Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I was checking in with Wine Spectator, as I do nearly every day. It’s part of my job to stay on top of what all the wine mags are discussing/promoting/championing these days. In James Laube’s latest online article, “20 Great California Syrahs,” he unwittingly points to an ongoing consumer dilemma with Syrah and its tenuous place within the wine market today.

Thanks to the Australian wine boon earlier in the last decade, Shiraz (arguably Syrah’s brawnier alter ego) is perceived as being primarily an under $15 red wine by consumers and retailers alike. Despite the fact that Syrah almost always has been a much less affordable counterpart ($15-$30 is an okay price point, but not as attractive to the average consumer as say, ten bucks or less), the general perception is that Shiraz and Syrah should be priced well under $15.

Is that fair? Not particularly. Not when you incorporate the reds of the Northern Rhone, such as Hermitage, Cornas and the like from producers such as A. Clape, E. Guigal, Jean Louis Chave and Jean-Luc Colombo. Yet in Mr. Laube’s article, he reviews 20 Syrahs from the Santa Barbara, all except one priced $25 to $40 a bottle (the exception being a $125 from Jonata), and all of these with less than 900 cases produced.

The obvious point being made here is that these wines are not like the Australian Shiraz, but more like the Northern Rhone version of Syrah (the progenitor of the grape variety), yet an even bigger, more resounding yet less overt point being made is the sad fact that Syrah, in its most glorious form, is thought of, at least by Mr. Laube and the folks at Wine Spectator, that Syrah is just as much an elitist grape variety as Cabernet Sauvignon.

True enough, I make a bold leap with such an assessment, yet, the 20 wines he reviews in this article are wines that the overwhelming majority of wine consumers will NEVER see. Zaca Mesa, Jaffurs and Brander may be the most recognized in the list, yet these particular wines may not see distribution outside of their own state of origin.

Wine Spectator made a colossal leap toward the mainstream with their recent Top 100 list, incorporating a larger cross-section of real values (wines under $20) that have larger production, and greater market saturation. Yet the reviewers continue their self-indulgent ways by spending time writing about wines we as consumers will most certainly never experience.

Furthermore, this exercise in wine elitism seems to undermine the very goal producers of Syrah are trying to accomplish – reaching a bigger audience and undoing the cheap image that the Australian wine glut has perpetuated over the past decade. At present, the only savior I really see for the grape is Washington State – the only area with the sense to produce Syrah comparable to the Northern Rhone, except with a price tag more palatable to the masses. Most of the California Syrah producers fail to understand that you cannot, in the consumer’s eyes, jump from a $10 Australian Shiraz to a $40 Santa Barbara (or Napa or Paso) Syrah in the blink of an eye. And Mr. Laube (though it’s nice to see he can look beyond Napa Valley once in a while), needs to not aim for the bleachers every time. A base hit works just as well at winning the game as a home run.


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tercero wines said...

As a lover of the variety, and one of the brands noted in Laube's latest piece, I'll going to have to offer a different opinion here . . .

I do not see the article, or Spectator's stance, as 'elitism' as it relates to this grape at all. For the price, there is no better variety out there that delivers the consistent quality as syrah does, especially from Santa Barbara County.

Yes, these wines are more expensive than many of our Australian brethren, but take this into account:

most aussie shirazes are machine picked, meaning they do not have the labor costs we do

australain wine producers are subsidized by their government, allowing them to offer wines very inexpensively

Also note that the WS just released another small article, their Insider, where one of the wines, a Zaca Mesa syrah with a production well over 10K cases and a price point of $22, just received a 93 rating . . .

I would love to continue to discuss this for I'm curious as to what you feel syrah producers should do these days to 'change the tide' in the marketplace?!?!?


k2 said...

Tercero Wines -

What's said in Laube's article is all good, especially for all the wines reviewed. And it is nice to see Mr. Laube pay more attention to a region in California other than Napa - which he seems to be doing more of the past few years. However, as a retailer, my viewpoint is not on what is said there, but what isn't. And the level of frustration cannot be understood on your end or his, when the customers that ARE interested in Syrah see an article like this and realize that they almost have no avenue in which to purchase or even try these wines unless they hop on a plane and visit the winery. In these bleak economic times, that is virtually impossible. And I can guarantee you that none of the wines listed in Mr. Laube's review are available in our area, and the vast majority of the 20 wines aren't available within a 250 mile radius, at least. So yes, it is a form of elitism when the average consumer will never experience any of these wines.

As far as Syrah as a whole, there are very few "transitionally-priced" wines of any decent merit out there in the market - ones that are in the $10-$20 range that are widely available, at least that I have come across, from California. While most hail from Australia in that price realm, the pricing has gone up, and in their style, consumers have grown bored, at least in our region. It has been nice to see a return to French syrahs, and the discovery of Washington state Syrahs being made by our customers, yet any California Syrahs priced over $15 are guaranteed dust-collectors. Is that the winemakers' fault? No. But Syrahs priced above and beyond the $25 tier are no perceived value in the average consumers' eyes. That isn't a personal preference, nor is it an attack of any sort - it is merely a lengthy observation made by a person actively involved on the retail and restaurant side of things for the past 18 years.

tercero wines said...

Great reply - and I certainly appreciate the insight.

With regards to reviews, I think it only fair that all publications review s variety of wines - not just those that are produced in the thousands of cases. Yes, it may be difficult to get a hold of some of these - though I would LOVE to get my wines into your store!!!!!

There will always need to be a balance struck between smaller and larger volume wines by all reviewers - and I think that all of the top 100 lists currently out seem to be doing a better job of that for sure.

How will consumers find out about newer brands, and smaller bottlings, without these reviews assisting in the process? It will be difficult.

As far as 'transitional' wines go, there are a couple you should search out for your customers. RH Philips has been producing great under the radar syrahs for over a decade at very reasonable prices. Search out entry level wines from Bridlewood, Qupe, Cambria, Byron . . . all of these will be around the price point you mention.

That said, how many 'transitional' pinot bottlings are there? Or cab bottlings? Just curious . . .

Thanks for keeping up the syrah 'fight' - we need as many soldiers as we can get!


hou said...

Wine Spectator made a colossal leap toward the mainstream with their recent Top 100 list, incorporating a larger cross-section of real values (wines under $20) that have larger production, and greater market saturation. Yet the reviewers continue their self-indulgent ways by spending time writing about wines we as consumers will most certainly never experience.
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