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.

What happened?

Psiloveyou 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.



13 Responses

  1. Marcia M - June 24, 2011

    Given the historical success through wine club promotion, and particularly PS I Love You, it makes one wonder if other, neglected or overlooked varietals would benefit from the promotion and support of organizations like PS…?

  2. JohnLopresti - June 24, 2011

    ‘PETta SEARa’ vines were there alongside CAHRigan (regional dialect for petite sirah, carignane) in the legacy bulkwine plots known as vineyard blends, each providing a vital component fairly consistent year to year. That long while ago it clearly had some distinctiveness varietally compared to some of the less premium varieties. Also, as the post illustrates, there were subsequent investigations to sort out precisely what those vines really were, as in several countries somewhat similarly named vines were something evidently different from petite sirah. It’s always nice to read background from the Foppianos and Mr. Berger; thanx for the PS website link, too. I understand some folks are working to particularize carignane in a similar way as p.s.; I have yet to hear of any parallel initiative for alicante, however. The latter also was a constituent in the field blend plantings of yore.

  3. Jo Diaz - June 27, 2011

    Thanks, Tom, for a well written piece on PS. Much appreciated! Another key component that I neglected to mention to you is the wine media. Once I started PSILY, with a handful of producers, I began to query wine writers, asking them if they’d revisit PS. Many of them were game, and what they found really surprised them, enough to begin to write about it again as a stand alone variety. What they had to say was enough to have consumers begin to look into it. All of this is part of the groundswell. With a rock band like Train just launching Drops of Jupiter, which is a Petite (to accompany their newly released song, there’s a whole new generation acomin’ down the track. This makes me so happy, after nearly 10 years of championing the variety!

  4. Sondra - June 27, 2011

    Great article Tom. Before I met Jo Diaz and PSILY, I never noticed petite sirah, now they’ve become my favorite – there’s such a variety of complexity, layers of flavor, I’m surprised that it hasn’t made it as big as cab. Maybe part of it, where can these vines grow? Are they harder to grow than other varieties?

  5. Sondra - June 27, 2011

    And for your viewing pleasure – a group of us tasted these wines with Jo and I captured their(the wines) ‘inner character.’ Enjoy

  6. PSirah Tampa - June 27, 2011

    Yes, there’s been an explosion of winery’s producing PS in the last 10 years. I’ve tasted a very high percentage of them and found many (to most) are producing one dimensional highly extracted “fruit bombs”. Although a lot of consumers dig this style it does little to promote the true potential of the varietal.
    There are a few producers (like Vincent Arroyo of Calistoga) that produce truly elegant complex PS with great ageing potential. My concern is many knowledgeable wine consumers don’t take PS seriously because they’ve yet to experience a good one. It seems that there is little “really good” PS distributed, so unless someone makes a real effort to seek out the quality at the winery they rarely find it.
    I suspect PS will likely continue as a cult wine, not the next Pinot.

  7. Lisa Khajavi - June 27, 2011

    David Fulton Petite Sirah is a standout. Simply delicious, and a testament to the potential of the varietal.

  8. Sean Thackrey - June 27, 2011

    When I first started making Petite Sirah in 1988, I couldn’t see that any other producers were taking the grape seriously. It was universally considered to be an honest spaghetti red; anything more would be presuming above its station. I disagreed; and since my wines are all named after stars and constellations, I thought calling this one Sirius Petite Sirah made it clear what I had in mind, which was to treat it as a potentially great wine.
    That’s been my attitude ever since, and it was a pleasant vindication of the grape’s potential when, in 1996, the World Wine Championships named the 1992 Sirius the best red wine of any varietal or country that they had tasted that year, particularly since I don’t enter competitions, and hadn’t entered that one: the award was simply the result of their tasting panel’s opinion of all the red wines they’d reviewed all year long.

  9. Chris Wickham - June 27, 2011

    Great article as usual and yes I do love PS.

  10. Mark Buckley - June 27, 2011

    One Petite Sirah you may have overlooked is even older that Fopiano. David Fulton Winery in St. Helena has been making wine, continuously since 1860. I have recently have their 06, 07 & 08 and it’s one of the best I’ve ever hard. PS is all they make. If you get a chance try a bottle or go for a visit

  11. JohnLopresti - June 27, 2011

    I think it fair to characterize the link with the longtime Foppiano vineyards and winery as an early, strong credential for petit sirah. Although I have made familial jokes about the days of the generics, for which my own winemaking grandfather would give me a stern glance, it was clear in the times when re-examination of some of the basics of the first planters in CA viticulture, that petit sirah, indeed, had its own balance areas and vividness, which fluctuate with individual season, as well as the vinification art. I, too, have enjoyed the results of the efforts of modern winemakers in this respect. My subjective sense of petit sirah’s potential also has to do with the directions of modern purchaser’s palates. There may be some interesting challenges petite sirah could provide to certain other premium varietal reds, as well, especially in old vines competition.

  12. electronic version - June 29, 2011

    This event have a lot of reasons. If you need you can find all this information in Internet.

  13. Lisa Khajavi - June 30, 2011

    @Mark Buckley- I’m pretty sure that David Fulton has not been continuously making wine since 1860, but is the oldest continuously owned and operated family vineyard in California. Either way I agree that their wine is among the best! For PS fans, it’s a must to visit-delicious wines and lots of stories about their journey making dry farmed PS and rebuilding the winery along historical guidelines.

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