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Wine Fashion: Is Syrah the Latest Victim?

Wine, like any other product or work of art subject to consumer demand and preference, is affected by fads, phases, and consumer trends that dictate what wines are fashionable to drink. Some fashions are born of time tested, widespread positive experiences, as evidenced by the inevitable "Chardonnay tax" and "Cabernet Sauvignon tax" that are inherent to most restaurant wine lists in this country. Restauranteurs prey on the fact that most customers are familiar with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and are likely to order these wines with their meals as part of a desire to remain within a comfort zone. The reality of the situation is that while wine consumption is on the rise within the United States, few consumers want to waste time and energy learning about wine. It is this condition that results in the majority of wine buying decisions being made on the basis on myth, media-driven recommendation, popular culture, and "comfort-zone" experience.

Now, this is by no means a condemnation of those who make their wine buying decisions by the aforementioned criteria. Wine after all, is meant to be enjoyed above all else. Consumers who abide by a pattern of repetition, and refuse to deviate from an everyday wine ensure that they maintain a consistent wine drinking experience. And those who allow myth, media, and popular culture to dictate what they drink enjoy a sense of affirmation in their final purchase decision, due to it being validated by a supposedly more knowledgeable third-party. However, by refusing to deviate from what is known, popular, and socially accepted, the wine consuming public leaves large quantities of good wine on the shelf.

This phenomenom is not at all new. Much like fashion can dictate that entire clothing lines be confined to the closet only a year after they represented the latest trend, wines can fluctuate between popularity, obscurity, and revulsion on the whims of popular culture. In this sense, it is remarkable that Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have maintained the degree of popularity that they have, essentially becoming wine's equivalent of the little black dress and blue jeans. Examples of the negative influence that myth and popular culture can have on other grape varietals and styles of wine are numerous. Merlot witnessed the destruction of its reputation due to its portrayal in the 2004 movie Sideways. Rose and Riesling have long been maligned due to incorrect perceptions about their being universally sweet. Even the ever popular Chardonnay has fallen victim to a public perception that all expressions of the grape are overly rich, oaky, and buttery. Anything But Chardonnay has become the mantra of the "ABC" crowd. Perception's influence on taste is clearly evidenced by the near universal popularity of grapes such as Pinot Noir, and in the catastrophic fall from grace of once popular grape varietals.

Yet, what about the good wines that are left on the shelf? In each of the previously mentioned examples, even as the grape varietal or style of wine lost the favor of public opinion, the overall quality of the category as a whole was not diminished. Certainly, there were reasons that the tide of public opinion turned against these grapes or styles of wine. In the case of Merlot, it was a victim of its own overwhelming popularity. Sales of red wine in the United States exploded in the 1990's, as a result of a number of studies that indicated that numerous health benefits were associated with moderate red wine consumption. The tipping point was a 1991 60 Minutes segment that dicussed "The French Paradox" - the observation the French experience a relatively lower rate of coronary heart disease (as compared to the rest of the world), despite a diet that is high in saturated fats. 60 Minutes speculated that red wine might be at the heart of "The French Paradox," and the result was a 44% increase in red wine consumption in the United States. While the United States had preferred white wine as a country in the 1980's, the purported health benefits of red wine shifted the U.S. consumer preference profile.

Merlot was waiting with open arms as American wine consumers demonstrated their newfound affinity for red wine. Due to its less tannic, more fruit-driven character, it quickly became synonymous with what Americans expected when they ordered a "glass of red wine." As Merlot's popularity increased, countless wineries added Merlot to their repetoire, in the hopes of capitalizing on the growing demand. However, not everyone who attempted to cash in on the increased demand for Merlot was well positioned to do so. The promise of economic gain caused wineries to overlook whether they had the appropriate climate to grow Merlot grapes, and many produced substandard wines as a result of this oversight. The glut of average Merlot that flooded the market, combined with its near universal popularity, led to a backlash against Merlot among the wine conoscenti, and formed the basis for the disparagement of Merlot in the movie Sideways. Miles' rant that "... if anyone orders Merlot, [he's] leaving," and subsequent clarification that he is "... NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot," is a deft bit of mockery of those who would defame an entire genre of wine, because the masses become so infatuated with it that the overall quality of the category suffers as a whole. This cariacature is made all the more humorous by the fact that the crown jewel of Miles' wine collection is a 1961 Cheval Blanc - a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

The subtle satire presented in Sideways hints at an intriguing paradox in the wine industry. Genres of wines tend to move through a cycle where they are most fashionable prior to acheiving widespread popularity. Once the merits of a wine are touted to the point that the majority of wine consumers are clamoring for it, production of the wine rises to the point that the overall quality of the grape or style is diluted from an industry wide standpoint. At that point, it becomes fashionable for the critics and naysayers to deride the wine, and as this criticism travels through consumer channels, the wine's popularity is diminished. Such was the case with Merlot. Sales of Merlot based wine experienced a noticeable decline following the movie's release, while sales of Pinot Noir (a grape placed on a pedestal by Sideways) experienced a tremendous boost. The influence that Miles, the fictional writer and wine conneisseur, had on the general public was astonishing. Fox News quoted a 33-year-old New York art director as saying, "I went out for a Pinot Noir after I saw the movie, and I've not had a Merlot since." Sideways brought the conneisseur's critique of Merlot to the public view, and once amateur consumers caught wind of the criticism, few would be caught dead with a Merlot in their hands.

