California & Walla Walla Syrah – a Status Report, 2014

This talk was delivered at the opening program for the Celebrate Walla Walla wine event, devoted to syrah, on June 20, 2014. Tiny portions of this speech appeared previously, in considerably different forms, notably on zesterdaily.com, where more musings on the topic of syrah can be found.

I want to thank the Alliance for having me up here for the weekend, to join with the Celebrate Walla Walla program – it is such a great pleasure to come up here, to see new faces and old, and to enjoy its shifting varietal focus. Every year I’m especially grateful for two things: that we’re here at or around the Solstice, when the sun performs its extra-celestial magic, and second, that these days coincide with the cherry harvest and I can stuff myself silly.

Last year I spoke here about the similarities and differences between Napa Valley and Walla Walla Valley cabernet sauvignon. I’m delighted that today’s topic is syrah, a variety and a category that’s near and dear to my heart. For the past 5 years or so I’ve been writing a book on the American Rhône wine movement, for which syrah is rightfully the flagbearer variety, with more meaningful acreage, in California and Washington soils, than all of the other Rhône varieties combined. However as an ambassador, domestic syrah has struggled mightily in the last decade. In fact, to say the category is in decline is to under-value the notion of decline. How bad is it?

How bad is it? It’s so bad that at sales appointments, retail buyers tell wine-slingers ‘don’t even bother taking any syrah out of the bag.’

How bad? It’s so bad that in Paso Robles, bottles of syrah are secretly delivered to back doors late at night in certain neighborhoods; fruitcakes and giant zucchini are spared. (Okay, I made that one up.)

How bad? It’s so bad that when Eric Asimov wrote about the category in 2012 in the New York Times he started his article with a joke: what’s the difference, he wrote, between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? Answer? You can get rid of the pneumonia.

Hilarious, right? And, that’s not the even the punchline. The real punchline is that the Rhône Rangers decided it would be a good idea to, em, “own” this message by teaming up with a charity devoted to eradicating pneumonia, donating money on case sales of American syrah. The campaign was called “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah,” and they raised, I don’t know, dozens of dollars! and ensured that this noble variety would forever be associated with a grave respiratory disease.

Asimov had been considerably more bullish on syrah in years past, and on Washington syrah in particular. In 2000, he proclaimed that “Washington was one of its hotbeds;” in 2001, he called it “an up-and-coming star.” In Washington, he predicted, syrah wouldn’t have to take a backseat to any other grape variety. “Syrah in California might be overshadowed by chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and other big boys,” he wrote, “but it has a chance to make a name for itself in Washington.”

And why wouldn’t it? At its best, syrah is one of the most electrifying wines made in the U.S. In fact I’d go further: I would posit that outside of perhaps pinot noir, syrah is the most moving of all red varieties grown in the U.S., the most heart-stirring, head-turning, mind-expanding, epiphany-inducing red wine in the American repertoire.

Why? Because its best attribute, its defining attribute, has always been wildness. Not beauty, though it can be beautiful, and not grace, though it can be graceful, not even power, though it certainly can be powerful. No, the reason we love syrah is the reason we love thunderstorms and thrillers, gooseflesh and gambling, bullfights, food fights, mud runs, grunge rock, sour beer and stinky cheese. Critics use the word ‘feral’ when describing its quote unquote ‘charms;’ let me remind you that that is a word used to describe angry raccoons, cave-dwellers, miscreant house pets. Imagine anyone saying such a thing about chardonnay. It simply wouldn’t happen.

That wildness takes an astonishing array of forms: blue flowers, violets, rosepetals, garrigue herbs, thyme, lavender, rosemary, fennel fronds, pine fronds, black olive, green olive, eucalypt, bay laurel, sorrel, parsley, a medley of peppercorns, black, green, pink, Szechuan and Longan; woodsmoke, leaf-smoke, peat and peatsmoke, mocha, cocoa, tobacco, tar, rust, tanbark, soil, brick, mushroom; game, smoked meat, roast meat, bacon fat, dried beef, dried sausage, blood, bone and fur, horsehide, pigskin, organ meats, wet hair, rubber, wet rubber, burnt rubber, latex, leather, oil, ink and grease – the latter end of that list reads like the inventory in a sadist’s pantry.

On their own, of course, some of these aromas and flavors would be a little off-putting, but in a well-made syrah, the fruit counterbalances the more savory elements, it ameliorates what might otherwise come off as merely kinky or eccentric. A good Syrah has a sauvage quality that quickens the pulse of even the most genteel wine drinker. With its whiff of funk and incipient naughtiness, syrah is like that brilliant TV ad for the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas: just the right amount of wrong.

