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PLYMOUTH, Calif. (AP) _ It only took a few trips to France's Rhone Valley during the early 1980s to make Bill Easton a lifelong fan of syrah wines.

At a time when zinfandel was springing up all around his winery about 40 miles east of Sacramento, Easton took a chance on syrah, investing half his vineyards in the little-known wine grape.

``It was a total risk, but I was really dedicated to the fact that they would do well here,'' Easton said.

Now, almost two decades later, he's cashing in on that investment, putting his small winery, Domaine de la Terre Rouge, on the map as one of the top syrah producers in California and one of the pioneers of a new culinary trend.

More Americans are now sipping syrah, which originated in France and has already become a favorite in Australia, where it's known as ``shiraz.'' The wine has experienced a recent surge in the United States, with its sales growing 63 percent in the last year, according to Wine Business Monthly.

In California, which accounts for 92 percent of the country's wine production, Department of Agriculture reports show its vines now occupy more than almost 15,000 acres, after being virtually nonexistent just a decade ago.

Its recent mainstream success isn't news to elite culinary circles, who've been buzzing about syrah for years. Marked by its rich berry flavors topped with notes of smoke and pepper, syrah has taken a distinct place among the more popular red wines.

``Syrah has a lot of the forward fruitiness and softness of merlot, and it has the extract and color of cabernet sauvignon,'' Easton said.

Now with strong numbers to back it up, some wine experts are touting it as the next big thing.

A number of growers followed Easton's lead, planting vines that are only now reaching maturity. Today wine retailers are stocked with dozens of syrah labels, from inexpensive selections to more high-end vintages.

Much of its current popularity is producer-driven, said Christian Miller, research director at Motto Kryla & Fisher, a wine industry business advisory firm in Napa Valley. ``Now that people are throwing it out there, (the market) is growing very, very fast.''

Syrah's vines have proven easy to grow in a wide range of conditions, from the hot, dry climate of Australia to the cooler, wetter climate of Washington, where it follows third behind merlot and cabernet sauvignon in acreage. In California, syrah has become a strong crop for Central Coast and Central Valley wineries.

Growers also like it because the fruits are more resistant to disease and manage to maintain their distinct character when grown in large quantities.

Many have compared syrah's success to the merlot phenomenon of the 1990s, when its sales jumped 2,500 percent, at one point usurping cabernet sauvignon's place as the top American red wine.

But some experts are still waiting for it to prove itself.

``I see more interest in (syrah), but it's not to the point of a phenomenon,'' said Dave Cancilla, wine manager of David Berkley Fine Wine and Specialty Foods in Sacramento.

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On the Net:

California Association of Winegrape Growers: http://www.cawg.org