JasonHaas Blog: Syrah's Wild Ride in Calif....

JasonHaas has a very nice blog post on the trial & tribulations of Syrah over the yrs:
JasonBlog: Syrah’s Wild Ride…

It’s much the same story PatrickComisky told in his book on US Rhones, 'cept it covers the last few yrs & suggests a comeback of the Syrah market as folks are more circumspect in where they are planting it now.

I have, of course, followed Syrah from the very start. The first Syrah was the JosephPhelps NapaVlly '73 (there actually was one afore that, but not labeled as Syrah I believe). Made from badly virused ChristianBros vines, it pretty much set the Syrah market back for some 10 yrs.
When I first visited GaryEberle about '78 or so, I asked if I could taste his Syrah (and Barbera) at EstrellaRiver. He gave me this wierd look as to say “What kinda nut case do I have here??” But it gave the first hints, to me, that Syrah had real potential for greatness in Calif. But only hints.
The first truly great Calif Syrahs came in 1982 when RandallGraham and BobLindquist made Syrah from EstrellaRiver grapes, AdamTolmach from Oakview grapes, and John MacCready from ElDorado grapes. The SierraVista was the one that survived the longest.
Actually the first great Calif Syrah was made by GeorgeBursick at McDowellVllyVnyds, from GibsonRanch grapes, in the late '70’s. But it was labeled as PetiteSirah because that’s what they thought the grapes actually were. It wasn’t until the '80 vintage that they identified it as Syrah and labeled it as such.
Jason credits reviews of Syrah by RobertParker in 2002 and the WineSpectator in 1989 as building the growth of the Syrah market. Actually, CharlieOlken & EarlSinger had started reviewing Syrah some 4-5 yrs earlier, but their impact on the market was marginal at best.

Anyway, Jason’s blog post on the ups & downs, and now ups again, of Syrah is a good read.

Well, this is the second year I take all the fruit from the tiny “Mettler block” in Lodi, now the Knowles Vineyard. This was smuggled in as suitcase cuttings from Australian Syrah plantings and planted late 60’s. I knew for sure they were the oldest Syrah in Lodi, but with this article I’m thinking they might be some of the oldest Syrah plantings in the US, period.

Cool stuff.

Well, Adam… the Syrah at GibsonRanch was planted in the late 1800’s and probably the oldest Syrah block in Calif. And some of the old Zin vnyds in Calif, like Carlisle or Bedrock, have Syrah inter planted in them.

Nice article. Thanks for posting and drawing our attention to it, Tom; it has more than a couple surprising facts in there!

I feel like Syrah can finally get past its reputation as a failed “California’s next big thing” and go back to doing what it’s always done best: appealing to those of us who want meat, and spice, and wildness in our wines just as much as we want fruit and tannin. That may not be a mainstream flavor profile, but at 3.2% of the state’s total acreage, that’s OK. It doesn’t need to be.

I think this pretty much nails where things stand. How you interpret the words quoted will depend on the colors of glasses you wear. Way back in the early oughts I called the owner of Winex to ask why they were not carrying very many Calif syrahs. He responded, “because we don’t see the value play compared to their French counterparts”. At the time being extremely enthused by the likes of Alban and Ojai, I thought he was dead wrong. Over time it dawned on me that he was dead-on correct. I want sauvage elements in my syrah- iron ore, beef blood, spice, the proverbial “ahhh, the Earth speaks” that Steve Edmunds quotes. It just isn’t there in Calif syrah other than brief glimpses in Cayuse, Alban, and a very few other syrahs.
Just my 2 sense and not asserted to be anything similar to reality-just my view of this world of wine. Sorry Tom.

You really got excited over that McDowell wine??
The first syrah here that got me going was Qupe.
Of course, when you are paying$9 retail for Chave, maybe you are a bit snobby.

By the way, it appears that Randall is custom crushing at Au Bon Climat alongside Dodger Bob…lunchtime should be fun!

Excellent read!

I can say that CA Syrah makes up a sizeable portion of my collection. I always wondered why I didn’t see it on wine lists as often, given its flexibility and approachability as a varietal … now I know!

In talking with Vegas somms (back when we had somms…back when we had restaurants) they pretty much agree that syrah is a really tough sell with the outrageous markups they have to deal with. Guest might bite on expensive cabs or even chards, but not syrahs or zins at $150 and above…plus most average wine drinkers have little knowledge of it.

Personally, I was “all in” back in the late 90s/early 2000s and faithfully attended Hospice du Rhone every year. Then the event changed and I sort of lost interest in the whole scene. Right now I buy from 4-5 favorite producers in Calif but that has been going down every year and I’m gravitating back to France.

Syrah is my favorite red varietal (from CA, WA, France, etc.), I don’t get how it’s not more popular.

To read wine writers now, it would seem grenache is the ticket.


A couple comments/questions:

  • the value of CA Syrah vs Northern Rhone has changed significantly over the last 5-6 years with CA now much better QPR.
  • have you tried CA cool-climate Syrah in the last 5 vintages? It has more “earth” than N.Rhone. The only exception is 2016, which was more classical in the N.Rhone. Global warming has done a number on France with Ampuis now matching historical Avignon temps.


