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Petite Sirah,PS I Love You,Wine

Should Petite Sirah be a Rhône variety?

I was just asked this question: Should Petite Sirah be a Rhône varietal?

My answer:

I don’t think of it as a Rhône variety. I think of it having Rhône roots, but nobody seems to advocate/brag for its Rhôneness… including me. It’s an American transplant, all the way.

This is also just my humble opinion.

With this one, I’m not speaking for the membership of PS I Love You. It’s just my last 10 years of experience with the PS I Love You group. I’ve never once – within the group – ever heard anyone refer to Petite Sirah as a Rhône variety. We’re familiar with its roots, but beyond that, we’re very clear that there is very little of it growing in the Rhône. Also, there is only one person within France (Gilles Liege) that I know of who regrets that it wasn’t at least embraced for it having been crossed there by François Durif.

In 2002, the Rhône Rangers had just acknowledged – after many years of denying Petite as a variety – that PS was indeed a Rhône. Okay, it’s its birth right; however, I believe there was a more practical underlying motive. At the time, John Hardman was the executive director of the Rhône Rangers, and Bill Crawford (of McDowell Valley Vineyards) was the new president. I believe – and I may be wrong – that it was a membership issue. By allowing makers of Petite Sirah into that group, it would simply boost membership.

Why I believe it was for membership versus inclusion

When we (Louis Foppiano, Christine Wells, and I) sat around deciding what the first Petite Sirah symposium should be like, we decided that the only people to attend could be Petite growers, winemakers, and proprietors of a Petite Sirah. Registrations came in, along with Bill McDowell’s, and one escaped us… John Hardman’s. We didn’t know who John was at the time, but that quickly became very clear at the symposium.

As the organizer, I kept still during the entire event. I listened very closely, though. At first, someone within the attendees brought up, “We need publicity for this variety.”

We also had a few key wine writers present as panel moderators: Steve Pitcher, Gerald D. Boyd, Cyril Penn, Richard Paul Hinkle, and Dan Berger, so it wasn’t falling on deaf ears.

Everyone agreed, and then it became a recurring theme. I don’t remember if it was John Hardman or Bill McDowell who first spoke up about the Rhône Rangers, but it came up… “Join our group and we’ll get you publicity.” And then, every time publicity was discussed, it was brought up again and again… “Join our group.”

This is why I think it was more about membership than real inclusion. If it was more about inclusion, that would have been the theme, like, “Petite Sirah was first crossed in France by Durif… it’s got those Rhône roots and needs to be recognized as such… etc….” But, that wasn’t the theme… It wasn’t about a passion that needed clarifying and they couldn’t wait to champion the story.

“What’s been done for any singular Rhône by the Rhône Rangers,” I asked myself.

Sure, we all knew that Rhône varieties existed, but – at that time – I couldn’t have even listed them for you. My areas of expertise hadn’t traveled that far yet. I was still stuck in Burgundy and Bordeaux, with a lot of Zinfandel thrown in for good measure.

I couldn’t keep myself quiet any longer, as the day wore on. I finally spoke up.

“My greatest concern is that if you all become members of the Rhône Rangers, you’re going to be clumped in with all the other Rhône varieties.”

I knew there were plenty of Rhônes out there, I just couldn’t list them all off. I heard one person say, “What have they done for Mourvedre lately?”

Good question, and that was nearly the first time I had heard the word “Mourvedre.”

Rhône Rangers countered, “Join.”

I countered, “I just think you’d fall into a big group with very little focus for Petite Sirah.”

At the time, I had just started my private practice, and I saw an opportunity to fill a void, to answer the call, to get wine writers jazzed about Petite Sirah in a big way. If people wanted to join the Rhône Rangers, more power to them. But then, Audrey Cilurzo came to me after the event and tapped my arm saying, “Just start a group, dear.” I took it as a sign.

Ten years later, I can ask, “What did the Rhône Rangers ever do for and with Petite Sirah, for those who joined?” There was never a press release that went out, to my knowledge, that was written about the few people who might have joined after the PS Symposium. They quietly fell into the Rhône house (as I suspected) and pour at their events, but there was no grand overture.

Then, when I answered my question with, “I don’t think of it as a Rhône variety. I think of it having Rhône roots, but nobody seems to advocate/brag for its Rhôneness… including me. It’s an American transplant, all the way,” the next question came… “Should someone make a formal request of the Rhône Rangers to delist it as a Rhône?”

My answer was, “No, it’s got Rhône roots, it’s just not got Rhône style.”

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20 Responses to “Should Petite Sirah be a Rhône variety?”

  1. PierreZin says:

    Back in 2001 or 2002, the Rhone Ranger producer members voted overwhelmingly not to include PS. The RR board (which, at the time, included at least two PS producers) ignored their constituents’ clearly stated wishes and voted to include PS. We resigned from the RR because of this. I didn’t have the time or energy to initiate a move to impeach the board.

  2. Why is there no mention of Peloursin. I thought Peloursin was crossed with Syrah to produce Duriff and Duriff is recognized as Petite Sirah. I have a Block 4 that has vines well over 100 years old and I have all three varieties…………..Dave Coffaro

  3. Jim Johnson says:

    WHO CARES?

    Petite Sirah has its own identity, its own fan club, its own TTB approved varietal name(s), it does not need the Rhone Rangers for anything that I can think of.

    We just planted our first block of Durif/Petite Sirah and will at some point be joining PS I Love You. Durif is going into every hole that I have in the Syrah block and will continue to do so until Syrah is just a memory for one reason. I’m tired of trying to keep Syrah alive, probably due to the much publicized Young Syrah Decline syndrome.

