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My keynote speech to the Petite Sirah Symposium

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[Readers: This is from yesterday’s event at Concannon, in the Livermore Valley.  The address is kind of long, but I think it contains some important statements that I hope you’ll enjoy.]

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Good morning!

It is truly a pleasure to be here at the Petite Sirah Symposium. Jo and Jose Diaz have tried to get me here for years; there’s always been some some logistical hassle. This time, we made it happen, and I couldn’t be happier.

Now we are gathered here today, on this lovely Livermore Valley morning, to talk about Petite Sirah–and what more appropriate place could there be than Concannon?

For starters, I suppose there’s little I can tell about what a good wine Petite Sirah can be. You already know that, or you wouldn’t be here. You know, too, that Petite Sirah has had its ups and downs, in terms of the public’s perception of it, and the media’s description of it, and–unfortunately–even in the minds of some of its advocates. And it is this that I want to talk about.

Jo and Jose have labored for a long time, through PSILY,  to convince people that Petite Sirah deserves its status alongside the world’s great red wines. So too have the member wineries that produce it. That message has been remarkably consistent over the years; but what has it actually been?

Let me repeat, what has that message actually been? Let’s take a close look at some of the actual things that have been said about Petite Sirah. In addition to these three, I could have cited dozens of similar ones.

1.   Petite Sirah deserves some love (as a March 26 Washington Post article headlined).

2.   And this: Much-denigrated Petite Sirah gets more respect (as an article in the San Francisco Chronicle headlined).

3.   Or this: Petite Sirah is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine (as a nationally syndicated wine critic wrote).

Even the theme of this year’s Symposium is “Respect for Petite Sirah.”

Do you see a common theme running through all these cases? Each is based on a negative: About what Petite Sirah is not. That Petite Sirah is disrespected. What Petite Sirah doesn’t have. That Petite Sirah is not loved. That Petite Sirah is a loser. It’s like some dorky kid that nobody likes, but who you kind of feel sorry for.

What awful images to put into people’s minds. Why would anyone ever think positive thoughts about the Rodney Dangerfield of wine? Even some of Petite Sirah’s advocates have been complicit in disseminating this image. Listen to this, from a winery’s website: “Despite Petite Sirah not getting much respect or press, we still think it has great personality.” Wow. This is reminiscent of Churchill’s back-handed compliment of his political enemy, Clement Atlee: “‘He is a humble man, but then he has much to be humble about!”

People don’t like to hear negative messages. It makes them feel guilty, or inadequate, or uninformed, or, worse, stupid. They don’t want to feel that something deserves something they’re in no position to offer: it makes them feel stingy and mean.  Life is hard enough; no one needs to be told they should be doing something they’re not. But that is the message that Petite Sirah’s adherents have been giving. True, it’s been an unconscious message: the people who have delivered it were only eager to share their passion. They have not meant to unsettle people, or make them uncomfortable. But that has been the end result: It’s almost like saying, “You should eat your vegetables even if you don’t like them, because they’re good for you.”

It was probably unavoidable that Petite Sirah would go through such a transitional stage. But I’m here to suggest that it’s now time for a new message. If Petite Sirah one-point-zero was the old days when nobody ever heard of it even though it was widely planted and formed the backbone of many great wines — if Petite Sirah two-point-zero was the “Petite Sirah don’t get no respect” era of the last ten years — then we owe it to the grape and wine to recognize that the era of Petite Sirah three-point-zero has been launched. Here and now, let us turn the message from a negative to a positive and tell people what Petite Sirah actually is, instead of what it is not. Let us stop apologizing for it. Let us leave behind us forever the years of disrespect — let us turn Rodney Dangerfield into Rodney Opportunity-field and tell the world, in simple, honest terms, that Petite Sirah is great wine. And let us repeat that message over and over and over, until it sinks in. That is how to convince the world of the truth of a message.

Look at Bordeaux. It is the model of great, dry, full-bodied red wine and has been for hundreds of years. Kings, Emperors, Presidents and billionaires have coveted it, and what the rich and powerful covet, of course, trickles down, to be coveted, eventually, by everybody. (If you would like the latest proof of this, look at the current obsession for Bordeaux among the emerging Chinese upper-middle classes.)

How did Bordeaux achieve this spectacular outcome? Can one really say that it is the world’s greatest red wine (Burgundy notwithstanding)? Whether or not you would say that, one thing is certain: The Bordeaux people have been saying it for centuries. And they say it with the particular insistence, bordering on arrogance, that only the French can exhibit: There is no way to disagree with such an assertion, when it is made so vehemently, so completely, so passionately, so resolutely, and for so long.