Which is why, when syrah lacks wildness, it is such a colossal disappointment. Without its wild hair it becomes ordinary, or in the words of one winemaker, “amenable, but dull.” Harsh words for any American red wine but for syrah, it’s like an unpardonable sin. Why, not long ago words like these were used to condemn – gasp! – merlot!

Now, how did this happen? How did syrah lose its wild hair?

To answer that we have to go back to the early nineties, when syrah’s identity was being forged in consumer consciousness, when it still felt new, radical, unconventional, the alternative to mainstream wine choices. In California at least that alt-sensibility led to a spike in popularity, which led to egregious overplanting, especially after the second great phylloxera infestation. In California, syrah acreage grew from 200 acres in 1990, to 13,000 acres in 2000.

By this time growers prized its versatility, and knew of its reputation for making a decent wine almost anywhere, and so not a lot of care went into where it was planted. Turns out making a “decent wine” wasn’t really a very lofty goal, and before long mediocre syrah bottlings began to flood the market, resulting in what might be called a herd of mavericks. Of course the word ‘herd’ and the word ‘maverick’ don’t belong in the same sentence, since you really can’t be both at the same time.

But there’s a more pressing reason for the onset of this malaise. For better or worse, syrah comes of age in the Age of Parker, and Robert A. Parker, Jr. and his minions, as we all know, consistently privilege a bigger wine, rewarding it with high praise and high scores, usually resulting in high sales.

The problem is that in the case of syrah, ‘bigger’ almost always means less distinctive. Long hang time results in burning off the very phenolic elements that lend syrah its wildness, leaving only wantonness, tumescence, or worse, tedium. Here was a red grape capable of producing some of the world’s most unforgettable wines, and yet it was also capable of an almost astonishing degree of insipidity, bottlings so generic they almost didn’t register as wine at all, but as a thick purple liquid spiked with alcohol and sugar.

Syrah’s identity is forged at precisely the period in time when all domestic wines are swayed by Parker’s predilections. Traditional notions of wine quality get distorted under Parker’s reign, and syrah’s very identity gets lost in an excess of excess. Ultimately, syrah became a wine of no place. This is critical, I feel. The variety never really earned a regional identity, of the sort that cabernet enjoys in the Napa Valley, or that pinot noir enjoys in the Russian River or the Willamette Valley.

Think about it. In California, where the Rhône Movement gets its start, syrah spends almost the first 20 years of its existence more or less rudderless. Joseph Phelps, the very first syrah producer in the modern era, plants syrah in St. Helena, in the northern Napa Valley, then Stags Leap in the mid-Napa Valley, then Carneros, in the extreme south of the Valley, marching ever southward as the decades pass as they try desperately to capture the wildness that inspired them to go down this road in the first place. By and large, it eludes them. They end up making amenable wines in Monterey County, and with the 2009 vintage they’re out of the game altogether.

Syrah’s huge first planting, Estrella River, on the East side of the 101 Freeway in Paso Robles, proves to be much too warm for the variety, and yet the early stars of the category – first Gary Eberle, then Steve Edmunds, Bob Lindquist, Randall Grahm, Adam Tolmach – bang their heads against fruit purchased there for more than a decade. It’s not until Bob Lindquist plants a small parcel at Bien Nacido in California’s Central Coast that we find a site that’s actually expressive of place for the variety, but it’s a tiny planting. The next significant development is in Ballard Canyon, in California’s Santa Barbara County, but that too takes years to develop. Others follow, notably John Alban in the Edna Valley, and still more in Paso Robles, including Tablas Creek, but the ‘amenable’ sites vastly outnumber the good ones.

The weird thing is that in those early decades, no one really cares. No one cares where Steve Edmunds’ great early wines are sourced. No one cares what goes into Qupe’s Central Coast cuvee. No one cares that Sean Thackrey’s Pleiades, and Bonny Doon’s flagship wine Cigare Volante, both have California appellations, the fruit coming from everywhere and nowhere. It didn’t matter. What mattered was Randall Grahm in a cowboy suit wielding a six-shooter capgun. What mattered was to be a maverick, a “Rhônegade.”

I must stress all of the winemakers I’ve mentioned care deeply about terroir, and about making wines expressive of place. I also don’t mean to imply that terroir didn’t exist simply because consumers were ignoring it. But the majority of producers in this era were making wine, and selling wine, in a market that seemed indifferent to such distinctions. Consumers only cared about how close those wines came to some subjective index of perfection. All that mattered was the mighty score.

