If you’re a member of the wine industry, or a wine consumer who is aware of the latest trends, I bet you’ve heard this: “Syrah is such a cool grape, but it’s impossible to sell!” My favorite variation of this sentiment is from former Syrah grower & producer Richard Phoenix – “What’s the difference between Syrah and syphilis? You can get rid of syphilis.”
This is a story about California Syrah and why wineries grow/buy/make/sell it even though the cards are seemingly stacked against them. Self-avowed wine geeks (like me), wine merchants, sommeliers and winemakers love its intoxicating aromas, bright acidity, bridled fruit & alcohol and savory complexity. California’s Mediterranean climate welcomes Syrah, and our micro-climates encourages unique expression. In the hands of talented growers and winemakers, all arrows point to delicious, intriguing wine that costs much less than Cab or Pinot. Slam dunk, huh?
Not quite, because who’s guarding the rim? The consumer, the 7-foot shot blocker. As a whole, we wine consumers love our Chards, Cabs and Pinots. In the case of Syrah, generally we’re just not into it. Wineries work extremely hard to sell their wine regardless of grape. Look at Syrah sales and the challenge to sell is that much greater. Why go through the trouble?
I sat down with the owners of two very small, high-quality Syrah-centric wineries to understand how they’ve succeeded in this challenging little pocket of the wine business. Their histories and grape sourcing are like night and day, but there’s a similarity to how they have succeeded. Here’s a taste of each.
LAGIER MEREDITH VINEYARD
Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith planted one of Napa Valley’s first site-specific Syrah vineyards around their home in the Mt Veeder AVA. The year: 1994 – when the Napa Valley conversation revolved around Robert Parker scores and “cult Cabs.” Cabernet, however, didn’t enter their minds when they decided to plant. 1300 feet elevation and cool afternoon breezes from the San Francisco Bay helped them decide upon Syrah. “Cabernet would do well here in most years, but it’s a cool site by Napa standards, and Cab would struggle to ripen in cooler vintages” according to Steve. His years of winemaking for Robert Mondavi, which included frequent visits to Santa Barbara and their Syrah success made the Syrah-call as much intuitive as scientific.
That’s with all due respect to science, as Carole Meredith is one of California’s great viticulture scientists of the twentieth century. Her most noteworthy work: tracing the origin of wine grapes by their DNA. She traced the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and you guessed it: Syrah. Heady stuff, but the story she shares about planting Syrah is 100% human. Jean Louis Chave of the great Hermitage, Rhone Valley (Syrah) winery J.L. Chave sat in on Carole’s classes at U.C. Davis in 1990. “Jean Louis came to our home one day. We asked him what he thought about planting Syrah here. He looked around and said, ‘it will do well because Syrah likes a view.” I suspect that settled the matter.
Home winemaking became commercial with the 1998 vintage. Sterling reviews from online wine forums and word-of-mouth support from friends and colleagues helped sell all 75 cases they made. After the ’98, slow growth and a do-it-all work mentality helped Steve and Carole avoid financial pitfalls experienced by others, especially during the recession of 2008. Steve: “We don’t have debt, we’re always 100% Estate fruit, and we have a very unique vineyard.” Timing worked well for them, too. “We’re fortunate we started when we did,” says Carole. “We gained a loyal customer following at the beginning, and we still sell most of our wine direct to consumer. We cater to our regular customers and we keep them.” On that point, Lagier Meredith has never raised their prices. It was high at $48 fifteen years ago. Now $48 for a stellar Napa Valley red wine is a bargain. There’s no rest when it comes to sales, though. With roughly 700 cases of wine to sell from the 2016 vintage (Syrah, Mondeuse, Tribidrag aka Zinfandel and Rosé), Carole stays active with social media and consumer outreach. “We have to evolve with the changing consumer profile.”
The 2016 Lagier Meredith Syrah is the latest in a long line of beauties. It tastes of ripe blueberries, grated ginger, fine black pepper and lavender. Like most vintages, this wine will be at its best at ten years of age.
Ben Brenner and Matt Nagy, co-owners and do-it-all operators of Benevolent Neglect, follow a common model of shoestring-budget start-ups. They have day jobs at well-established Napa wineries (Matt’s in winemaking, Ben in sales) and tend to their wines and the business in the hours and days off. Like Lagier Meredith, they started small. In 2013 they bought one ton of Syrah grapes from “Las Madres Vineyard” Carneros, a perfectly cool, breezy microclimate for making bright, intense, expressive Syrah. Total out-of-pocket when they released those 60 cases: $2500. An affordable buy-in…Napa Cabernet rarely offers this opportunity.
Ben and Matt’s attraction to Syrah is like many devotees of the grape. The smoky spice, floral, meaty, “savage” character of Syrah is a little wild, untamed, intriguing and can be absolutely delicious. I compare the experience to a fresh raw oyster – for most it’s an acquired taste followed by endless love.
Matt, who has assisted in making his fair share of luscious Napa Valley Cabernet, loves how Syrah and other Cal-Rhone grapes set themselves apart stylistically. “We want to make, drink and sell wines that we find interesting while embracing the fruitiness California wines are known for.”
Ben and Matt had no concerns about selling Syrah when they launched. Ben: “I was a restaurant wine director and Sommelier before I moved to Napa. Syrah, especially French Syrahs, was an important part of my wine program. It was a hand-sell, but not a tough sell. Customers loved them. I never thought of selling Syrah as a challenge.” The positive attitude and slow growth works. Along with Syrah they now make Mourvedre, Grenache, Counoise, GSM Red Blend, Rhone-style Rosé plus a Riesling. Total production is under 500 cases. They struggle to limit the number of wines they make, but they’re careful to keep total cases at a manageable number and their prices exceedingly fair (the reds range in price from $24 to $45). So far, so good…their 2016 reds will sell out before they release their ‘17s.
I was jazzed by the optimism in my two interviews and have a revitalized belief that Syrah has a present and a future in Northern California. Of course there are other paths to success, and while the Syrah path is bumpy, it is open. That’s good news for Syrah-geeks like me. While it’s no secret sauce, the similarities of the Lagier Meredith and Benevolent Neglect stories are telling. Make what you love, be dedicated to the grape and house-style, start small, go slow, and produce what you know can sell. Bathing in it is good. Drowning not so much. Even if you love it.
Here are other wineries that are doing well with Syrah for many of the same reasons:
HALCON Syrah “Alturas” Yorkville Highlands 2016 (DDWA Great Value)
LAMPYRIDAE Grenache Mt Veeder, Napa Valley 2017 (DDWA Good Value)
GREEN & RED Syrah “Tip Top Vineyards” Napa Valley 2015 (DDWA Awesome Value)
WILSON FOREIGNER Valdiguie “Rancho Chimiles” Napa Valley 2017 (DDWA Good Value)
NEYERS Carignane “Evangelho Vineyard” Contra Costa County 2016 (DDWA Great Value)