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BY THOM ELKJER, wine editor

America has gone ga-ga for Syrah. From 1996 to 1999, California vintners increased their “crush,” or harvest, of Syrah an average of 90% a year, from 3,000 tons of fruit to 73,000 tons. In the five years leading up to 2002, the crush increased tenfold. Even the massive wine glut that hit California in 2001 — caused by a combination of domestic overproduction and a flood of inexpensive imports from almost everywhere — hardly slowed the Syrah juggernaut. It seems we cannot get enough of the stuff.

What sent Syrah from obscurity to popularity so fast? As usual with “overnight sensations,” only the sensation arrived overnight. Everything else had been building for a long time. For one thing, Syrah has been a star in France for many generations, because it’s the grape inside bottles of Côte Rotie, Hermitage, and other great reds from the upper stretches of the Rhône River valley in France. If you’ve ever heard connoisseurs rhapsodize about “Northern Rhônes,” they were talking about Syrah.

The grape also crept into California with nineteenth-century European immigrants, but for a century or so it was just another ingredient in rustic blends. Then enterprising vintners in California, including Gary Eberle in the late 1970s and John Alban in the 1980s, got their hands on vine cuttings from top French Syrah vineyards and planted them near Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande, respectively. Once they began bottling this new Syrah on its own, they discovered that the grape was as well suited to California as it is to the Rhône region. Alban and Eberle were quickly joined by others, including Bob Lindquist of Qupé and Craig Williams at Joseph Phelps (see “winemaker profile” on page 10.)

It was not until the 1990s, however, that their discrete flirtation became a statewide love affair. Two unrelated but fortuitous phenomena combined to put Syrah on tables, in wine bars, and listed on winery rosters from southern California to Washington State (not to mention Arizona, Virginia, and other states).

First, San Francisco Bay Area restaurateurs such as Alice Waters, Joyce Goldstein, and Jeremiah Tower began popularizing what is now known nationwide as the “Mediterranean diet.” Of course this cuisine is perfectly suited to Syrah, which is as Mediterranean as a wine grape can get. Steve Edmunds of Edmunds-St. John, for example, discovered California Syrah at Chez Panisse back when the restaurant was still known only to Bay Area residents and a few foodies in New York and LA. “I didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Qupé,’” he says, “but when I tasted the wine I felt like I was getting signals from God.” He soon went on to send some Syrah signals of his own.

At the same time, influential wine critics in America increasingly poured their praise on darkly colored, intensely flavored wine. While this has led to some extremely odd versions of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel (not to mention astonishingly-priced Cabernet Sauvignon), it was no problem for Syrah. The grape is just naturally high in anthocyans — the organic chemical compounds that make wine red. It’s also sweet, because it gets fully ripe under the California sun, and rich in meaty flavor dimensions because it willingly takes up earthy qualities from the vineyard and from oak barrel influences in the winery.
Eberle once described Syrah to me as “blueberries in blood.” While not every bottling will bring those two markers to mind, the phrase captures the personality of Syrah: sweet yet darkly intense, a wine to be reckoned with.

Today there are hundreds of Syrah bottlings on the market, and you can pretty much pick your style and price point. At one end of the spectrum, Delicato California Syrah for $6 is, year in and year out, one of the state’s best wine values. The texture is smooth, the flavor is a bit spicy, and the wine is good with everything from a charbroiled burger to a delicate double-cream brie. At the other end of the spectrum lies John Kongsgaard’s $125 Napa Valley Syrah, which is about as dark, intense, and complex as wine gets. You can drink it with dinner if you want, but Italians would call it “vino da meditazione” a wine to drink alone with deep thoughts and a profound sense of history, natural forces, and your own good fortune.

~ Here are some of my current favorites ~


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