The Big Fall and Big Rise of One Fine Grape
My first serious encounter with the Petite Sirah grape variety and the varietal wine that it is made into came when I was working public and media relations for historic Russian River Valley producer Foppiano Vineyards back in 1990. To this day, that encounter remains among the most interesting of my career.
I knew very little about Petite Sirah except that there was very little Petite Sirah produced. At first glance it seemed like an archaic variety of grape, but this might have seemed the case only because the producer I was working with that focused on the wine was itself a very old producer (Foppiano Vineyards was founded in 1896).
Out of the gates, I learned a great deal about the varietal:
1. In 1990 the wine had fallen out of favor with most producers. Outside Foppiano, Concannon, Stags' Leap Wine Cellars, Stag's Leap Vineyards, Bogle and a few others, there was very little attention paid to the wine.
2. Petite Sirah had remarkable staying power. I recall organizing a vertical tasting of 25 vintages of Foppiano Petite Sirah for the wine media in the mid 1990 that in the end was supposed to shine the light on their latest release. Instead, it was the 1967 vintage that everyone was wowed by.
3. No one really knew at the time what Petite Sirah was. It wasn't Syrah and it surely wasn't "petite". Their was some "splaining" to do.
The Foppiano's themsevles were absolutely committed to the grape. They had worked with it for decades and love the wines produced from it. There was also the fact that by virtue of being among the few producers that took it seriously, their wines were also written about and highlighted when the media got around to reminding the wine drinking public that it existed.
But what's happened to this grape and this varietal in the past 15 years is absolutely amazing: a varietal success story of major proportions.
Petite had for many years been a work horse variety in California. By acres under vine, 1976 was the grape's zenith when more than 14,000 acres cradled the variety. A mere 10 years later, that figure had fallen drastically to just over 1,700 in all of California.
But then something changed. Fast foward to 2010 and the there are 8,000 acres of Petite Sirah in California.
I spoke with Dan Berger, writer and long-time observer of the California wine industry. Dan's explanation for the precipitous fall in Petite Sirah planting through the 1970s, 1980's and 1990s is interesting. He reminds us that in the 1980s and early 1990's phylloxera louse was causing thousands of acres of grapes to be pulled out of hte ground and replanted. At the same time, the market was paying a premium not only for Cabernet, but also for Merlot. Growers, who could not get nearly as much money per ton for their Petite Sirah as they could for Cabernet and Merlot took the Petite out of the ground along with the rest of the infected vines. It's interesting to note that the rootstock on which much of the older Petite Sirah was planted (St. George) was not affected by Phylloxera.
In addition, Berger suggests, in the 1980s and early 1990s, wholesalers were wanting to limit the variety of SKUs they offered in the market. This in turn led many of the larger wineries working with wholesalers to reduce the line of wines they produced. This too, argues Berger, hit Petite Sirah hard.
And yet the grape and the wine survived from what could only be described as a disastrous decline in acres planted in California. What prevented Petite Sirah from dying a slow death?
There appear numerous explanations.
CHAMPIONS: Speaking again with Berger, he reminds us that despite the decline in acres and product all the way though the mid 1990s, the variety continued to have its champions. Among them were Foppiano, Stag's Leap, Stags' Leap, Concannon, Pedroncelli, Ridge and others. But one of the key champions was Bogle, located in the California Foothills. This winery developed a varietal Petite Sirah that was delicious and consistent, yet cost about $8 or $9. The result was the Bogle Petite Sirah found its way on to grocery store shelves nationwide.
RED BLENDS: Also, beginning in the late 1990s wineries began producing more "Red Blends" beyond the Bordeaux and Meritage type. Petite Sirah provides a remarkably good base for such wines since it produces color even in bad vintages and provides interesting character with its bigger than average tannin base and its interesting Pepper and blackberry character.
WINE CLUBS & DIRECT TO CONSUMER: By the late 1990s, wineries discovered the magic of direct-to-consumer and the margins it brought. This led to an explosion in winery wine clubs that needed small production wines they could feed into them. Petite Sirah, a somewhat obscure varietal was perfect for this function and we began to seen numerous wineries producing small 200 or 300 case lots of the wine for its clubs and tasting rooms.
THE OLD VINE PHENOMENON: Zinfandel labeled "old vine" took on a certain prestige in the late 1990s and 2000s. The term "old vine" became synonymous with quality. It turns out that after Zinfandel, there were a good number of truly "old vine" Petite Sirah vineyards in the state, many ranking 80, 90 and 100 years old. "Old Vine" Petite Sirah benefited from the interest shown in "Old Vine" Zinfandel.
PS I LOVE YOU: In 2002, the PS I Love You promotional organization was founded by a core number of Petite Sirah producers to promote the varietal among growers, producers and the public. Promoting the grape though this organization proved very effective and still is and helped to bring considerable attention to the character of the wines produced, the heritage of the grape, and its genetic make-up.
I asked Jo Diaz, the executive director of PS I Love You to explain to me the continued rise in popularity of Petite Sirah. She points to the rise of the small winery, their tasting rooms and clubs and the attraction of the varietal once tasted:
"For consumer, they’re now being offered this variety in so many tasting rooms. Consider that in 2002, there were probably only 30 wine producers with PS on the label, so tasting it was really a rarity. Since PSILY has started, there are now 826 producers (I track them daily). Obviously, more and more winemakers are encouraged to craft a few cases. With 800+ wineries with PS on the label, I dare say at this point in time about 700 of them are only making about 300-400 cases a year. That’s a lot of tasting rooms introducing Petite Sirah, and it’s all being sold directly to consumers. People are now tasting it and loving it as a final taste of wine. After tasting four or five other wines, by the time PS hits a palate, the flavors are so bold that people just “get it.”
The annual Petite Sirah Symposium is set for Tuesday, July 26th at Concannon Vineyards in Livermore. They are still taking registration and it looks to be a fascinating event.
Each year around February, PS I Love You also organizes Dark & Delicioius, a Petite Sirah and Food Pairing event. I've attended this event a couple of times and have come way very happy for having tasted so many Petite Sirahs and discovered anew how wonderful they can pair up with rich delicious foods as well as sweets.