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Getting it right: the Petite Sirah story

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Petite Sirah is a wine that never got much respect. Oz Clark largely dismissed it in his 2001 wine guide. Broadbent didn’t even include it in the edition I have of his pocket guide. Bob Thompson said it was “hard to make into stylish wine,” while none other than our own Charlie Olken called it (with Norm Roby and Earl Singer) “brawny” with “few complex nuances.”

Hugh Johnson once said it “has great promise” in California, but then, he confused it with Syrah. Gerald Asher called it “sturdy,” which brings to mind Prof. Saintsbury’s characterization of Hermitage (made from Syrah) as “the manliest French wine I ever drank.”  Daniel Johnnes didn’t mention it in his round-up of red varieties, although he did include two red blends that both contained Petite Sirah as among his Top 200 Wines (Marietta Old Vine Red and Ridge Geyserville).The University of California – Sotheby Book of California Wine said Petite Sirah was “difficult to support” due to “slow sales,” while the best Kevin Zraly could do was “can stand up to hearty food.”

Such bad press! Although all the dissing did give Petite Sirah a certain reverse snobbery. I once visited a rock and roll lawyer at this home in the Hollywood Hills. A UPS truck was unloading case after case of Petrus, Dunn Howell Mountain and Opus One in his driveway, but when I mentioned something about them, he called them “pissing wines.” Then he said, “You want to know what I really like?” He led me to his cellar and pulled out — I swear — a bottle of a Petite Sirah from a San Luis Obispo County producer whose name I no longer remember. I asked him what he liked about it, and he said, “Because nobody else can get it!”

Nor do I remember the first Petite Sirah I ever had. I have scattered records: an ‘89 Mirassou I called “indistinct and watery,” a Frick ‘90 of which I said “So unrestrained is the fruit that it almost made me wish it were more tightly reined in for the sake of elegance.” In 1993 I had a Foppiano 1978 from Russian River Valley that I liked. At the age of 15 it was “sweet, limpid, complex.” That testified to Petite’s ageworthiness, something all the critics wrote about; but by the 1990s, Americans weren’t in a mood to age their wines, and those who were preferred to gamble with Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet, not Petite Sirah. So the variety fell on hard times.

By the 2000s Petite Sirah seemed like an afterthought, a relic grape whose great acreage was explained by the fact that most of it was blended into inexpensive jug plonk. A few wineries stubbornly continued to bottle it as a varietal, but Petite Sirah seemed destined to go the way of Sangiovese and Barbera in California. Buh-bye!

But then something happened. In 2002, the P.R. company, Diaz Communications, began their effort to resurrect Petite Sirah on behalf of the then 60 growers and producers who still stood by it. Through relentless promotion, Jo Diaz and her husband, Jose, broke through the public’s and the critics’ indifference, and put Petite Sirah back on the map. Today, there are 126 growers and an astounding 723 producers, most of whom make fewer than 500 cases of the variety, and acreage is higher than it’s been at any point since 1980.

Five years ago I personally was not yet a fan. I would have agreed with the critics I quoted above: Petite Sirah was too big, too tannic and brawny, lacked elegance. But then I started coming across bottles like Hidden Cellars ‘98 Eaglepoint Ranch, Stags’ Leap ‘99, Fife ‘02 Redhead, Miner ‘02, Turley 2003 Hayne, Madrigal 2005 Barberis, Zina Hyde Cunnigham 2005, Vina Robles 2006 Jardine, Retro ‘06 Howell Mountain,  Esoteria by Kent Rasmussen 2007 Chavis Leeds, Titus ‘07. And slowly, like an aircraft carrier reversing direction, my mind began to turn around. I now consider Petite Sirah (when well-grown and made; there’s always that caveat with any variety) to be an authentic California star.

In all fairness, it’s not just my mind that changed. Petite Sirah changed, too. I credit modern methods of tannin management with taking Petite’s naturally thick tannins, courtesy of a high skin-to-juice ratio, and making them soft and velvety. These are still wines that will take to the cellar, but you no longer have to put eight years of age on them to prevent them from peeling the enamel off your teeth. Yes, “Pet” is still a hearty wine in most cases, ideal with barbecue on warm summer evenings, or a rich dish of short ribs on a cold winter night. But I think it’s surpassed Zinfandel in that respect.

Petite Sirah’s experience in California is a great story of how improved viticulture and enology, coupled with a well-crafted public relations campaign, can succeed in launching a category of wine to prominence. People and organizations looking to popularize other wine types should look at Petite Sirah’s recent history and learn.

  1. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, very similar story took place with the tannat from Uruguay. Extremely tough, strong, hearty, dense grape, but when it’s handled properly (plus a little help from the terroir) produces fantastic wines, a perfect company for ”real” barbecues (anything that isn’t made a la argentina and uruguay plus a tip of southern Brazil can’t be a barbecue….)

