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