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Doing the right thing

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When I put myself through grad school, I worked on the campus of my college, a state university in which most of the workers were unionized (SEIU). We were not forced to join the union and, in fact, I never did. I felt poor enough as it was on my meager salary, and the union dues ($20 a month? I forget) seemed like money out of my pocket I could use otherwise.

And yet I always felt a twinge of guilt at not supporting the union. After all, through collective bargaining, they had obtained for me certain privileges. For instance, as a university employee, I was entitled to take classes without paying any tuition. That saved me a lot of money. There were other things the union had negotiated as well. Once, when I had a run-in with a Dean, the union defended me and the Dean had to back down. In case you don’t know, Deans are very powerful figures on campuses. They are little Ayatollahs.

Now that I’m grown up, physically if not mentally, I think I should have joined the union. However, this blog post is not a diatribe about unions; steveheimoff.com stays away from politics. What it’s about is gratefulness or, to put it another way, not riding the gravy train someone else is paying for. Let me explain.

Last Friday I went to a wonderful event, Dark & Delicious. It’s the annual Petite Sirah food and wine party, held at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall warehouse out on Alameda Island. The event was conceived by and is sponsored every year by the P.S. I Love You trade group, which is run by the husband and wife team of Jose and Jo Diaz, of Diaz Communications.

Dark & Delicious is one of the more fun events of its kind. There’s tons of great food provided by local restaurants, and scores of wineries pour their Petite Sirahs (plus there’s usually some additional stuff “under the table”). It’s $63 a person, which is cheap considering you can eat a bellyful of really good food and drink to your heart’s content. And no parking hassles: There’s a huge lot well staffed by young men who how to direct the traffic.

I had a great time, as I know everybody else did (the event was sold out, even though there was a huge rainstorm). But as I went up and down the rows of tables, I couldn’t help but notice how many Petite Sirah brands were not there. They were notable by their absence. I taste these Petite Sirahs. I know who’s who. And a lot of those who’s were no-shows.

Let’s put Petite Sirah into context. It’s been around (as a grape and wine) for a long time, but never had any respect. If critics deigned to notice it, it was with a dismissive “Well, this is a rustic, tannic wine, native to California,” and they left it at that. Petite Sirah didn’t fare any better in the critics’ eyes than did Carignan or Alicante Bouschet, and look where they are today. Nobody cares about them.

But then Jo and Jose came along and decided to change things. Single-handedly (well, double-handedly) they pushed, pulled, cajoled and persuaded Petite Sirah producers to pony up some money (which many of them could ill-afford, Petite Sirah then not bringing in much money). Keep in mind, ten years ago the only reason most wineries even made Petite Sirah was because they believed in it. Not because it made them money. Not because Petite Sirah was a critical darling. No, it was due to that rarest of winemaker motivations: because they loved the wine and wanted to share it.

Fast forward to today, and Petite Sirah is hot, hot, hot. There are superior bottlings made all the way from Mendocino County down through Napa and Sonoma, through the Central Coast and even into Santa Barbara County. I ran into Larry Schaffer pouring some of his limited production Terceros from Santa Barbara County, and was knocked out. Sommeliers have discovered Petite Sirah bigtime. The wine is often more balanced than Zinfandel, and is ideal with roasts and barbecue.

I’ve given increasingly high scores to Petite Sirah over the past few years, as vintners have figured out how to coax elegance from it despite its size. But what I noticed, at the D&D tasting, was how many wineries there were, relatively speaking, from Lodi, Livermore Valley, Suisun Valley and the Sierra Foothills, and how few there were from Napa Valley and its sub-AVAs (which is where the best Petite Sirahs are from), as well as other critically good regions, like Rockpile and Paso Robles (although the excellent Vina Robles was represented). And this absence of the best houses made me angry.

It seems to me that all these Petite Sirahs that are now getting scores in the 90s and selling for $35-$50 a bottle owe something to the pioneers that blazed the trail–namely, the P.S. I Love You organization. By not joining and supporting it, they’re like I was in grad school: taking advantage of the dues-paying members to gain the benefits of membership with none of the obligations.

