Spend a little more to get the good syrah
Washington syrah is the latest "it" wine among winemakers, but consumers should be willing to spend more than 10 bucks to get a sense of what all the excitement is about.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Neil Ellis 2007 The Left Bank Red; $13
Neil Ellis is one of the founding fathers of the modern-day wine industry in South Africa. His experience shows in this pungent, smoky red — a blend of cabernet, shiraz and merlot. Sleek, polished and powerful, with 13.5 percent alcohol. (A&B distributes)
IT HAS BECOME fashionable to trumpet how little, rather than how much, a particular wine has cost. Fred Franzia, the man who owns the Bronco Wine Co. — makers of "Two-Buck Chuck" — takes great pleasure in asserting that no wine from anywhere is worth more than 10 bucks. And Franzia, who personally owns 40,000 acres of California vineyard (more than is planted in all of Washington), has the resources to make good on that claim.
But let's think about this. Would you really want to see every wine in the world that costs more than $10 disappear?
I am all for finding good deals and do my utmost to point them out to readers of this column. But at a certain point, quality costs more. That isn't just true for wine; it's true for anything that is limited, artistic and distinctive.
Which brings me to Washington syrah. It has become the poster child for the "too expensive" crowd. Dozens of winemakers, distributors and retailers have confirmed that syrah sales are in the tank. And yet, winemakers in this state adore it. Several wineries made their debut this spring with a specific focus on syrah, and it's rare to find any new winery these days that doesn't have syrah in the lineup.
So there is a disconnect between what the winemakers think is the most promising red grape in the state, and the consumer perception of quality-to-value.
Some well-made syrahs are selling at reasonably modest prices: Hogue, Milbrandt, RiverAerie, Snoqualmie, Substance and Columbia Crest are all good examples.
But if you want to experience the richer spectrum of flavors that generate the excitement among growers and winemakers, you must be willing to pay a higher price. Here are three new projects with a specific syrah focus that will reward those who do.
A collaboration between winemaker Robert Smasne (Smasne Cellars) and geologist/viticulturist Dr. Alan Busacca, AlmaTerra's first releases include three single-vineyard syrahs and a fourth that is a blend of all three. The goal is to isolate and express the terroir of the different sites, and it is significant that syrah was the grape chosen for the purpose. Busacca, whose career includes many years as a research professor in geology and soil science at Washington State University, is uniquely qualified for this work, as he has consulted on site selection and developed the formal applications for a number of the newest appellations in Washington. The wines are being sold through the Web site and tasting room only ($220 for the four-pack; $48 for the blend alone).
There is quite a story behind Rasa and its first release, a 2007 syrah named QED (for quod erat demonstrandum — "which was to be demonstrated"). Billo Naravane and his brother, Pinto, come from rarefied high-tech backgrounds; Billo alone has degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. After 15 years he found himself "unhappy in computer work. I decided that I didn't want to live a life without passion." To make a long story very short, they purchased Walla Walla vineyard land and founded Rasa, dedicated to making elegant, Rhone-style syrahs. The first release, 2007 QED ($50), is available online and at a few select wine shops.
Sean Boyd left a career in oil and gas exploration to make syrah in Walla Walla. He quickly found work as an assistant winemaker at Waters winery; Rôtie Cellars is his own label. Two wines have been released, both from 2007: a Southern Blend (55 percent grenache, 35 percent syrah and 10 percent mourvèdre) and a Northern Blend (all syrah). Both are $35.
Expensive? I've had French wines costing far more that weren't any better. You decide for yourself.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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