Searching for the Distinctive Character of California Syrah

Searching for the Distinctive Character of California Syrah

The Stolpman comes from Ballard Canyon in eastern Santa Barbara County, a warmer site compared with the Sonoma Coast or Santa Rita Hills, and the wine tasted riper and lusher than the other two. It had some herbal qualities, more anise and menthol than leafy and brambly, but it was by far the most mainstream of the wines, in the sense that the primary flavor was fruit.

Though it was 100 percent syrah, and 50 percent whole bunch, it still was the least distinctive of the three, and harder to immediately identify as syrah. Nonetheless, it was balanced and energetic, not bad at all.

It was evidence, though, that the character of syrah is hugely dependent on where it’s grown, as was pointed out by one reader Randall Grahm, the longtime proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard and a leading advocate for California syrah (who, by the way, recently sold the brand to WarRoom Ventures, a small wine company).

In California, it has often been planted in sites that were too warm, yielding generic red wines without the character that, in an extreme version like the Sozet Carnas, can make you sit up and take notice.

These three wines offered a sort of sliding scale of syrah, with the Arnot-Roberts furthest on the distinctive edge. Of course many other variables go into winemaking, like, as Mr. Grahm also mentioned, clonal selection. But site is crucial.

Most readers seemed to have liked both the Arnot-Roberts and the Ojai, which Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va., called “funktastic.” The Stolpman, however was divisive. VSB of San Francisco called it good syrah, but Pat Rooney of Chicago found an “unsubtle jammy quality” that was a turnoff.

Interestingly, it was generic fruitiness that people found to be an issue rather than the more distinctive qualities of syrah that can be polarizing.

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