What Does It Take to Make an $8 Wine?

Glut of California Syrah is a boon to consumers
Feb 9, 2011

A while back, I was talking to a winemaker about the challenges of making a truly great high-end wine. First, he said, you need to find an extraordinary vineyard and farm it meticulously. Then pamper the wine from vine to bottle, using the latest technology and the best French oak barrels. When you get it right, you can sell it for $75 or $100 a bottle.

“But that’s easy, really,” he told me with a laugh. “Anyone can do that. Have you ever tried to keep 6 million gallons of wine fermenting?”

Today that winemaker is producing $75 Pinot Noirs in Sonoma County. But he apprenticed in the factory wineries of Modesto, Calif., and understands that producing good, inexpensive wine is harder than people realize.

I thought of him the other day when I had a glass of Smoking Loon Syrah California 2008. I thought it was juicy and lively and surprisingly complex for the price, with notes of cherry, cranberry and spice. My colleague James Laube gave it 87 points (or “very good”) in a blind tasting. (See the full review in our Feb. 7 California Tasting Highlights.) How, I wondered, can an $8 bottle of Syrah be this tasty?

Turns out it’s the silver lining of the cloudy economy. “Since no one is drinking Syrah anymore, we’ve got plenty of it,” joked Don Sebastiani, Jr., president and CEO of Don Sebastiani & Sons, which produces Smoking Loon.

Syrah was on the rise in the 1990s, considered the next big thing. But it was over-planted and planted in regions where the quality was marginal. Great Syrah found a market, of course, and plenty of it sells for $75 a bottle. But America’s big love affair never took off, supply outpaced demand and then the economy staggered to a halt.

That’s a recipe for a Syrah glut. As a result, wineries have been discounting what wine they could, and the bulk market—where the industry barters and buys wine by the hundreds and thousands of gallons—has been flooded. And some of it is good stuff. Companies like Don Sebastiani & Sons buy those producers’ excess wine (at a steep discount) and then put it under their own label. That’s what the French call a négociant.

So that $8 Smoking Loon could contain Syrah that might have sold for $30 or $40 in a better market. Sebastiani says part of the blend was purchased on the bulk market, with the balance coming from the company’s annual wine and grape contracts. “The blend is almost entirely Syrah, with a touch of Petite Sirah and Merlot,” he said. “About 40 percent came from Paso Robles, 30 percent from River Junction, near Ceres, and 30 percent is miscellaneous California.”

At the winery, they relied on techniques that cause purists to roll their eyes but are standard operating procedure for today’s producers of inexpensive wines. Blended into the 2008 was 0.1 percent of a product named Mega Purple, a wine concentrate that adds a darker color. The blend was aged in stainless-steel tanks using French and American oak staves to add a touch of toast and spice. Winemakers also used microoxygenation, which infuses small amounts of oxygen into the wine as it ages.

“The staves and the micro-ox do an incredible job of simulating oak-barrel aging,” Sebastiani said. Since a barrel holds 25 cases and the average barrel costs between $500 and $1,000, most wines under $10 don’t see the inside of one.

If you pick up the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator, you can read Laube’s tasting report on Syrah and other varietals that originated in France’s Rhône Valley. Plenty of the top wines and producers come from Paso Robles (including Justin Smith’s Saxum winery, maker of 2010’s Wine of the Year). You won’t find any of the most highly rated wines in Smoking Loon, but there might be something from a few miles away.

Do you know of other good value Syrahs? While Smoking Loon 2008 is a good buy, store shelves are plentiful with inexpensive Syrah, whether from California, Australia or Europe. You might also look for: Castle Rock Syrah Columbia Valley 2007 (88, $12), Big House Syrah Santa Barbara The Slammer 2007 (87, $12), Chateau Ste. Michelle Syrah Columbia Valley 2007 (87, $13) or Pascual Toso Syrah Mendoza 2009 (87, $12).

At this price point, experimentation is half the fun, right?

United States California Red Wines Syrah / Shiraz
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