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.