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Of all the red wine grapes in California, perhaps the most extensively produced and yet misunderstood is petite sirah.

This grape variety is planted throughout the state (from San Diego to Humboldt County), makes a dark red wine and has a reputation (which once was accurate) for being so tannic that even its strongest proponents acknowledged that it would take the rust off a corral gate.

Back in 1978, at a blind tasting I attended, two petite sirahs tied for best on the table – the 1971 Freemark Abbey and the 1971 Ridge Vineyards — and the next two wines were the 1975 Ridge Vineyards and 1975 Freemark Abbey.

All four wines were grown on the famed York Creek vineyard high atop Napa Valley. Both were made by brilliant winemakers (Freemark Abbey’s Jerry Luper and Ridge’s Paul Draper).

Articles that came out of that tasting gave a strong impetus to the variety, leading many wineries to try their hands at it.

Almost all versions at the time were fairly astringent, however. And that prompted many wine merchants to alert potential petite sirah buyers that to best enjoy the wine, it had to be aged, preferably for a long time.

One Los Angeles merchant had the temerity to suggest to me that one petite sirah I was thinking of buying was risky: “You may not live long enough before the tannins subside,” he said.

However, petite sirah lore continued to grow. In the mid-1980s, three petite sirahs earned gold medals at the Los Angeles County Fair wine competition. Each had come from the same vineyard, Shell Creek in Paso Robles. Southern California sales of all three were brisk.

But petite sirah remained fairly tannic; experts suggested only serving young versions with a char-grilled steak. Writer Bob Thompson once told me that petite sirah was best served “with wild game, preferably still alive.”

Yet the variety had many other uses for winemakers, such as adding texture and dark red color to many red wine blends. It was particularly beneficial in giving zinfandel added depth.

Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg was one of the first wineries to identify that it could be made with a lot less tannin. Its version to this day is a joyful accompaniment to many red meat dishes. Bogle began to produce large amounts of petite sirah and to sell it for a fair price, ultimately gaining international success with it. (Two years ago in Sydney, Australia, I saw a bottle of it listed on a restaurant wine list for $64 Australian dollars.)

About 15 years ago, an enterprising petite sirah lover from Windsor decided to see if the variety was popular enough to support it with a society. Using the name PS I Love You, Jo Diaz persuaded a few larger wineries to develop a society by that name. Today PSILY has more than 100 members, and more petite sirah is being produced as a varietal wine than ever before.

The main reason it is more popular than ever is that winemakers have learned how best to grow the grape and tame the tannins, using its unique anti-oxidative properties as a beneficial trait.

Still, some people have long memories and for them, petite sirah remains a daunting experience – or so they think.

But there is such charm in the way quality petite sirah can deliver great flavors for pasta puttanesca, pepperoni pizza and dozens of other intensely flavored meat dishes that it has found a happy home. As winemakers have learned to discipline the mid-palate of petite sirah, so have wine judges learned. I was on a panel at the Mendocino County Fair wine competition several weeks ago. Four of us, including the late Dennis Martin of Fetzer, were asked to judge 11 Mendocino County petite sirahs.

A most amazing thing happened.Each of us had our favorites among the 11 wines, and when all votes were cast, nine of the wines received double-gold medals, the highest honor.

It was a startling result, not only because of the grape that was being analyzed but because all of it had been from producers using fruit from the warmer Ukiah side of Mendocino county, which has always produced excellent wine from petite sirah but never with such amazing consistency.

The top wine on my score sheet was 2015 Powicana Farms Petite Sirah (Redwood Valley), which also was the most expensive wine on the table at $32. Its aroma of black pepper and violets was matched with a taste intensity that can only be experienced by trying it.

There were several other sensational petite sirahs, such as 2014 Handley Red Wine, Redwood Valley, Vittorio Vineyard ($25); 2014 McNab Ranch ($18); 2013 Graziano ($19); 2013 Toxqui ($26); and 2015 Jaxon Keys ($28).

All of these will improve with some time in the cellar, but to address the needs of today’s younger buyers, who prefer not to age them and like them as youthful as possible, most winemakers now make them to be fascinating shortly after release.

There are many other sensational petite sirahs on the market today, including those from California’s Central Coast, Monterey County, Sierra foothills, Livermore Valley and Sonoma County. There are fewer from Napa Valley than there once were, a result of the overwhelming popularity of Napa cabernet.

Wine of the Week: 2013 Parducci Petite Sirah, Mendocino County, Small Lot ($14): This remarkably good value is not as complex in a fruit sense as many of the other wines that we tasted, and it has slightly more aging than it needs, but the flavors are sensational, the acid balance is terrific and the price is extremely friendly. It was one of the 11 wines to receive a double gold-medal.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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