At the 2018 Petite Masters Panel - Going to a World Wrestling match, ending up at a Bolshoi Ballet

Classic broad shouldered, cylindrical cluster morphology of Petite Sirah

California grown Petite Sirah (a.k.a. Durif) has never been counted among the world’s “great” red wines; despite an evidently fanatical fan base, driving steadily growing production (there are now over 1,000 brands of California Petite Sirah, which is well over 10 times more than there were just 15 years ago).

Yet this also-ran image might change. I caught at least a glimmer of that at an event called Petite Masters Panel and Walk Around Tasting, put on by P.S. I Love You – that indefatigable “Petite Sirah Advocacy Organization” – at Culinary Institute of America’s Copia Classroom this past March 18, 2018.

But I don’t think even the Petite Sirah fanatics who attended this sold-out event expected this to happen. When you put together a winemaker panel/tasting called “Masters,” you expect a presentation by a group of skilled practitioners of said varietal. As has become the custom of modern-day California wine culture, it’s all about winemakers, and what they can do with a grape.

By the same token, it’s all about a grape, or its varietal expression. If it sounds like I’m stating the obvious, it’s probably because you don’t look at wine the exact same way that I do. I think the grape is important, but just not the most important factor when it comes to what makes wines interesting. Winemakers, even less so.

Copia Classroom set for Petite Masters Panel (image courtesy of P.S. I Love You)

True, I was weaned on California wine as a burgeoning wine professional back in the 1970s. But I was also taught that it’s all about vineyards, or regions or sub-regions. You know – that quaint old French (and German, because in the ‘70s German wines were a big deal) notion that the most defining element of a fine wine is where it’s grown, and the invariable “sense of place” that the best wines show. Which is why, as a 20-something sommelier, I went through the usual young sommelier motions of memorizing entire lists of Bordeaux and Burgundy crus, and all the top villages and einzellage in and around the Rhine and Moselle, the same way that I memorized every word and motion of the Latin mass as an altar boy.

When you think of Petite Sirah – even the best or most bodacious Petite Sirahs – the last thing you think about is “sense of place.” You don’t whisper the names of top Petite Sirah vineyards with awe or reverence. Instead, you think of the pleasures of Petite Sirah’s “varietal character” when stuffed into a bottle: large, densely textured flavors, and heady aromas of blueberry-ish fruit laced with peppery spice, preferably with some “smoke-of-oak” – the more oak the better for many Petite Sirah lovers (my apologies to P.S. I Love You members who may have jumped off the oak-train some time ago).

But at the Petite Masters Panel discussion and tasting, lo and behold all of the sudden there was talk about the importance of vineyard sources. Maybe it was because the discussion started off with Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars – once (granted, 15 to 25 years ago) the paragon of grotesquely oversized Zinfandel, but now the poster child for terroir obsessed Zinfandel – who spoke for 10 minutes straight about the history and topography of Napa Valley’s Hayne Vineyard without once mentioning winemaking techniques, barrel choices, blending tricks, or any of the usual yada yada expected out of winemakers.

Petite Masters Panel: Tegan Passlacqua, Russell Bevan, Aaron Pott, Tres Goetting and Michael Hirby (image courtesy of P.S. I Love You)

Talk of terroir at a Petite Sirah seminar? That would be like going to a World Wrestling match and seeing a Bolshoi Ballet instead.

Later, during the question-and-answer phase of the presentation, Passalacqua came out and explicated exactly what he had been trying to infer during his previous talk: That Petite Sirah is most interesting when it expresses “place not process.” And in a not-so-subtle crack at winemakers with a mania for pushing wines into permutations beyond what comes natural to a given vineyard for the sake of their craft or art, Passalacqua added: “Mark Twain once said 'be yourself' is about the worse advice you can give to some people.”

All the same, the Petite Masters panel was a harmonious one – a teary lovefest of vintners professing mutual respect, cheered on by sommelier/moderator Chris Sawyer. In fact, Passalacqua’s emotion was largely (not entirely) seconded by the four speakers who came after him – Russell Bevan (CHASE Cellars), Aaron Pott (¿ComoNo?), Tres Goetting (Robert Biale Vineyards), and Mike Hirby (Relic WineCellars) – as well as reinforced by the five different Petite Sirah bottlings presented as evidence: Each wine (all Napa Valley grown) showing nuanced distinctions that we just might not have identified as vineyard related qualities without Passalacqua’s “place-not-process” suggestion.

