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.
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.
When I put myself through grad school, I worked on the campus of my college, a state university in which most of the workers were unionized (SEIU). We were not forced to join the union and, in fact, I never did. I felt poor enough as it was on my meager salary, and the union dues ($20 a month? I forget) seemed like money out of my pocket I could use otherwise.
And yet I always felt a twinge of guilt at not supporting the union. After all, through collective bargaining, they had obtained for me certain privileges. For instance, as a university employee, I was entitled to take classes without paying any tuition. That saved me a lot of money. There were other things the union had negotiated as well. Once, when I had a run-in with a Dean, the union defended me and the Dean had to back down. In case you don’t know, Deans are very powerful figures on campuses. They are little Ayatollahs.
Now that I’m grown up, physically if not mentally, I think I should have joined the union. However, this blog post is not a diatribe about unions; steveheimoff.com stays away from politics. What it’s about is gratefulness or, to put it another way, not riding the gravy train someone else is paying for. Let me explain.
Last Friday I went to a wonderful event, Dark & Delicious. It’s the annual Petite Sirah food and wine party, held at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall warehouse out on Alameda Island. The event was conceived by and is sponsored every year by the P.S. I Love You trade group, which is run by the husband and wife team of Jose and Jo Diaz, of Diaz Communications.
Dark & Delicious is one of the more fun events of its kind. There’s tons of great food provided by local restaurants, and scores of wineries pour their Petite Sirahs (plus there’s usually some additional stuff “under the table”). It’s $63 a person, which is cheap considering you can eat a bellyful of really good food and drink to your heart’s content. And no parking hassles: There’s a huge lot well staffed by young men who how to direct the traffic.
I had a great time, as I know everybody else did (the event was sold out, even though there was a huge rainstorm). But as I went up and down the rows of tables, I couldn’t help but notice how many Petite Sirah brands were not there. They were notable by their absence. I taste these Petite Sirahs. I know who’s who. And a lot of those who’s were no-shows.
Let’s put Petite Sirah into context. It’s been around (as a grape and wine) for a long time, but never had any respect. If critics deigned to notice it, it was with a dismissive “Well, this is a rustic, tannic wine, native to California,” and they left it at that. Petite Sirah didn’t fare any better in the critics’ eyes than did Carignan or Alicante Bouschet, and look where they are today. Nobody cares about them.
But then Jo and Jose came along and decided to change things. Single-handedly (well, double-handedly) they pushed, pulled, cajoled and persuaded Petite Sirah producers to pony up some money (which many of them could ill-afford, Petite Sirah then not bringing in much money). Keep in mind, ten years ago the only reason most wineries even made Petite Sirah was because they believed in it. Not because it made them money. Not because Petite Sirah was a critical darling. No, it was due to that rarest of winemaker motivations: because they loved the wine and wanted to share it.
Fast forward to today, and Petite Sirah is hot, hot, hot. There are superior bottlings made all the way from Mendocino County down through Napa and Sonoma, through the Central Coast and even into Santa Barbara County. I ran into Larry Schaffer pouring some of his limited production Terceros from Santa Barbara County, and was knocked out. Sommeliers have discovered Petite Sirah bigtime. The wine is often more balanced than Zinfandel, and is ideal with roasts and barbecue.
I’ve given increasingly high scores to Petite Sirah over the past few years, as vintners have figured out how to coax elegance from it despite its size. But what I noticed, at the D&D tasting, was how many wineries there were, relatively speaking, from Lodi, Livermore Valley, Suisun Valley and the Sierra Foothills, and how few there were from Napa Valley and its sub-AVAs (which is where the best Petite Sirahs are from), as well as other critically good regions, like Rockpile and Paso Robles (although the excellent Vina Robles was represented). And this absence of the best houses made me angry.
It seems to me that all these Petite Sirahs that are now getting scores in the 90s and selling for $35-$50 a bottle owe something to the pioneers that blazed the trail–namely, the P.S. I Love You organization. By not joining and supporting it, they’re like I was in grad school: taking advantage of the dues-paying members to gain the benefits of membership with none of the obligations.
I imagine that some of the high-end Petite Sirah producers may take the attitude that, Hey, they don’t want to pour at an event next to inexpensive Lodi wines–an event held in a chilly former aircraft hangar on an abandoned military base in Alameda. Well, if some of the better-heeled wineries would join P.S.I.L.Y., maybe the Diazes would be able to host their event at a downtown San Francisco Hotel, or at Fort Mason or the Officer’s Club in the Presidio, where most of the big varietal tastings are held in San Francisco. And there’s more than a little snobbism involved if a Napa Valley winery takes the attitude that they couldn’t possibly pour beside the likes of Livermore or Calaveras. Really? Aren’t we all in this together?