I speak of all of this to provide context for just how radical, how out of left field, was Christophe Baron’s decision to plant syrah in the Rocks of Milton Freewater in 1996. I submit that this radical decision was the first step on the road to addressing syrah’s identity crisis.

You all know this story. Christophe Baron, a Frenchman, is born into a winemaking family in Champagne. He learns winemaking in Beaune, but is connected to the northern Rhône mainly because he likes to party in Vienne and Ampuis on the weekends.

Baron finds himself on the Oregon end of the Walla Walla Valley in 1996, one early morning and sees a pile of rocks steaming off the spring frost in the sun. What he’s looking at is an ancient riverbed, where the Walla Walla River once flowed westward toward the Columbia and then receded, leaving huge fans of river cobble in a large but constrained area. He invokes the famous cobblestrewn vineyards of Chateauneuf du Pape, grabs a few rocks and exclaims to a friend, ‘I’m going to plant syrah here.’

The friend says, “You’re going to break a lot of equipment.”

Baron is undaunted. For the next three years area growers watch this crazy Frenchman plant grapevines in the most impoverished soils in this fecund valley. Baron is brash, loud, arrogant, with a penchant for partying and for attention getting: his behavior and his mad project in the rocks certainly contributes to a reputation of him being a little ‘fou,’ a little unhinged – a wild man. If the category was looking for a breakout star in Walla Walla, one with legitimate maverick cred, it could not have found a better leading man.

The Cayuse wines, right out of the gate, are stunningly unique, some of the wildest syrahs ever made from American fruit and quite possibly the wildest American wines ever made to that point. Whether or not you liked them, you could hardly ignore them.

Christophe’s story dramatizes, in effect, syrah’s first terroir triumph – a bona fide, wildly expressive, site specific boon to the category, one that happens to circle back to all of the ‘maverick,’ ‘radical’ tropes that gave the category its early momentum – all you have to do is swap out your Rangers for Rock Stars. It’s a marketer’s dream.

Again, I don’t want to suggest that Walla Walla wines or those in the rest of Washington State lacked personality, or that “place” never existed prior to Cayuse. And we’ve seen a number of new terroirs that are arguably as great or greater than that of the rocks – and many believe that the North Fork region may exceed them all. But the discovery of the Rocks establishes Walla Walla as not only one of the most important sites for syrah in the country, it is the precise moment when Americans start to give a shit about syrah terroir.

In the years that follow the Valley gets its own rockstar impresario in the form of Charles Smith, about whom, the less said the better. No one in the region can touch Smith’s genius as a marketer – he’s one of the most naturally gifted in that category the state has ever seen. In this, he is like Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, only a more vulgar version, with all of the noise and none of the wit, swapping out the cowboy memes for hot rods and Harleys. Smith’s career benefits greatly from an early friendship with Baron, but it is interesting to note that his breakout wines, Royal City and Old Bones, are deliberately crafted to defy the terroir-driven syrahs that caught critics’ attention in the first place – oh, and they don’t come from Walla Walla.

Cayuse’s success leads to a kind of gold rush in the Rocks, and an imminent AVA designation. But it’s not the only place where syrah thrives. The valley’s original plantings, Pepper Bridge and Morrison Lane, sources for Glen Fiona, remain important, as does what is perhaps my favorite of all the Walla Walla syrah sites, Les Collines, which has, to my palate, at least as much terroir character as anything in the Rocks – subtler, more elegant, no less wild. Several other syrah stylists make a name for themselves in and out of the Rocks, including Buty, Reininger, Dunham, Reynvaan, Three Rivers, Dusted Valley, Amavi, Abeja, Waters, Va Piano, aMaurice, Maison Bleue, Rôtie, and L’Ecole No 41. There is, in short, a quorum with which to build this terroir driven regional identity.

By the way, a special shout out to Rusty Figgins, whose Glen Fiona syrahs were the first from the Valley. Figgins had tremendous success with his early vintages, crafting beautifully savory, sensuous wines, richer and more sumptuous than most Washington efforts to this point, and far more approachable. They took the West Coast by storm in their inaugural bottlings, drawing the attention of the nation’s sommeliers – he just wasn’t able sustain that initial quality. But he got the ball rolling.