Now, I’m not a marketing or PR person. I’m a wine critic, writer, journalist and historian. But, as a result of pursuing all these angles for many years, I’ve developed a pretty good antennae for what the public wants, and how the industry should be giving it to them. I’ve seen thousands of sales and marketing campaigns with all the paraphernalia they involve: the press releases and kits with their glossy materials, the email blasts, the advertisements, the stories in the popular media, the back label jargon, the videos and blogs, the conferences and junkets. I think I know what works and what doesn’t, and so I’d like to offer some specific suggestions on what to do–and what not to do–going forward.

1. Never, ever again say anything apologetic about Petite Sirah. Don’t quote others who do. From this point on, let’s avoid use of the word “respect.” If you tell someone they have to respect something, they tend to get defensive about it. Why should I? Who are you to tell me what I have to do? Instead, let Petite Sirah speak for itself and EARN its respect.

2. Accentuate the positive. Quote critics who say positive things.

3. Tell people what good Petite Sirah tastes like. It’s full-bodied. Mouth-filling. Rich and savory. Delicious. Complex and layered. Fruity, but dry. Fantastic with food. Ageable, if that’s your thing, but drinkable on release.

4. Tell the story of Petite Sirah in California–its history and lineage going back to the 19th century.

5. Get tastemakers to sing Petite Sirah’s praises. Sommeliers are good. Chefs are even better. The key to Petite Sirah is food pairing. Petite Sirah isn’t a wine to drink on its own. It needs food–and food means recipes. You can never give the public too many recipes.

6. Educate yourselves, and the public, on the various terroirs of Petite Sirah. I know that, as an organization, PSILY must treat all members equally. But not all Petite Sirahs are equal. Individual wineries should explain what their terroir is, and why it’s good for Petite Sirah.

7. Stress the relative value of Petite Sirah, especially compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. Can you get six bottles of a 90 point Petite for one bottle of a 90 point Napa Cabernet? Then say so–and tell consumers why they’d be foolish to pick the Cabernet.

8. Finally, continue to educate the consumer that Petite Sirah is NOT Syrah. This is not the easiest task in the world, as I’m sure you know. But consumers remain confused. Your job, as marketers and educators, is to craft that message, which is something I’m sure that PSILY can help with.

I want to move on to a description of my own evolving views of Petite Sirah, not because what I think is of particular importance or interest, but because the example of my personal turnaround proves that an attitudinal shift can be done. I never was a fan of Petite Sirah. Although I came across the occasional good bottle, I found too many of the wines clumsy: they were too tannic, or too sweet, and sometimes were dirty, with obvious winemaking flaws. Many were high in alcohol.

Still, I never gave up hope. Wineries like Stag’s Leap, Rosenblum, Concannon, Guenoc, Foppiano, the old Hidden Cellars, Ursa and Vina Robles proved that Petite Sirah could be made in a more balanced style. Moreover, the wide geographic range of these successful wines showed that Petite Sirah could be grown well in almost every part of California wine country, provided, of course, that the climate was warm enough to ripen it.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact moment when I had my Aha! Experience. In fact, there was no single moment. What there was, was an accumulation of moments that, collectively and gradually, caused my opinion to swing around. My blog provides some useful information. The earliest mention of Petite Sirah was in August, 2009, when I returned home from a visit to Lake County and called Petite Sirah, quote, “Lake County’s best red winegrape.”

Nearly a year later, I wrote a post on my blog headlined “Getting it right: The Petite Sirah story,” in which I said, quote, “slowly, like an aircraft carrier reversing direction, my mind began to turn around. I now consider Petite Sirah (when well-grown and made)…to be an authentic California star.”

So we can date my own turnaround to somewhere in that period of 2009-2010. What happened?

Well, to put it in the simplest terms, the wines got better!

Why? It happened for a couple reasons. First, bottle prices started to rise, thereby giving growers and winemakers a greater incentive to pay attention to farming and cellar practices.

For example, here are the weighted average dollars per ton received for Petite Sirah:

In 2007: $881

In 2012: $1059

i.e, up 20%

In Napa Valley, the figures were:

Dollars per ton:

2007: $2956

2012: $3292

i.e. up 11.3%

This is an illustration of the “A rising ride lifts all boats” phenomenon that we’ve seen in every variety that has attained fame, be it Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

I do realize there’s a certain chicken-and-egg circularity to this reasoning: Did better prices lead to higher quality, or did higher quality lead to better prices? As usual, the answer is a mixture of both.