However, the wholesale revolt against Merlot overlooked the fact that while the presence of hastily produced, demand-fueled Merlot on the shelves could not be denied, there was still a plethora of quality Merlot based wines to be had. The grape did not suddenly change character overnight, as evidenced by the fact that sales of top Merlot-based wines from Bordeaux, where grape varietals are rarely identified on the label, were unaffected by the "Sideways Effect." Top Merlot producers in the United States, however, were left scrambling to sell their wines, as the movie's scathing criticism of their featured grape left the word "Merlot" to play the role of a scarlet letter emblazoned on the label. 

Other wines have fallen prey to the effects of wine fashion, although no other wine has received the public denunciation that Sideways brought to Merlot. Chardonnay, although still loved by many consumers, has come under fire for being "too big," "too bold," "too buttery," and "too oaky." All Chardonnay now is forced to fight this stereotypical characterization, but the simple reality is that there are many different expressions of Chardonnay, and to write off all Chardonnay because of the segment that caters to the stereotype is foolhardy. From the restrained, yet still slightly oaked Chardonnays of the Cote Challonaise in southern Burgundy, to the mineral driven Chardonnays of Chablis in northern Burgundy, to unoaked Chardonnays produced all over the globe, consumers are missing out if they allow a simple stereotype to steer them away from an entire category of wine.

All of this leads me to a focal point of my recent wine consumption habits: Syrah. Why? Because due to the peculiarities of wine fashion, many retailers are struggling to sell Syrah, and as a result of this, distributors are slashing prices on Syrah-based wines, in an effort to remove some of the stockpile that has accumulated in their warehouses. In the last few months, I have been fortunate to find top-flight Syrahs from leading producers at a fraction of their normal retail costs. These deals have been procured from small local retailers, large state owned wine outlets, and online "flash-sale" wine sites. Among the gems I have been fortunate to encounter are the 2005 Laetitia Estate Syrah from California's Arroyo Grande Valley, Bonnacorsi's 2007 Larner Vineyard Syrah from Santa Barbara County, Copain's 2008 L'Hiver Syrah from Mendocino County, Arcadian Winery's 2006 Syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley, and from France's Northern Rhone, a 2007 Domaine Faury St. Joseph.

In all of these cases, I was able to obtain these benchmark wines for well below their normal retail costs - discounts ranged from 30%-50%. There was certainly nothing wrong with the pedigree of the wines - all came from leading producers, and many had intrinsic characteristics that should have further distinguished them in the eyes of wine consumers. The Bonnacorsi and Copain Syrahs are traditionally reserved for mailing list members. Furthermore, in the case of the Bonnacorsi, 2007 was one of (if not the single) best vintages that California has seen in the last 20 years. While the other vintages mentioned were not hallmark vintages (2007 was not a standout vintage in the Northern Rhone), no vintage among the wines mentioned could be described as bad. I left each purchase shaking my head, as I couldn't readily determine a reason why these wines were available so cheaply.

Upon opening and consuming the wines, my intuition was rewarded, as they all showed tremendously well. Bottle after bottle, night after night, I was treated to classic expressions of Syrah. Aromas and flavors of dark fruits shone through in all the bottles, such as blackberry, cassis, boysenberry, and elderberry. Some bottles, like the Laetitia and the Arcadian were more elegant and pure, showing focused fruit flavors without any sense of being cloying. Others, like the Copain, the Bonnacorsi, and especially particularly the Domaine Faury, imported by the renowned Kermit Lynch, showed a more wild, brambly, old-world character, paying homage to Syrah's roots in the Northern Rhone. Notable among the wines that were either from, or imitating the Northern Rhone were flavors of olives, bacon fat, and other savory flavors that counter-balanced the fruit. Each wine was a treat, and was made that much more rewarding by the price that it was purchased at.