Petite Sirah harvest

The five Petite Masters panelists’ wines, in the order presented:

2014 Turley Wine Cellars, Hayne Vineyard, Napa Valley – Generously perfumed blueberry nose. On the palate, full body with a sense of moderation; dense, firm, meaty and rounded tannin pushing the blueberry-focused profile (virtually oak-free) forward in the front, middle and finish. Commented Passalacqua, “These Petite Sirah vines were planted by Otty Hayne in St. Helena in 1953 – all head trained, dry farmed on 10’ by 8’ spacing – and happen to sit in historically the best soils of Napa Valley, close to Spottswoode, To Kalon and Inglenook nearby... Petite Sirah ages like a World War II vet – someone who is rough when he’s young and becomes a delicate old soul as he grows older, when you wouldn't believe he has a tattoo that says ‘killer’ on his arm.”

2016 CHASE Cellars, Barberis Vineyard, Napa Valley – Black-purplish color and aromas of black and blue berries, tinged with smoky coffee spice, brambly and lavender-like notes – of the five panel wines, the most pronounced in underlying chaparral sensations. On the palate, big and brawny with typically “tough” tannin, monolithic feel of the grape, yet sufficiently rounded to give a chocolaty rich texturing. Bevan added: “This wine is grown in Calistoga, on heavy clay... Our goal was to produce a wine that is balanced and seductive... the CHASE is the only wine that doesn’t use new oak, although I thought all the wines presented by the panel have a femininity, and high level of execution of winemaking by winemakers who stand out of the way to allow real site expression... as a winemaker, your job is to remove your narcissism, and let the site be the queen, the rock star.”

2013 ¿Como No?, Napa Valley – A little more sweetly ripened blueberry nose with smoky oak tones; somewhat lean, lanky, svelte feel to its otherwise burly body, with both a tart edge and customary “wall of tannin” bolstering the varietal profile. In his remarks, Pott affectionately described owner/grower Carl Doumani (former owner of Stags' Leap Winery, where he kept the varietal home fires burning with his still-legendary “Petite Syrah” bottliings) as a “sneaky Lebanese” and “bon vivant.” The 2-acre Stags Leap District ¿Como No? vineyard – just adjacent to Shafer’s Hillside Select Vineyards – is described as sitting on “very unusual volcanic hillsides, with rocks ranging in size from boulders to pea size stones... it can get very cold and very hot, with great diurnal shifts.” In the winery, Pott says: “We add no sulfur dioxide or yeast and only use a small cocktail of organic nutrients to assist the fermentation... Wines are left on skins for up to 80 days.... drained directly to barrels warm, 33% new, all French.”

2015 Robert Biale Vineyards, Royal Punishers, Napa Valley – Properly black-purplish color, and sweet berry aroma marked by a tight minerally/stony quality. Full, firm, tight and zesty sensations on the palate; the meaty fruit qualities finishing with unruly, youthful stinginess. Asserts Goetting, “I believe in ‘process,’ but process as a way to best show a ‘place’... The Royal Punishers is grown in the Carpy Conolly Ranch in Rutherford; in deep, rich, heavy, fertile soils – we get strong tannins, which are also soft, like a ‘kitten’... Because the soils are so heavy and deep at this site, the vines are vigorous, so I drop the shoulders off of each cluster just before bunch closure, do a little fruit thinning of any excessive clusters, plus some morning-side leafing and a final drop of green or lagging clusters after veraison... This really helps balance fruit load and concentrate flavors.” In the winery, Goetting says, “I will co-ferment with as many as 8 different varieties,” although he did not clarify with any specifics in this particular Royal Punishers. He adds, “I use a commercial yeast strain that is conducive to slower and cooler fermentations, and do cap punch-downs three times per day at peak of ferment... I then go to 35% new French Burgundy barrels.” Goetting opines, “Winemakers need to be aware and sensitive to the characters of a vineyard and not get in the way of these characters by fermenting at too high of a temperature, using aggressive yeast strains, over-extracting tannin, using too much new oak, etc.,” while describing the “soft and plush mouth-feel and lovely minerality” of Royal Punishers as the results of allowing the “wine to speak of where it was grown.”

