Washington Syrah: Great Quality Doesn’t Always Translate into Great Sales

By Kori ~ June 26th, 2009.

First off, as regular readers know, I love Syrah, and I believe that some of the best Syrah in the world is made in Washington State. In fact, the first wine that ever garnered our highest quality rating, 5 stars (out of 5) was a Fielding Hills Syrah from Washington. But as the title of this post suggests, great quality doesn’t always translate into great sales.

Washington SyrahSince the Washington Syrah seminar at Vintage Walla Walla earlier this month, the blogosphere has been buzzing about the discussion moderated by noted northwest wine writer Paul Gregutt. In a post on his blog, Gregutt said, “The question I intended to pose [at the seminar] was “how do these Washington syrahs age?… but it soon became apparent that the real topic of the day was not how will they age – none of them showed any signs of wearing out anytime soon – but why don’t consumers flock to these wines?”

Gregutt went further by saying that “as I look over my tasting notes for the past few years, it is the syrahs that garner the highest scores as a group. It is a syrah that finally toppled my resistance to the 100 point barrier [2006 Charles Smith Royal City Syrah]. It is syrah that winemakers in this state almost universally love.”

A number of people, both inside and outside the wine business, say the price issue is what hurts the sale of Washington Syrah in today’s economy, but I don’t really believe that argument holds much water. In a comment on Sean Sullivan’s Washington Wine Report blog, I listed the following Washington Syrahs that we’ve rated at least 4 stars (out of 5) at two different price points (<$15 and <$30), neither of which breaks the bank:

Columbia Crest Two Vines Shiraz, $7
Giant Wine Co. Sinner’s Punch 2006 (90% Syrah), $14

Snoqualmie Reserve Syrah 2004, $17
Columbia Crest Reserve Syrah 2006, $20
Syncline Columbia Valley Syrah 2006, $22
Dusted Valley Stained Tooth Syrah 2006, $24
Gilbert Syrah 2005 and 2006, $25
Darby The Dark Side Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2006, $25
William Church Yakima Valley Syrah 2006, $25
Chateau Ste Michelle Ethos Syrah 2004, $26
Watermill Reserve Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2005, $28
Stephenson Syrah 2005 and 2006, $28
Basel Cellars Syrah 2005, $28

“When it comes to fine red wines at fair prices, Washington excels.” –Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator, July 31, 2009

I will acknowledge that there are some perception issues, but I don’t believe that it is the actual price of Washington Syrah that is the problem. Let me explain. The average wine consumer is used to paying less than $10 for Yellow Tail Shiraz at the grocery store so they wonder why they should pay over $30 for wine made from the same grape in Washington even though there is no comparison in quality. On the other hand, $30 for a Washington Cabernet Sauvignon can seem like a bargain when compared to a $50 or $100 Napa Valley Cab which is often the benchmark for even the novice wine consumer.

Another factor that I think is at play here, and may actually have more to do with lagging sales than price, is the fact that Syrah is still so new in Washington (the first Syrah vines in Washington were planted at Red Willow Vineyard in 1986 and it was years later before significant acreage was in production) that many wine lovers can’t imagine it can be so good so soon. But it is and it’ll only get better as the vineyards mature and the winemakers learn where and how they do best.

While great quality doesn’t always translate into great sales, it should where Washington Syrah is concerned. As you can see from the list above, there are some great values on wonderful Washington Syrah available to you right now. Take advantage of these bargains while they last! I believe that it is only a matter of time before Washington Syrah is universally acclaimed as world class—and the demand and prices will reflect it.

Filed under: American Wine, Shiraz/Syrah, Vineyards, Washington State Wine, Wines Over $25, Wines Under $10, Wines Under $15, Wines Under $20, Wines Under $25

Reader's Comments

  1. Sean Sullivan | June 26th, 2009 at 11:09 am

    After collecting people’s thoughts on value syrahs, I tend to agree with your assessment. While it doesn’t seem like there are that many great syrahs being made in Washington at $15, this could probably be said of a number of other varietals too. Some good wines to be had at this price point as well as lots of plonk.

    When you look at the $30 and under range, the list of excellent Washington syrah is almost endless. This is a very reasonable price to pay in my mind for these wines, although I agree that there may be a Yellow Tail effect here for some. There are also a lot of excellent Rhone wines at reasonable prices that compete with these wines. That said, clearly at least some people are accustomed to paying large sums of money for some of Penfolds’ wines, so it’s not as if you can’t sell high priced syrah.

    I tend to think this issue will be corrected as the high scores continue to roll in. Then of course, we’ll be lamenting that the prices have become so exorbitantly high! In the meantime, we can just keep enjoying some of the finest wines Washington has to offer.

    Next up for me on this issue is looking at some score and price point comparison data as well as trying to collect some thoughts on this from winemakers.

  2. Kori | June 27th, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Glad you agree. When the time comes that these wines are truly appreciated for how good they are, we will definitely look back on the “good ole days” when we could get them at bargain prices. I’m anxious to see what your score/price comparison shows. Cheers!