Syrah winemakers celebrate Walla Walla

By on July 1, 2014

Samples from six bottlings of Syrah from throughout the world are presented at the start of the winemaker panel portion of Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Samples from six bottlings of Syrah from throughout the world are presented at the start of the winemaker panel portion of Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Friday, June 20, 2014. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part report from the winemakers’ panel during Celebrate Walla Walla Valley — The World of Syrah, held last month in Walla Walla, Wash.

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — It’s natural for Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars to play to the hometown crowd while serenading Syrah, but that appreciation and fascination seemed natural throughout the international panel of winemakers at the second annual Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine festival.

Just how to make Syrah more popular was an underlying theme all weekend during the annual festival staged by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance to promote tourism. And Harrington has a major stake in the Rhône variety, which dominates Cabernet Sauvignon at his 6,000-case downtown winery.

“We’re going to increase Syrah production by about 1,500 cases, and we’re going to take Cab down a little bit,” Harrington told the winemakers panel and public seminar at the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla. “It’s kind of Washington’s hometown hero grape. It’s not Cabernet — and I know Cabernet is still king — but Syrah’s different than Cabernet, and it’s like ‘We don’t want to drink Cabernet.’ It’s kind of our Oregon Pinot grape. (Syrah) grows really well here, and we’re known for our Syrah. And it goes with our food.

“I don’t know want to jinx it, so that’s why I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Harrington added with a chuckle.

Celebrate switches from Syrah to Merlot in 2015

Garrison Creek Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., played host to Vintage Pour of the Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Garrison Creek Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., played host to Vintage Pour of the Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Photo by Richard Duval Images/Courtesy of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance)

Last year, the focus of the inaugural Celebrate was Cabernet Sauvignon. Next year, the weekend in Walla Walla will be built around Merlot as event organizers plan to rotate among the three red varieties. Fans of the series should expect the topic of promoting and selling Merlot to come up — just as it was with Syrah.

Kevin Sass, winemaker for Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., offered up his point of view regarding sales of Syrah.

“Our Syrah is our best selling wine in our tasting room, but when you go to Houston or Dallas, people order Cabernet,” Sass said. “All the buyers will sit there and say, ‘I could drink this all day, and my people would love it if they would just try it.’

“I don’t know what else we can do in the Syrah category,” Sass continued. “In the last few years, Syrah from California has been the No. 1 wine in the world from Wine Spectator with Shafer (2012) and Saxum (2010), but it hasn’t picked up. Maybe seminars like this will help. Maybe a movie? The good news is I’m in winemaking — not marketing.”

áMaurice, Gramercy, Reynvaan represent Walla Walla

Many of the Walla Walla Valley’s highest-profile wineries make Syrah a focus of their programs, and the winemakers were represented at the seminar included Anna Schafer of áMaurice Cellars and Matt Reynvaan of Reynvaan Family Vineyards.

Anna Schafer, winemaker of áMaurice Cellars, listens to master sommelier Rajat Parr as he moderates the winemaker panel portion of Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Anna Schafer, winemaker of áMaurice Cellars, listens to master sommelier Rajat Parr as he moderates the winemaker panel seminar of Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Each of the three Walla Walla vintners began to chase their dream in 2004, thanks largely to the lure of Syrah, Schafer said.

“Syrah is one of those great chameleons you can plant anywhere and have a beautiful expression,” she said.

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, a proposed American Viticultural Area and terroir-driven region of the Walla Walla Valley, received the spotlight throughout the three-day festival. Wines from the those Oregon cobblestones grabbed the attention of the visiting winemakers, who seemed astounded by the diversity of the entire Walla Walla Valley.

“It’s exciting for me to see the wines from The Rocks and from the loess (soils),” said Australian winemaker Gary Mills, who spent two years working with the renowned Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards in Napa. “It’s wonderful to see such disparate terroirs so close together in one small region. I think The Rocks are legitimately one of the most exciting terroirs I’ve seen in the world, and I think you’ll be the next big talked-about region.”