  2. Steve, the day that I read Robert Parker saying that he cut his red wine teeth on Petite Sirah – and I notice you didn’t find any negatives from his earlier days, because they don’t exist – I knew that Parker got it way back when.

    Also, since 2002, when Lou Foppiano wanted to bring growers and producers together to begin to get really serious about PS, is when that tanker began to turn around for the variety. We created a symposium in 2002, and at the time, attendees said, “This variety needs some publicity,” so we got busy. That’s when PS vit and enology observations, discussions, and problem solving processes seriously began about vit practices, open-top fermenters, gravity flow, and punch downs. It was their efforts, coupled with letting PSILY tell their stories, that have moved this in the well-crafted direction you’ve mentioned above.

    And, people like yourself have been open to listening and helped to spread the word.

    I love the new, refreshed media thinking. Even Goldstein MS has a new book (Perfect Pairings) where he’s written really favorably about PS and how to enjoy it with food. Mark Oldman (wine reviews for *Everyday with Rachel Ray,* and an author of books), just sent a advance copy to me, “Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine.” He has a chapter devoted to Petite Sirah, as a new convert he told me… Quoting, “Dark and Intense as a Dominatrix’s Boot.” People are having a lot of fun with PS… and it’s such a great thing to witness.

    Today’s modern writers have come along our journey in the last eight years, and that’s been most of the inspiration for these guys.

    By the way, when the Foppianos symposium had reached a point of completeness for them, Concannon Vineyard picked up the ball and we’re still running with these educational forums on an annual basis… The 8th annual is coming up this July. These guys aren’t ready to quit learning and doing. PS can only continue to get better and better.

    It’s one thing to want publicity, BTW, it’s another to do the work necessary to get it, and it is they – the growers, producers, our staff, and the writers – that have made “Pet” what it is today. It’s been an amazingly united effort.

    And today, I honestly believe *you’ve* told the most important story to date… You’ve just historically told it like it was; and now, how it is.

    Thank you on behalf of all the guys who have supported PS I Love You, while we’ve support them. Thank you, thank you, thank you….

  3. Great article, Steve. PS has indeed made a comeback, although I would argue that it never really left us. It did lose favor for the reasons you cited, but it had fanatical followers who kept it alive. And now that its tannins are beng managed more intelligently, it has become a much more interesting variety.

    I contnue to believe that PS runs the risk of running out of control at any time, but handled right, it has become a much more approachable wine than it was years ago.

    Its interesting to look back at how PS came into favor in the first place. Back in the early 70s, when CA wine turned the corner, one of the “discoveries” of the day was tannin. Early Cabs of that era like Ridge MB 68 anbd Mayacamas 70 went much further into the realm of hard wine than anything we had seen before.

    And then, enter PS with its massive tannins, and its support from growers like Fritz Maytag up on Spring Mountain at his York Creek Vineyard, and it became a bit of a cult hero as early as the 1971 in the hands of folks like Ridge and Freemark Abbey. By the 1975 vintage, we had a virtual contest to see who could make the world’s most tannic PS. My recollection is that a Carneros Creek wine was the winner, but that is a distant memory.

    The legacy of those tannin-laden wines has both haunted and served PS for decades. But, as you pointed out, and as I have discovered in my own tastings, it is the turn towards balance that is moving PS out of its role as cult wine and back into the mainstream. Oh, and a bit of judicious blending with varieties like Zin and Grenache. I would even guess that some PS has Viognier in small amounts given the added aromatics seen in some wines.

    One thing is for sure. I have enjoyed this year’s set of PS more than any I can remember.

  4. Charlie,

    Your decision to include PS in your tastings a few years ago, was a huge corner turned for as. Much appreciated.

  5. Jo–

    Much of it due to your efforts and the organizatin, which if it has not been mentioned, is PS I Love You.

    The reason Connoisseurs’ Guide now stays with PS is that it is no longer just tannin and ink for the sake of it. A well-made, balanced, tannic (this is PS after all) PS goes better with a big steak than many other reds, but I do remember my one and only attempt to pair it with pasta in a red sauce. The sweetness of the tomatoes just turned the wine into dust.

    So, for me, the secrets to PS are three: Getting the balance of ripeness, tannin and fruit right; finding the right food pairing; and letting the wine age a bit. No one need wait until the tannins are gone because they won’t be gone unless they were stripped out in the first place, but PS does open up and a well-made PS has great longevity. I have become much more enthusiastic about it in the last six or eight years. As you know, I still have reservations about the way that many PS are made, and I still taste lots of wine that cannot live up to those standards, but more and more PS does.

    That is a good thing because PS has a distinct structure and personality, and having it around as another choice is a boon to wine drinkers.

