There's a fair amount of hand-wringing and speculation among wine industry professionals regarding the fate of the Golden State’s Syrah and Rhône-style reds, whose growth as a category seems to have stalled. Several points bear consideration as these wines, as a group, seek greater acceptance in the market.
• For one, not all Syrah is struggling. Plenty of producers are doing just fine, and the waiting lists for many of the elite wines still stretch around the corner.
• It's not just Syrah. The market is more competitive than ever, and even without the Great Recession, wines of all sorts, from all countries, are in a real battle for relevance and survival. Lower-priced wines are the main ones that are thriving.
• California Syrahs have never been better. Ditto for Pinots and Sauvignons and just about any other varietal. The same is true for all wines around the world. They are simply better and more widely available.
Syrah does suffer from not having the kind of marketing presence that California wines such as Cabernet and Chardonnay had from the 1980s on, when the likes of Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Beaulieu and Chateau Montelena were big factors in the market, both in education and availability.
Matt Kramer made the case in his web column that what Syrah really needs is aging to show its best. While that's true of many wines, people have to buy it first before they can cellar it and enjoy the benefits of bottle time.
So if Syrah on the label isn't a selling point, should the Rhône Rangers (producers who champion Rhône varieties outside of France's Rhône Valley) abandon varietal labeling in favor of branded names? I think that would be worse.
Earlier this year, when I interviewed Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non, we tasted in his winery, and I asked him why he didn't make Grenache more prominent on his label. His reply: No one would buy it if the label said Grenache.
I suggested using the name would aid the cause of Grenache, since people would associate SQN's level of quality with this lesser-known grape.
Other Rhône Rangers find varietal names simply aren't beneficial to them because they know they can make better wines by blending grapes. Look at the success of Saxum or Linne Calodo; even some of John Alban's wines don't highlight what grapes are in the bottle. Linne Calodo's 2007 Outsider is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Mourvèdre; its 2006 Problem Child is similarly a blend of those three grapes; its 2007 Rising Tides is a mix of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Saxum's reds highlight the vineyard more than the grapes.
Both of these wineries are making great strides in quality, but not necessarily moving the broader market in terms of varietals. These, and the SQN wines, are among the most difficult to find.
Those in the know appreciate how distinctive these blends can be and don't need a varietal compass. But we live in a culture that's conditioned to buy wines by varietal type. For newcomers, or even retailers or restaurateurs, if Syrah (or Grenache or Mourvèdre) isn't on the label, it's hard to figure out what's in the bottle or where to list wines. And that makes them a harder sell.
Robert Yett — Walnut Creek — July 21, 2010 5:02pm ET
David Williams — Carlsbad, CA — July 21, 2010 7:23pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — July 21, 2010 7:33pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — July 21, 2010 7:44pm ET
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO — July 21, 2010 7:57pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — July 21, 2010 8:03pm ET
Mr Christopher N Solle — Marin, CA — July 21, 2010 8:55pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — July 21, 2010 9:45pm ET
Jon Robinson — Bozeman, MT — July 21, 2010 10:26pm ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — July 21, 2010 11:55pm ET
Chris Haag — vancouver, bc — July 22, 2010 12:21am ET
Dana Nigro — New York, NY — July 22, 2010 11:37am ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — July 22, 2010 11:47am ET
Tony Aukett — Chicago, IL — July 22, 2010 11:53am ET
John Cook — New York, NY, USA — July 22, 2010 12:18pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — July 22, 2010 12:19pm ET
Matt Scott — Honolulu HI — July 22, 2010 1:04pm ET
Adam Wallstein — Spokane, WA — July 22, 2010 2:03pm ET
Stephen Stewart — new mexico — July 22, 2010 2:27pm ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — July 22, 2010 2:48pm ET
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Claudia Katterbauer — Austria — July 22, 2010 6:14pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — July 22, 2010 6:20pm ET
Brad Paulsen — Saratoga, CA — July 22, 2010 6:51pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — July 22, 2010 10:19pm ET
Matt Scott — Honolulu HI — July 23, 2010 1:26am ET
Brook Williams — Los Olivos, California — July 23, 2010 12:54pm ET
Mike Drash — Napa, CA — July 23, 2010 12:59pm ET
Mark B Davis — Des Moines, IA USA — July 23, 2010 3:00pm ET
Josh Moser — Sunnyvale, CA — July 23, 2010 5:22pm ET
Dave Reuther — Deerfield, Illinois — July 23, 2010 7:21pm ET
Brian Buzzini — NorCal — July 23, 2010 10:39pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — July 23, 2010 10:54pm ET
Matt Scott — Honolulu HI — July 25, 2010 2:01pm ET
Jonathan Rezabek — Chandler, AZ — July 26, 2010 11:11pm ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — July 27, 2010 12:48pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — July 27, 2010 1:00pm ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — July 27, 2010 4:38pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — July 29, 2010 12:51am ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — July 29, 2010 1:59am ET
Gladys Marche — Toronto, Ontario, Canada — July 29, 2010 9:32pm ET
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — July 30, 2010 12:35am ET
K & D Wines And Spirits — New York, NY — August 14, 2010 2:08pm ET
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