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Can Petite Sirah be the Next Big Thing? Can anything?

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At Tuesday’s Petite Sirah Symposium,  there was plenty to talk about: viticulture and enology best practices, and lots of personal history, but one question overrode all else: How can we make Petite Sirah a “hot” category?

That’s what people asked me. Generally, it would take place privately: they’d approach me, do their introductions, and then graduate to the main point. “Say, in your opinion, what do you think we have to do” or “How long do you think it will take for…” and similar inquiries along those lines.

Well, I’m not the Oracle of Delphi. But here’s what I think. Petite Sirah is not going to be the Next Big Thing. I don’t believe any new varietal from California will be. The market and cultural forces are such as to mitigate against the rise of a new wine. True, we’ve had Moscato, but that had several things going for it. It was cheap, it filled the niche of a crisp, sweet white wine, and there was plenty of it to go around (at least, once the giant companies saw the handwriting on the wall and quickly grafted over hundreds of acres of Merlot to Moscato, which they then could quickly push out with no bottle age!).

Petite Sirah, obviously, is none of those things, beginning with cheap. There are inexpensive Petite Sirahs, but very, very few of them: in the last two years I’ve reviewed only about a dozen below $20 (of well more than 200 tasted), and of those half-dozen, most were execrable. The best, from the likes of Envy, Turley, Grgich Hills, Sean Thackrey, Frank Family Retro, Rutherford Grove, Chiarello and Summers, all cost between $32-$75, making them rather costly for the average American (although certainly less than Cabernet Sauvignons that had similar point scores). Most of these high-scoring Petite Sirahs, by the way, were from Napa Valley, which is hardly a surprise. The climate (warm and dry) is right, the soils are well-drained, and vintners can afford the viticulture to get things right.

Nor does Petite Sirah fill any particular niche that currently is unfilled. I said in my remarks to the Symposium that Petite Sirah is a distinctive wine, and it is; but it fundamentally is a full-bodied, dry red wine, which tends to have highish alcohol and considerable oak, and in those things, it’s hardly alone. So are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel. So it’s not as if the consumer is forced to buy Petite Sirah if she’s looking for something to drink with the barbecue. There are plenty of other choices.

Finally, there is not yet a great deal of good Petite Sirah to go around. Most of the top examples are produced in the hundreds of cases (which partially accounts for their relatively high prices). You’re not going to find good Petite Sirah at the 7-Eleven. Along these lines, however, I was struck by this article, from the July 5 “The Drinks Business,” to the effect that Santa Rita, the giant Chilean producer, just released its own, first Petite Sirah, called Bougainville. The interesting quote comes from the winery’s technical director, who said, he “had originally intended to buy Syrah [for the new line]. However, he praised the results now being achieved with Petite Sirah” in Chile. So they’re making progress there, too, just as are the Californians.

Well, that won’t hurt to raise Petite Sirah’s visibility, assuming Santa Rita exports Bougainville to the States. Still, Petite Sirah is unlikely to erupt positively onto the consumer’s radar to the extent that everyone will be wanting some this Christmas. But that’s not the point. The way to build a category is one step at a time. Let individual wineries establish their own reputations, among sommeliers, merchants and selected consumers. Let word of mouth spread the message. Let critics praise the wines (as we already are) until consumers, here and there, start thinking, “What is this ‘Petite Sirah’ I keep hearing about?” Curiosity has launched many a trend.

But to expect Petite Sirah to explode like Pinot Noir post-Sideways? Nope. Not until George Clooney and Ryan Gosling make a buddy movie about it.

  1. Your opening question (“Can anything?”)and your wrap up (“Not until George Clooney and Ryan Gosling make a buddy movie about it.”) say it all… All it takes is a George Clooney, and a paradigm shift is born… Regardless of the variety… Meanwhile, we’re slugging along as the tortoise.

  2. Keasling says:

    All of this PS talk the last 48hrs has me digging through the cellar for some older David Fulton bottles. Yum.

