Syrah Sent Sideways: Why Syrah Faded

Sideways, the film with Paul Giamatti, came out in 2004 and changed the wine world, unexpectedly. Giamatti’s character is a wine lover with very opinionated views about varietals (and vintages) and you find them out as he and his friend tour California’s Wine Country. By the end of the movie, it quite clear that he loves Pinot Noir and hates Merlot. With a passion.

With good acting and a good script, the movie becomes a hit, brings new life to the wine world and changes buying patterns. Surprisingly though, the biggest victim of the movie is not Merlot but Syrah (same as Shiraz), a wine that’s popularity had grown explosively in the years before. But let’s see what the movie did, and then how the public responded.

Yes, Pinot Noir’s reputation soared. It’s pretty clear why. When the main character is asked why he loves Pinot, he says:

It’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early ….Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.

As you may guess, Pinot Noir, which wasn’t exactly suffering, went through a renaissance.

And Pinot Noir is a rival to Syrah…growing in many of the same vineyards in California. Warm weather Syrah, the kind from California, South Africa and Australia that became popular before 2004, was in danger. It was massively commercialized through Australia’s super-cheap Yellowtail. In addition to explosion of Pinot Noir, any popular wine movie that separated wine’s mere mortals from its gods was doomed to hurt mass production wines such as Yellowtail and other cheap Syrahs. Sommeliers were soon crusading against big wines that didn’t pair well with food, that were too big.

It’s funny how a little wine knowledge is a dangerous thing. What the world knew as Syrah wasn’t the Syrah that the French had prized over the centuries. It isn’t merely a Big Pinot. It wasn’t a “fruit bomb.” Instead, Syrah, the jewel of the cold Northern Rhone valley, has a mineral, earthy taste along with the characteristic pepper and berry. It also has a tannic quality that benefits from aging, unseen in most newer varietals. Imagine someone aging a Yellowtail. Syrah is a rare example when non-Old World wine-making has actually hurt a varietal even as popularizing it.

Indeed, the proliferation and marketing of Californian, South African and Australian Syrah (or shiraz) has shown most of the wine world at a very reduced price only one quality of a multitalented grape. And that quality is better in a Pinot than a Syrah.

Luckily, the Northern Rhone valley keeps making the Syrah of old and traditional Syrahs are produced elsewhere, especially in colder areas of California’s. And someday, maybe there will be a movie were a wine-lover tours the Northern Rhone and rescues the reputation of Syrah, and speaks ill of Merlot.