  6. >>and it became a bit of a cult hero as early as the 1971 in the hands of folks like Ridge and Freemark Abbey

    Charlie

    The 71 Ridge York Creek is the stuff of legends, I’ve had that wine a few times and with at a minimum, 30 years bottle age. Was it a tannic beast when young?

  7. Kudos Steve,
    PS is, IMHO, together with Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, one of the three true California benchmarks. A variety that survived decades of neglect and is now thriving, but with no glamour or economic incentives.
    It proves how well it is adapted to California’s environment.
    I agree, though, with Mr. Olken, that it will strongly benefit from judicious blending; especially with high-acid varieties (Sangiovese? Barbera?), to improve its balance and mid-palate.

  8. Steve, as Charlie mentions, back in the mid-late 70′s, as a winemaking student at Fresno State, we thought bigger everything was better, including tannin. When we had a PS tasting scheduled for our wine group we would kid the members by saying….”we’re tasting PS next time so everyone go their dentist to make sure your fillings are secure.” Some of those wines could have just massive tannins.

    I currently have a bottle of Eaglepoint Ranch 2001 PS that I found for $7.50 a bottle several years ago. I bought two bottles and tried one last year. I hope the fruit will outlast the tannin in about 5-10 years.

  9. I stored a signed bottle of Jim Concannon’s 1994 Petit Sirah for ten years, finally drinking it on January 1, 2005 to celebrate the New Year. Still my favorite memory of a great Petit Sirah, smoky, smooth, and well finished. As I recall, Concannon in Livermore was among the early adapters of this variety, and had been bottling it for many years before I purchased some. Now, I keep them in my cellar as long as I can wait, which isn’t usually more than a year or two!

  10. Paul in Boca says:

    Any thoughts out there on a 5.0 liter of 2000 Foppiano Pet should be holding up?

  11. Steve,
    I think you are dead on the mark with both your praise and your curiosity of this grape. I don’t get it either. I remember my first encounter with the Carver Sutro in New York in 2002. I thought then that PS might be the next Cab for Napa. For whatever reason, nobody has planted an over abundant crop of this stuff though. I mean, the Carver Sutro that Gary Brookman makes is always around the 600 cs mark and the Miner you like which Brookman probably also makes is limited as well. Maybe the grape does not blend well which would cut down on the grower’s options in difficult times. Who knows? Mike Wheeler once intvited me and an opera singer to an eating spot in midtown(NYC) for a small tasting. Wheeler pulled out about seven older vintages of Ridge and we tasted them beside the newer vintages of Carver Sutro. Wow. I would certainly love to see more of the better ones made available and I plan on asking my Miner rep for some today. I did approach either Dennis or Gary about the Carver Sutro a couple of years ago in San Fran about getting the wine into AL and I was told point blank “on premise only.” Give me some more ideas if you can of good quality with enough production for availability PS. Thanks.

  12. Tom WineTech says:

    I never met a PS that I actually liked. So many have been American-Style fruit puddings.

  13. Tom WineTech: Do you feel the same way about California Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir?

  14. American-style fruit puddings? To quote John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious”!!

    I am constantly amazed at the stream of Euro-palates who do not realize what is going on here.

    The factor to which you refer so pejoratively is actually known to wine drinkers as FLAVOR. It is why there are 100,000 acres of Chardonnay in California. It is why Pinot has become so popular now that the locals have discovered how to grow it and vinify it so that it has flavor.

    It is the same thing with food. We actually like food with flavor. People who have grown up drinking pinched, green wines are afraid of flavor. These are the same people who think that a tasteless piece of sole with with a little butter is actually a dish worthy of serving. The whole world is rushing to cuisines with flavor, and these whining folks are still eating pablum and thinking it is food. Wonder bread went out of style years ago.

    FLAVOR. Tom, it is called FLAVOR. Grapes are actually fruit. And a good peach has more flavor than a dreary, green, underripe peach. So, the next time you taste a wine with FLAVOR, please remember that the winemakers who actually capture flavor are doing you a favor.

  15. Most amazing PS i have had from the past were the 73 Stags Leap and the 75 Mt Veeder. absolutely Huge and delicious.

  16. My fondest PS memory is the 1972 Souverain of Rutherford, which when the property was sold to Freemark Abbey was dumped at $3.25 retail. At Jackson’s Wines in Oakland, I put a 1-inch square shelf talker (we made them ourselves in those days) that simply said “This is the best wine value in the store. You’re crazy not to buy a case.” We sold 500 cases in a couple months. The wine is still great today.

