Make the Name Mean Something

September 2010
by W. Blake Gray
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard told me this: “What’s the difference between a case of the crabs and a case of Syrah? The crabs go away.”

Syrah isn’t selling and hasn’t for years. A popular impulse is to blame Yellow Tail. I don’t buy it: Charles Shaw sells $2 Cabernet and Chardonnay, and that doesn’t seem to have hurt those varieties.

A different theory occurred to me in an epiphany at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash. The winery has two Syrahs that look nearly the same on the shelf: Columbia Valley Syrah 2007 and Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Estate Syrah 2008.

With the same label and the same alcohol percentage (14.8%), you’d expect the two wines to be similar. Perhaps the single-vineyard wine would be more complex and finer, but they should be siblings.

Instead, it’s like they’re from different continents. The Columbia Valley wine is rich and ripe, all dark cherry with some pepper. The Walla Walla Valley wine is gamy, earthy and animalistic, like a Northern Rhône wine.

“We’re working on creating an identity for the Walla Walla wines that is different from the Columbia Valley,” said owner/winemaker Martin Clubb. A bell went off over my head (we were in an old schoolhouse): That’s what’s wrong with Syrah!

I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the grape. I love the fact that the same grape that makes ripe but balanced fruit bombs in Barossa Valley can make rugged, savory wines in Cornas. But when I pick up a bottle from Walla Walla Valley or Sonoma County or Santa Barbara County, I have no idea which I’m getting.

I don’t have this problem with most major grapes/appellations. If I see Paso Robles Zinfandel or Central Otago Pinot Noir on a wine list, I don’t know if I’m getting a good version, but I have a good idea of what it’s going to be like. Not the case with Syrah.

Riesling marketers faced a similar problem with sweetness, which led to the development of the Riesling Rules: a subjective scale of perceived sweetness. It’s a great idea, and climbing Riesling sales are the reward.

The Australian Wine Research Institute recently created a similar scale for Pinot Grigio/Gris, ranging from “crisp” to “luscious.” It’s a silly sequel, because not only is it hard to understand (what’s the midpoint of crisp and luscious --  semi-crisp?), it’s unnecessary. Sales of Pinot Grigio/Gris continue to be hot because consumers already know what to expect from it, and there’s a lesson in that for Syrah.

There’s a widespread belief, among both consumers and the wine trade, that the name chosen for Pinot Grigio/Gris gives some indication of how it will taste. Pinot Grigio tends to be innocuous, a chilled, refreshing mouth-rinse. Producers who make a spicier, more expressive version usually call it Pinot Gris; the public has picked up on that. It’s a simple, elegant solution.

Why not do the same for Syrah/Shiraz? If its two main styles, in broad strokes, are defined by the Northern Rhône and Barossa Valley, why not call the wine whatever it’s closest to? If you make a ripe fruity wine, call it Shiraz. If you make a savory one, call it Syrah.

What if it’s in the middle? In today’s wine environment, any red wine that has savory notes is unusual: Hence, it’s Syrah.

There’s a stigma about the name Shiraz for producers who don’t want to be associated with Yellow Tail or the meltdown of the Australian wine market. This fear must be conquered, because the situation now isn’t working for anyone.

California and Washington make plenty of great, fruit-forward Shiraz and should grow more, but the market isn’t there. A clear system of naming would help build that market. Moreover, if there is a backlash against “Shiraz,” seeing the name on top-quality bottles would help.

Here’s my proposal in full:
1) A top producer needs to pull together the industry. Chateau Ste. Michelle has done this for Riesling, and it has made a huge difference. Volunteers?

2) Host an international symposium. Put the naming issue first on the agenda.

3) Try to get most large producers to agree. Some small producers won’t. Let them complain. This will bring attention to the grape and the issue.

4) Come up with a simple marketing campaign. “We call it Shiraz,” for example. (Wow, I just shorted myself out of six figures in consulting fees.)

I’d like to see the public enjoy more of the great Syrah/Shiraz that’s available. Making the name mean something would be a step in the right direction.

Author of “The Gray Market Report” blog, W. Blake Gray has written about wine for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Food & Wine, Wine Review Online, Decanter and other publications. His book California Winetopia was published in Japanese last year. Gray is chairman of the electoral college of the Vintners Hall of Fame. He lives in San Francisco. To comment on this Viewpoint, e-mail


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