Nonetheless, I couldn't help but wonder why these phenomenal wines had been reduced to bargain discount status - not that I was complaining. I began researching, and posing the question to my friends in the wine industry. I found that notable wine columnists, such as Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal and Eric Asimov of the New York Times had tackled the question in recent columns. In a September 2011 article entitled "Can We Rekindle Our Love Affair With Syrah?," Lettie Teague commented that Syrah had fallen victim to a similar fate as Merlot. Syrah had become immensely popular about 10 years ago, rose to prominence among wine consumers, became widely planted and produced, and watched it's reputation fall apart when "sommeliers [began] leading a charge against the over-extracted, high-alcohol "fruit bombs" that were increasingly coming out of California, noting that they didn't pair well with food." Teague went on to clarify that "more often than not, [the sommeliers] meant Syrah." Teague also commented that Syrah was burdened by the fact that Syrah rose to prominence at approximately the same time as Pinot Noir, and may have been affected by Sideways' praise for the lighter bodied grape. However, Teague's conclusion to the article was that well-made, cool climate Syrahs bear close resemblance to fuller bodied Pinot Noirs. If the apple of Sideways' eye had any influence on Syrah's decline, it was from a marketing perspective, not because of any inherent quality difference between the wines from the two grape varietals.

Eric Asimov's take on Syrah's decline in the American spans two articles, "Is There Still Hope for Syrah?" (June 2010), and "Why Syrah Hasn’t Caught On in America" (February 2012). While Asimov does not directly dispute any of the points made by Teague, he places a large amount of focus on Syrah's lack of identity, and the fact that it is a grape best grown in cool climates. Indeed, one of Syrah's most unique characteristics is that it can grow almost anywhere. Lettie Teague points out in her aforementioned article that Syrah is capable of "ranging from the minerally, peppery style of the Northern Rhône, its ancestral home, to the headier, more opulent style of Australian Shiraz." American Syrah tends to waver between the two, with some producers modeling their wines in the style of the Northern Rhone, and others opting for a more approachable, fruit forward Syrah. While Asimov expresses a clear preference for the Northern Rhone style of Syrah, I think it would be a mistake to discount more opulent styles of the grape simply because it is not en vogue to prefer fruit forward wines. Fruit forward American Syrah and Australian Shiraz once garnered top scores from wine critics, and were highly sought after before sommeliers began to crusade against those styles of wine.

However, Asimov's point that Americans are confused by what style of Syrah to expect is well founded. Consumers may be dissuaded from Syrah because they fear that with all the different styles of the grape that exist, there is a chance that they may not be satisfied with their purchase, if they prefer a particular style of Syrah. No one wants to spend significant money on a wine unless they are sure they'll appreciate it. All of the Syrahs I mentioned earlier were examples of cool climate Syrah, yet they still had been relegated to clearance prices. This may be a classic example of an unjustly applied universal perception of a grape varietal can lead to the declining popularity of all styles of wine made from that grape. "It's sad," said the retailer who sold me the Laetitia Syrah. "This is a great wine, but there's no way I could sell it for full price here. Syrah is interesting - no one wants to touch it."

I hastily agreed, and thanked him for the wine. I was happy to have obtained a deal, but I couldn't help but wonder if pricing was an overlooked component of Syrah's demise. Maybe the grape was just overdue for a price correction? After all, people are generally willing to pay more for popular wines, e.g. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. Maybe part of the problem with Syrah was that it once was popular enough to command high prices, but now that it was receiving criticism from portions of the wine trade, it could not sustain those prices any longer. Teague addressed the issue of price in her column, but did not take a definitive stand. One of her sources said that part of Syrah's decline was that it had become "too cheap," and "devalued." Another commented that he hadn't raised his Syrah prices in 11 years. Yet, when I asked the food services director of a local co-op about his opinion on Syrah, he offered me a new perspective that provided some hope about Syrah's ability to rebound in today's market. "Our selection of Syrah based wines has expanded by about 20 bottles in the last few months," he said. "Now that prices are coming down, people are willing to try Syrah, and give the grape another chance."

I laughed upon hearing this, and came away wondering: did price have that much of an effect on wine consumption habits? I was pretty sure that even rock bottom pricing wouldn't have done much to rescue Merlot from the harm that Sideways inflicted on it. Yet perhaps because Syrah wasn't subjected to the widespread mudslinging that Merlot was, slashing prices could be a good vehicle to reintroduce the public to the virtues of the grape, and reverse the damage that the wine fashion had inflicted on it. Just recently, Ted Loos of epicurious.com published an article touting Syrah/Shiraz from all corners of the globe, describing Syrah as having a "peppery quality married to a dark fruitiness that makes it the perfect accompaniment to summer barbecue and grilled foods of all kinds."

Maybe Syrah isn't dead yet. This past week marked the first day of summer, so fire up the grlll, and pop open a bottle of Syrah. Let the feeling of a warm summer evening, the smell of charcoal, and the wonderful dark fruit, pepper, and spicy flavors of the Syrah lead you to months of magical evenings. Just remember, if this trend becomes too popular, and prices rise, and Syrah falls out of fashion, be secure enough in your own tastes to keep a bottle or two of Syrah on the shelf. And while you're waiting for the price of Syrah to become reasonable again, take a look at the bargains being offered at your local wine shop. Chances are, there's an unjustly maligned (but still perfectly delicious) bottle of wine in there. It's just waiting for a second chance.

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