Another factor is balance: We can see, from the Crush Report, that growers starting picking Petite Sirah considerably less high in sugar in recent years. For example:

Average brix at time of purchase:

2006: 25.6

2011: 23.2

This is a 10.3% reduction in brix that resulted in more balanced, elegant wines that nonetheless were physiologically ripe at harvest. And this trend toward ripe wines at lower brix looks like it is continuing.

Good results tend to stimulate more good results: As Aaron Jackson pointed out to me, with higher quality, producers are more willing to put varietal Petite Sirah onto the market, instead of blending it in with other varieties, thereby obscuring its reputation. They are keeping crop yields modest in order to preserve intensity, and the grapes also are going into better growing areas. Petite Sirah, like all big red wines, loves hillsides, and we see the variety succeeding particularly well on the well-drained slopes of Sonoma and Napa Counties and Paso Robles. I’m sure Aaron will have much more to say about enology in his presentation later this morning.

Of course, there always will be a qualitative difference between commercially-grown Petite Sirah and Petites that are aimed more toward the luxury market. But that’s true of Cabernet Sauvignon as well, and as long as the commercial Petite Sirahs remain relatively modest in price, the market is big enough to embrace them both.

Another reason for Petite Sirah’s success–and here you again have to give credit to Jo and Jose and PSILY–is because the consumer finally became aware of the fact that Petite Sirah can be very good wine and, moreover, that there’s a distinct reason to buy it, as opposed to, say, Zinfandel, Syrah or Merlot. Thus, increased demand was rolled into the equation, which certainly played a central role in better bottle prices.

I said there was “a distinct reason to buy Petite Sirah,” and here I think is the most brilliant of the marketing messages. Petite Sirah’s supporters managed to get the message through to consumers that Petite Sirah is a unique wine in its own right. If you think about it, this is no easy task. The consumer already is overloaded with varietal names, proprietary names and imports from two dozen countries. You’d think there would hardly be room in their heads for another variety–especially one so easy to confuse with Syrah, which itself is easy to confuse with Shiraz.

Yet Petite Sirah really has carved out an identity for itself. It feels vaguely Californian–not as much as Zinfandel, but it still feels native, even though it’s not, so it appeals to that patriotic side of the consumer. It’s managed to do what Merlot never could: associate itself with a style of food, namely roasted, grilled, broiled and stewed meats. And it managed to avoid the identity crisis that Zinfandel made for itself by coming in everything from white Zin to rose, sparkling Zin to Port-style, heavy to soft, sweet to dry. In a way, Petite Sirah has done the best job of defining itself to the consumer of any variety since Pinot Noir. I think that from a marketing, advertising and public relations standpoint, this is the most opportunistic side of Petite Sirah to be addressed: To build on its still-emerging identity in the consumer’s mind, and focus and sharpen that image until it’s as pure as Pinot Noir’s or Cabernet Sauvignon’s.

As a wine historian, I believe writers will look back at this opening ten or fifteen years of the 21st century and declare that this was when California Petite Sirah came of age. Petite’s possibilities are endless. It carries none of the baggage of Merlot, does not suffer from Zinfandel’s schizophrenic identity crisis, and it is not Syrah–in fact, it is a better wine than most California Syrah because it has better structure and greater complexity. It has a pretty name that’s easy to pronounce and sounds fashionably French. In other words, Petite Sirah has everything going for it. It is Christopher Columbus on the Open Sea, sailing into the New World, filled with shining possibilities and glittering promises. You who produce Petite Sirah should go home with renewed confidence in Petite Sirah and in yourselves. So give yourselves a pat on the back. You deserve it!

  1. Steve,

    You describe PS as such:

    “Tell people what good Petite Sirah tastes like. It’s full-bodied. Mouth-filling. Rich and savory. Delicious. Complex and layered. Fruity, but dry. Fantastic with food. Ageable, if that’s your thing, but drinkable on release.”

    Doesn’t that fail to distinguish PS from most red wine varieties readily available to consumers? Pinot is different, sure, but you just generally described most red varieties, assuming they’re well grown and sensibly vinified.

