SLO County Wineries News

Friday, December 5, 2008

San Luis Obispo County, Most Syrah Acreage in California

By Laurie Daniel
for the Mercury News

There was a time when Paso Robles probably was best-known for its zinfandels. Its cabernet sauvignon also definitely has fans, and it's the most widely planted grape in the appellation. But syrah, which has been a hard sell for many California vintners, has moved to the forefront in Paso Robles.

It's tough to say why syrah has gained traction there. In general, it's an adaptable grape. It grows well in a variety of surroundings, though a cool-climate syrah will have different flavors than one grown in a warmer place. It produces a user-friendly wine with plump fruit and intriguing spicy notes. And it's versatile at the table, which is why it's a good bet for holiday meals. Or, as Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery puts it: "Syrah is the wine that merlot wanted to be." But those qualities hold for syrah from many places — why is it doing so well in Paso Robles?

Part of the success may have to do with quantity. San Luis Obispo County has the most syrah acreage in California, and more than two-thirds of that is in Paso Robles (though syrah still accounts for only about 10 percent of the appellation's vineyards).

Stacie Jacob, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine County Alliance, estimates that 90 percent of the group's member wineries produce a syrah or other Rhone-style wine. "Even your longstanding cab producers "... do a syrah," she says. In addition, while much of the cabernet fruit grown in Paso Robles goes out of the area and is used in central coast or California blends, she says, "a lot of the syrah stays in Paso Robles."

Another factor is focus. While many areas that produce syrah are better known for other varietals, "Paso Robles made a name for itself in Rhones," says Jason Haas, general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard.

History may be playing a role, too. The grape didn't take off in California until after Eberle planted a block of syrah in 1974 at Estrella River Winery (now Meridian Vineyards) in Paso Robles, using cuttings from the experimental vineyard at the University of California-Davis. For a number of years, he was the only source for syrah vines, which he sold to nurseries and other wineries; that particular selection of syrah is now widely planted and has become known as the Estrella clone.

The arrival of Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1989 was also important to the development and reputation of Paso Robles syrah. The winery was founded on the west side by brothers Jean Pierre and Francois Perrin, owners of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France's southern Rhone region, and Robert Haas, their U.S. importer. The partners had looked for a spot with climate and soils similar to Beaucastel's.

The days at Tablas were hotter than at Beaucastel, but the nights were colder, and the partners also liked the calcareous soils. Tablas Creek's founding conferred nearly instant credibility on the area as a place to grow Rhone grapes.

Then there's the matter of the Hospice du Rhone, billed as the world's largest tasting of wines made from Rhone grapes. The event, which found a permanent home in Paso Robles in 1997, attracts consumers, trade and winemakers from far and wide, and Paso wines are prominently featured.

Jason Haas thinks those cold nights are an important reason that syrah does so well in Paso Robles. "Syrah's real flaw is that it tends to be prone to lose its acids," he says. But the cold nights help the grapes retain acidity, even when they get very ripe.