To say that I was shocked when I read Andy Blue’s editorial in the latest edition of The Tasting Panel would be an understatement.
It’s a sharp, almost brutal attack on California Petite Sirah—so malicious in tone that I truly don’t understand where Andy is coming from—at least, the Andy I’ve known, liked and admired for decades. He’s a polite, gentlemanly type, thoughtful, wry and scholarly–not given to diatribes or the kind of invective displayed in this hit piece.
He calls Petite Sirah a “garbage grape” and a “Frankenstein monster.” He is “offended” by it, as though Petite Sirah had personally insulted him. In what is possibly the most hyperbolic exaggeration I’ve ever read in a wine article, he speculates that Petite Sirah is “European pay back for America exporting phylloxera to them,” thereby equating the grape and wine with a pest that kills vines and almost destroyed the French wine industry. He supposes that Petite Sirah is possibly better than “toxic bathtub gin,” but—one feels—not by much. He concludes that no one “in their right mind” would choose to drink it, even over Barbera, one of the most disagreeable wines in California.
I mean, what’s going on?
I’m not saying Petite Sirah is the greatest wine in the world. I drink very little; I would not normally buy it for myself. But there are hundreds of varieties and wines I would not normally buy for myself, but which I can be objective about as a critic; I don’t loathe them the way Andy seems to hate Petite Sirah. Even the title of Andy’s piece, P.S., I Don’t Get It, seems designed to mock P.S. I Love You, the Petite Sirah trade and marketing group.
Petite Sirah has its place, definitely, in the world of robust, full-bodied and dry red wines. And there is something historically Californian about it. I’ve particularly enjoyed bottles from Madrigal, Titus, Envy, Ridge, Kent Rasmussen, Zina Hyde Cunningham, Sirius, Turley and Grgich Hills, among others (and you’ll notice that most of those came from Napa Valley). Don’t forget, some of the ancient vine field blends we so rightly celebrate in California are based, largely or in part, on Petite Sirah. You want to talk ageabiilty? A great Petite Sirah will last longer than any Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Look, properly grown, well-made Petite Sirah can be a dramatic, rich, enjoyable wine; most of them are no longer the monsters they used to be, as vintners treat the vines and wines with more respect, ending up with balanced, less alcoholic bottlings. And Petite Sirah is the ideal partner to the kinds of foods restaurateurs serve up at P.S. I Love You’s “Dark and Delicious” event, held annually at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co.: pork and beef stews, short ribs, sausages, burgers, and anything with chocolate. So, old pal Andy–a great entrepreneur and brilliant media idea man–I think you maybe woke up on the wrong side of bed when you wrote that piece.
Someone whom I don’t know privately emailed me yesterday asking my advice about some Petite Sirahs he could buy that are “the darkest (black) and most earthy minerality (full bodied).” It was nice to know that, while I’m not officially a wine critic anymore, at least one person still appreciates that I have a couple decades-plus of experience under my belt!
I was happy to reply, “Lately, I’ve enjoyed Petites from Turley, Retro, Frank Family, Stags’ Leap, Turnbull (all Napa Valley), as well as Miro and St. Francis (both Dry Creek Valley) and MCV and Aaron (Paso Robles).” I could have added many others: David Fulton, Ballentine, Delectus, Ridge, Grgich Hills, J. Lohr, Proulx among them, but a brief reply to a brief email is not meant to be an article!
Petite Sirah is an interesting wine in several respects, not simply because it can be very good, but because it illustrates the difficulty of getting the consumer to try something he or she night not be familiar with. This is always a huge problem for producers and is why so many California wineries continue to make indifferent Chardonnay. The problem with Petite Sirah in particular also is that despite the considerable quantities of it made in California, not all of it is very good! The grapes can vary in ripeness and the wine itself can be too high in alcohol and above all too tannic. Then too, because Petite Sirah does not fetch as much money in the marketplace as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, there is little reason for vintners to make it as good as they possibly can. When Harry Waugh, visiting from London, tasted his first California Petite Sirahs (in Oakland, no less, at the then home of Belle and Barney Rhodes, who owned Martha’s Vineyard), he found too many of the wines suffered from “oxidation and…volatile acidity,” in other words they were rustic. While Petite’s qualities were strange to Harry, he did find in the best of the wines what he called “a fairly full-bodied Burgundy type,” a description that doesn’t sound like modern Petite Sirah (which you would hardly call “Burgundy type”). However, I suspect that many of the wines at that 1972 tasting were lower in alcohol than Petite Sirah tends to be today; also, that many of them would have been “field blends” of other varieties (Carignan, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, perhaps even Grenache) and this may have accounted for the lighter weight. Incidentally, Harry also found, in many of the wines, a “peppery” aroma that mystified him, but that today certainly is a marker for a well-made Petite Sirah.