  3. Jonathan O'Bergin says:

    What the heck IS PS in CA? “Recent research by Doctor Carole Meredith, at U. C. Davis, has confirmed many of California’s Petite Sirah vines to be Durif. Still, other vineyards thought to be planted to Petite Sirah have been identified as Syrah, Pinot Noir, and even Peloursin, with other plots a mixture of many varieties. “While winemakers may be content to live with the genetic heterogeneity that is Petite Sirah today, varietal labeling regulations may eventually force the issue,” C. Meredith says. “One day, the winemakers may be asked to agree upon a single variety that can bear the name Petite Sirah. Which one will they choose? What is Petite Sirah?” Recent amendments by the TTB (BATF) allow wines to be labeled either Durif or any of the many different spellings of Petite Sirah. By any name, this variety has the ability to create rich, age worthy reds and is reestablishing itself as one California’s great grapes.” —Quote from Applellation America. I remember well, years ago, when it was determined that some of the best Petite Sirahs were Pinot Noirs in fact. SO…… what is in the current bottlings?

  4. One of the first wines I had a lot of success selling in the early 1990s was Vincent Arroyo Petite Sirah from Calistoga as they were beautiful wines in youth. Far too oftem, as you point out, they are hard, unevolved wines when released, and few are large enough production to offer competitive pricing. Obviously there is some passion for PS, but I can’t help but think it is for those devotees who consider Zinfandel as not esoteric enough. The good stuff has been in the ground for most of the last century and unfortunately there isn’t enough of that to create a snowball effect. The same goes for Ribolla Gialla (even though relatively new), despite the incessant love by a few bloggers.

    Often the benchmark sites for a particular fringe grape can be counted on one hand. Ex: For years the only memorable Chenin Blanc for me have come from Chalone and Chappellet yet despite the thousands of acres planted in the central valley for bulk wine, I think there are likely other solid varietally labeled examples out there without the price pressure, and wicked stylistic swings of Petite Sirah that confound consumer adoption.

  5. Even though there isn’t a market gap that PS can fill, it doesn’t mean that it cannot capture a more significant market share. As you mention, curiosity can be key, and I think a lot of people could be enticed to try something new instead of another cabernet.

    How the idea of trying PS pops into the consumer’s mind is of course a matter of marketing. So if you’re not lucky enough to had Clooney declare his love for PS, there are other options. Growers/winemakers could make a Petit Sirah Alliance aimed at marketing the varietal. It would be a bit like an AVA, though there might be a freeloader problem.

  6. Deaqr Kim Johanssen, there already is a Petite Sirah alliance. You can find it at http://www.psiloveyou.org/

  7. Judging how PS was portrayed in the series finale of “Smash,” I’d say there is a long way to go before Hollywood embraces this cultivar…

  8. Good points, all, and please note that Durif and PS are interchangeable (or at least they should be).

    As I stated in Steve’s other thread on the subject, the biggest upside selling point to PS is that it CA can pretty much call it its own at this point. It is very sparingly grown in the Rhone, where it was ‘created’, and has small footprints in Australia and other states in the US.

    So perhaps we can petition The Gov. to declare it our State Wine Grape as easily as Zinfandel can be considered our state grape, eh?

    I agree with Doug’s assessment that the really varied styles in which the grape is vinified makes it difficult to move forward with a single or even a handful of examples that the general consumer can taste and ‘understand’ the variety.

    That said, kudos to Jo Diaz and others who keep fighting the good fight – as do I as I continue to ‘tinker’ with the grape down here in Santa Barbara County (-:

    Cheers!

  9. Decades ago I made Petite Sirah (Petty Sairs to the locals in those days) from a dozen or more Napa Valley vineyards. They were all Durif. Never saw a Pinot or Syrah version. The problem as I see it is that on well drained soils with superb exposure Petite Sirah makes a nice wine, but so does Cabernet…maybe even nicer. So, based on bottle or per ton price, the best economical decision is to grow Cabernet at those sites. On the heavier soils where Cabernet can be vigorous and green, Petite Sirah is not a bad choice. It will have nice color, nice fruit, and a decent finish. But I’m not sure it is easier to sell a $40 Pet, than a $40 slightly green Cab. So, Pets are unlikely to be the next big thing. We need people to get tired of Cabernet first.

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