    As an interesting side note, a few years back Wine Spectator did an article on the Rhone and mentioned that one of the prized Syrah clones in Cote Rotie was a clone known locally as Serrine. The National Grape Registry shows Serrine as a synonym for Durif. Imagine that, might be Rhonish, after all.

  4. David Hance says:

    The Bill from McDowell is Bill Crawford. The wineries I work with enjoy membership in both PSILY and RR and appreciate any opportunity to promote Petite Syrah and Syrah to consumers, trade, and media. Since many are still confused between the two varietals, we are well-practiced at explaining and demonstrating the differences between those grapes and their wines.

  5. Jo Diaz says:

    David, thanks.

    I corrected Bill’s last name. I believe that Bill had a Petite Sirah at the time, and was very passionate about building the membership camaraderie, which is why he pushed so hard to accomplish a very controversial decision. Hardman, not having the PR skill-set, didn’t take it to the max for Petite publicity. (Not a problem, really, because he did a great job with membership; I see getting membership as my weakness. I prefer to educate than to spend time with the membership tasks.)

    These two groups (PSILY and Rhone Rangers) do co-exist, with the Rhone group specializing in the French regional varieties and PSILY specializing in the American heritage version. As a pro with both, you are well schooled in explaining the difference. Media is now getting it; however, I can’t tell you how many times a month I still need to communication with a media person, who’s still getting it wrong. I spend a lot of time behind the scenes telling media, who should have done more homework before getting it onto the Internet, the differences.

    There’s still a lot of work to do…

  6. Jo Diaz says:

    Jim,

    I’ve also known of Serrine as a Petite Sirah/Durif synonym.

    Interesting.

    Perhaps we should now petition the TTB to have Serrine become another Petite Sirah/Durif synonym. We just got Durif and Petite to finally be recognized as such, last year. (It took a couple of years and a lot of paperwork on my end.)

    Petite is definitely Rhonish; however, it’s like a child born in the Rhone who would be immediately brought to the US to live within a few years of birth… How much Rhoneness still exists into adulthood? Only the blood line, I’d say. The rest will be American-ish in style and subsequent roots.

  7. Jo Diaz says:

    David,

    Sorry I didn’t get into my Syrah + Peloursin = Petite Sirah example, that I use on this blog and in all of my writings. I’ve written it so many times that it just escaped me this time.

    Rather than writing about Petite’s parents this time, with François Durif as the Nurseryman who crossed Petite Sirah with Peloursin giving birth to petite Sirah, I was simply writing about should Petite Sirah be always thought of as a Rhone variety. In some ways it matters (lineage), in others (style) it doesn’t.

    So, we’re still at that halfway mark. Darned if we do, and darned if we don’t.

  8. Jo Diaz says:

    PierreZin,

    Interesting insight into that time.

  9. Jo Diaz says:

    I also need to come to your vineyard, David, for images.

  10. You are welcome anytime. It will be fun. There may be many other varities in this 4th block. I will have a bottle for you…Dave

  11. Jo Diaz says:

    I’m calling you….

  12. ‘2001 or 2002′. Its ancient history, about time some people buried the hatchet. The board members from a decade ago are not even on the board now. Generally, from my experience an ‘overwhelming majority; of our members means about 10% reply to an email vote or reply. Perhaps it was different then, but nonetheless its a decade old and I have yet to hear a single winery, save this one, say anything.

    Most current members I have spoken too recall it was for inclusion, sorry Jo, I don’t get the draconian picture painted. Maybe that was the case at the time, it isn’t now. (I am a new board member.)

    Do I think PS is a Rhone Varietal? I am on the fence, don’t really care. Many of our members plant it. Topic makes me ponder Randall Grahm’s recent musings that perhaps its time we consider branding our selves as a domestic region and what we grow/make instead of following what a foreign one did hundreds of years ago.

    The fact that we represent multiple varieties has nothing to do with the relevance of additional Organizations focused on a single varietal. Hell if I wasn’t so busy with 4 jobs, I’d likely start one for Grenache. Maybe I will one day.

    There is no fight here, sorry. Rhone Rangers supports PSILoveYou, and many members, including Board members, belong. We also support and cross promote ZAP, as many members also grow and make Zin. Its a big world, lots of room to help each other.

    Lets save conflict for bigger issues, like the 3 tier distribution system, shipping laws, and ignorant State Governors who say California makes jug wine. :)

  13. Jo Diaz says:

    William,

    Yes, a new generation doesn’t care how we got here, just that we’ve arrived, while daddy drove the car. Meanwhile, daddy got there on antacids. (LOL)

    I was asked what I thought, I responded from my perspective and experiences.

    The essence is in the wrfap-up: “I don’t think of it as a Rhône variety. I think of it having Rhône roots, but nobody seems to advocate/brag for its Rhôneness… including me. It’s an American transplant, all the way,” the next question came… “Should someone make a formal request of the Rhône Rangers to delist it as a Rhône?”

    My answer was, “No, it’s got Rhône roots, it’s just not got Rhône style.”

  14. Jo Diaz says:

    William,

    Yes, a new generation doesn’t care how we got here, just that we’ve arrived, while daddy drove the car. Meanwhile, daddy got there on antacids. (LOL)

    I was asked what I thought, I responded from my perspective and experiences.

    The essence is in the wrap-up: “I don’t think of it as a Rhône variety. I think of it having Rhône roots, but nobody seems to advocate/brag for its Rhôneness… including me. It’s an American transplant, all the way,” the next question came… “Should someone make a formal request of the Rhône Rangers to delist it as a Rhône?”

    My answer was, “No, it’s got Rhône roots, it’s just not got Rhône style.”

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  16. Jo, I need an email from you confirming the event…..Dave

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