Wednesday, December 9, 2009
SYRAH'S BIGGEST PROBLEM
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.