Notes from the Cellar: Harvest 2010 Begins! (AKA Fruit and Football; It Must be Fall)
Five great events for food & wine lovers

A great idea by the Rhone Rangers: Pneumonia's Last Syrah

Most of you are probably aware that Syrah faces a challenging marketplace. Even articles complimentary about Syrahs (as nearly all of them are) feel compelled to begin with a story about how hard they are to sell. A recent article by Eric Asimov in the New York Times began "There’s a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia."

How did we get here?  The theories are many, but my own opinion is that there was such a rapid increase in planting that it was inevitable that demand would lag compared to supply.  In the 1990's, California Syrah acreage saw an enormous leap, based on guesses that Syrah was going to be the next big thing.  In 1992, there were 867 acres of Syrah planted in California, 0.7% of the total red grape acreage.  By 2000, that had increased to 12,699 acres, of which nearly half we non-bearing because they'd been planted in the last three years.  In 2000, Syrah accounted for 4.6% of red grape acreage, an absolute increase of over 1400% and a percentage increase of 657%.  Much of this planting was speculative, and much of it in areas such as the hot San Joaquin valley that in retrospect seem like long shots ever to have produced great wine from cool-loving Syrah.  With all that Syrah coming onto the market, more or less at the same time in the early 2000's, how can anyone be surprised that the public (who, after all, hadn't been clamoring for Syrah in the first place) wasn't ready?  Syrah, in its native home in the Rhone, makes comparatively little wine.  Cote-Rotie and Hermitage, where Syrah reaches its peak, are both small appellations, and the entire northern Rhone is much smaller, and produces much less wine, than Burgundy or Bordeaux.  The public's embrace of this great grape was certainly complicated by confusion surrounding competing styles (Hot climate and jammy?  Cool climate and spicy?) and name confusion (Syrah?  Shiraz?) but I think that given the incredible speculative planting it would have been an almost impossible marketing challenge even without these confounding factors.

So, what to do?  I used to think that as a Rhone producer like Tablas Creek, or as a marketing organization like the Rhone Rangers (on whose board I've served for the past six years) the best thing to do was to ignore the sales issues and focus on the grape's positive characteristics in the hopes that demand would naturally grow to meet supply.  But I think that time has passed.  When mainstream articles about Syrah (which is, after all, as widely planted in California as all other Rhone varietals combined) lead with anecdotes about how hard they are to sell, it's time for more deliberate action.  And Asimov's article started a chain of events that we Rhone Rangers hope may help turn around Syrah's fortunes.

Asimov’s article spurred a blog on Huffington Post by Dr. Orin Levine, Executive Director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Dr Levine, who is one of the world's leading experts on pneumonia and also a wine lover, posted a challenge to Syrah producers and retailers to both promote their Syrah and help eradicate pneumonia by donating $10 of each case of Syrah sold to consumers in November 2010 to pneumonia vaccine dissemination. Why $10? That’s the cost to produce and administer one dose of vaccine. Why pneumonia? It’s the leading cause of death in children worldwide, and is totally preventable.  Why November?  November 12th is World Pneumonia Day.

About a month ago, the Rhone Rangers marketing committee (on which I do not serve, although I have been an enthusiastic supporter) worked out Pneumonia's Last Syrah: a joint program between Rhone Rangers, IVAC and the GAVI Alliance, a unique public/private partnership that since its launch in 2000 has funded the immunization of more than 250 million children.  As a part of Pneumonia's Last Syrah, participating wineries will contribute to GAVI $10.00 for each case of Syrah sold to consumers in November.  GAVI will be using its immense public relations muscle to publicize this agreement and promote the wineries who participate, and the Rhone Rangers will be promoting the agreement actively within the wine world.

PLS Tablas Creek will be participating in the Pneumonia’s Last Syrah kickoff: a Syrah reception and photography exhibit -- on the faces of pneumonia around the world -- that will be held Monday evening at the New York Times building.  The kickoff will feature brief talks by experts on Syrah and on pneumonia, including Eric Asimov, Dr. Orin Levine, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden (the executive director of the CDC) and, representing Rhone Rangers, my dad.  Twelve Rhone Rangers wineries, including such icons in the American Syrah movement as Bonny Doon, Qupe, Terre Rouge and Zaca Mesa, will be pouring Syrahs.  We're expecting around 300 people at the event, and have received RSVP's from journalists representing the Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News, Food & Wine, among others.  Anyone in New York who is interested in going (it's free) can find more information here or by clicking on the image to the right.

For all its challenges, Syrah has amazing fans within the wine trade and wine lovers, and it's been interesting to see what the enthusiasm of the response since I started publicizing Tablas Creek's participation.  The original intent of the promotion was to spur direct sales, but I found that when I announced Tablas Creek's participation in Monday's event to our New York mailing list, I received three quick messages back from restaurants asking if we'd extend the donation to wholesale sales if they poured our Syrah by the glass for the month.  I also heard from writers, customers, and our distributor all sharing their support, and wanting to be a part of the program.  So, I think we're on to something.

The Rhone Rangers has created a Web page for the Pneumonia's Last Syrah campaign.  They also have a page with a complete list of participating wineries.  And, for the first time in a while, I'm hopeful about Syrah's prospects in the market.  It seems to me at least possible that this can reframe the debate on Syrah more productively, should spur direct sales, and seems to have the sort of hook that could even get mainstream media coverage.  It couldn't happen to a more deserving grape.