Much as I'd like to, only occasionally do I get excited about syrah. Too often, my indiffernce reflects the wine's indifference. It's generally monochromatic, listless, dull. At too many dinners it brings too little to the table to look forward to a second glass. Oh, I've had some terrific examples over the years, but they've been few and far between. That alone could explain its lackluster acceptance by American wine consumers, but in today's New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov looks more deeply into syrah's lukewarm performance on the American wine scene.
By drawing on the perspective of both longtime Rhone Valley specialists and winemakers whose style he especially likes, he concludes that California vintners largely have missed the boat on syrah by focusing on concentration, jamminess, alcohol, weight and power in the wines when they should have been emulating the more refined, complex and food-friendly interpretations of the varietal common to the northern reaches of the Rhone Valley. In short, syrah in California has been reduced to just one more bulky cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or merlot, without individuality and charm.
I buy that reasoning, though I have a few quibbles with his piece. He seems to accept the suggestion that commendable syrah can be grown only in cooler climates, even though he admires what Steve Edmunds has accomplished with the syrah he gets from relatively warm El Dorado County; beyond that, Asimov seems totally unaware of other finely crafted warm-climate syrahs, such as those from foothill producers like Lavender Ridge, Sierra Vista, Miller Vineyards, Cedarville, Holly's Hill and Terre Rouge. And he knocks Australian shiraz, as syrah is known Down Under, as if its standing were due to its breadth and force alone, rather than the marvelous complexity and length it so often provides. And while it's a small quibble, I would like to have seen him illustrate syrah as it should be done by pointing to brands other than those almost impossible to find, like Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, Failla and Copain. Nevertheless, they are among the handful of California producers who haven't given up on syrah, and by their flexibility and artfulness are showing how the grape should be handled, providing a model for others to follow.