The song of Syrah

This super adaptable wine is poised to become the next big star

By Michael Cervin


he world seems to have pinot envy. Pinot noir is everywhere these days and with good reason. Everyone is rediscovering the luxurious star of Santa Barbara County. But just over the hill, an upstart is emerging, one that is poised to make pinot, and other wines, jealous.

Syrah (also called shiraz in other parts of the world) is hitting its stride here on the Central Coast. Producers like Beckman, Curran, Bedford-Thompson, Koehler, Shoestring and others are hitting high notes and high scores. Currently, the tri-counties boasts over 4,000 acres planted to syrah.

“Syrah is very hip,” says Joey Tensley, winemaker for both Carina Cellars and his own eponymous Tensley label. “The cool thing about syrah is that it adapts to various growing conditions very well.” Case in point, syrah is grown from cool-climate areas like Lompoc all the way to the oppressively hot Happy Canyon region in Santa Ynez, and can make excellent easy-drinking wines that don’t break the wallet. This is in part because syrah has thick skin, and it thrives in an assortment of climates, producing very diverse styles.

Mike Carhartt, winemaker of Carhartt Vineyards, also produces syrah. “It’s a very forgiving varietal,” he says of the wine’s ability to thrive in unusual weather and adverse conditions. “Even in difficult vintages, it still tastes great and it provides the full spectrum of flavors.” That’s due to the fact that syrah so uniquely represents the soil from which it came. “What’s in the bottle is 90 percent of what’s in the vineyard,” Carhartt notes of syrah’s tendency to grow well with little oversight. Will it replace pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon? “I don’t think so. Pinot is king in Santa Barbara. But syrah definitely has its place. There’s something for everyone,” says Carhartt.

Restaurant owner Richard Yates, of Opal Restaurant in Santa Barbara, views it differently. “Syrah was on the way to being the new hot wine when it was sidelined by the movie Sideways and pinot noir took over the spot.”

Having been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, Yates understands trends from a consumer perspective. He feels that American wine drinkers, “while increasingly sophisticated,” are primarily seduced by fruit-forward wines. Though he quickly adds, “I think people are ready to move on to wines of greater complexity. In the ’80s it was merlot, now it’s pinot.” Can syrah become the next great wine?

“Syrah sales are picking up. Along with chardonnay, these are the two wines I keep my eye on.”

Nick Fisher of the Ventura Wine Company adds that, “syrah is doing well, though it’s overproduced.” He agrees that syrah was, “steamrolled by pinot because of Sideways.” On the plus side, syrah is consumer-friendly, meaning that “you buy it and you drink it.” There’s no reason to wait. “Syrah’s an immediate gratification wine,” says Fisher. And that’s just fine because wine should be enjoyed. So grab a bottle, or two, and enjoy the seducing song that syrah can sing.


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