A decade ago, Reynvaan and his family began sinking roots into those fist-sized stones that remind many of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“From a viticulture standpoint, it’s definitely not the easiest way to farm anything,” Reynvaan said. “There are a lot of problems with how we farm it, but it is a special place. We really try to craft wines that show place.”

Harrington said it is the entire Walla Walla Valley, not just the Milton-Freewater area, that he finds most attractive.

“What is really really great and particularly interesting about the Walla Walla Valley is that you can make all styles of Syrah,” Harrington said. “There’s been a lot of confusion about Syrah. Is it going to be in a lean, herby style or big, full-bodied style? I think there’s a place for both, and I don’t think there’s a place in the middle. Either you pick Syrah late or you pick it early. If you pick it in the middle, I think you end up with something that’s maybe not as interesting.”

Syrah qualities more like Pinot Noir than Cab

Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars pours at Garrison Creek Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., during Vintage Pour of the Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars pours his 2007 Levitation Syrah at Garrison Creek Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., during Vintage Pour of the Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah on Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Acclaimed sommelier Rajat Parr, wine director for the Mina Group Restaurant Group, served as the panel moderator, and his recent move into winemaking as a producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Santa Rita Hills allowed him to speak about Syrah on a variety of levels.

“In the New World, especially in California and Washington, you have to come together and really promote more Syrah because it’s not the easiest thing to grow or to make — and definitely not easy to sell,” Parr said. “It’s more like Pinot Noir than Cabernet. It likes more air. It likes whole bunches. It doesn’t like a whole lot of new oak.”

Harrington also appreciates balance and structure that can be showcased in Syrah.

“What I found here is that you can make lower-alcohol wines and wines that have acid, but still have kind of the best of what you find in California, as well as he fruitiness and the beauty and the earthiness of the Rhône Valley,” Harrington said.

Parr also pointed out that one of the latest trends among Syrah producers — using whole-cluster fermentation — has its roots in history “as a traditional way of making wine from hundreds of years ago when there were no destemmers. You just put whole bunches in the fermentation vat and just let it ferment.”

And while Pinot Noir often is finicky in the vineyard, Syrah can be a wild child in the cellar.

“Syrah is a naturally reductive grape,” Parr said. “If you make it in a very clean fashion, you can get a very austere wine. The more you play with it, you pick up the funkiness, the dirtiness —  sometimes to an extreme. You can also lose the wine, too, to taint and brettanomyces.”

In theory, interest in terroir should lift Syrah sales

The Freewater very cobbly loam soil type dominates the proposed The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area in Oregon.

The Freewater very cobbly loam soil type dominates the proposed The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area in Oregon. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

A thought-provoking thread to the panel discussion centered on the heightened interest in terroir among winemakers and consumers, and it seems connected to society wanting to buy local products. There was a bit of irony sitting on the panel, with Mills’ mentor in America — Paul Draper — credited with launching the vineyard-designated movement in the United States.

“Whether it’s anti-big corporations, anti-GMO, anti-pesticide or herbicide, it’s all apart of the same movement of people being more aware of their environment and grow more sustainably,” Parr said.

All of those factors would seem to make Syrah more appealing that it is, however.

“I think that for all seven of us here, our No. 1 goal is to be a proponent of Syrah,” Parr said. “In Walla Walla, there’s a camaraderie, there’s a friendship, and there’s a lot of work done in the community to promote Syrah. If that wasn’t the case, there wouldn’t be a celebration of Syrah. We’d be doing something else right now.”

Based on the worldwide success of Shiraz, those in the audience should not have been surprised to hear from the Jamsheed winemaker that Syrah is embraced in his native Australia.

“I come from the land where Syrah is king, so we have no problem selling it whatsoever,” Mills said. “We have problems selling the weedy Cabernet. Good wine still sells. You make interesting wine that people want to drink and you price it, it will sell.”

Editor’s note: The second part of the Celebrate Walla Walla report will focus on the wines presented by the panel and the stories behind them.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast and contributor to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, the region's longest-running golf publication.

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