The variety used to be, and until comparatively recently was, known almost exclusively in California, but there there are suggestions its popularity is spreading beyond our borders. It’s “catching on in the Pacific Northwest,” with wines being produced in the warmer areas of Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope and Walla Walla. Back in California, there’s more Petite being crushed nowadays than ever; 2013’s crush, of 68,000 tons, was a record (alrhough of course the 2013 crush overall also was a record). To put that into some perspective, the Petite Sirah crush was about one-fourth that of Pinot Noir and one-eighth that of Cabernet Sauvignon, but already exceeds that of Grenache, and is nearly half that of Syrah. In other words, Petite Sirah has become quite an important variety in its own right. I suspect a lot of it is being blended into red wine, to make it darker and firmer, an inference supported by the fact that the county with the most acreage is San Joaquin. Oddly, there’s also a lot of Petite Sirah–1,400 acres–growing in San Luis Obispo, although I couldn’t tell you why; SLO county isn’t known for varietal Petite Sirah, so it’s got to be going someplace else. However, the good news is that plantings in Napa Valley are on a sharp increase, up 41% since 2004 to 807 acres, and I’d bet most of that is being varietally labeled. If I had to pick the best spot for Petite in Napa, I’d say the northwestern part of the valley, St. Helena to Calistoga, where the toasty temperatures get the grapes nice and ripe, and where producers have enough money to sort out bad bunches, invest in good barrels, etc.
I went to Dark & Delicious, the big Petite Sirah event that my friends, Jo and Jose Diaz, hold every year, through their P.S. I Love You advocacy group. As usual, it was at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co. facility, in an airplane hangar at the old Alameda Naval Air Station, which was given up by the U.S. Defense Department years ago, and whose extensive buildings now are available for rent by private companies, like Rock Wall.
It was a gorgeous night; the island city of Alameda is located across the Bay from San Francisco, and I only wish I’d taken some photos of the S.F. skyline and the amazing new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, all lit up against a starry night sky. But I didn’t. Sorry ‘bout that.
I love Dark & Delicious for several reasons, among them the quality of the food. Jo and Jose recruit local restaurateurs and caterers, and because the wine is Petite Sirah (and “dark and delicious” are perfect descriptors for the wines), the food tends to be rich and heavy: lots of barbecue, sausages, paella, pork, beef, wild boar, Ahi tuna, not to mention irresistable chocolate. I have to admit I’m a bit of a ravenous carnivore at these things: it’s with a mild sense of guilt that I make my rounds of the tables, inhaling everything, stuffing myself silly. Food, or rather the enjoyment of it, is one of the distinctive properties of being alive, particularly for us humans, who, if we’re lucky, have access to such gorgeously prepared delicacies. If I was a young pup and just starting out, I might consider being a chef, like a guy I met at D&D, Tyler Stone, who was making Petite Sirah sorbet using liquid nitrogen with a huge machine that puffed out clouds of white smoke. Tyler reminded me of a young Tyler Florence or Bobby Flay–an ambitious, good-looking chef whose name just might be a household word someday (well, at least, in foodie households).
The Petite Sirahs themselves were amazing. A Mounts and a Tedeschi in particular blew me away. How good Petite Sirah has gotten over the years. It used to be a big, brawny, tannic wine, a sort of redneck cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon, but nowadays the best wines have polished up their images and become truly elegant–although they still have Petite Sirah’s swagger.
Just for the heck of it, here are the top Petite Sirahs I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast over the last six months: Stags’ Leap 2010 Ne Cede Malis, Ballentine 2010 Fig Tree, Grgich Hills 2009 Miljenko’s Vineyard, J. Lohr 2011 Tower Road, Retro 2009 Old Vine, Raymond 2010, Galante 2010 Olive Hill, Peachy Canyon 2011, Ancient Peaks 2010 and Alta Colina 2010 Ann’s Block. Note the proliferation of Central Coast sources; Petite Sirah no longer is just a Napa-Sonoma phenomenon.
A tip of the hat to Jo and Jose, for always pulling D&D off with such artful precision. Unless you’ve done one of these big events yourself, you can’t even imagine all the prep work that goes into them–not to mention all the opportunities for disaster. That D&D goes off so effortlessly is a testimony to their organizational skills.