  17. TomHill says:

    Awwwww, Charlie…..I can’t believe you forgot MikeBernstein’s MtVeeder PS ’75. Both his and the CarnerosCreek came from MarstonVnyd. Both stood the test of time. Both were up around 14%.
    Like Charlie, I’ve followed Calif PS since the early ’70′s. My problem w/ PS is that they seem to age a bit erratically. Some huge/tannic/black monster PS (I’d toss out the quote “with shabby table manners” but Charlie would kill me) developed into beautiful wines. Others seem to just fall apart. And others seem to be oafish and have huge tannins that never seem to soften up w/ age.
    The ’71 Ridge YorkCreek PS was an incredibly tannic/extracted/black wine that we all “knew” would develop into something great. It did. Last time I had it, at 30 yrs of age, I thought it the greatest Calif red wine I ever had. The DavidBruce PS ’70 & ’71 were equally extracted. The late JohnBrennan predicted it would peak at 2010-2020. They were already falling apart by 10 yrs of age. Go figure!!
    As with Charlie, I’ve never recalled a Calif PS I’d describe as “American-style fruit pudding”. Not sure exactly what that means. I’ve had some that I thought were pretty soft/low-acid and maybe a bit on the confected side, but not many. Acidity seems to be a problem w/ PS and probably why some of them don’t age all that well.

    Nice article, Steve.

    Tom

  18. Mirassou Vineyards 1965 version of Petite Sirah from Santa Clara fruit
    was possibly as finely crafted a Petite Sirah as has ever been. However, the most “indelible” in my experience was the 1968 David Bruce.
    The (then) young doctors Bruce and Bennion got PS right. Of course, the mid 70s stuff from Ken Burnap’s Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard still needs more cellar time.

  19. TomHill, the example you cite of John Brennan’s prediction being completely wrong is the main reason why I’m uncomfortable with aging predictions, although I confess to making them. However, ANY prediction from a critic as to a wine’s ageworthiness, especially in California, should be taken with some skepticism.

  20. “Any prediction should be taken with some skepticism?”

    I beg to differ–at least a little. We now have plenty of proof about some wines. I would bet my eyeteeth on predictions of longevity for Ridge MonteBello. Same for Ridge Geyserville.

    But, I don’t mean to be totally argumentative. I think you overstate the case, but we surely have concerns about wines like Huge Bear, which we both liked last year. It is so big and fat that any prediction of life past eight to ten years is fraught with peril.

    Predictions about Corison, Spottswoode, Pride and other balanced, structured Cabs are not wild guesses any more. We have the history to know those wines both young and old.

    So, I would posit that it is more of a mixed bag than I take from your comments.

    As for PS, maybe you should wander over here and taste some 1970s era wines with me. Tom Hill’s comments about Ridge 71 YC will have me scurrying to the cellar in the morning. I think I have that wine and Freemark Abbey’s 71 also from YC. And, Tom, I may have 75 Mt. Veeder. Yes, it may have been even more tannic than the Carneros Creek.

    Not to change the subject, but Mike Marston’s Grenache was the best North Coast stand of that variety in its day.

  21. “It is the same thing with food. We actually like food with flavor. People who have grown up drinking pinched, green wines are afraid of flavor. These are the same people who think that a tasteless piece of sole with with a little butter is actually a dish worthy of serving.”

    And those of you who’ve grown up eating over salted, over sweetened, processed american food, can’t appreciate elegance and grace. Perhaps if you melted a wonk of Velveeta over your sole you’d like it better – would certainly match some overwraught, overipe Chardonnay that way. Me, I’ll take the Sole Meuniere with an aged Chablis – Merci Beaucoups

    Are you really saying that those of us who appreciate the likes of Chablis, Muscadet, and Champagne are just wrong, and those of you who prefer bigger, ripe. low acid wines are right?

  22. Samuel, I will let Charlie respond to your question. For myself, I would not say that people who like Chablis, Muscadet and Champagne are wrong. Those are all great wines, and I wish I could drink them more often than I do!

  23. Samuel, I am pulling the chains of all those who throw cheap brickbbats at CA wine.

    What was the term? “American-style fruit puddings”??

    There is no reason to have patience with that kind of ignorant, pejorative generalization, and so it gets given back in kind to see what silliness comes next. It is a kind of game that plays so well on the Internet.

    But, for the record, Muscadet is, in fact, thin, green and acidic.

    Good Chablis is not, and I drink more Champagne than any other wine. But good Champagne is also not thin, green and acidic.

    And, of course, Samuel, you have fallen into the ABC (Anything but California) claptrap yourself with your low-acid wines comment. Balance in wine is not defined by Muscadet, and Champagne has residual sugar to balance its acidity. CA Chards with acidities not unlike the pricey White Burgs come from all over coastal CA. They are balanced, they are complete, they are tasty. If you have been reading Steve’s blog for long, you will have seen long lists of such wines posted here.

    And, the same is true for cool-climate reds and for Sauv Blancs of note. That is why folks like WineTechTimmie get the kind of chain-pulling response–both as a bit of fun and a bit of truth-telling.

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