Not long ago, syrah was being touted as the next big thing in American wine. This sturdy variety, the signature red grape of France's northern Rhone Valley and Australia's showcase grape, as well, seemed to have vast potential in both California and Washington. It was thought that consumers, having grown bored with cabernet and merlot, would swoon over syrah. That never happened. For reasons that remain unclear, syrah's star turn didn't materialize. It became the Gretchen Mol of wine grapes.

Although syrah failed to seize the spotlight, it is nevertheless yielding some very good wines in the United States. One of the best that we've encountered is the 2009 Donkey & Goat Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah ($35). Donkey & Goat is a Berkeley-based winery owned by Tracey and Jared Brandt, a young couple who worked in tech before taking up fermented grape juice. The Brandts obtain fruit from vineyards throughout northern California and vinify the grapes in a converted red brick warehouse in downtown Berkeley. The Fenaughty site is located in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento, an area that looks to have a lot of viticultural promise. The '09 Donkey & Goat Fenaughty Syrah certainly suggests as much. It opens with a classic syrah nose evocative of dark fruits and various savory elements, notably black pepper. On the palate, it shows cool, ripe fruit, a pleasantly chewy texture, and more black pepper. The wine has excellent balance and depth, displays a nice thwack of minerality, and exudes freshness and vigor. It is a terrific syrah in the Northern Rhone style (savory, elegant) and will surely make you a fan of this grape if you are not one already. [donkeyandgoat.com]