16 Blogger column
bloggers’ blend BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
Washington Syrah: star or FUBAR? Editor’s note: In each issue, this column rotates among the top wine bloggers in the Pacific Northwest.
e all know the problems of Syrah in Washington and elsewhere these days. We know the jokes contrasting a case of Syrah to a case of pneumonia (you can get rid of a case of pneumonia). But Washington Syrahs have also gained huge scores and accolades in recent years. So at this year’s Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers conference in February, a simple question was posed: Is Washington Syrah a star or is it FUBAR? Here is why I personally believe that it is, in fact, FUBAR. Just kidding. Syrah’s market performance is indeed morose. The national numbers presented by Brett Scallan of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates at the growers conference were funereal. However, there are a number of Washington wineries whose Syrahs are doing well with consumers and displaying something unique that is causing commotion. So why has Syrah not caught on as much as many believe it should or thought it would? Here is what I believe some of the issues are and why I believe the grape will ultimately succeed in Washington. To date, many reasons have been posited for Syrah’s lack of success, with the most common being consumer fatigue with Australian critter wines; confusion about what Syrah is going to taste like given the range of styles available; and large amounts of not-very-high-quality domestic Syrah coming from California. (Damn those Californians!) All of these things are true. There is a marketing and perception problem with the grape, and Syrah is currently on a downward trend nationally, although Washington Syrah sales are, interestingly, rising. However, everything is cyclical, and consumers are nothing if not malleable. Remember how easily the fates of Merlot and Pinot Noir were altered? Over time, consumers may still come to love Washington Syrah. But this will happen only if they have a good experience when they open a bottle and if they can explore the grape without breaking the bank. The highs in Washington Syrah are extraordinarily high, but the lows are quite low. Many Syrahs in the state taste nondescript and monolithic. Many don’t taste particularly like Syrah. Why is this? Winemaker Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery likes to say that Syrah is a “chameleon.” It expresses its site. I personally like to say that Syrah is like a sponge. It soaks up the terroir of the place that it is planted. It also soaks up the vineyard practices applied to it. And it also soaks up winemaking techniques. Writer Jay Miller at Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate noted last August in the publication’s annual review of Washington wine that many growers and winemakers in Washington have treated Syrah like Cabernet Sauvignon. I believe this is true, perhaps most notably in regard to the amount of new oak many winemakers use. Some positively 16
W I N E P R E S S N O RT H W E S T • S P R I N G 2 0 1 1
bludgeon the grape. Others ripen Syrah to the point where it loses both its typicity and balance. While Syrah may not be the famously thin-skinned Pinot Noir, it is still a somewhat sensitive grape and needs to be treated carefully. Interestingly, those who have excelled with the variety have tended to be wineries where Syrah is a large focus of their program, rather than just another wine in the lineup. Another problem is that there is a hole in Washington in terms of high quality, value-priced Syrahs. While many of the higher end wines are exceptional and merit their price points, it is difficult to give consumers a teaser at the low end and then march them up the price ladder. Consumers can’t be expected to spend $30 to $40 a bottle to see what all the fuss is about. Finally, remember that Syrah’s history in Washington is short — just approaching the quarter-century mark. Ten years after the first vines were planted at Red Willow Vineyard, there were barely over 300 acres planted in the whole state. By 2010, the acreage was 10 times that, making Syrah one of Washington’s most planted red grapes. This means that most of the vines are very young. Even a number of Cayuse Vineyards’ vaunted sites are less than 10 years old. It will take time for these vineyards to truly show themselves. However, the best Syrahs coming out of Washington are unique and stylistically diverse. Think about the wines of K Vintners, Charles Smith, Cayuse Vineyards, Reynvaan Family Vineyards, Betz Family Winery, Gramercy Cellars and Rasa Vineyards, to name just a few that are particularly excelling with the grape. There is a common thread in these wines, but there is also tremendous diversity that speaks both to differences in vineyard site and winemaking style. These are the things that get wine lovers excited. Importantly, these Syrahs are not just great Washington wines. They can stand alongside the best Syrahs in the world. So, yes, there is cause for concern. But there is also reason for optimism. Washington Syrah has already made tremendous inroads. People who pay a lot of attention — critics, sommeliers and hard-core wine lovers — are already keenly focused on Washington Syrah. Is Syrah going to be the quick hit and rise to stardom in Washington many thought it would be? Yes and no. And this is where much of the disappointment lies. The top wines have excelled — and sold — but many, perhaps most, have not. But don’t give up on Washington Syrah. Its time in the sun will come. However, Syrah succeeding on a large scale in the state is going to take some time and effort. So pack your bags for the long haul — and don’t forget to put a bottle of Syrah in there. Sean P. Sullivan writes the Washington Wine Report blog at wawinereport.com. W I N E P R E S S N W. C O M