Several weeks back, I wrote a column about syrah, in which I asserted that this great if temperamental varietal has tremendous potential, but along its journey from grape to wine often gets lost, mugged or tired. You hope and hope and hope, too frequently arriving at disappointment. Syrah is like soccer: 90 loping minutes of play for a final score of 2-1.

I love watching soccer, and I love following syrah. They are both, in their own way, The Beautiful Game. But there’s a reason soccer is less popular in the United States than other more forthright, propulsive sports, and there’s a reason syrah suffers also-ran status among American drinkers. There’s a lot of movement but not enough payoff.

I wrote in that earlier piece that syrah “has few friends,” and many readers took my assertion as a claim that its loneliness was deserved. I meant the opposite. I still believe that the greatest single-varietal syrah wines are from the northern Rhône, with scattered competition from selected sites in California.

I’ve read about extraordinary syrah from Chile and Australia, though I’ve tasted only a handful from the latter and none from the former.

Anyway, I have never received as much reader mail for a column as I did for that one, most of the responses critical. Quite a few comments said something like, “You obviously have not tried the X, because the X is incredible. You need to try the X.”

The majority of those Xs are not available in Maine, alas. It was nonetheless interesting that many were from Washington. The increasing number of distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Washington have tremendous geological and climatic diversity, and Walla Walla, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope and Yakima Valley are but a few of those that are gaining renown for their syrahs. Again: We Mainers don’t yet have access to this multiplicity. However, inspired by the testimonials of readers who wrote to me, I drank as many promising Washington syrahs as I could over the past few weeks.


After which, I stand by my previous assertions. At a relatively high level – the wines under consideration all had retail prices above $15, most of them significantly above – we’re still in a haystack scrounging for needles. It’s not that the disappointing wines are bad. They’re just not syrah. Or they’re at least not the syrah that haunts my dreams, an Icarus who would head for the smoldering center of the earth rather than the blazing core of the sun.

The frustrating syrahs fly too high. The grapes hang too long on vines growing in soils that are too dense. In the cellar, they are treated with too much new oak. The aim seems to be power without restraint, size without structure, depth without tone. The effect is as if syrah had dressed up for Halloween as grenache, or shiraz. We taste oozing blueberries, allspice, toasted wood. Yes, Owen Rowe ‘Ex Umbris’ 2010 ($29), I’m talking to you. You too, K Vintners ‘The Deal’ 2011 ($35).

I’m left with an overwhelming sense of shortcuts having been taken.

Am I wrong to ask an objectively good wine to be something other than what it is? Of course. But some of these wines are “good” only in that they are well made, not flawed, and carry their weight well. They are not “good” in the sense of being Good. They are missing the spiritual confidence of wines whose wholes exceed their sums. They may please us, but they won’t move us. They don’t take on the risk and promise of syrah, and so they can never meet its challenge: a high-wire act of density, electrification, precision, meatiness, savoriness – both elemental and pretty.

Hey, but wait! I found two that I love! The Hedges Cuvée Marcel Dupont 2011 ($26) is terrific and true. From the Red Mountain AVA, better known for its cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux blends, this syrah has the restorative, wholesome quality of a well-seasoned meat broth, all garlic, herbs and fresh-ground black pepper.

Big-boned but taut, its iron spine suggests blue steel rather than blueberry. The tantalizing fruits are like what you’d find in a dinner dish that uses fruit as accent rather than a dessert that places fruit front and center. An earthy, tobacco note lends support to the Hedges family’s intention to make this wine as homage to their French ancestry (including Tom Hedges’ grandfather-in-law, Marcel Dupont). Already a few years old, it holds the promise of a Rhône syrah to improve in the cellar over the next three to five.


I shouldn’t have been surprised that I preferred the lower-priced wine from K Vintners’ Charles Smith to his bigger/badder/bolder line. The Boom Boom Syrah 2013 ($17), from sourced fruit in Columbia Valley as well as Yakima Valley and Wahluke Slope, has a dark, breaking heart.

The fruit is black, the chocolate undertone is Baker’s, and the other flavors seem to float up from bedrock beneath an ocean, absorbing kelp and sea salt as they rise. The textbook stewy gaminess is there, too, and wet earth, dried lavender, pencil lead. At 13.5 percent alcohol (most others, good or bad, are above 14 percent), it’s livelier than most, less intent on tuckering you out. Its freshness, a hallmark of great Rhône syrah, is what sets it apart.

These are both French-inspired syrahs, no doubt. That’s what I like. Some of the bigger and fruitier syrahs inspired by other regions are, to repeat, good wines. They’re just not for me.

I’m grateful to readers who wrote and helped me see where I truly stand.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at

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