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The Petite Sirah Symposium

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Woke up early yesterday morning to the usual gloomy fog that has plagued us all summer, but Michael Jackson’s Black or White was playing in my head (with that gorgeous jangly guitar riff) so it was all good. We headed east on the 580, the MacArthur, named for the General who wanted to nuke Red China and was summarily fired by Truman. The fog reached all the way to the 680 split, in what’s called by weathermen “a good push”; but beyond the Pass the sky was bright. It would be another hot July day in the Central Valley.

We were on our way to the ninth annual P.S. I Love You Petite Sirah Symposium at Concannon Vineyard. By the time we reached Livermore, the sun was shining in full force, the fog having burned off to a few puffy patches tucked into the foothills. But to the northwest, over the Vacas hung an ominous smoke-grey pall of low clouds. Napa Valley was still shrouded while we were already hitting seventy degrees. I wondered if Calistoga was in the clear. No way of knowing, but probably not, given the strength of the intrusion.

To get to Concannon you head west on North Livermore Ave., past the old Eagle’s Hall, through the center of town, where the road turns to South Livermore. Livermore, the city, has changed a lot in the 30 years since I first visited, but once out of town, where the valley opens up, things still look the same. Neatly tended vineyards line both sides of the road. Beyond, golden hills reach to the horizon.

At the Symposium, some old friends, “old” being increasingly an operative word. Dan Berger and Wilfred Wong were just fine. Dan gave a lucid, intelligent historical perspective, as is his wont. I also made a new friend, Doug Knauer, who works for a most interesting company, Treasury Wine Estates, a spinoff of Foster’s, whose California brands include St. Clement, Beringer, Chateau St. Jean and Stags’ Leap Wnery. The history of these wineries runs in my blood; I’ve taken their pulse for a long time, so it was fascinating to talk with Doug about Treasury’s plans to reinvigorate them.

The Symposium’s keynote speaker, Mark Oldman, called Petite Sirah a “functional alternative” to more popular varieties. A rather technocratic phrase, I thought–I can’t imagine a section of the wine store or wine list called “Functional Alternatives”–but I took his point. I preferred Dan Berger’s characterization of Petite Sirah as an “orphan variety” but then, Dan is a first rate wordsmith.

As for Petite Sirah in general, Oldman’s “dominatrix” and Clark Smith’s (Grape Crafter) “sado-masochistic” descriptors had me scratching my head. “Weird tangents,” my new friend, Doug Knauer, observed. But maybe a walk on the wild side occasionally brings the curiosity seeker into functionally alternative places. I liked that Ellen Landis, a Half Moon Bay sommelier, recommended pairing Petite Sirah with bacon-wrapped filet mignon in a Gorgonzola sauce. That dish can dominatrix me anytime it wants. Come to think of it, let’s add a great Petite Sirah and make it a ménage a trois.

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