When Carole Meredith and Steve Lagier began planning their vineyard on Mount Veeder, high above Napa Valley, they might have been expected to study their grape options exhaustively, with a nod to science.
After all, Lagier had worked for Robert Mondavi Winery for 14 years, and was well-versed in the state's winegrowing districts; Meredith is a world-renowned grape expert and professor emerita of enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis.
Yet instead, when the first vines for Lagier Meredith were put in the ground, they were those of a grape that the owners loved to drink -- Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon would have been the logical choice, given that the vineyard is in Napa Valley, where Cabernet is king. But Syrah won the passion play.
"It wasn't a totally emotional decision," says Meredith, who has stepped back from her professorial duties and spends more time in the couple's vineyard, which sits on a sloping grade in front of their home. "It was pretty clear that Syrah was on the rise." That and the fact that Meredith doesn't "like drinking young Cabernets," adds Lagier, who oversees most of the viticultural and winemaking work for their 4-acre vineyard.
It's an infatuation with this hearty, robust, spice-, beef- and berry-infused wine that is driving most of the top-end Syrah producers in California these days. Nearly 40 years ago, a few devotees of Northern Rhône reds (and later, Australian Shiraz) began planting this grape in the Golden State. Two of those pioneers, Joseph Phelps and Gary Eberle, are still at it, but in the past decade the wine has soared in quality, and acreage has been growing by leaps and bounds. In 1980, only 81 acres of Syrah were growing in California. By 1995, that figured had climbed to 1,331, and by 1999, it exceeded 10,000. Today there are more than 16,000 acres. Syrah still has a ways to go to catch up with the leading red varieties of Cabernet, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Merlot. But in terms of quality, no grape in California has risen in stature so quickly.
Syrah can be a fairly easy grape to grow in California. It can set large crops and produce volumes of good wine. Most winemakers agree it has a brighter future than the two previous "rising star" varietals -- Merlot and Sangiovese. For Syrah to excel in California it usually needs a cooler climate and spartan soils, and so far most of the best wines have come from smaller vineyards rather than large estates. "If you want concentration, you have to hold back this galloping horse [of a grape] and contain the vine's vigor," says Lagier.
If you look at the list of top Syrahs released in the past year, the names are sprinkled throughout the state. There are a few from Napa and Sonoma, such as Lagier Meredith, Carlisle, Shafer, Lewis and Pride, but also impressive offerings from Edna Valley in the Central Coast, where Alban has set the quality bar high. Paso Robles, home to Saxum and newcomer Villa Creek, has made impressive wines, while farther south there's Ojai, which buys grapes from several excellent vineyards. Then there's Monterey and Santa Barbara and Mendocino. The landscape is changing fast, as vintners shift gears.
A few winemakers are concerned by Syrah's explosive growth, noting that many vineyards have been planted without contracts to sell the crops. "When I started out there were four or five producers [of Syrah] in the state," says Bob Lindquist of Qupé, an early Syrah advocate from Santa Barbara who began making Syrah in the 1980s. "Now there are 40 [Syrah] producers in Santa Barbara."
Syrah's "going to sort itself out in the next 20 years," Meredith expects. "It's not as limited a grape as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo," says Lagier. Sangiovese came to California in a big way in the 1990s, to find only pockets of success. Nebbiolo is among the most difficult of grapes to grow anywhere and has yet to distinguish itself in California.
While the smaller vineyards are producing most of the best wines, Syrah producers have some flexibility when it comes to climate; Syrah can make a rich, fruity wine of very good quality when grown in warmer sites. "One of the nice things about Syrah is you can make a good bottle of red wine on a large scale, whether it's from warmer climate or blending a warm and cool climate," says Lindquist. His Central Coast bottling combines fruit from warmer and cooler sites and benefits from the increase in new, high quality plantings. Adds Adam Tolmach of Ojai: "Syrah does shockingly well in warm spots, [where it] gets high yields and makes a delicious wine. It can be a very fancy wine and an everyday wine."
But most winemakers prefer the cooler sites, which bring out the more exotic, spicy aromatics the grape is famous for. "Showing off the site, the individuality of the vineyard, is what excites me," says Tolmach. He is inspired by the European tradition of this grape. "That's what I love about wine, tasting the individuality of the wines."
For John Alban, the grape not only shows off the individual vineyard sites, but is reflective of the winemakers' personalities. "When I think of the characters that make Syrah, they're more mischievous, more playful," he says. Cabernet may be more "buttoned down" and aristocratic, but Syrah is making gains because it's seriously fun.
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