Those early Glen Fiona wines were admired by a young Master Sommelier in San Francisco named Greg Harrington. A decade later he and his wife Pam would find themselves at a rooftop picnic in Brooklyn, sponsored by the Washington Wine Commission. Harrington had had his share of wine epiphanies over the years, but this was the first time he looked into the glass and re-imagined his future. They toured the region later that year, tasting through the valley’s wines, and by 2006, they had moved out here with intention to make some.

It’s worth noting that Harrington chooses Walla Walla because in these wines he detects, as he puts it, a European elegance he could not often locate in California bottlings. Wines from the Rocks are many things, but no one would seriously call them ‘elegant.’ So it’s interesting that Walla Walla accommodates this dichotomy with ease. It’s a testament to syrah’s diversity.

And it’s not unlike another dichotomy that exists in California, this one in Paso Robles. Paso is the place, of course, where the Perrin Family of Chateauneuf du Pape set down roots because the site was reminiscent of their home in southern France. Oddly enough, just a few years later an Australian team from Southcorp, owners of Penfolds, also plant syrah in Paso Robles, on a site called Camatta Hills. They plant there because the site reminded them of Kalimna one of the greatest shiraz sites in the Barossa Valley.

Thus two winemaking teams from opposite sides of the earth, seeking to replicate a set of terroir parameters found in their home regions, locate those very conditions in the same California appellation, not twenty miles from each other. \That speaks to syrah’s versatility, of course, but it might suggest, in the end, that for this variety, terroir expression lies firmly in the eye of the beholder. That may also explain why Harrington, as of 2010, is purchasing fruit from Milton Freewater.

You could say that there are two stylistic poles in the Valley at present, one represented by Gramercy Cellars, Amavi, and other lean-and-mean stylists, and one represented by the Rock Stars. Matt Reynvaan, one of the most talked about new talents here in the valley, is one of those whose vineyards straddle the two styles. The Reynvaans have one vineyard in the rocks, called In the Rocks Vineyard – known in some circles as Redundancy Vineyard – and another high elevation site called Foothills in the Sun, which, already in its youth, is showing similar character to its neighbor, Les Collines. It’s my sense that he won’t be alone in exploring multiple syrah terroirs, and in this he’s not unlike one of our California guests here, Pax Mahle, who for years, with the Pax wines, did exactly that in Sonoma County.

Syrah’s history in this country, and in this Valley, is still incredibly young. But I do believe that as the variety reasserts itself, as it recalibrates in the wake of Parker’s declining influence, I believe that those who accede to syrah’s wildness will be the most successful. I think most producers now realize that syrah can no longer afford to be “amenable, but dull.” I think that someone should put up a mural in Walla Walla that echoes the famous one in Portland. It should say: “Keep Syrah Weird.” Weirdness, I submit, arises from a fidelity to place, and where a sense of place is established, character will follow.

What I hope will follow also is a conviction, that Walla Walla’s wine identity is incomplete without syrah. This may be the one place in Washington that comes closest to fulfilling Eric Asimov’s hopeful assertion. When syrah emerges from its doldrums – and it certainly will – it is more than capable of carrying the flag for the region. It may not supplant the Bordelais varieties here, but I believe it is poised to stand alongside them.

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2 Responses to California & Walla Walla Syrah – a Status Report, 2014

  1. Wow, great piece of writing. As a big fan of the “lean and mean” Walla Walla winegrowers, as well as Pax’s Wind Gap Syrahs, I think you hit the nail on the head. Let’s keep the Wild in Syrah!

  2. Love the article! (as usual). My take on Syrah comes from a sales perspective (recovering sales agent) and as an educator; the variety of personalities (cool climate vs uber-ripe) confused potential clients and never allowed Syrah to gain the trust of the customer. I think Zinfandel suffers the same fate. However, Zinfandel didn’t become every wineries solution for a line extension like Syrah did…all in a short span of time. Make a Pinot Noir? How about adding a Syrah?… Make a Cabernet? How about making a Syrah?… too many rushed into this market without a customer in hand to sell it to. The over saturation of Syrah without a clear definition of the varietal nor a clear customer base is continuing to frustrate those that make it and thus try to sell it. I do think it has touched rock bottom (pun intended) and there will be a bounce… but it will be from smaller producers that connect and wisely grow with their customers in a direct sales model… at least until the message is clear. (Good bets on the Bounce: Helen Keplinger, Pax, Donelon, Arnot Roberts, Larner (talk about a range of ideas and styles) and various Syrah oriented blends appear to be growing in popularity – which is kind of how the grape got started in the first place).

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