The 2017 Rhone Rangers SF Grand Tasting
On June 10, I attended the Rhone Rangers’ San Francisco Grand Tasting at the Presidio Golden Gate Club with the objective of assessing the state of Syrah. My plan was to hit producers mostly located outside my home base of Sonoma and Napa, especially ones I hadn’t tasted before. Despite three hours available to taste, I only made it to 15 producers on my short list. I witnessed many people walking table-to-table only tasting one Syrah at each. I wanted to do every producer justice and taste most of their range so I could arrive at a fair quality conclusion. I also wanted to meet the owner, winemaker, or sales director and give them the time and respect their wine deserves. I witnessed far too many people shoving their glass forward for wine, then moving along like it was a pub crawl.
The number of Paso Robles wineries represented was overwhelming. Out of 70 total wineries pouring that day, I counted 28 from Paso, 13 from Sonoma, 8 from Santa Barbara, a handful each from San Joaquin, Napa, Monterey, the Sierra Foothills, the Bay Area, and even a couple far-flung regions like Arizona and Virginia. Just one winery present (Tenet) was from Washington. This is surprising and disappointing since places like Walla Walla have long been growing some killer Syrah. It was a fairly accurate representation of the Rhone Rangers’ overall membership, which is dominated by Paso Robles wineries. With Rhone varietal production expanding in places like Sonoma County, Oregon’s Applegate Valley, and Walla Walla, I’d urge the organization to keep growing their geographical base.
There was a swell of attendees in the tasting hall around 3:30 PM, but it really leveled off after that. The final hour of the tasting was nearly empty. I’d estimate the overall Grand Tasting attendance at around 300. I reached out to the Rhone Rangers organization for attendance confirmation (and a few other answers) several weeks ago and never received a response. So I’ll leave it to them to refute or defend the attendance and my other observations.
What's Up with Syrah?
Although I’m a huge Syrah fan, I was really struck by the quality and consistency of Grenache that day. Petrichor, Qupe, and Skinner were all pouring seriously impressive Grenache. On the other hand, my primary takeaway on the state of California Syrah is that it’s still impossibly varied. No doubt it’s a versatile grape that offers multiple expressions in different climates. But there’s a reason it’s been falling in consumer preference: it’s nowhere close to consistent. I don’t advocate for uniform and monotone Syrah, but the range of characteristics in California Syrah is astounding.
I classify California Pinot Noir into two general winemaking styles: ripe red fruit and cola, or savory earth/mushroom/pepper. Pinots typically fall somewhere along that range of profiles, with varying acid, tannin, and oak influence, of course. Yet they all remain identifiable. Syrah has multiple personality disorder in this state. I tasted wines ranging from peppery, meaty, and olivey, to brambly, syrupy, and dark fruit-punchy. Acid levels and oak treatment were all over the map. Tannins were undetectable to overpowering. I expect good Syrah to stay within a particular realm, but another drinker may expect the exact opposite.
The benchmark annual SVB State of the Wine Industry report has told us for the last couple years that Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and red blends have been selling incredibly well. Syrah is one of the primary components of those domestic red blends, so that bodes well for growers’ futures. But if I were a single-varietal Syrah specialist, I’d be very concerned about the perception of my product and how it affects my business viability. Rob McMillan, who authors the SVB report, says “From our vantage point, a decade or longer after their planting booms neither merlot nor syrah gained a consistent and identifiable character profile with the consumer, leaving the door open for popular growth in other red wines.”
According to the most recent Nielsen data I’ve seen from April 2017, Syrah/Shiraz sales dropped 11.4% in the past year. It's a trend that has been continuing for years. That’s bad news for producers focused on Rhone varietals. I haven’t been able to find a breakdown of those figures between U.S. Syrah, French Syrah, and Australian Shiraz, but no matter whose sales declined the worst, the correlation hurts. Many wine articles blame American Syrah's struggles on the association with the early 2000's flood of cheap Shiraz, and there may be some truth to that. Cheap Australian Shiraz sales continue to decline as of 2017.
Farming-wise, Syrah remains the 5th most planted red winegrape variety by acreage in California, although it has lost 900 acres over just the last two years according to the USDA. The only grapes to have a larger drop in acreage over the same period are Zinfandel and Merlot, however both remain over twice as abundant as Syrah. Proportionally, Syrah’s drop in planted acres has been the biggest.
What's the Solution?
The blame game on domestic Syrah's under-performance has been going on for nearly a decade. The truth is that many world-class Syrahs are being produced in America. A confluence of the aforementioned reasons has created a deep rut for the varietal which continues to plague its reputation. Concerning the Rhone Rangers, they have their work cut out for them. A grassroots wave of refinement in winemaking style, pinpointing more appropriate vineyard microclimates, and an aggressive marketing campaign may be able to turn the tide of Syrah sales. If they want red Rhone varietals to chip away at Cab's and Pinot’s leads, producers might have better luck in the red blend category with GSMs. I also think California Grenache as a single varietal has a solid future ahead of it. The wines I tried at the Grand Tasting definitely reinforced that hunch.
The Tasting Rundown
My favorite producers were: Ledge, Petrichor, The Withers Winery, Skinner
Standout wines include:
Adelaida 2015 Anna’s Estate Picpoul Blanc - Silky body, vanilla, green fruit. Much more body than typical French Picpoul, but elegant.
Ledge 2014 James Berry Vineyard Syrah - A big tannic wine with garrigue. My favorite red of the day.
Ledge 2014 G2 Tannat - Very acidic and inky with dark berry aromas. Great Tannat.
Petrichor 2014 Grenache - Peppery, acidic, and so approachable.
Qupe 2015 Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Viognier - Favorite white of the day. Beautiful floral & fruit.
Jaffurs 2013 Bien Nacido Syrah - Deep, earthy, herby. It contains everything I love about Jaffurs’ style.
Skinner 2014 Estate Grenache - Sweet red fruit and cinnamon. Nice balance, easy drinking.
Withers 2014 Burgess El Dorado Syrah - Varietally spot on Rhone style, a deep Syrah.
Least favorite: Calcareous - All 3 wines I sampled were unreasonably overripe. The only note I managed to take was “blueberry overload” on their 2014 Moose blend.
*Honorable mention must be given to Steve and Kyle at MacLaren Wines for making some of the best Rhone-style Syrah in the New World. I omitted them from the above review since they're not "new to me". But I love their wine so much I've gotta plug them.
Other non-travel ramblings on wine and business.