  2. Steve,

    I love your description for Petite Sirah. It’s dead on. I can’t think of another variety that’s AS full-bodied, or AS mouth-filling… I can think of many Gamays, Pinot Noirs, and Zinfandles – that were made really well – that didn’t satisfy my palate that way. They would be more delicate and light. Yes, I’ve had Zins that taste that way (15-20 years ago, that weren’t fortified with Petite to give they ageability and backbone…And many other reds get that oomf from Petite, which can’t reach that level of complexity on their own. I also don’t taste Cabs with this same level of richness. Cabs have a more subdued flavor, as compared to Petites. This is why wine competitions taste Petite as their final wine, just before the late harvests. This is also why so many end up getting a sweepstakes award.

    Petite is rich and savory, and everything else you’ve written about. I dare say, that between you, Robert Parker, MaryAnn Worobiec of Wine Spectator, Dan Berger, and Charlie Olken, you guys have tasted more Petite Sirah than anyone else I know. The last 11 years have changed the way Petite is created, evaluated, and perceived… And you’re the ones that the samples have filtered through. You voices and evaluations are defining Petite Sirah’s flavor profile. I love your evaluation of this variety.

  3. Patrick says:

    I think the folks who brought you in to give that speech got their money’s worth. Excellent lecture. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Now THAT’S a keynote!

  5. Concannon is the one responsible, Patrick.

  6. NO other red wine has as much identity in a glass as a voluptuos Petite. It may be the only wine whose commanding physique is abundantly evident by appearance, its lush texture and inky color is undeniably Petite Sirah. Its star is rising again in our hemisphere and I dare say the evidence of such is led by the producers who care enough to attend yesterdays symposium. Many make a relatively small amount of PS yet they are steadfastly committed to their passion for the varietal. That confidence, propelled by the PSILY organization and backed by experienced wine media motivates a force that will resonate through the industry as more producers choose to direct a more primary focus on the varietal then back their confidence with investment in quality. I agree with Steve,to highlight negative criticism is to give it merit.

    Petite Sirah (and lets be sure to get it right-with an “i”) has survived many trials and tribulations through history but we haven’t seen anything yet…no other noble grape has been tried and tested on American soil like Petite Sirah and the best to come from this American Heritage Varietal is just over the horizon.

  7. Evan I will leave it to others to fill in the details of their particular petite sirahs.

  8. Great keynote speech.
    We’ve produced Petite Sirah for seven years, it’s routinely in our top three wines sold. Consumers love it as a 100% varietal, and as a core component of blends. The only challenge has been keeping access to a more limited supply of grapes. In my opinion it’s both a blessing a curse. I have no desire to see Petite Sirah “go big”, and watch it’s general market quality suffer.

  9. Mike Brown, I don’t think PS will “go big.” But it will steadily improve in the eyes of the consumers.

  10. Steve –

    Your bullet list of how to better promote PS is great. Really, it is applicable to a solid foundation of overall marketing – education, language and imagery to convey the right experience for PS (or any wine) to shine.

    Thank you for posting.

  11. Great post about a variety that I dig making and drinking. I do like the bullet points but disagree about telling people what they will be tasting with petites. From my perspective, the most important point about Petite, especially in CA and throughout the US, is that it truly is as close to a ‘noble’ California grape as Zinfandel is. Though originating from the Rhone, it is really not found there at all – and therefore you can almost ‘call it’ a California variety. To me, that’s quite exciting – and THE story to talk about when it comes to the variety.

    As far as flavors go, I’m not a real proponent of telling folks what they ‘will taste’ when having petites, because more often than not, that’s NOT what they’ll taste. The variety is still incredibly ‘variable’ in where it’s grown, how it’s handled by winemakers, etc to neatly ‘package it up’ for consumers.

    Stress the uniqueness, stress the history, stress the embracing of the variety by both ‘seasoned’ and ‘new’ winemakers, stress the fact that, though it makes a great blending component, it does wonderfully on its own, stress the fact that it is a ‘heartbreak grape’ that really needs sites that allow it to ripen fully late into the harvest . . . .

    Thanks again for embracing the variety and I for one am excited about what lies ahead for the noble Petite Sirah grape!

    Cheers!

  12. From Dave Pramuk, a founding partner of Robert Biale Vineyards… This is being borrowed from wine writer Laura Ness (present at the Symposium), published today on … http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=119597

    –Dave Pramuk of Biale Vineyards… He notes that Petite Sirah is known as “Cabernet’s helper,” often giving it the stuffing and bolstering it needs to darken color or deepen complexity. He also stated forthwith, “Petite Sirah is the most underrated variety in California,” and “Petite Sirah is the grape that Cabernet wants to be.” And, for over 100 years, Petite Sirah has been a favorite in the vineyard, loved by farmers, and is almost always found in the older vineyards, along with Zinfandel, Carignane and Mataro.

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