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Syrah Secrets Revealed

A Report from the Second Annual Syrah Symposium


When the wine list lands on a restaurant table anywhere in America, it’s pretty much Pavlovian that those who prefer red wine begin scanning for the right cabernet sauvignon or the perfect pinot noir to accompany their meal. Cab has been the preferred red of Americans for decades, thanks to the diligence and decadence of Napa Valley; and in recent years-thanks in no small part to the movie Sideways-pinot noir from Santa Barbara County and elsewhere has also risen to palate prominence. But we Americans are foolishly myopic, for there are dozens of other varietals that are just as beefy and nuanced as cabs and fruity and spicy as pinots, and there’s no better time than the present to start branching out. For those of us in Santa Barbara-where the legendary grapes of France’s Rh’ne region grow heartily-we’d be wise to start selecting syrahs the next time that wine list lands on our table.

That was the unanimous message of the second annual Syrah Symposium, which in April brought about 60 winemakers, industry execs, buyers, retailers, restaurateurs, and members of the media to the Santa Ynez Valley for in-depth discussions of the grape. Sponsored primarily by the E.J. Gallo wine corporation, which owns the valley’s Bridlewood Winery, the event began with a barbecue on Monday, April 21, and ended with winery open houses on that Wednesday.

But the meat of the symposium took place on Tuesday, when morning and afternoon tastings-amid an al fresco lunch, grand tasting, and prime rib dinner-revealed the deepest thoughts of seven esteemed makers of syrah: namely, the Santa Ynez Valley’s Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards; Sashi Moorman of Stolpman Vineyards; David Hopkins of Bridlewood Winery; and Eric Mohseni of Zaca Mesa; as well as Washington state’s John Freeman of Waterbrook Winery; Napa Valley’s Sam Spencer of Spencer Roloson Winery; and Bill Easton of Domaine de la Terre Rouge in the Sierra Foothills.

As attendees sipped more than 40 types of syrah throughout the day, the vintners detailed the ins and outs of syrah growing and blending while discussing frankly the challenges of putting it in the forefront of wine lovers’ minds. Along the way, they debunked quite a few myths and shared some secrets about West Coast syrah-making, and here are five of the biggest revelations:

1) Syrah is not easy to grow: Though syrah is known for big harvests in any growing conditions, making high-quality wine is much more difficult. “In a lot of ways, syrah is really challenging,” said Steve Beckmen. “I think it’s a myth that it’s easy.”

2) Too many people planted too much syrah: Years ago, word got out that syrah could be the next cab, so winemakers everywhere planted tons of it. Problem is, these winemakers weren’t necessarily invested in quality grapes, so run-of-the-mill syrahs glutted the market, and lowered consumers’ expectation. “A lot of people in California think that you plant a vineyard and you’re done,” said Sashi Moorman. “To me, that’s not farming.”

3) Serious syrahs exist: The existence of a symposium confirms as much, of course, but seeing seven esteemed winemakers tout the syrah gospel so convincingly showed that they’re in syrah for the long haul. “This is what we do,” said Beckmen. “This is who we are.” Explained David Hopkins, “We’re making great wines. We just need to get them in the hands of consumers.”

4) There is no standard measure for West Coast syrahs: In France, syrah is usually blended, and in Australia, the style is considerably bolder. On the West Coast, the tradition is young, and the style is somewhere between the lean European and big Aussie. “We have to use ourselves as benchmarks,” said Moorman.

5) Happy grapes don’t make good wine: Syrah needs to be stressed to produce interesting fruit, perhaps more so than other varietals. “The best wines are made from grapes that are grown in the margins,” said Bill Easton, who founded the legendary Rhone Rangers club. Echoed Moorman, “Often in California, the wines are just laughing too much. : They need to be a little pissed off.”

For more info, see syrahsymposium.com.

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