Dan Berger: Petite sirah is not so petite

A friend had a birthday party recently and among the wines he hauled out of his below-ground cellar was a bottle of 1970 petite sirah made by winemaker David Bruce.

The wine label said "petit syrah," thereby losing two for two in the spelling department.

Confusion has always surrounded petite sirah, an otherwise ordinary blending grape called durif in its native France, where it is almost nonexistent today. One reason is its lack of use in the cooler continental climate.

In California, however, with its Mediterranean-like sun-splashed days, the variety thrives. Today more than 800 wines called petite sirah (or variations of that spelling) may be found. Better yet, the variety is in wide use as a sought-after blending grape to plump up wines that need a bit of oomph.

And oomph is its nickname.

Despite some viticultural idiosyncrasies, "PS" (as some call it) is relatively easy to grow, and one reason is that it's relatively resistant to a form of mildew which in other grapes can drive growers batty.

The grape's usual properties, and a look at some of its wines, were the topics recently at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore, one of the ancestral homes of the variety. (It also was widely planted early on in Sonoma County.)

Indeed, the ninth symposium of a marketing group called PS I Love You (PSILY) was staged at Livermore in part to honor Jim Concannon, the pioneer winemaker of Irish stock who was the first to make a petite sirah with that name on the label.

That was 50 years ago, in 1961, when Jim was just 30. At his 80th birthday party, replete with petite sirahs, Concannon humbly took no credit for the growth in interest of this wine. He pointed out that as of a decade ago, the PS movement was utterly stagnant.

It was then that public relations director Jo Diaz founded PSILY, talked to a few of the grape's early backers: Louis J. Foppiano (now 100), John Parducci (now 93), Dr. David Bruce (now 82) and a handful of other PS originals, and she got the promotion train moving.

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