Psst! Looking for a bargain in red wine? Try a dark, red, potent but still user-friendly syrah.

I was on the judging panel tasting syrah wines from $15 to $30 at the most recent Sonoma Harvest Fair, and we found some wonderful examples. They were inky in color, full of the flavors of black cherries, black raspberries and black plums, pepper, cloves, even licorice and smoke, with big but velvety tannins and long finishes.

But syrahs are like Lady Edith on “Downton Abbey” – the middle child to Ladies Mary and Sybil, always playing, well, third fiddle.

Syrah comes in only fifth in the number of acres of red grapes planted in California, after cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot and pinot noir.

Some growers say they love the stuff, but have trouble selling it because its reputation was hurt by the flood of cheap, too-soft-and-sweet shirazes made from the same grape in Australia (not that Australia doesn’t also make plenty of wonderful shirazes).

Syrah is a wonderful red meat wine – hearty, with plenty of body but less astringency than cabernet sauvignon.

It’s great with wild game, lamb, burgers, sausages, stews, barbecue, pasta with meat sauces, even grilled veggies.

It’s great for cooking.

Here’s my quick and tasty way to cook big beef ribs: Sear them, braise them for an hour in syrah, then slather them in barbecue sauce and caramelize them under the broiler until just short of burning.

Serve them with more syrah, of course.

That’s highly recommended too.

Highly recommended:

•  2010 Willowbrook Cellars Syrah, “Altes Vineyard,” Sonoma County: dark and hearty, with aromas and flavors of black plums and mocha; $28.

• 2008 Christopher Creek Winery Syrah, Russian River Valley: big and bold, with flavors of vanilla, black raspberries and bitter chocolate, ripe tannins; $29.

•  2010 Paradise View Syrah, Sonoma Coast: rich, concentrated and tart, with spicy black plum flavors and big, ripe tannins; $24.


•  2008 Wellington Vineyards Syrah, Sonoma Valley: very dark hue, hint of smoke, rich and dry, with blackcurrant and coffee flavors and soft tannins; $25.

•  2010 Alexander Valley Vineyards Syrah, Alexander Valley Estate: very dark hue, aromas and flavors of sweet black cherries and cloves, very rich, with soft tannins; $18.

•  2011 Balletto Syrah, Russian River Valley Estate: hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and mocha, lively acids, soft tannins; $28.

•  2011 Cline “Cool Climate” Syrah, Sonoma Coast: medium-bodied and lively, with aromas of black plums, mulberries and licorice; $16.

•  2011 Dutcher Crossing Winery Syrah, “Proprietor’s Reserve,” Dry Creek Valley: hint of smoke, hearty and rich, aromas and flavors of blueberries and spice; $29.

•  2009 Selby Winery Syrah, Russian River Valley; dark hue, rich flavors of black cherries and cinnamon, long and smooth; $28.

•  2010 Kenwood Vineyards Syrah, “Jack London Vineyard,” Sonoma Mountain: floral aromas, flavors of red raspberries and black coffee, firm tannins; $20.

Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at