Syrah's Wild Ride in California, from Darling to Pariah... and Back
September 21, 2020
One of the most interesting publicly-available resources on wine trends is the California Grape Acreage Report, prepared and released annually by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service California Field Office. In it, you can find a complete data set by grape and by county going back to 1971 with what grapes were in production or newly planted, and where. It's really an amazing collection, and I've used it to write some of my favorite blogs, including all of the Grapes of the Rhone Valley series and maybe my favorite blog ever, A Tale of Two Grenaches, which uses this information to show how Grenache can be reaching new highs in quality and visibility even as overall Grenache acres have declined to a level one-fifth of what they were at their peak in 1974. (Here's what happened: about 2,000 acres of new high quality Grenache plantings went into coastal and mountain AVAs at the same time as roughy 18,000 of the 20,000 acres of bulk Grenache, no longer needed for jug wines, have been pulled out of the Central Valley.)
Syrah's story is similar, in that there are multiple trends going on at the same time, each affecting the grape's narrative. Let's take a look first at, overall, what's happened to Syrah since 1970. Essentially, there have been five eras.
1970-1988: Planting the First Few Seeds
Despite growing interest in the wines of the Rhone Valley, there really wasn't much going on with Syrah planting in California. From a base of four pre-1970 acres in the initial acreage report, there were some years where no Syrah was planted, others where a little was planted: an average of about 10 acres a year. The 24 acres planted in 1975 was the first significant addition to the state's total, planted by Gary Eberle at Estrella River Winery. This is the source of the famous Estrella Clone of Syrah, purportedly from Chapoutier cuttings, whose descendants populate most of the state's Syrah vineyards today. But by 1988 there were still just 167 acres of Syrah in total.
1989-1994: The Wave Builds
In the April 15th, 1989 issue of the Wine Spectator, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm posed in Lone Ranger gear next to a horse to accompany a cover article on "The Rhone Ranger," and a category title was born. That year, California vineyard owners planted 72 acres of Syrah, more than double the largest previous yearly total. In 1990 that total jumped to 278, more than doubling the state's total to date. And the grape was off. The next five years saw an average of 213 acres of Syrah per year planted, bringing the state's total to 1308 by 1994. That put it on the map, but it was still a tiny percentage, 30th in that year's acreage report, its total eclipsed by grapes including Burger, French Colombard, Carnelian, and Alicante Bouschet. But this was the era in which Rhone wines started to get the press's attention. And it was the era where the importation of new clones (first, but not only, by us) began to open up options for the state's winemakers.
Fast forward just eight years from 1994 and Syrah leapt from 30th in the state's plantings to 7th, trailing only the "big 5" grapes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, plus the declining but still plentiful French Colombard. Plantings averaged 2,210 acres per year, peaking at 3,515 acres in 1997. It went in everywhere, with 100+ acres in 19 different California counties. Eight counties had more than a thousand acres. Those counties could be found all over the state, and included Sonoma, all three Central Coast counties (Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara), and four Central Valley counties (Fresno, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Madera). Napa and Mendocino just missed, with 995 and 674 acres respectively. What do those counties have in common? Not much, other than that grapes are grown in all of them. And that, plus the sheer math of the number of grapes hitting the marketplace, sowed the seeds for a problem.
2003-2013: Recognition Comes, but Not Mass Market Sales
Unlike the earlier periods, it's hard to put firm dates on the beginning and end of this category, and some aspects of it remain in play today. But this period saw Syrah gain a reputation for being very hard to sell at the same time as the category got unprecedented praise from wine writers and saw the rise of the "cult" Rhone producer, many located in Paso Robles.
I feel like this era of recognition started with Robert Parker's first article on "California's Rhone Rangers", in February of 2002. In his introduction, he writes:
The noble Syrah grape has done so well so quickly in California that it is surely going to find a permanent place among California wine lovers. Remarkably adaptable, it has shown positive results in the cool hillside climates of the Sonoma Coast, the western hillsides of Paso Robles, and in exceptionally hot areas such as the valley floors of Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. In both Santa Barbara and even the cooler satellite district of Santa Ynez, it has also done exceptionally well provided crop levels are modest. Syrah is capable of producing anything from a Beaujolais-like, bubble gum, fruity style of wine with light tannin, low acidity, and obvious pleasure and appeal, to more formidably concentrated, massive wines with high tannin, great intensity, and potential longevity.
Stories followed in other publications. The Wine Spectator began doing an annual review of California Rhones. More producers, and better wines, meant more high scores. Through the 2000 vintage, the Wine Spectator had given 143 California Syrahs 90+ ratings, and only one (the amazing 2000 Alban Pandora) hit 95 points. In the next decade, 1064 California Syrahs got 90+ ratings, and 69 were 95 or higher. A number of Rhone specialist wineries, most notably Alban, Saxum, and Sine Qua Non, used this recognition to build allocation-only mailing lists with long waiting lists, and dozens of other wineries, many of them our neighbors, followed the style and business model.
But the sheer volumes of Syrah were never all going to be absorbed by a few (or even a few dozen) cult winemakers and their mailing lists. And by 2003, there was 2,360% more acreage in production than there had been a decade earlier. That increase was even more staggering in volume. In 1993 there were 1,905 tons of Syrah harvested in California. That's enough to produce about 120,000 cases of wine. In 2003, that total had grown to 110,249 tons, an increase of 5,687%. That tonnage, if all vinified into varietal bottlings, would produce nearly seven million cases of wine.
