Great Scots Syrah! – Part One

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“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 imgSouth 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.”

bill-easton-rr-award-2016-textThe 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 dtr-labeljust 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.

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Daddy’s Timeout

Daddy's GC Berkeley (3)[one]

A FEW YEARS AGO, I flew into Houston for a work trip on a breezy October afternoon and cabbed straight to a sales appointment with a distributor colleague at a truly Texas-sized grocery store. No need to mention the store by name, though gourmet-minded residents of the city would know the place, which was high-end and located in a nice neighborhood. The lighting and space were bright and airy, and the shelves were very well-stocked. It reminded me of a saying I once heard: “Dallas has the flash, but Houston has the cash.” Indeed, there was a fossil fuel-enabled vibe of prosperity to this mammoth epicurean outlet. I was, after all, in the energy capital of the world.

Upstairs in a back office, the wine-related dealings came to a swift conclusion. The store’s merciless buyer was like the Astros’ J.R. Richard, circa 1978, shooting BBs past the Dodgers. Naturally, I was the Dodger—a strikeout victim. As I trudged back downstairs with my colleague, we encountered a wide stack of wine at the end of the “Gourmet to Go” aisle, the cases full of what turned out to be an Italian pinot grigio.

In keeping with the U.S. treatment afforded to one of Italy’s cornerstone exports, the boxes had been dumped directly from their pallet onto pinot grigio’s natural terrain in this country: the floor of a supermarket. The signage atop this lowly stack of wine advertised something called “Mommy’s Timeout,” its cost per bottle just a couple dollars more than Two Buck Chuck’s. There was no doubting this fancy store had more than a few cheapskates among its affluent clientele, and I was pretty sure that the pale liquid in the bottles didn’t exactly represent the noblest Italian expression of pinot grigio. But not curious enough to buy one on the spot, and not having come across this wine since, I can’t comment on its flavor (or possible lack thereof). It was really the label that caught my attention.
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The illustration on it depicted a café table and a single, unoccupied chair arranged in the corner of a room. This being a timeout, the chair was pointed towards the corner, its shadow cast low against the wall. A bottle of wine and a glass sat on the table. I didn’t miss—or mind—the obvious humor. Here was the spot where Mommy could temporarily escape the stress of being a mommy and remove herself to a wine-themed break from the kids. It was clever visual marketing to a stressed-out demographic. But the image was also morbidly engaging. It reminded me of a Charles Addams cartoon: toss in an ashtray and burning cigarette, and it could have passed for a scene of foul play, or maybe the aftermath of someone’s spontaneous combustion.

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Though I appreciate the contents of a good bottle, I’m also a sucker for wine label art and packaging, particularly of Italian wines. They’re what drew me in the early 2000s to the distinctive bottles from Cantina Terlano, a winery in northern Italy. This historic company (which happens to produce excellent pinot grigio) is a 120 year-old cooperative of grape farmers in Alto Adige, the sundrenched province and winegrowing region in the Italian Alps, close to the borders of both Austria and Switzerland. Perhaps at some point the proud Terlano growers took a vote not to pallet-jack their slender, discreetly embossed bottles of pinot grigio into Texas grocery stores, fancy or otherwise. The postage stamp-sized Alpine etching at the top of the label would get lost in a supermarket, anyway. Cantina Terlano’s wines have always been a more unique Italian product, both aesthetically and from a quality standpoint. Continue reading