June 18, 2006
Should Syrah be California's Official Wine?

Memo to Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco:

Ah, honorable senator, you think maybe there's time to amend that measure you introduced a few months ago to declare zinfandel California's official state wine? I know, I know, you've already amended it so zinfandel would be California's "historic" wine instead of "state" wine.

But politics as usual aside, something happened at the end of the California State Fair wine competition this afternoon that in the sense of fair play I feel needs to be brought to your attention.

If you recall, a year ago I suggested that zinfandel be California's state wine, in part because seven of the 12 wines up for sweepstakes at the State Fair were zinfandels. Those zinfandels came from a wide range of the state's grape-growing regions, an indication of how at home the variety is in California. Never mind that a syrah eventually won the sweepstakes award, a clear case of judges being unable to agree on which of the seven zinfandels was the strongest candidate. If you've ever been a delegate to a presidential nominating convention, you know how it goes.

Against that backdrop, look at what happened today: A syrah won the red-wine sweepstakes at the State Fair. (Before we go on, note this: In the past, the State Fair has chosen just one overall sweepstakes wine. But for the first time this year, it chose a best-of-show white wine, a best-of- show red wine, and a best-of-show dessert wine.)

More to the point, 13 wines were up for consideration as best-of-show red. Eight of those 13 were syrahs. Only two were zinfandels. Even more amazingly, despite ballot after ballot one of those syrahs hung in there to be named best-of-show red; syrah consistency avoided the sort of vote splitting that could have allowed a cabernet sauvignon or petite sirah - or even a zinfandel - to grab the top honor.

On the basis of this strong showing by syrah, you think maybe your bill should be amended so syrah could be designated California's official historic wine?

I don't think so, either. Syrah's showing at the State Fair is impressive, but, frankly, it doesn't have the history going for it in California that zinfandel does. Stick with zinfandel, senator; I'm sure this infatuation with syrah has at least as much to do with fashion as it does with character.

P.S.: While we know what kind of wines won sweepstakes honors at the State Fair, we won't know their identities for weeks; they will be officially revealed at the State Fair's Grape & Gourmet gala at Cal Expo on July 13. I'll be very interested to learn what winery produced the winning syrah, but I'll be even more interested in learning what winery produced the zinfandel that got my repeated votes.

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