Old pals Jose and Jo Diaz, who own Diaz Communications in Windsor, have long worked with wineries in the North Coast for their Petite Sirah advocacy efforts, but now they’ve extended their reach into Paso Robles, with the launch of their first-ever Petite Sirah event down in the Central Coast.
Called PS I Love You…in Paso, it’s at Vina Robles on Feb. 6, and will feature ten Petite Sirah producers. Each winemaker will do a feature tasting/presentation of his wines, and as always with the Diaz’s Petite Sirah events, the food will be fantastic.
It’s nothing short of amazing how Petite Sirah has become a major variety and wine. It didn’t exactly happen overnight; there have been plantings of “Pet” (as the oldtimers called it) since the 1800s in California, but consumers never really caught on to it as an independent variety, until the Diazes created their trade organization, PS I love You, in 2002. Many wineries have joined over the years; the organization traditionally has held its tastings in the Bay Area, so this shift to Paso Robles is significant.
California acreage of Pet is way up, clocking in at a record 8,825 acres in 2014, nearly double what it was ten years previously. Granted, that’s not much compared to Cabernet Sauvignon (nearly 80,000 acres) or even Syrah (18,000 acres), but it’s more than either Cabernet Franc or Grenache—and almost more than the two of them combined.
And it’s being planted fast. In 2014, non-bearing acreage—those vines that haven’t yet yielded a crop—accounted to 1,149 acres, fully 13% of statewide acreage. That means a lot of growers care enough about Pet to put it into the ground. And which counties are those new vines going into? Well, here’s where things get a little complicated. The new plantings are mostly in the Central Valley—the counties of San Joaquin, Sacramento and Tuolumne (which extends from the Central Valley into the Sierra Foothills). That deserves an explanation. We tend to view wines from the Central Valley as jug wines, at best, but viticulture has really picked up there, and the wines, especially reds, and especially hearty, full-bodied reds like Petite Sirah and the blends it goes into and often dominates, can be rich, rewarding and affordable.
Along the Coast, San Luis Obispo County, which is where Paso Robles is, also is seeing rapid plantings of Pet: 130 non-bearing acres in 2014, giving that county a total of 1,647 acres of Pet altogether, or about 16% of the statewide total. So SLO growers and vintners are doubling down on Petite Sirah.
Beyond acreage, the number of Petite Sirah producers in California continues to soar, from fewer than 100 in 2001 to more than 900 last year.
Having this event in Paso Robles makes perfect sense. For years I’ve admired Paso for the uniqueness and quality of their red wines and off-beat blends, of which Petite Sirah often is a part. This ability to craft such wines was the main reason why I successfully argued for Paso to be Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Region of the Year, in 2013.
Try to get to Paso for the Feb. 6 event, which is in Vina Robles’ splendid new amphitheater. It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the wines and the winemakers, and to learn more about up-and-coming Petite Sirah, as well as the charming wine region of Paso Robles. I might even be there myself.
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.