Syrah's Star Keeps Rising in Santa Barbara County

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syrahGlasses.jpgMany years after the movie debuted, they're still giving "Sideways" tours down in Santa Barbara County, and they will be for years to come. That's how it is with movies that cement an image of a place in the popular mind. Santa Barbara's wine country is now Pinot Noir country, and that's that.

Except that it isn't. For some of us, Santa Barbara County's chunk of the massive Central Coast appellation is Syrah country.   It's where Zaca Mesa winery, founded in 1972, still preserves what it calls the oldest Syrah vineyard in the Central Coast and still makes illuminating Syrah. It's where Bob Lindquist went to work in 1975, and then founded Qupé to make some of California's first breakthrough Syrahs in the early 1980s. Those wines made it onto the wine list at Chez Panisse, which wielded more influence in those days than most people can imagine, and Syrah was effectively launched on its current rocket ride to star status.
Pinot Noir has also grown in popularity since that time, but Syrah's stats are undeniable.

In 2004, Syrah joined Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel as the only premium red wine grapes in California with more than 100,000 tons crushed. Pinot Noir? Down the list (behind Grenache, among other things) at around 70,000 tons. It's the same in the Central Coast counties of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo (which the state of California combines for reporting purposes). The 2004 crush for Syrah was more than 14,600 tons, compared to about 10,400 for Pinot Noir. Certainly there's plenty of Syrah in SLO, but there's also Pinot Noir.

So why don't we think of Santa Barbara as Syrah country? We should, because the amount of killer Syrahs coming out of Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, Foxen Canyon, and Santa Rita Hills just keeps climbing. But two things (besides that flick mentioned above) have conspired to stamp Santa Barbara with a Pinot personality.

First, Syrah is like the child that gets good grades, eats his vegetables, and does his chores, while Pinot Noir has tended to be the beautiful, illness-prone child that likes to torture the cat. Who gets the attention? Pinot Noir has nicknames like "heartbreak grape" because of how it can mess with the minds of winegrowers and winemakers. Syrah just gets ripe, ferments easily, and blends with anything. In 2002 I made Syrah in a food-grade garbage can in my garden shed, and it turned out great. Try that with Pinot Noir? Not in a million years.

Second, growers have been catapulting California Pinot Noir away from legacy genetic strains of the vine toward newly-bred cultivars, and also dumping the any-old-rootstock approach of yester-year in favor of short-cycle rootstocks that ripen grapes early enough for marginal climates like Russian River, Anderson Valley, and other coastal Pinot Noir pockets.

This in turn has totally changed Pinot Noir's reference point. It used to be that Pinot Noir in this country was supposed to be like Pinot in France, where it's called red Burgundy. That meant a mid-weight wine of moderate color and more finesse than force in the flavor profile. Today, California Pinot Noir has become more like, well, Syrah: dark, chewy, and powerful. It's no wonder people are mesmerized.

So when you take your "Sideways" tour of Santa Barbara county one fine day, spare a thought for Syrah. There are dozens of gorgeous bottlings in almost every vintage now, and mostly they're less expensive than Pinot Noir. The 2005 vintage looks like yet another winner, so Syrah's successful run in Santa Barbara is sure to keep playing long after the movie's just a memory.

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