2015 Relic Wine Cellars, Old Vine, Napa Valley – Vivid purplish color and sweet toned fruit tinged with toasted almond/walnut notes, distinct from any other Petite Sirah tasted that day. Youthfully tight, dense, sweet toned, with muscular tannin and good acid balance (also the zestiest of the day). Hirby’s comments: “The vineyard is located in the Calistoga region, at the end of Pickett Rd., adjacent to the Eisele and Alfred Frediani vineyards... The old vines were planted by the family in 1939 as a mix of Petite Sirah along with some Gamay, Carignan and other grapes... The soils are some of the youngest in Napa Valley, consisting of decomposed volcanic rocks and stones, and so the vines, though 75 years old, still look ‘young,’ with smaller trunks... We do ‘nothing’ to the vineyard except for good pruning, and my ‘process’ is very simple – fermentation with a native, complex yeast community (half in French oak puncheons), no acid or water additions, native ML in barrel (50% new), bottling unfiltered... If anything, wines from this site have a regional typicity that supercedes varietal character to a certain extent... I think of it like warm-sand-oak trees-on-a-hot-day kind of aroma.”

Tegan Passalacqua

Additional notes on some of my favorite Petite Sirahs tasted during the walk-around tasting following the panel discussion at Copia (in alphabetical order):

2012 Aratás, Napa Valley – Kudos to this winery for daring to specialize exclusively in Petite Sirah, and to Founder Stephanie Douglas for being the primary organizer of this Petite Masters panel and tasting. This bottling, coming from Douglas’ Oak Knoll District estate, is a focused, balanced rendering of the varietal; zesty with acidity and moderate (for Petite Sirah, at 14.5% alcohol) in weight; native yeast/unfiltered protocols playing up a floral, perfumey profile.

2015 Robert Biale Vineyards, Palisades Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa Valley - Sweet, plummy, almost hoisin-like exotic, ripe fruit aroma with dusty earth and a smack of old leather; rich sensations nothwithstanding dense tannin thickening the meaty, plummy fruit qualities. Additional thanks to Robert Biale Vineyards co-owner Dave Pramuk for his hand in organizing the Petite Masters Panel.

(image courtesy of P.S. I Love You)

2014 Stags' Leap Winery, Ne Cede Malis, Napa Valley – From the Stags' Leap estate’s 5-acre old vine (planted 1929) block in the Stags Leap District; a field crush consisting of 85% Petite Sirah with Carignan, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Peloursin, Syrah, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, a Muscat variant, MarsanneRoussanne, and possibly more. Focused, concentrated nose of black and blue fruits with a touch of violet and twist of pepper and oak spice; densely textured, savory feel, big yet laudably even keeled from start to finish.

Tres Sabores, Guarino Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa Valley – Super-cracked peppercorn nose (easily wins "Most Peppery Petite Sirah of the Day" award) infused in ripe black and blue varietal fruit qualities; medium-full, firming (not excessive) tannin, and a zesty feel giving a good lift to the bright, jumpy, ultra-spiced fruit.

(image courtesy of P.S. I Love You)

2015 Turley Wine Cellars, Pesenti Vineyard, Paso Robles – Purplish black color; extremely spicy (nostril tingling peppercorn), smoky, flowery laser beam nose; full, meaty, tightly woven and layered; firm tannins carrying, rather than overwhelming, the velvety, spiced/floral sensations.

2015 Turley Wine Cellars, Rattlesnake Ridge, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley – Black fruit also falling on the more floral/violet side of the varietal profile, tinged by distinctly scrubby forest floor/wild chaparral-like notes. Thick, juicy, compact, layered feel to earth toned, floral fruit sensations.

Turley Wine Cellars' Pesenti Vineyard, Paso Robles


Randy, thank you so much for the support of the PS I Love You advocacy organization and for taking the time to get to know the producers who focus on American heritage Petite Sirah. In a world driven by instant gratification, we appreciate those who search out the elusive, unique Petite. Its an old soul with a rich history and a compelling story that builds ever so slowly. We think the delicious ending is worth the wait. Thank you for savoring every sip with us.
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Randy Caparoso:
"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.