Ah syrah…should be planted up and down the coasts of Europe. Oh look, it already is!

Yup, Markus… there’s reason to believe they could make decent Syrah over there!!


The auspicious pairing in CA tends to be Syrah grown where Pinot can also do well, vinted by a producer that knows how to make Pinot (i.e. PN is his/her day job). That’s not the only recipe for success, but I find it’s a good ‘leading indicator’.

That thinking is based primarily on my exposure to Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley Syrah and Pinot Noir. There are some damn good Syrahs that are all about blood, olive, bacon, lavender, pepper, and sage, and they usually start from cooler vineyards and producers with a lighter touch. Whole cluster fermentation and neutral oak are often involved in those cases. The interesting part is Syrah regularly is superior–more complex, deeper structure–to Pinot from the same vineyards, yet costs 20% to 30% less!

I do tend to agree that Syrah grown in areas where Bdx varieties also do well are less interesting. Those usually end up being more about blueberries, tar, and perhaps a bit of charcuterie. That’s where the value play becomes questionable, since that type of Syrah drinks more like a generic ‘big red’ with just a whisper of varietal character.

Similar thoughts apply to Grenache, though it seems to apply more to the winemaking than the vineyards–I haven’t seen as much in the way of cool climate Grenache plantings. But maybe that is a trend that is forthcoming. Generally I think many of the vineyards that make OK Pinot because they are just a bit too warm would grow killer Syrah and Grenache.

The economics of grapes definitely come into play here. I don’t think you’ll see folks ripping out PN anytime soon to plant other varieties anytime soon - but you will find plenty of plantings of syrah popping up in cooler areas.

But let’s take a step back with regards to other areas that are not as ‘cool climate’ and what can be done - too often, in a warmer climate area, these grapes are just left to hang to develop specific flavor profiles, but if picked earlier, produce syrahs that are also very interesting and not all about fruit. Things like whole cluster additions can definitely change the aromatics and textures of these wines - it’s as much about ‘intent’ as anything else.

But we also need to understand that the general wine consumer is not after ‘typicity’ as it relates to specific varieties. Most folks purchasing $20 pinots truly do not want them to have any earthy or tannic qualities - they want a rather easy drinking wine without ‘rough edges’ - and syrah can easily do that as well.

Will syrah ever be the ‘next big thing’? It does not appear so - and though I’d love to see Grenache get there, it has many of the same ‘shortcomings’ as syrah does as far as ‘usual’ bottlings. But will it continue to offer great QPRs in most cases relatively to other domestic reds? Yep, I do believe so.

There certainly are a number of producers who have had critical success and are raising their prices on their bottlings outside the ‘comfort zone’ for many, but here’s the funny thing - these prices are still nothing compared to so many new bottlings made with Bordeaux varieties coming out of Napa or Sonoma. To me, that remains a really interesting dichotomy . . .


For those seeking cool climate Syrah, Cyrus Limón’s “Sólo Syrah” blog began with a focus on California’s coastal examples. As the years passed, he expanded his samplings to include non-American bottlings.

Sólo Syrah blog:

Random Question: I always read that the co-fermention of Syrah and white varieties (Viognier, Grenache Blanc, etc) resulted in deeper tinted wines. However, the following academic paper seems to conclude otherwise:

“Chemical Effects of Cofermentation and Postfermentation Blending of Syrah with Selected Rhône White Varieties”

Paul Mawdsley and Federico Casassa

Interesting article. I ve always wondered if co fermentation reduced reduction issues, a common phenomenon with Syrah.

Re pricing: let s face it. Northern Rhône’s have gotten a lot more expensive and that makes west coast Syrah more appealing price wise

The first time I drove from Ampuis to Beaune I realized it was warmer in that part of the Rhône but not that much hotter. Too many planted Syrah where Zin does well. Syrah does well in Carneros and the Salinas valley

SalinasVlly?? Absolutely. But not enough of it planted there, Mel.
I did a visit w/ DougMeador one time in the '80’s & we were walking his Ventana vnyd. Colder than hell and wind blowing like a banshee. We got to this scraggly row of vines and Doug proudly announced “Syrah”.
I gave him this cockeyed look. “Are you crazy??”. He gave me this knowing wink… “We’ll see”!! They was the first planting of cold-climate Syrah in Calif. When it came out, he was right. It had that black pepper, black olive tapenade character we’ve learned to appreciate. As in the Carneros.

One factoid is that “Bordeaux Mix” fungicidal spray used in France has ample Copper sulfate


Copper remediates reduction (foul reduced sulfur notes: tar, rubber, cabbage, etc), and to the extent that French Syrah has likely seen heavy copper even before fermentation, they have a leg up.

Is the presence of coffee/grapefruit notes I used to find in Santa Lucia Highlands Syrah ~15 years ago still common?

Have any other cool climate California Syrah-growing regions exhibited this unusual combination of flavors?