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A Petite Sirah What If ...

California's underdog grape can do amazing things in the right place and the right hands
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 19, 2011 11:30am ET

If only.

If only most Petite Sirahs were as delicious and refined, rich and graceful as the 2009 Relic Napa Valley Old Vines Petite Sirah ($52, 198 cases made). Maybe then people would have a different take on this old-time underdog grape, and Napa Valley for that matter.

Petite Sirah is one of wine's unsung heroes, almost always an afterthought grape. That's not the case at Frediani Vineyard, where Relic's old-vine Petite Sirah grapes come from. Petite Sirah is a vine that owes its heritage to the mix of grapes that hail from France's Southern Rhône Valley. Most of the praise goes to the better-known and more popular Syrahs, Grenaches and blends thereof.

That won't change, but one sip of this wine will give you a new appreciation for Petite Sirah presented in a supple, fleshy, deeply fruited style. This wine hardly fits Petite's reputation of being chewy, hearty or rustic. Its texture is more akin to a smooth Merlot or Pinot Noir.  The 2009 was one of the gems uncovered by MaryAnn Worobiec in one of her blind tastings of Petite Sirah for Wine Spectator's March California Rhône report; you can check out the forthcoming Dec. 21 edition of the Insider for the official score and tasting note.

Relic, a Napa winery owned by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Hirby and Schatzi Throckmorton, is one of California's promising new Rhône grape specialists. Relic's wines have been nothing short of fantastic of late, with the Relic Ritual 2009 (94 points, $48) another Rhône-style blend that shouldn't be missed.

Alfred Frediani's vineyard has been the source for many excellent wines over the years, yet Hirby and Throckmorton have taken it to a higher level of quality. The soils are composed of very deep layers of alluvial rocks and gravel that are volcanic in origin.

"There is great natural balance in the soils here, so other than spading under the cover crop, not much is needed," said Hirby. "We feel extremely lucky to be working with Al, who is in his early 90s, and has seen so much. His love for these old Petite Sirah and 110-year-old Carignane vines is easy to see, as there is every incentive for him to pull them out and plant Cabernet Sauvignon. He claims that the thing he misses the most about the old days is using horses to work the vineyards, which he stopped doing in the 1950s."

Hirby uses native yeast fermentation whenever possible, and to utilize the lees for freshness and textural benefits. "Healthy old vines provide a creaminess and textural richness that is incomparable, though, and working with the best sites is key," he said. The Relic Napa Valley Old Vines Petite Sirah 2009 was raised for 18 months in 50 percent new French oak Burgundy barrels, and was bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Though not much has changed with Relic's winemaking since its vintage 2002 debut, Hirby allows that he and Throckmorton now have access to better grape sources since the recession forced some wineries to scale back and sever vineyard ties. "Schatzi and I have been growing Relic at a time when many local wineries are downsizing, and that has provided us with incredible opportunities for great fruit sources, both with Rhône and Bordeaux varieties in Napa Valley, and with Burgundian varieties on the Sonoma Coast."

That other winemakers no longer wanted the Frediani grapes let Hirby and Throckmorton seize the opportunity, and the vineyard became a major grape source for Relic beginning in 2009. The results should be enough to make vintners rethink the possibilities of life beyond Cabernet.

If only Petite Sirah were handled so well by more California vintners.

Barry Brown
Napa —  December 19, 2011 12:28pm ET
I have tasted Relic's Petite Sirah and it is quite tasty, but what about Quixote? - they have been turning out great Petite Sirahs for years.
Christopher Dunn
Honolulu, HI —  December 19, 2011 3:39pm ET
A well-made petite syrah can, indeed, be a thing of beauty and a revelation. Although I have not tasted the Relic wine, it does seem that others have made valiant attempts at crafting fine petite syrah, including Biale, Foley and Neal among many others. And, not to overlook those from Australia, where they called the grape Durif.
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  December 19, 2011 5:41pm ET
If only it weren't so expensive.

