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Star/NVV tasting panel picks 6 Napa Valley Syrahs to like

Star/NVV tasting panel picks 6 Napa Valley Syrahs to like

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Put a group of Napa Valley winemakers, retailers and other wine trades all in one room to talk about syrah, and a lively discussion ensues. Mirroring the recent press about syrah, the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel members discussed everything from consumer perceptions to its sales during last week’s meeting at the CIA’s Rudd Center.

Napa Valley can make great syrah — of that everyone was sure. Bob Bath, master sommelier and instructor at the CIA, noted, “Napa Valley was producing some great syrahs in the 1990s, from the Swansons to Sean Thackery.”

Of the three flights of Napa Valley syrahs that the panelists tasted blind last week, there was concern, however, about the wide range of styles. Winemaker Kari Auringer stated that syrah was “difficult to sell because they are so different across the board.”

Jac Cole of Spring Mountain Vineyard noted that the same had been true of zinfandel, and members discussed the fact that zinfandel overcame this hurdle, having built up an identity for itself.

Eric Carpenter of Dean & DeLuca summed up the group’s feeling that “syrah has not yet found an identity here.”

Syrah has been put on the spot with demands for it to be “the next big thing,” and expectations that it sell like hotcakes. But panelists understood that syrah might just need time to evolve here. As John Skupny of Lang & Reed put it, “We go from zero to 60 in the birthday stage” in making demands on the syrah wines produced in Napa Valley.

 “The best syrahs here are what Napa Valley winemakers are trying to get out of their cabernet sauvignons — lusciousness and up-front fruit,” said Cole, noting new wine drinkers as well as those searching out lush red wines would appreciate syrah.

The tasting panel’s discussion on Napa Valley syrah was one of the longest on record, providing more proof that syrah needs to be talked about. How much do we all know about the grape and what can be expected from it?

Syrah’s homeland, the Rhone Valley of France, produces some of the world’s most sensual wines. Syrah can be incredibly rich on the palate with deep, captivating flavors that go from rich fruits to a savory meatiness to exotic flowers and spices. Napa Valley takes this grape and uses its regional magic to create wines that are super-silky with soft tannins and lots of bold fruit flavor. With syrah, you are treated to a new set of aromas and flavors together with a little rapture and intrigue.

To get a taste of Napa Valley syrah, the panelists recommend these wines from its blind tasting of three flights from the 2008 and 2009 vintages:

• Fortunati Vineyards 2008 Oak Knoll District ($32). The Fortunati Vineyard in Oak Knoll seems to favor syrah, producing wines like this one crafted under the vineyard’s label. This wine is rich and full of concentrated dark cherry and spice flavors. You’ll want smoky ribs with this syrah.

• Darioush Winery Signature Shiraz 2008 Napa Valley ($68). Although given the Australian name for syrah, this wine is made using old Australian shiraz and Rhone grape clones — the two places that have made the loudest statements with wines from this grape. This one is big, with concentrated dark fruit flavors. Choose a nice, juicy steak for this wine.

• Spotted Owl Vineyards “Lev’s Cuvee” 2009 Mt. Veeder ($45) is named after owner Mikhail’s father, Lev. The vineyard itself is named after an owl that stopped to visit, and decided to stay after liking what it saw on Mt. Veeder. This syrah has a nice earthiness, even green forest in it, to give it intrigue.

Three others chosen by the group are:

• Keenan Winery Napa Valley 2008 ($38), which is a big wine with dark berries, earth and oak influences spices.

• Porter Family Vineyards 2008 Coombsville ($47) has rich, ripe red fruits and floral notes that lead to dark berry fruits on the palate.

• John Anthony Vineyards 2009 ($46) has sweet baking spices and red fruits with smoky wood flavors.

You will want rich red meats or slow-cooked roasts and stews with these wines. They have concentrated fruit flavors and lots of stuffing. The best part of your meal, however, will be in the discovery of a whole new set of wine flavors.

 Catherine Seda is the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer and works for Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa. She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and enjoys all things wine. Contact her at Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Not all wines submitted are chosen to be tasted, as often there are more wines submitted than tasted. The wines are chosen at random. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program; visit and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.

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