I imagine that some of the high-end Petite Sirah producers may take the attitude that, Hey, they don’t want to pour at an event next to inexpensive Lodi wines–an event held in a chilly former aircraft hangar on an abandoned military base in Alameda. Well, if some of the better-heeled wineries would join P.S.I.L.Y., maybe the Diazes would be able to host their event at a downtown San Francisco Hotel, or at Fort Mason or the Officer’s Club in the Presidio, where most of the big varietal tastings are held in San Francisco. And there’s more than a little snobbism involved if a Napa Valley winery takes the attitude that they couldn’t possibly pour beside the likes of Livermore or Calaveras. Really? Aren’t we all in this together?

So I’m appealing to the Petite Sirah producers who don’t support P.S.I.L.Y.–the same producers I give high scores to (and believe me, I could name names). In the name of fairness, and for your own benefit, join this organization that’s done so much to help you. It’s the right thing to do. It will help boost Petite Sirah even further into the limelight, and I can guarantee you that it would make Dark & Delicious absolutely one of the premier wine events of the year in California.

  1. You go, Steve! I’ll have to make the pilgrimage back to SF next year to make this event. Will never forget the Runquist Petite Sirah we had at the Ahwahnee of all places a few years ago. It’s still the wine we seek out whenever we want to mark a special romantic occasion. Thanks for the post and for recognizing the Dynamo Diaz!

  2. Steve,

    I should probably stay out of this, because I certainly have an invested interest.

    I’m going to jump in only to say that it’s possible that you missed another great Paso Robles supporter, Clayhouse Wines. Our pal Rusty Eddy is one of my board members. I know you must have missed him. The rows were sometimes “very* jammed with people, just standing while people ate their nibbles and enjoyed their wines. It’s that causal and not pressing for moving on, because having food at every other table makes people slow down and savor every moment.

    As for Napa: I’m thankful for having Robert Biale (my marketing director is Dave Pramuk, one of the owners), David Fulton Winery, Rutherford Grove, Brown Estate, Tres Sabores, and Ballentine Vineyards. (Napa legends Van and Betty Ballentine were there, even though Van was recovering from surgery. I can’t remember if it’s his hip or his knee. “Skip” from Montibella Sausage was also there recovering from a knee replacement surgery, which is why I’m now on surgery detail overload confusion.)

    Many of the vendors who have supported our efforts in the past love this event, and will return come hell or high water. In our case this year it *was* high water, but it didn’t dampen anyone spirits. I was pleasantly surprised that you pulled it off, considering that you had a terrible week with a deep chest cold… And yet, you braved the weather. I was trilled to have you with us.

    Thanks for a great, heartfelt story.

  3. Try… thrilled…

  4. Steve,
    Great article. Thanks for your support for PS. And we agree – Paso Robles is a fantastic area for growing some of the best PS (we poured 3 wines at D & D – all from Paso).

    In case you missed us at D & D, please come by our tasting room/winery in Oakland sometime soon as we’d love to share them with you (and then you can barrel sample all of our PS’s – including Russian River, Yorkville Highlands, and Paso). It’s really great stuff – just no white shirts allowed.

    Cheers,
    Melinda Doty, Owner
    Stage Left Cellars

  5. Steve,
    Thanks for the salute to the PS I Love You organization and especially for pointing out all the hard work Jo and José have put into promoting this varietal (along with many others). As members ourselves of this group, we are glad to have you take note. We also couldn’t help but notice that your comment “There are superior bottlings made all the way from Mendocino County down through Napa and Sonoma, through the Central Coast and even into Santa Barbara County” ended short of our Ramona Valley AVA.
    We cannot participate in the D&D event at this time, because we’re selling out of every drop we produce (80 cases) within finer wineshops in San Diego county already. We’d love to send you a bottle. Despite general beliefs, we feel this varietal is perfectly suited for our warmer AVA.
    Let me know where to direct a bottle. AND, we invite you stop by the media portion of the PS I Love You symposium next year, and we’ll be happy to pour for you there.
    Thank you for supporting PS!
    Beth & Victor Edwards
    Edwards Vineyard and Cellars

