The lack of consumer interest in Syrah wines is of keen interest to Washington’s wine industry. Some industry officials estimate there are 3,000 acres planted in the state, with many of the newer plantings just beginning to bear fruit. Syrah tonnage in 2010 was up 9 percent from 2009.
Syrah’s lackluster sales are troublesome because many growers planted it thinking it would be the next big thing, said Paul Gregutt, journalist, author, and wine critic. And because there is a time lag between planting and bottling, the problem is not going to go away in the immediate future, he added.
While there is an oversupply right now, Gregutt thinks Syrah will ultimately live up to its potential. He recalled that it wasn’t long ago when Riesling was in the “dumpster” and growers were pulling Riesling vines.
For the most part, the wine press has given good reviews for Syrah, he said. In his own wine ratings, he scores and reviews 1,500 to 2,000 Washington wines each year and publishes his top 100 picks. In the last two years, his number-one spots have been held by Syrah wines, and the only two perfect scores he has ever given were awarded to Syrah.
Other wine publications have also had a high percentage of their top 10 and top 100 wine picks of the year going to Syrah wines, he noted. Additionally, wine critics have generally written positive comments about Syrah wines, especially Washington Syrah wines. When taken all together, the press has had a love affair with Washington Syrahs, Gregutt said.
But there have been some criticisms. “Sameness” has been one of the most often-mentioned weaknesses of Washington Syrahs by wine critics.
Gregutt said that with a few exceptions, most of the Syrah vineyards in the state are young, not even close in age to the old vines of Europe. “We haven’t really seen what we can really do with the state’s vineyards,” he said, adding that old vines typically deliver the goods better than young ones. Sameness in Washington Syrahs could be in part due to the state’s young vines.
Moreover, the phenomenal increase in the number of Washington wineries in the last six years has contributed to the sameness factor. “You’re all pulling from a very small vineyard pool, and you’re all making Syrah,” he said.
“But these are problems that will be fixed with time.”
On a positive note, he sees a change in the wine palates of the younger generation that should work in favor of Washington Syrahs. “The younger palates are more sophisticated than older palates and prefer the European style of wines that are lower alcohol, higher acid, and with an herbal component that plays to the true varietal character of grapes. This is a change that is bubbling up generationally.”
The changing palate to a more European style of wine is being driven by sommeliers, wine buyers, and those putting wine lists together, and doesn’t necessarily show up in the Nielsen Company’s data of grocery store sales. “This is a style that plays into Washington’s strengths.”
While there’s little that can be done for the immediate backlog of bottled inventory, Gregutt advised winemakers to benchmark Syrah successes of others and learn from their practices—call and ask others for advice and do informal wine tastings with other winemakers.
Winemakers should look carefully at their Syrah portfolio and identify how important Syrah is to their business plan. Is it pulling its weight or is to time to sideline the variety—dumping or blending it?
He questions if all the different Syrah wines are necessary. “If you’re making several Syrahs, are they really different?” How about condensing and eliminating some lines, he suggested.
And from consumer trends that show sales of red blend wines taking off, he encouraged winemakers to be creative in their blending of Syrah and to use creative names for red blends.
“There is consumer confusion over what is Syrah and what is Washington Syrah,” Gregutt concluded. “That’s a fact of life—they’re confused about everything. So you have to explain what your Syrah is and tell your story.”
Gregutt was part of a panel discussion on Syrah held during the February convention of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.