Syrah in the United States tends to be dark and brooding. This is very different than Syrah grown in Europe. America’s warmer climate, more fertile soils, and heavy oaking result in Syrahs that lose their native characteristics. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon fame knows this. In a recent correspondence I had with him, he explained that with his Syrah, “Le Pousseur,” “[he] wanted customers to think about Syrah in a slightly different way.”
Instead of a dark and brooding wine slathered with vanilla notes and deep raspberry concentration, what Grahm created was a medium-bodied red wine that, while at first a little shy, with a little oxygen shines with gamey raw meat notes harmonizing with hints of plum and herbs like anise and a skosh of bacon fat. With both his wine and his wine’s label he wanted to indicate “that this wine was more inspired by the French style of Syrah than say, Australian Shee-raz.” He allows the grape to express its true inherent characteristics, “to appreciate its aromatic potential and elegance.” It’s a tricky little wine. It is from California yet has a personality more attuned to its European brethren.
When a winemaker achieves an accomplishment on this level they often want the consumer to know that this wine is special. There is something going on here that you will not find in other wines from this grape. How does one do such a thing? According to Grahm: “Syrah is not actually categorized as a drug, but there is something so enchanting/compelling about the aroma that (at least in my febrile imagination) I imagine that there could be something vaguely illicit about it.” Just like naming a cat who will never come when it is called, yet somehow personifies its given name, winemakers often give bottles “fantasy names” to express the character of the wine.
Sensing that his Syrah had more of those Mediterranean/Rhone Valley vibes even though it’s grown in the hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Cali, Grahm named his wine “Le Pousseur.” The direct French translation of le pousseur is “the pusher” (I am getting serious Curtis Mayfield vibes right now) and the image on the label is that of a Tarot card with a curious dude concealing potions on the inner lining of his coat while carrying a sack full of mysterious herbs. Nice. This is where the magic of creating a label gets really fun. When I asked Grahm about the artwork, he explained: “I have loved the work of the artist, Bascove, who illustrated a number of these mysterious, Jungian figures for the Robertson Davies novels published by Penguin.” It’s one of the those images you kind of have to look at for a while to soak it all up, in the same way the wine in the bottle is more than what meets the eye.
The power of the mystery of the wine coupled with the idea “that lurking somewhere in the collective unconscious is the image of the trickster/con man/scoundrel/mountebank/snake oil salesman” on the label, can only fully be appreciated when you’re enjoying the wine itself. As Grahm explains: “letting the unconscious speak freely often creates unexpected felicitous connections.” So the next time you are really digging a bottle of wine and it has a fantasy name on the label rather than just the grape, region, or producer’s name, take a look and see if you understand what the winemaker was trying to tell you before you even took it off the shelf.