“HAVE YOU HEARD THE JOKE?” the wine retailer standing at our table asked with a stupid grin. He was trying to laugh it up with my winemaker boss and me. “What’s the difference between a case of syphilis and a case of syrah…?”
“The case of syrah is harder to get rid of! Get it?!”
My winemaker boss happens to make syrah—cases of it, in fact—so only one person was laughing. He looked stone-faced, saying nothing as his eyes narrowed. I’d seen that look before. The guy turned to me, but I just shook my head. “That’s hysterical, man,” I said flatly. He moved on to find a friendlier audience.
This little episode took place several years ago at a trade tasting in San Francisco. The boss and I were pouring his Mendocino County syrah for Bay Area restaurateurs and retailers. Venereal jokes aside, California syrah had free-fallen into the damn-near-impossible-to-sell wine category, thanks in no small part to an industry trope that put this noble wine grape variety in the same containership-sized box as a purplish, fermented grape beverage commodity from Australia called Yellow Tail Shiraz. The reason? Back in the 1950s, a Sicilian winemaking couple, Filippo and Maria Casella, immigrated to New South Wales. A few decades later, Casella and his sons launched an export shiraz brand. They named it after Australia’s cute Yellow Tail wallaby, adorned the bottle with a quasi-Aboriginal art label and a $6.99 price tag, and unleashed upon the world the phenomenon of “critter wine.” The family duly made a fortune. Here in the U.S., the imaginations of Costco members from coast to coast were forever captured, and shoppers doing wine arithmetic in supermarket aisles summed up that premium domestic syrah was equal to, but not necessarily greater than, cheap-ass Aussie critter shiraz. California syrah went into a marsupial death dive.
But letting the Casellas—and their wallaby—off the hook for a second, I think another important reason for California syrah’s bad rap of recent memory is that a lot of it made in this state isn’t very good. It’s been a problem going back to the 1990s that can be pegged to both location and vine age. “People weren’t really paying attention to the places they were planting syrah vines,” my friend Bill Easton told me on the phone recently. Earlier this year, Bill received the Rhone Rangers trade organization’s lifetime achievement award for thirty-plus years of work at his Amador County winery, Terre Rouge. He’s widely respected for both growing and making syrah and other Rhône varieties, and I was curious about his thoughts on the state of syrah a couple of decades ago versus today. “I think what happened in the 90s was everybody kind of jumped on the bandwagon at the same time with syrah. They thought it would be the next easy or hot thing to sell, and they didn’t want to be left out.”
The rush to production in the 90s and early 2000s meant that grapes were being harvested too early from young syrah vines, a practice that took away from many syrah-based wines the varietal characteristics that wholesale buyers and knowledgeable consumers associate with the wines of the northern Rhône Valley— syrah’s home turf in France—and better examples from California: namely blue and black fruits, white pepper, and the all-important meaty-bacon flavors that are a signature of this complex variety. Bill, who has produced syrah under the Terre Rouge label since the late 80s, started early enough to stay ahead of, and immune to, consumers’ disinterest in California syrah. Over time, he’s cemented his reputation for definitive syrah from the Sierra Foothills. “I think a lot of people came out with wines that were from third-leaf syrah vines, and they just weren’t that great,” he explained. “But as our vineyards have matured, the quality of the syrah and the character we get from the grapes is exponentially better than it was when we first started working with those sites.”
Bill added that, in his opinion, this trend included a number of Napa Valley wineries and growers. I’ve tried my share of Napa syrah over the years. Some has been quite good, though much of it I’ve found average, or at least expensive for the amount of complexity, elegance, and varietal focus it delivers. And the Valley’s floor and hills are already covered with a famous vine that is capable (with just the right human touch) of rather spectacular underachievement. Looking a bit south, successful growers like Lee Hudson and the Truchard family in the Napa-Carneros AVA have worked magic in their syrah vineyards for years, thanks to a combination of the area’s syrah-friendly, cooler climate and their own growing and winemaking skills. Down in Napa County’s southwest corner, Carneros spills over into Sonoma County, and in this neighboring viticultural region the conversations about syrah—and the wines themselves—take off in a different direction.