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.
Napa Valley Wine Train’s packages
Quattro Vino Journeys ($332 to $392 per person.)
The Famiglia Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to Rutherford features a four-course meal and tours of Silverado Vineyards, Whitehall Lane Winery and Grgich Hills Estate.
The Estate Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a four-course meal and tours of Domain Chandon, HALL Wines and Inglenook.
The Collective Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a four-course meal and tours of St. Supery Estate Vineyards, Beringer Winery and Raymond Vineyards.
The Legacy Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena, features a four-course meal and tours of Robert Mondavi Winery, Charles Krug Winery and V. Sattui Winery.
Castle Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to Calistoga features a gourmet lunch and an exclusive tour and tasting at Castello di Amorosa. ($269 to $334 per person.)
Raymond Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a gourmet lunch and an exclusive tour and tasting at Raymond Vineyards. ($209 to $229 per person.)
Grgich Hills Winery Tour. The two-hour trip from Napa to Rutherford features a gourmet lunch and an intimate tour and tasting at Grgich Hills Estate. ($209 to $229per person.)
Ambassador Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a gourmet lunch and exclusive tours and tastings at Charles Krug Winery and Raymond Vineyards. ($269 to $334 per person.)
Hop Train. The two-hour tour of Napa Valley in the Open Air car every Monday features tastes of local craft beers and bites from Palisades Beer Co. (Begins at $75 per person.)
The Vista Dome. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered at lunch and dinner in the two-story Vista Dome, an elevated dining car, features a gourmet meal with a glass of sparkling wine. ($214 to $244 per person.)
The Gourmet Express. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered at lunch and dinner in the refurbished antique Pullman rail cars, features a gourmet meal and a glass of wine. ($139 to $169 per person.)
Murder Mystery. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley features dining on a gourmet meal with a glass of wine while figuring out who-done-it in the murder mystery dinner theatre. ($195 to $215 per person.)
Meet the Maker. The three-hour evening rail tour of Napa Valley features a four-course gourmet dinner with a selection of wine from the featured winery, tasting notes from the winemaker, and food pairings. (Begins at $272 per person.)
Blue Note Express Music & Dinner Train. The four-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered every Thursday night, features a glass of sparkling wine and appetizers onboard the new Open Air rail car with a Napa-style meal, a live performance from the “Wine Train Quartet” and a ticket to the 9:30 p.m. show at Blue Note Napa. (Begins at $213 per person.)
Santa Trains: The annual Santa Trains, from Napa to Yountville, feature an interactive adventure and offer its passengers holiday bites and beverages, along with games, sing-alongs, and a fun cast of holiday-inspired characters. (Prices not yet set.)