  6. I have to mention that I had the opposite experience with my union.

    My first job out of college was in the public schools. I was told I must join the union and pay $150 (or something like that). Then I had an accident which required me to go to the hospital I wasn’t yet insured through my new job in the schools, so my bill was $3000 for a couple emergency room x-rays. Needless to say I couldn’t pay the $150 to the union, so a few months later I lost my job. The principal I worked for didn’t want to lose me and asked the union to make an exception and give me longer to pay, but they wouldn’t.

    I just wanted to mention this so that people can see both sides of the coin. Unions can help but can also hurt schools and individuals.

  7. Great post. I went to D&D and had a great time. I too wondered about what seemed like a preponderance of wineries from Lodi, and the Sierra Foothills. I’ve seen some of the high scores going to Napa wineries but didn’t taste what seemed like more than a couple,(Robert Biale, and another I don’t recall). Let’s hope your well stated message is received!

  8. Let’s be honest, Steve, it is the Napa and other coastal wineries’ game to lose by pouring next to “Interior” wineries which often exhibit much better price/quality ratios. Context is everything.

  9. As a boutique producer in Napa specializing in none other than Petite Sirah, I found the PS I Love You org to be a wonderful way to stay abreast of the work my peers are doing (both in and out of the Napa Valley) and the latest news effecting our niche market. As a new member, I was looking forward to supporting the D&D event but was sorry to hear the opportunity had sold out. While pouring at the SF event on Saturday, I was thrilled to meet a couple die hard Pets lovers who attended the D&D and were raving fans. There is strength in numbers and I hope the event will grow into a new larger venue and in turn heighten the respect for America’s heritage grape. Thank you for your support Steve.

  10. I do hope that J&J can move D&D to a more convenient location next year. Trying to get to the tip of Alameda on a Friday evening in a rainstorm is pretty damn challenging, and promotion and challenging don’t normally go together. By the time I was able to leave SF the window had closed and there was no getting on the Bay Bridge. Very frustrating.

    I’ll be interested to see how the ~Hilton Hotel Financial District~ (=Chinatown) will work for Barbara Drady’s Pinot Noir Summit this weekend. She too has a limited budget. I can’t remember any of the usual suspects using this venue which has the ever affordable Portsmouth Square Garage right across the street and, unlike Ft Mason/the Presidio, is walkable from BART.

    But I’m mainly writing to say that it is fortunate the wineries you refer to were conspicuous by their absence. In addition to the issue raised by Ray, they generally don’t need such a showcase compared to the smaller producers making wine in the outskirts. They also aren’t usually PS specialists. PS is along for the ride. A number of the members of my wine club were present and welcomed the opportunity to make discoveries of limited production/lower priced wines paired with nifty nibbles. So I hope the mix stays about the same.

  11. Ray Krause, I’m afraid you’ve got it exactly right.

  12. Petite Sirah has been a favorite of mine since I started in the wine business, 30 years ago. It was Fetzer, then (that I worked for and enjoyed) and Clayhouse, now. And many others over those decades.

    I was sorry to miss D&D this year. I look forward to next year, however, and I’m interested in the “conspicuous in their absence” discussion. I’m finding myself more regularly ignoring those wines, and focusing my attention on the wineries that express interest in my attention (often by participating in events like PSILY and ZAP and Rhone Rangers). Those are the wineries I recommend to my friends and associates … the discoveries I can make when tasting. Discoveries that are often made at tasting events.

    There’s quite a lot of interesting wine in the world.

  13. Steve,

    Great read, but one aspect that I think you missed, is that the wineries & restaurants are limited in number. Much like other festivals, the space is limited. We had great response from the event & will sign up as early as possible next year to insure our table.

    Cheers,
    GRIZZLY REPUBLIC
    Brian Cheeseborough

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