Jim Kern
Holiday Wine Cellar
North San Diego County, CA
Richard Lee
Napa —  December 19, 2011 6:22pm ET
Jim,
It seems to me that Wine Spectator is one of those who is missing the boat on Petite Sirah. WS has reviewed only 26 PS in 2008 and 38 in 2007 that were made in the USA. I, personally, have tasted many more than that in the same time period. This would be a good time for WS to rectify why so few PS are being reviewed on a yearly basis. Cheers and Happy Holidays!

BTW, Jeff Runquist Winery in Amador has been making a Petite Sirah exactly as you describe for at least the last 10 years. So far I have not seen WS review his PS.
Jon Bjork
Lodi, CA USA —  December 19, 2011 9:54pm ET
And don't count Lodi out for Petite Sirah. We have a climate very similar to Calistoga, where Frediani Vineyard is located. Petite Sirah loves warm weather.
Jo Diaz
Winsdor, CA 95492 —  December 20, 2011 11:17am ET
There are currently 866 producers of Petite Sirah in the US. Ninety-nine percent of it is made in California. Also, of this number, I'd say that about 90 percent of them only make 400 or less cases a year.

I've been keeping records for PS I Love You (www.psiloveyou.org) since 2002, when there were only 62 growers and producers combined at that time.

Having a group devoted to the variety has encouraged winemakers to craft it. (I believe it's a winemaker's wine, because they love the challenge of taming the shrew.) Most of the Petite Sirah that's made never leaves tasting rooms. It's being sold directly to consumers, who love Petite for all the reasons Jim's described for Relic in this review - which I now need to add to the list. So, make that 867.

1) Most of these winemakers/vintners, because they're guaranteed sales, have no reason for any endorsements by anyone. 2) One vintner I know won't send it out, because his sales are brisk and won't risk a bad review to jeopardize what's already working well.

These are two reasons that there's not been 800+ Petites sent to any wine reviewer's office.

If I make a call for Petite to my members to send their Petites to a wine reviewer who's interested in writing about Petite, I can scurry up 30 samples in a matter of minutes.

I've got one vintners whom Robert Parker called and asked for a sample. Yeah... they're that good, and there's plenty of it. It's just an underground project for most, and everyone seems content to have it continue that way. It's simply manageable growth. Each year, another few hundred acres are added to California's acres of Petite Sirah (currently 8,000 acres), each year the number of producers grows.

It's amazing to watch, and a delight to enjoy...
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  December 20, 2011 12:38pm ET
Richard,

I review California Petite Sirah for Wine Spectator and I've been averaging closer to 100 Petites a year for the last few years, including 70 so far from 2008 and 90 from 2007. Some of them are still in the pipeline, and some of them are Petite Sirah-based blends, which might account for why you can't see them yet in our online database.

It's both an honor and plenty of fun for me to cover a category with so many great wines to recommend, and thank you for the tip on the Runquist.

MaryAnn Worobiec
Wine Spectator
Dave Pramuk
Napa, CA, USA —  December 20, 2011 2:32pm ET
For nearly a hundred years in California, wine growers loved Petite Sirah for its reliability, and winemakers loved it for its versatility and ability to pump up red wines that needed help. It was, and still is the secret ingedient in many great Californian Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels, and red blends.

The new wave of producers in Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles,Livermore, Mendocino,and the Foothills that take Petite Sirah seriously as a varietal know that this has been the most underrecognized red grape in California. After all the elegant Pinot noirs, a little good ol' Californian fruit and strength can be a welcome diversion. It's increasing, but the problem is,there isn't nearly as much to go around as there used to be. It was nearly wiped off the map in Napa Valley - mainly due to the new marketing direction in the 1970's.

Nice to see Wine Spectator regularly including Petite Sirah in tastings and stepping up to recognize that a Californian-identified grape that has been there all along, when done right, is worthy of wine drinkers' respect and attention.

Dave Pramuk
Co-Founder
Robert Biale Vineyards
Taylor Eason
Santa Rosa, California —  December 20, 2011 2:36pm ET
I know an inexpensive Petite Sirah that has wowed me lately - Foppiano Vineyards. If you haven't tried Foppiano since the new winemaker, Natalie West, took over for the spectacular 2008 release, you owe it to yourself to taste it. Only $20. Russian River just might be place to grow this grape.
(Full disclosure: I work there, but I'm also a massive PS fan -- hey, employee discount!)
Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  December 20, 2011 4:30pm ET
Count me in as a big fan of the variety! One of the 'challenges' with the variety is the notion, sometimes but not always correct, that you need to lay these wines down for a decade or two for them to 'soften enough' to truly enjoy them. Another 'challenge' is the general feeling that the variety doesn't possess much 'fruit quality' but instead is all about color and tannin structure.

