'Pneumonia's Last Syrah' Reframes a Debate

December 2010
by Jason Haas
Most followers of wine are aware that Syrah faces a challenging marketplace. Even articles that are complimentary of Syrah (as nearly all of them are) feel compelled to begin with a story about how hard the wines are to sell. A recent article by Eric Asimov in The New York Times began, “There’s a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.”

How did we get here? I think it was inevitable that demand would lag compared to supply, given the rapid increase in planting during the 1990s. In 1992, there were 867 acres of Syrah planted in California, 0.7% of the total red grape acreage. By 2000, that figure had increased to 12,699 acres, 4.6% of red grape acreage, an absolute increase of more than 1,400%, and a percentage increase of 657%. Much of this planting was speculative and took place in areas such as the hot San Joaquin Valley, which in retrospect seem like a long shot ever to have produced great wine from cool climate-loving Syrah.

It can hardly be surprising that the public wasn’t ready when all this wine appeared on the market. The northern Rhone, Syrah’s ancestral home, is much smaller—and produces much less wine—than Burgundy or Bordeaux. The public’s embrace of this great grape was certainly complicated by confusion surrounding competing styles (Hot climate and jammy? Cool climate and spicy?) and name confusion (Syrah? Shiraz?), but I think that given the incredible speculative planting these were secondary factors. (Editor’s note: See Viewpoint, September 2010 for more about this topic.)

So, what to do? I used to think that for a Rhone producer like Tablas Creek, or a marketing organization like the Rhone Rangers (on whose board I’ve served for the past six years), the best thing to do was to ignore the sales issues and focus on the grape’s positive characteristics in the hopes that demand would naturally grow to meet supply. But I think that time has passed. When mainstream articles about Syrah lead with anecdotes about how hard they are to sell, it’s time for more deliberate action. And Asimov’s article started a chain of events that we Rhone Rangers hope may help turn around Syrah’s fortunes.

Asimov’s article spurred a blog on Huffington Post by Dr. Orin Levine, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Levine, who is one of the world’s leading experts on pneumonia and also a wine lover, posted a challenge to Syrah producers and retailers to both promote their Syrah and help eradicate pneumonia by donating $10 for each case of Syrah sold to consumers in November 2010 to pneumonia vaccine dissemination. Why $10? That’s the cost to produce and administer one dose of vaccine. Why pneumonia? It’s the leading cause of death in children worldwide, and it’s totally preventable.

In October, the Rhone Rangers announced Pneumonia’s Last Syrah: a joint program between Rhone Rangers, IVAC and the GAVI Alliance, a unique public/private partnership that since its launch in 2000 has funded the immunization of more than 250 million children. As a part of Pneumonia’s Last Syrah, participating wineries have been contributing $10 per case to GAVI. In turn, GAVI has been using its public relations muscle to publicize this agreement and promote the wineries that participate, and the Rhone Rangers are promoting the agreement within the wine world.

For all its challenges, Syrah has amazing fans within the wine trade and wine-loving public, and it’s been interesting to see the enthusiastic response since I started publicizing Tablas Creek’s participation. The original intent of the promotion was to spur direct sales, but when I announced Tablas Creek’s participation in a New York kickoff event to our mailing list, I received three quick messages back from restaurants asking if we’d extend the donation to wholesale sales if they poured our Syrah by the glass for the month. I also heard from writers, customers and our distributor, all sharing their support and wanting to be a part of the program. So, I think we’re on to something. For more information, visit

It seems to me at least possible that this can help reframe the debate about Syrah more productively, should spur direct sales and seems to have the sort of hook that could even get mainstream media coverage. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving grape.

Jason Haas is a partner and general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., where he is a member of the winemaking committee, manages distribution, directs marketing and writes a blog, where a version of this article first appeared.

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