Speaking of events, here are a few I’ll be going to in the near future: World of Pinot Noir, the Pinot Noir Shootout, In Pursuit of Balance, the Paso Robles Cabernet Collective, the Chardonnay Symposium and the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. The Wine Bloggers Conference invited me back, after a lull of a couple years, to be on a panel for their Santa Barbara conclave, July 11-13, although I won’t know for two or three weeks if I can make it. I like getting out on the road and going to stuff, especially if I can bring Gus, which I usually can. If you’re planning on attending any of these events, look me up.
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.
[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.]
* * *
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:
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:
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!
Fifteen years ago researchers at the University of California, Davis, determined that Syrah and Peloursin, a minor grape variety from the Rhône-Alpes region, crossed to create Dourif [or Durif], also known as Petite Sirah.
One wonders why they even bothered to investigate Petite Sirah in 1997. The grape and wine had lingered on the outer fringes of obscurity in California for decades. In one of the first American wine books published after the Repeal of Prohibition, Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s influential The Complete Wine Book , the authors called Petite Sirah, or rather the wine made from it, “mediocre,” adding that, even in its native France, it was “little esteemed.” Fourteen years later, the Chicago journalist, Julian Street, wrote a little book, Wines: Their Selection, Care and Service, in which he repeated the assertion, eventually proven incorrect, that Petite Sirah was identical to “Shiraz, one of the principal grapes grown in the Rhône Valley.” The American bon vivant and heavy cigarette smoker, Creighton Churchill, in 1963 repeated this error, and further malinged Petite Sirah by calling it, correctly for the time, “more often used for blending” than bottled on its own.
The confusion continued into modern times. Leon D. Adams, writing in 1973, confused it for “Shiraz” in his The Wines of America, which perhaps was understandable since six years previously no less than Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, the University of California experts, in their Wine: An Introduction for Americans, called it the basis for “Hermitage.” By the Eighties the grape’s origins still had not yet been unraveled: the 1984 University of California Book of California Wine called Petite Sirah “an ampelographical tangle”
There were, however, even during that period of uncertainty, more discerning palates, of whom Gerald Asher, as usual, was one. Writing in Gourmet, in a piece whose date I cannot determine but appears to have been no later than the early 1980s, he noted that “there are powerful examples of the California Petite Sirah that share certain characteristic of northern Rhône wines”; the title of that article was Venerable Hermitage, and Asher singled out for particular praise the 1973 Robert Mondavi Petite Sirah.
I never had that wine, nor any other Mondavi Petite Sirah; I believe they stopped making one a long time ago, no doubt due to the absence of demand in the marketplace. Certainly by the time I became a wine writer, in the late 1980s, nobody cared about Petite Sirah, “nobody” being a relative term, since the variety did have its fans, although many of them didn’t know they were enjoying Petite Sirah because the grape usually was blended into Zinfandel. I can’t at this point remember the first Petite Sirah I ever had, but the first I ever reviewed for Wine Enthusiast was a 1997 JC Cellars, from Napa Valley, which I didn’t care for, although it did possess the variety’s inimitably inky black color and sturdy tannins. In the late winter of 1999, though, there came my way a Petite Sirah from Stags’ Leap Winery, which long had specialized in the variety, to which I gave 93 points, still one of the highest scores ever to come from me for a Petite Sirah.
Nonetheless, Petite Sirah remained, for me at any rate, an unexciting wine throughout the first part of the 2000s. Something, however, was gnawing away at the corners of my resistance, or obliviousness, to its charms, and that was the advocacy group, PS I Love You, which I admit in candid honesty lobbied me heavily. I can’t say exactly when the switchover occurred, but certainly by 2005 it occurred to me how original and special Petite Sirah from California could be, under the right circumstances. Those circumstances are, of course, heavy, rich foods, mainly grilled meats like steak or prime rib and even duck, in a rich, fruity sauce, and beef stews or bourgignons, in which the wine plays a part in the preparation. I have even enjoyed Petite Sirah with Chinese beef and vegetable dishes.
While Petite Sirah has the well-deserved reputation for ageability, I have none in my small cellar. I’ve had enough mature Petite Sirah to know that in old age it becomes sweeter and more mellow but doesn’t necessarily gain in complexity and, in fact, the older it gets the more it loses its basic Petite-ness of muscularity and heft. Among the best Petite Sirahs I’ve had in 2012 have been Turley’s 2010 Hayne Vineyard, Library Vineyard and Pesenti Vineyard, Grgich Hills’ 2008 MIljenko’s Vineyard, Girard 2010, Elyse 2010 Barrel Select and Jacob Franklin 2009 Chavez-Leeds Vineyard. All, not surprisingly, were from Napa Valley.