

Styles vary between producers like Pax Mahle, Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Roberts, Kevin Kelley, Wells Guthrie, Ehren Jordan, Vanessa Wong (winemaker at Peay Vineyards) and more who have dared to plant Syrah in sites where several years ago many wouldn't even dare grow Pinot Noir. But what they all have in common is a universal quest to uphold the grape's integrity and find true balance through careful vineyard selection in cooler areas.

Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Roberts of Arnot-Roberts work with a number of different grape varieties—as Mahle does—but have produced their most impressive wines from Syrah. The 2010 Syrah from Clary Ranch in the Petaluma Wind Gap near Bodega Bay—which is the coldest site that Mahle, Meyers, and Roberts work with—will clock in at around 11% alcohol. It's still in barrel, but it shows an energy and aromatic amplitude that is already capable of abducting one's imagination. It's proof that, despite the anxiety associated with ripening Syrah in Clary Ranch, it's absolutely where the grape should be.

Kevin Kelley's (winemaker at Lioco, Salinia, and The NPA) Syrah from the famed Charles Heintz Vineyard (often dubbed a Grand Cru site for CA Chardonnay, and he makes one of those too) bottled under his Salinia label channels the more gamey, smoky side of the variety's aromatic profile, with a palate that is as brisk as it is brooding.

The migration of Syrah to cooler sites like Clarly and Heintz means much lower yields and leaner wines that are capable of expressing where they are from. What it doesn't mean is mass-market potential.

Better Than The Next Big Thing

There is something evolutionary happening in California as a whole, as styles are drifting away from the bombs that came to define the late nineties and early naughties wines. In Sonoma and Mendocino it more about discovery than a shift in an established style. What the winemakers hedging on Syrah in these places are finding out is that California can produce the most distinctive expressions of Syrah outside of France. But, like France, this is only possible on a small scale and in the right places.

Jon Bonné may be right that the urge to crown Syrah the next big thing may have finally hit a brick wall. But giving up on Syrah's mass-market potential is precisely what will preserve the new identity that some of California's greatest winemakers are daring to reveal.

Sonoma/Mendocino Producers of Note:

Wind Gap

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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