Syrah Speaks

The Santa Ynez Valley – with its east-west orientation, macroclimate gradations in heat and wind, microclimate slopes and sun orientation and geologic strata and soil distribution – has a unique environment for supporting the growth and vitality of wine grapes. Tradition, science and gut instinct, combined with 35 years of planting, observing and tasting, provide insights as to “what works where.”

Cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in western Santa Rita Hills appellation and warm climate Cabernets from the eastern reaches of Happy Canyon bracket the Valley terrain. In between, a dozen other varietals find their ideal locale. Interspersed and particularly well suited for the varied climates is the multidimensional Syrah grape.

In recognition of the grape’s importance in the wine community, a recent Syrah Symposium was held with winemakers and vineyard professionals from Beckman Vineyards, Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards, Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, Bridlewood Estate Winery and Palmeri Wines (Geyserville). Lively, informative discussions were complemented by coordinated tastings that took place in vineyards greening with the spring growth and nescient grapes.

Master sommelier Peter Neptune provided the background and worldwide impact of Syrah/Shiraz. The grape is ubiquitous and varied. No, it did not originate in Shiraz, Persia. Rather, DNA shows it to have come from a cross of the Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche varieties in the Northern Rhone Valley of France when the Romans made wine from Syrah grapes more than 2,000 years ago. California Syrah first appeared in the mid-1970s and has taken off in popularity in the last decade.

Five winemakers presented their philosophies, and despite somewhat divergent emphasis, their passion for Syrah and its expression held forth. Steve Beckman reveled in the influence of chalky soil, sun exposure and altitude of his Purisima Mountain Vineyard. But, he truly glowed as he spoke of his conversion to biodynamic farming, a new age approach that combines sustainable organic farming with biological soil and plant treatments and is applied by the use of an astrological calendar. The method was initially applied in a limited fashion and is now standard throughout the Purisima vineyard.

Kerry Damskey, the winemaker for Palmeri, grows Syrah grapes in mountain vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma. It is there that the soils, less rich than the valley floor alluvial soils, stress and concentrate the smaller berries, while cool temperatures and sun exposure above the fog allow long maturation. To Damskey, the terroir drives the quality with character of big fruit, smoke and cedar. Its namesake, Palmeri, is a small scrubby oak tree genus – surviving against the elements. Here, the struggling vine concentrates the fruit.

Clay Block, of Zaca Mesa, recalled how the Black Bear Block Syrah was first planted in 1979 from original cuttings, in legend, brought from the Estrella River Clone. These plantings continue to thrive on thick gnarled trunks. At the vineyard, other clones are now in trial – each with its own strength, some to be blended, and some to stand alone.

Emphasizing the significance of rootstocks and clonal combinations, Larry Shaffer, assistant winemaker at Fess Parker, says resistant roots are essential to protecting the plants from the devastating fungus, phylloxera. At the same time, varietal clones display properties that suit a specific terrain and environment, in which case they can be produced devoid of fungus, can be propagated and can be properly released. At the Parker vineyards, many combinations trials of rootstock/clone and even rootstock plantings with their original clones remain active with ongoing evaluation of what is best for the specific locales. Here, early decisions and planting hold substantial importance in the final product.

While each vintner emphasized a specific component in the process of creating a great wine by obtaining the best fruit, they all adhere to careful principles in the selection of ripeness, flavor and balance at harvest and subsequent precision in fermentation and aging. They allow the grape to express its characteristic derived from the vineyard.

Throughout the day, wines (some bottled, some barrel samples) were presented to illustrate the points emphasized by the vintner. As a finale, the group sat as a panel to further discuss the significance and future of Syrah in our area. The consensus: Syrah is clearly on the rise. Rhone varietals have blossomed in the Central Coast, brought to fruition by dedicated vintners in Santa Barbara county. The emphasis is to maintain complexity and high quality and not reproduce the homogenization of the inexpensive, imported Shiraz, while still keeping the wine it affordable and competitive.

These vintners expect Syrah will, ultimately, supplant the success of Santa Barbara county Pinot Noirs. Perhaps, a sequel to “Sideways” will come to validate the theory, though quality, innovation, careful farming, viticultural practices and consumer preference will most likely decide the outcome of the Pinot-Syrah competition.

So far, Syrah is making a fine statement on its own behalf.

Sip Tip

Check out the Palmeri website – – to read about winemaker Kerry Damskey’s observations as a consultant in the newly expanding wine regions of India.