Sipping Syrah, Saving Lives

Charity fund-raising and wine-selling often go hand-in-hand. Nothing like a few glasses of donated wine to loosen up the credit card donation crowd.

I’ve attended an untold number of charity events involving wine, for personal and professional reasons, but I have no affiliation with the groups mentioned below. I was taken in by the effort and the wines so I wanted to share more about both.

Case of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a disease we’ve beaten back, but it still kills, mostly children. Too many youngsters succumb to this too often tragic lung infection.

Despite availability of  an effective vaccine, the disease claims more than 1.5 million kids worldwide each year.  That’s an incalculable loss, but it’s not the only casualty. There’s also the cost of treating the estimated 150 million cases of childhood pneumonia that aren’t fatal.

When a wine industry joke deriding syrah wine (Question: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? Answer: You can get rid of the pneumonia.) made the rounds on the Internet, it sparked an online rebuttal from Dr. Orin Levine, Executive Director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Levine’s post quickly caught the attention of the Rhone Rangers, an organization of wineries that make wines from 22 special varieties of grapes, all from France’s Rhone Valley region.

Syrah is a big player in those Rhone blends, so the organization found itself an ally, of sorts, in pneumonia and reached out to help Levine and the Gavi Campaign raise some money.

Early in the Game

California is relatively new to the syrah game. While there are now more than 19,226 acres of syrah in the state, hardly any of it was grown here until the early 1980s. That’s when the first pioneering efforts of figuring out how to work with the grape really began and it was in the same period that the Rhone Rangers group started to gel.

Taste and Tithe

The Rhone Rangers sponsored a syrah-only tasting with 20 wineries in San Francisco earlier this week to help raise money for pneumonia vaccinations and to showcase member wines.

Three wines stood out.


Novy Family Wines from Santa Rosa poured three different syrahs, all from the 2007 vintage. Their Santa Lucia Highlands and Russian River Valley bottlings were good, but the best of the lot, to my taste, was the wine made from the Page Nord Vineyard in Napa’s Oak Knoll district. The wine opened up nicely in the glass, revealing lovely ripe fruit and a nose that suggested hints of pepper and bacon. This $30 wine would make any pork chop dish better.

Tablas Creek

The most classic syrah of the tasting came from a Cal-Rhone icon, Tablas Creek Vineyard on the Central Coast. The 2007 syrah ($25-$30) needs time to develop, but it’s got good structure, elegant fruit and a lovely deep color. I strong suspect it will only get better with a year or two in the bottle. Only 500 cases were produced. It’s the first single varietal bottling of syrah from Tablas Creek, whose family also owns the legendary Chateau de Beaucastel in France.


The syrah I enjoyed the most came from Ridge Vineyards, whose cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay were covered in an earlier blog. The 2006 Lytton Estate is co-fermented with about 8 percent viognier  — a white wine grape that punches up the floral aromatics and also augments the pigmentation. This was the most complete offering I encountered. It’s $32-$35 retail. About 900 cases produced.

Deal of the Day

The best deal at the event happened to be one of the youngest wines of the day — the 2008 6th Sense syrah from Michael-David Winery in Lodi. For $16, you get an easy-to-drink wine with a core of rich, red fruit plus just enough kick from 8% petite sirah to provide an edge to the taste.

Drink Your Donation

Friday, Nov. 12, is Pneumonia Day with a parade in Washington and other events planned around the world to draw attention to the cause. The Rhone Rangers wineries that poured at this week’s San Francisco tasting event are donating $10 per case of syrah sold to the fight against childhood pneumonia. That ten bucks pays for one kid’s vaccine. The deal is good through the end of November. To find a participating winery, click this link

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