Did you notice something else interesting about that math? The tonnage grew faster than the acreage. In 1993, figuring that vineyards planted in 1991 and earlier would be in production, those 708 acres averaged 2.69 tons of fruit per acre. In 2003, and again figuring that any acreage planted 2001 or earlier would be producing, growers harvested an average of 6.60 tons of Syrah off of 16,694 acres.
And Syrah's reputation took a hit. Inventories built up. Steve Heimoff, the Wine Enthusiast's California specialist at the time, asked What's the Problem with Syrah in 2009, where he reported hearing that selling it in the wholesale market was "like trench warfare". James Laube published a Wine Spectator article Why Isn't Syrah More Popular in 2010. Eric Asimov wrote that same year in the New York Times Is there still hope for Syrah? with the opening line: "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." The Rhone Rangers, doing their best to make lemons out of lemonade, turned the punch line into benefit tastings for global pneumonia prevention in New York and San Francisco, called Pneumonia's Last Syrah.
So, what caused this glut? There wasn't much new Syrah planting in this era, averaging just 250 cases per year statewide. And because some vineyards started to be pulled out or grafted over, there were only about 1,000 more Syrah acres in California vineyards in 2013 than there were a decade before. Sure, there were the challenges that Syrah is a flexible, adaptable grape and tastes different depending on where it's grown and the winemaker's preference. The entry into the American marketplace in this era of lots of cheap Australian Shiraz probably didn't help. And because it was so widely planted, it didn't have a signature region whose name was synonymous with the grape the way that Napa is with Cabernet. But those explanations all feel incomplete to me, not least because you can make many of the same critiques about a range of other successful grapes.
No, I think it came down to a simple question of math. There was so much more wine in a decade that the American Syrah market would have to have grown 50% per year, every year, compounded, to absorb all the extra production. Not even the dry rosé market, the success story of the last decade, has done that. The grape also suffered a little bad luck, in that right as Syrah seemed poised to take off in the fall of 2004, the movie Sideways came out, launching Pinot Noir sales into the stratosphere. Merlot is often mentioned as the main casualty of Pinot Noir's rise, but I think Syrah was equally a victim, as Pinot sucked all the promotional air out of the room.
The net result was that although Syrah sales rose rapidly through the 2000's, they had an impossible task to keep up with production, and inventory built up. How impossible a task? Look at the exponential math. If Syrah sales had grown by 30% per year, compounded over a decade, they would have ended up just under fourteen times what they were at the beginning of that decade. That would have absorbed just one quarter of the growth in production coming from all those new Syrah acres. Plus, it's not like there was this massive global production of Syrah that this American production could displace or be absorbed into. In 1990, there were only about 80,000 acres of Syrah worldwide, compared to 700,000 acres of Grenache, 300,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, or 380,000 acres of Merlot. The increases in Syrah were always going to be harder to find homes for. Really, it was never going to be possible.
2014-2019: An Under-the-Radar Renaissance
The last half-decade or so has seen California acreage of Syrah decline by about 20%, as growers who planted it in the Syrah wave move on to the next popular grape. But Syrah is still being planted. Over the last six years, California has averaged 716 acres of Syrah pulled out, and just under 100 new acres planted, per year. As of 2019, there are 15,458 acres of Syrah in the state. Last year, those acres produced 82,846 tons of fruit. That's 5.36 tons per acre, a meaningful decline of about 20% from that 6.60 tons/acre at the tail end of the planting boom.
What is happening now is complex, and still evolving, but it appears to me that the Syrah is coming out of places it probably shouldn't be anyway. There are about 1,300 fewer acres of Syrah in the Central Valley than there were in 2013. That's almost all low quality, high production acreage. And while this evidence is mostly anecdotal, in coastal and mountain appellations, it has mostly been pulled out of the vineyards of generalists rather than Rhone specialists. The producers that we speak to who are growing their own Syrah for their own programs aren't pulling vines out. It's vineyards that are producing grapes for the open market. Are there some negative implications for less inexpensive Syrah up for grabs in the state? Sure. But I think the positives outweigh them.
I also think that the state of California Syrah has never been stronger. And who doesn't love a good comeback story? Eric Asimov wrote about A New Chapter for California Syrah last year. Matt Kettmann, who has taken over reviewing the wines of the Central Coast for Wine Enthusiast in recent years, has been at the forefront, not least because he tastes so many great Syrahs. I'll let him have the last word, from a podcast interview he recorded in 2018, which more or less mirrors my own thoughts.
The one thing I will say, though, is that Syrah, and especially cool climate Syrah is kind of a favorite wine for many winemakers, for many sommeliers, for many wine professionals. People can’t get enough of it. So as the American wine customer gets more and more educated over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them shift in that direction too.
We're not yet at "Syrah is back!" phase. But with it increasingly being planted in the right places, by people who are Rhone specialists or at least Rhone lovers, with most of the vines now getting to 20+ years old, making some of California's most highly-rated and most sought-after wines, and with some of the pressure being released by 20% less acreage in production and another decade for the market to develop, 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.