The Grapes Nobody Wants

California Syrah

According to a wine country joke, what’s the difference between a case of pneumonia and a case of Syrah?

You’ll get rid of a case of pneumonia sooner or later.

If you’re a California winemaker, the joke isn’t so funny. More than 10,000 acres of the grape variety have been planted in recent years, and no one seems to be buying it. Most consumers, in fact, aren’t even interested in trying it. Native to France’s Rhone Valley, Syrah tend to produce concentrated and powerful red wines—the very type that most American drinkers seem to like. When it comes to Syrah, though, the public is drawing a blank.

The problem is that most major wine trends are consumer-led. After the “French Paradox” episode on 60 Minutes in the early 1990s, sales of Merlot increased 45% and stayed high for nearly a decade. The movie Sideways ignited a consumer mania for Pinot Noir, something which most industry insiders never could have predicted. It’s the direct opposite of spirits marketing, which is top-down—a bunch of executives decide on the next trend, then invest enough money to make it happen. California winemakers have been busy planting Syrah, having apparently made a group decision that it would be “the next hot grape,” but the public doesn’t agree.

This isn’t the first time, either. When the Merlot craze appeared to be running its course, many California wineries became convinced that Sangiovese would be the next popular grape variety. Plantings of Sangiovese expanded exponentially until wineries noticed that the wine was sitting unsold on retail shelves. Most of it was eventually pulled out. Given the large amounts of money involved, not to mention the four or five years it takes for the vines to produce acceptable fruit, you would think these guys might want to talk to a few consumers first.

Not so. The Syrah debacle isn’t even over, and we’re already hearing rumblings about Grenache—the next hot grape variety.  It’s softer than Syrah, goes the line, it bears a resemblance to Pinot Noir, it’s popular in Australia…


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