Patrick J. Comiskey, American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink. University of California Press, 2016.
“My name is Mike and I drink Syrah.” “Hi, Mike,” the members of the group reply in unison.
That’s pretty much the way the meetings begin every Thursday night when my chapter of Syrah Drinkers Anonymous convenes. Some members try to hide their Syrah-drinking habit from family and friends, only “coming out” at the meetings. Others are more open, but cautious nonetheless. Everyone remembers the terrible shaming of people who drank Merlot during the Sideways years.
A Success Story
If you take the long view, Syrah and the other Rhône wine grape varieties are an amazing success here in the U.S. and most of Patrick J. Comiskey’s terrific new book is devoted to this story. Comiskey tells his readers pretty much everything about the grapes (including the “curious case” of American Petite Sirah) and traces their long and fascinating U.S. history.
Comiskey’s account highlights key figures (Randall Grahm, Steve Edmunds, Sean Thackery, Manfred Kankl) and key producers and regions (Tablas Creek, the Walla Walla Valley) as well as the story of the influential Rhone Ranger movement.
Comiskey really knows his stuff — deep research is apparent here — and he writes with a fluid style, so learning about American Rhône is a real pleasure. You don’t have to like Syrah (you don’t even have to like wine!) to enjoy this book and to learn from it.
American Rhône is a success, but Syrah has the blues. The latest Nielsen Company data (as reported in Wine Business Monthly) indicate that Syrah/Shiraz sales are down 11.1 percent in the last year in the sales channels that Nielsen monitors. That’s the biggest decline of any segment and comes after several years of falling demand. (The overall U.S. wine market increased by 4.9 percent in the same period.)
Syrah/Shiraz is now just the sixth best-selling red varietal wine in the U.S. market after Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec and Zinfandel. These figures cause my fellow Syrah Drinkers Anonymous members a good deal of distress, although we take comfort in the fact that Syrah is often a component in “Red Blend” and Rosé wines — two market segments that are experiencing booming growth.
What happened to Syrah/Shiraz? Well, that’s the subject of my favorite part of Comiskey’s book (the section is called “Irrational Exuberance”) where he closely examines the complicated domestic and international forces that turned Syrah’s boom into bust. People often talk about Syrah’s decline as if it were all Yellow Tail’s fault, but that’s over-simplified.
Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer predicted that Syrah would be the next big thing back in 2003, and it looked like he was right for a while until the bottom fell out of the market. Yellow Tail does figure in Comiskey’s analysis, of course, along with Southcorp/Penfolds, two Roberts (Mondavi and Parker) and, inevitably, Sideways. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book to anyone who is interested in wine market trends or history.
American Rhône is a terrific book, well-written and informative. It deserves a place on your wine bookshelf. Highly recommended.
This is the final Wine Economist column for 2016. See you next year! In the meantime, here’s a Lone/Rhone Ranger blast from the past. Hi-yo, Silver. Away!