Che, Syrah?

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California syrah is in a strange place these days, and it’s no secret in the trade that the wine remains a difficult item to sell. With a few exceptions, this is generally true for both spicy, vibrant syrah from California’s cooler coastal climates, as it is for the jammy, sweeter versions grown in warmer spots.

Yet syrah has its partisans and admirers, people attracted to a wine that at its best is seductive, savage and fraught with tension. And what’s not to love about that?

So what gives? Some people point to an identity crisis in American syrah, which in turn has confused consumers (to say nothing of winemakers). I recently wrote a short overview of syrah (and some of the California Rhône movement) for the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s a light read but features pithy commentary from some of California’s most accomplished producers of Rhône varieties. Here’s a bit with comments from Bob Lindquist (Qupé) and Sashi Moorman (Stolpman and Piedrasassi, among others):

“Too many people jumped on the bandwagon,” says Syrah pioneer Bob Lindquist of Qupé in Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County). The wine industry’s initial enthusiasm for Syrah led to overplanting, whether that meant too much or just simply in the wrong place. But equally, Lindquist says, winemakers tended to ignore what wine lovers were buying. “There was too much coming on without the market being ready for it.”

That the market was unprepared seems almost like an understatement. Drinkers reached for Australian Shiraz but that enthusiasm stopped short of Syrah from these shores.

“As a domestic wine, you can’t really expect consumers to understand Syrah,” says Sashi Moorman of Stolpman Vineyards and Piedrasassi, both located in Santa Barbara County. “It will never be Chardonnay or Cabernet.”

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