Down here in Santa Barbara County, we're fortunate to get enough sunshine throughout a long growing season to allow the variety to full ripen. Therefore, versions down such as the wonderful Thompson Vyd Petites that Jaffurs puts out year in and year out, are perfect for enjoying now, with a good decant, or laying down for later enjoyment.

But we certainly are not alone. Try any of the wonderful offerings from Bogle, Rosemblum, Rock Wall, Quixote, Stags Leap, Twisted Oak and many others.

For fans of the variety, please check out the PS I LOVE YOU website - this is an advocacy organization set up to educate and spotlight the variety.

Thanks again for taking note of it and we'll look forward to MaryAnn's reviews of many many more bottlings in the near future.

Cheers!

Larry Schaffer
tercero wines
www.tercerowines.com
Richard Lee
Napa —  December 20, 2011 5:33pm ET
Hi Maryann,

Thanks for the reply. I went back and checked again. I went into advance search under PS, United States and entered 2007. It still shows only 38 ratings, I must be doing something wrong. Is there any help you can provide to show me where all of your reviews are?
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  December 20, 2011 5:39pm ET
Hi Richard,

As Maryann noted, part of the issue in pulling up the wines in our online Wine Ratings Search is that many are blends and are not varietally labeled.

Try this to find all published notes through the Dec. 31-Jan. 15 issue:
www.winespectator.com/wine/search?winery=Petite+Sirah&submitted=Y&page=1&text_search_flag=everything&search_by=all&fuzzy=no&varietal[]=null_varietal&regions[]=UNITED_STATES&vintage[]=2007&pricelow=-1&pricehigh=-1&case_prod=null_case_prod&scorelow=-1&scorehigh=-1&taste_date=&issue_date=&issue_year=&size=25&sort_by=score&sort_dir=desc

Enter Petite Sirah in the text search -- and choose the option to search wineries, wines, regions AND TASTING NOTES. That will call up any wine where Petite Sirah is mentioned as part of the blend in the note, not just those labeled as Petite Sirah in the wine name. Then choose the vintage in the Advanced Search pulldown menu, and you can choose the region in the Advanced search menu too, whether you want California or all US.

Dana Nigro
Managing editor, WineSpectator.com
Richard Lee
Napa —  December 20, 2011 6:47pm ET
Hi Dana,
Thanks for the quick reply, I appreciate the help, but I need further clarification:

To quote you:
"Try this to find all published notes through the Dec. 31-Jan. 15 issue:
www.winespectator.com/wine/search?winery=Petite+Sirah&submitted=Y&page=1&text_search_flag=everything&search_by=all&fuzzy=no&varietal[]=null_varietal&regions[]=UNITED_STATES&vintage[]=2007&pricelow=-1&pricehigh=-1&case_prod=null_case_prod&scorelow=-1&scorehigh=-1&taste_date=&issue_date=&issue_year=&size=25&sort_by=score&sort_dir=desc"

When searching for wine reviews I prefer not to look for needles in haystacks. Perhaps WS could find a short cut of the above listed method to make your online site easier to use. Thanks again and Happy Holidays!


Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  December 20, 2011 6:59pm ET
Hi Richard,

We are aware of the issues with searching for non-varietally labeled blends by their dominant grapes and are working on our database to resolve this complex matter.

In the meantime, if doing a search by variety only doesn't call up many results, we recommend switching to a search that includes the tasting notes field. We often spell out the blend composition in notes (if the blend information is provided by the winery), and that's the way to find those.

