So, you ask, what's the best wine in California? Depending on how we approach the question, the answer may surprise you. If we understand "best" in commercial terms, there's no doubt that Chardonnay would come out on top because of its leadership in sales. If we take "best" to mean the wine that compares most favorably to its classic counterparts from Europe in terms of sheer quality, then Cabernet Sauvignon would get the nod. However, if "best" is defined as "most consistently delicious," then my vote would go to relatively little-known Syrah.
It is almost impossible to find a Syrah from California that is less than very good, and I swear I've been trying. The number of available bottlings has swelled from a mere handful to nearly 40 during the past 15 years, and I've tasted every vintage of every release I could find. Almost without fail, these wines feature densely pigmented blackberry fruit, a host of interesting aromatic complexities, lush texture and ripe balancing tannin.
This consistent excellence is especially remarkable in light of the fact that almost every wine had to overcome the disadvantages of being produced from young vines and of being made by winemakers who have had little experience with the grape. Syrah also shows amazing viticultural versatility, with equally impressive results in warm areas (like Dry Creek or the Sierra Foothills) and in cool districts (like Carneros or Santa Barbara Country). It seems to work well with oak barrels that are either new, old, French or American, and the finished wines are delicious when first released but also capable of improvement with aging.
Like Pinot Noir, Syrah is delicious with a wide variety of foods (ranging from simple grilled fare like ribs and burgers to more esoteric dishes based on lamb or game). Like Zinfandel, it has an uncanny ability to serve with equal success as a partner to mid-winter stews or mid-summer barbecues, provided that it is given a light chilling when temperatures rise. Like Merlot, it offers rich, full-bodied flavors without the dry tannins sometimes found in Cabernet. However, Syrah is easier to grow and make than Pinot Noir, more classy and complex than Zinfandel, and more distinctive and reliable than Merlot.
The only apparent drawback of California Syrah is that, for the moment, there simply isn't enough of the stuff to go around. Many plantings are relatively small, post-phyloxera experiments, which translates into bottlings that sell out quickly despite relatively high prices born of scarcity and novelty.
Yet, I'm convinced that even this problem will be surmounted before long. Plantings will proliferate and be enlarged as the word gets out, and since Syrah vines can produce good juice even at higher crop levels in warmer, less expensive vineyards, it won't be long before availability goes up and prices come down. I'm convinced that California will soon field competitors for the affordable renditions coming from Australia (under the name of Shiraz), and the only real question is whether high-end versions will attain the nobility of French Syrah from Hermitage and Cote-Rotie.
For now, my advice is to get out there and taste the wave of the future. In the hope of easing the frustrations of shopping under shortage conditions, I've omitted tasting notes below to offer a more inclusive listing of every Syrah that performed well in my recent tastings that is currently available from D.C. wholesalers. Wines appear in rough order of preference, with distributors and approximate prices indicated in parentheses. For future reference, I've also included a list of other excellent producers whose Syrahs are worth buying on reputation.
Recommended Wines: Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley 1996 ($38, Bacchus); The Ojai Vineyard California 1997 ($19, Country Vintner); Cambria Winery Santa Maria Valley Tepusquet Vineyard 1996 ($17, Kronheim); Terre Rouge Shenandoah Valley Sentinel Oak Vineyard Pyramid Block 1996 ($28, Kysela); Ravenswood Sonoma County "Icon" Red Wine 1996 ($27, Wine Source); Cline Cellars Carneros 1996 ($15, Bacchus); Sebastiani Vineyards Dry Creek Valley 1995 ($19); Lockwood Vineyard Monterey 1995 ($13.50, Bacchus); Marietta Cellars California 1996 ($16, Washington Wholesale); Morgan Winery Monterey 1996 ($22, Bacchus); Renwood Winery Amador County 1995 ($25, Bacchus); Shooting Star Wines Lake County 1997 ($12, Forman); St. Amant Winery California 1997 ($14, Wine Source); Russian Hill Estate Winery Russian River Valley 1997 ($19, Wine Source).
Other Top Producers: Alban, Araujo, Beckmen, Bedford-Thompson, Bonterra, Dehlinger, Eberle, Edmunds St. John, Geyser Peak, Jade Mountain, Jaffurs, Kunde, McDowell, Meridian, Andrew Murray, Fess Parker, Joseph Phelps, Qupe, Seven Peaks, Sean Thackrey, Zaca Mesa.
Michael Franz will be answering questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.