Coke Roth

Still sexy after all these years

My cutting-edge research on reader captivation compels a column beginning with -- sex. Not the steamy kind found in trashy novels, and not the utterly revolting sort like thinking about your parents.

This love story began sometime shortly after B.C. became A.D., when a green mommy met an indigo daddy, resulting in the conception of a dark purple grape we now call Syrah. Rural legend fixed the conjugation situs near the Persian city of Shiraz, back when Iranians apparently tossed back wine. However, that theory fizzled when plant geneticists traced its lineage to pollination in southern France where this single seed was born.

Riveting so far, huh?

In the 1970s, we knew that Rhone wines such as Chateauneuf du Pape contained Syrah as a component along with Grenache and other Rhone varieties, never knowing the importance of having Syrah in the blend. In the mid-1970s, a few California mavericks released limited quantities of Syrah as a stand-alone variety, and it began making America's heart pound in the early 1980s.

Concurrently, yearning to enter the market of the juicy, value-priced, easy-drinking, dark purple Australian Shiraz, U.S. grape growers initiated a Syrah planting frenzy.

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In the early 1980s, the soft-spoken and gentlemanly Columbia Winery winemaker, David Lake -- a Master of Wine -- played Cupid between Syrah and Mike Sauer, owner of venerable Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. A leap of faith and a handshake resulted in Mike planting Syrah in quantities beyond anybody's definition of an experimental vineyard. It wasn't long after wineries and grape growers tasted David's wares that numerous Northwest wineries invited Syrah to tango.

The fair-haired David, thick with an always kind-worded British accent, had a smile that squinted his eyes shut. One autumn, David was punching down the cap on an open-top fermenter of Red Willow Syrah when he lost his balance and fell backward into the fermenting Otis Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon behind him. Suspended by his heels and elbows, his chest-wader-clad body mostly immersed with juice and skins, David shook his head, blinked a couple of times and said the strongest and most vile comment that ever came out of his mouth:

"Oh my..."

If you are drinking Syrah from the Northwest, it was David and Mike who arranged the marriage.

There is a lot more Syrah made than is labeled Syrah. It isn't even a well-guarded secret that other red wines needing a color boost or requiring assistance in midpalate fruit are augmented by a little kiss of Syrah -- and sometimes a full-body hug. The plummy/blackberry/blueberry fruit foundation of Syrah can build a loving richness to a Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot that is missing the "please don't go" middle. Syrah also plays the lead or a subordinate role in tasty blends with strange bedfellows such as Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Zinfandel. Syrah sometimes is co-fermented with a small percent of the white Rhone variety Viognier to bring an inviting citrus-grove and orchard-fruit fragrance to the nose.

While some maintain that Syrah and Shiraz are stylistically different, the feinschmecker crowd with whom I hang agrees that Syrah and Shiraz are pretty much interchangeable. It's sexy marketing. It's "Cool" vs. "Good-on-ya," and everyone likes "Good-on-ya."

Whatever you call it, the versatility of Syrah continues to impress. We all know and love the stylistically varied purple ones that we rub noses with before and during dinner. It is also exciting to know that my friends at Treveri Wine Cellars in Yakima, Wash., and Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in the heart of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley make sparkling Syrah to die for. A chilled Syrah rose can be a stellar summer beverage. And romance will be in the air with a Syrah fortified dessert wine holding hands with chocolate.

Some Syrah is feminine: voluptuous and smooth, with delicious curves, opulent and accessorized with a perfume that is down-right sensual. Sometimes it is masculine: muscular, structured and possessing an earthy, mineralic potency. I reverted to my original gameplan with the foregoing sexual innuendos partly to keep you awake and partly to demonstrate that Syrah's varied styles can be a French kiss to the palate, delivering an indulgent passion to your organoleptic pleasure epicenter.

Dang, it's getting hot in here.

The price of Syrah ranges from downright cheap to requiring taking out a second mortgage. In the early 1980s, I first tasted Pensfold Grange, the brilliant Australian Shiraz. The price was $300, back when $300 was 300 bucks. So, if you think only the French are proud of their wines, so are the Aussies. And so are some in the Northwest.

Whether you are looking to date a wine with a sparkling personality, desire a wine that blushes tastefully, or dream of a wine to bring home to the parents because it offers flavorful luxuriance and a wealth of affectionate richness, Syrah is ready to be embraced, to be loved and consumed in moderation. Frequently.

COKE ROTH is an attorney who lives in Richland, Wash. He is an original member of Wine Press Northwest's tasting panel. Learn more about him at cokerothlaw.com.

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