Getting it right: the Petite Sirah story
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.