Dana
Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  December 20, 2011 7:48pm ET
After reading this blog, I'm certainly pleased that I took my allocation of Relic Old Vines PS several weeks ago. I've been very happy with Relic's offerings, and the other wines that Hirby makes (e.g. until recently, Hunnicutt). Other boutique PS blends are Keplinger's SUMO and Cutt's Fearless Red. Indeed, Robert Foley's "Muscle Man" turned me into a PS fan.
Kent Rosenblum
alameda Ca. Usa —  December 21, 2011 12:27am ET
Hi Jim and Mary Ann,
It's great to see a Petite Sirah praised so highly by the Spectator. In my experience the western exposure old vine vineyards located around Calistoga are really Petite Sirah's true Mecca. However, many fine examples are showing up from Sonoma, Paso Robles Lodi and the Foothills.
I've had the pleasure of working with Al fediani's fruit over the years, and it's always pristine.
The first time I toured Al's vineyard with him, he was probably in his early 80s. He insisted we take his world war 2 jeep, which he had to raise the hood and hot wire because it no longer had a starter.
On the way thru the vineyard Al noticed a weed next to one of his prized old vines. He immediatly shut off the jeep, jumped out and pulled the weed, even though I offered to provide that service for him. He of course then had to raise the hood and do the hot wire deal again. Well this happened several more times during our tour, and I can now understand why Al is just like a great old Petite Sirah. he's passionate, full bodied, long lasting, and full of zest.
I also would like to point out that Petite Sirah really joins Zinfandel in being a consumate American
culitvar.
Please check the PS I love You website for information on the 2012 Dark and Delicious Tasting of great Petites with awesome food pairings

Thanks Kent Rosenblum Rock Wall Wine co.
Steve Balmuth
San Clemente, CA —  December 22, 2011 10:26am ET
I really like Aaron Petite Sirah made by Aaron Jackson in Paso Robles. All he makes is Petite Sirah and his slogan is "Life should be outrageous, Go Big or Go Home!" It retails for $29.
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  December 22, 2011 10:45am ET
MaryAnn- We have been enjoying the 2006 Parducci PS, Mendocino for awhile now. It is a real value at $8-9 a bottle. You gave it an 86.
Ralph Evans
Tulsa, OK —  December 22, 2011 12:58pm ET
Hard to believe there could be a Petite Sirah discussion without prominently mentioning Vince Arroyo. Sublime stuff, particularly his Rattlesnake Vinyard!
Brian Hays
Campbell, CA —  December 23, 2011 2:33pm ET
Robert Biale Vineyards .. Petite Sirah done right!!
Robert Butler
Colorado Springs, CO —  December 25, 2011 9:21pm ET
I concur 100% with Ralph from Tulsa... Vince rocks a mean PS. We've been getting his wines for 20 years and have the great pleasure of having every 1 of his 25 vintages. PS... Ralph don't give out the secret about the Rattlesnake Vineyard. ;-)
John & Stephanie Chohany
Napa, CA —  December 26, 2011 6:01pm ET
As Vintner of ARATAS, Wine Spectators highest rated Petite Sirah in 2008 (94pts) I am pleased to see so many comments from passionate producers and enthusiasts. My partners and I have been fans of the long lost "other red" for many years and decided to launch our brand with one clear vision and that was to produce a world class Petite Sirah(and nothing but Petite Sirah) which would hold it's own among the finest reds in an AVA most known for Cabernet. A gutsy business plan no doubt. We thought it a shame many vintner's find it worthy enough to be the house "doctor" but few would stake their brand on it. Planted mostly in very small lots often for blending purposes it's one reason so few are produced in large qualtities. That said,Petite Sirah has been thriving in California for a century and a half because it is tenacious, stedfast and certainly not meek. We hope our upcoming release introducing vintages from mountain terrior(Howell Mt and Amador's Shake Ridge ranch) will futher demonstrate how PetS is hardly a one dimentional varietal.

I applaud Yorba, Biale and Quixote to name a few favorites for their fine representation of the humble PetS and the PS I love you organization for it's focus and unwavering support of it's producers. As more vintners respect the grape and take a risk- it will reflect on the palette of Ms. Worobec, Mr. Laube and other educated tasters who praise and promote quality. Our American Heritage Varietal deserves the conversation and positive attention when it comes along. Congrats Relic and thank you WS for shining a light on it.

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