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.”

The Beat on the Street

We all hear it these days. You work in the trade and there’s a constant refrain of consumers trading down in their wine purchases, especially at restaurants. The silver lining is that people aren’t abandoning wine altogether, they’re just spending less. Which makes sense: Wine prices were until recently ever so inflated. When things eventually settle down, look for more savvy consumers — people on the hunt for honest wines at fair prices.

Which leads me to a recent article in what’s left of the Los Angeles Times, by my friend and colleague Patrick Comiskey. Patrick’s report shows some of the challenges sommeliers and buyers face in today’s climate. The meat of the article I feel, hits at the oversupply in the distribution channels, especially at the high end:

Indeed, slower restaurant sales (nationwide, but especially in Las Vegas) coupled with a generally large vintage in 2005 and the huge proliferation of luxury brands from California and elsewhere have led to an unprecedented oversupply of high-end wine in the pipeline.

All of this has led to plenty of synergy between buyers and sellers. “Everyone got the memo,” says Eduardo Porto-Carreiro, the wine buyer at Grace. “The producers, they lower their prices and say to the distributors, ‘Here are the deals.’ The distributors go to the restaurants and say, ‘Here’s what I can do if you move this,’ and we pass it on to our customers. It’s trickle-down, but it works back up. Wineries need to move wine, distributors need cash flow. Everyone has to work together for it to make sense, and for now, it is.”

Go here to read the entire thing.

*Note: For a look at the downturn’s effect on the restaurant world from a server’s perspective, this post on the downspin of tipping is quite fascinating.