So I’m appealing to the Petite Sirah producers who don’t support P.S.I.L.Y.–the same producers I give high scores to (and believe me, I could name names). In the name of fairness, and for your own benefit, join this organization that’s done so much to help you. It’s the right thing to do. It will help boost Petite Sirah even further into the limelight, and I can guarantee you that it would make Dark & Delicious absolutely one of the premier wine events of the year in California.
Petite Sirah is a wine that never got much respect. Oz Clark largely dismissed it in his 2001 wine guide. Broadbent didn’t even include it in the edition I have of his pocket guide. Bob Thompson said it was “hard to make into stylish wine,” while none other than our own Charlie Olken called it (with Norm Roby and Earl Singer) “brawny” with “few complex nuances.”
Hugh Johnson once said it “has great promise” in California, but then, he confused it with Syrah. Gerald Asher called it “sturdy,” which brings to mind Prof. Saintsbury’s characterization of Hermitage (made from Syrah) as “the manliest French wine I ever drank.” Daniel Johnnes didn’t mention it in his round-up of red varieties, although he did include two red blends that both contained Petite Sirah as among his Top 200 Wines (Marietta Old Vine Red and Ridge Geyserville).The University of California – Sotheby Book of California Wine said Petite Sirah was “difficult to support” due to “slow sales,” while the best Kevin Zraly could do was “can stand up to hearty food.”
Such bad press! Although all the dissing did give Petite Sirah a certain reverse snobbery. I once visited a rock and roll lawyer at this home in the Hollywood Hills. A UPS truck was unloading case after case of Petrus, Dunn Howell Mountain and Opus One in his driveway, but when I mentioned something about them, he called them “pissing wines.” Then he said, “You want to know what I really like?” He led me to his cellar and pulled out — I swear — a bottle of a Petite Sirah from a San Luis Obispo County producer whose name I no longer remember. I asked him what he liked about it, and he said, “Because nobody else can get it!”
Nor do I remember the first Petite Sirah I ever had. I have scattered records: an ‘89 Mirassou I called “indistinct and watery,” a Frick ‘90 of which I said “So unrestrained is the fruit that it almost made me wish it were more tightly reined in for the sake of elegance.” In 1993 I had a Foppiano 1978 from Russian River Valley that I liked. At the age of 15 it was “sweet, limpid, complex.” That testified to Petite’s ageworthiness, something all the critics wrote about; but by the 1990s, Americans weren’t in a mood to age their wines, and those who were preferred to gamble with Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet, not Petite Sirah. So the variety fell on hard times.
By the 2000s Petite Sirah seemed like an afterthought, a relic grape whose great acreage was explained by the fact that most of it was blended into inexpensive jug plonk. A few wineries stubbornly continued to bottle it as a varietal, but Petite Sirah seemed destined to go the way of Sangiovese and Barbera in California. Buh-bye!
But then something happened. In 2002, the P.R. company, Diaz Communications, began their effort to resurrect Petite Sirah on behalf of the then 60 growers and producers who still stood by it. Through relentless promotion, Jo Diaz and her husband, Jose, broke through the public’s and the critics’ indifference, and put Petite Sirah back on the map. Today, there are 126 growers and an astounding 723 producers, most of whom make fewer than 500 cases of the variety, and acreage is higher than it’s been at any point since 1980.
Five years ago I personally was not yet a fan. I would have agreed with the critics I quoted above: Petite Sirah was too big, too tannic and brawny, lacked elegance. But then I started coming across bottles like Hidden Cellars ‘98 Eaglepoint Ranch, Stags’ Leap ‘99, Fife ‘02 Redhead, Miner ‘02, Turley 2003 Hayne, Madrigal 2005 Barberis, Zina Hyde Cunnigham 2005, Vina Robles 2006 Jardine, Retro ‘06 Howell Mountain, Esoteria by Kent Rasmussen 2007 Chavis Leeds, Titus ‘07. And slowly, like an aircraft carrier reversing direction, my mind began to turn around. I now consider Petite Sirah (when well-grown and made; there’s always that caveat with any variety) to be an authentic California star.
In all fairness, it’s not just my mind that changed. Petite Sirah changed, too. I credit modern methods of tannin management with taking Petite’s naturally thick tannins, courtesy of a high skin-to-juice ratio, and making them soft and velvety. These are still wines that will take to the cellar, but you no longer have to put eight years of age on them to prevent them from peeling the enamel off your teeth. Yes, “Pet” is still a hearty wine in most cases, ideal with barbecue on warm summer evenings, or a rich dish of short ribs on a cold winter night. But I think it’s surpassed Zinfandel in that respect.
Petite Sirah’s experience in California is a great story of how improved viticulture and enology, coupled with a well-crafted public relations campaign, can succeed in launching a category of wine to prominence. People and organizations looking to popularize other wine types should look at Petite Sirah’s recent history and learn.