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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!


Petite Sirah: a consideration

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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 [1934], 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.


The Petite Sirah Symposium

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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.


Doing the right thing

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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.


Getting it right: the Petite Sirah story

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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.


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