Event,Petite Sirah,PS I Love You,Viticulture,Wine,Wine Competitions,Winemaker

Further Defining Petite Sirah’s AVA Characteristics

[SIDEBAR: Five copies of the book Corked, by Kathryn Borel, will be given away this Saturday. Just leave a comment on today’s blog entry, to be registered to win. Winners will be announced on Saturday.]

The very first wine writer that I discovered who really loves Petite Sirah is Dan Berger.

I’ve since identified a lot more, and found quite a few converts along the way.

In 2002, when I asked Dan Berger if he thought a Petite Sirah symposium would be something worth pursuing,  Dan said, “Not only should there be a PS Symposium, but there should also be an advocacy group called, PS I Love You.”

The rest is history…

At that time, he was also very intrigued with the idea of having a competitive wine tasting with just Petites. (It’s just in his evaluatory nature.) We didn’t go that route at the time, though, because we had our hands full, just getting a Symposium of this type properly organized. The first year of anything is such an intense learning curve. I’m not one for taking on more than I can handle.

Years have gone on, and Dan has still held the belief that there should be something very special to help define Petite Sirah further. Over the years, there are many, many wine writers who have fallen into the category of realizing that Petite Sirah has played a very important role in the history of grape growing in California… Dan was always there, and became my mentor.

SIDEBAR FOR YOU: In the 1960s, Napa Valley was primarily planted to Petite Sirah by a whopping 60 percent, having carried the California wine industry for many, many years. In the 1970s, a movement was underway to bring in more universally known vitus vinifera from the Bordeaux region of France. PS is from the  under appreciated  Rhone region; and, BV and Robert Mondavi were on a rip to have Cab become king in their neighborhood. They accomplished their goal, having torn out almost all of the PS in Napa; however, I find it totally fascinating that Michael Mondavi (son) and Rob Mondavi (grandson) are now producing Petites.

In early 2009, I worked with Appellation America to hold a Petite Sirah tasting, just with the PSILY members. A lot of behind the scenes marketing happens with the members’ Petites, with this being just one example. Each wine from each region was tasted and evaluated by Dan Berger, Clark Smith, Roger Dial, Roger King, and me, in order to begin to establish the benchmark qualities for each region.. Roger King and I weren’t scoring or writing about the Petites, but we were there to listen and learn a lot more about PSs flavors and regionalities.

So… Back to what Dan is doing today with PS.

Dan Berger and Clark Smith are very excited to have created something very interesting for this year’s Riverside Wine Competition. It’s something that’s never been done before with any wine competition for any one single variety.


They are singling out Petite Sirahs, and differentiating each one by AVA characteristics, again, with a whole new set of palates.

According to Clark Smith: “Howell Mountain PS is so remorselessly tannic that the judges [sic: at Riverside Wine Competition] would throw it out unless they knew it was from Howell Mountain. Russian River PS is very feminine and light, and needs to be appreciated for that characteristic, rather than to get lost in the shuffle. Bottom line: standards recognized are likely to get more and higher medals.”

This is a “first of a kind” wine competition off-shoot, and I love that it’s Dan Berger who has thought of this one.

Dan has been championing PS every step of the way, since PSILY began. He’s also been thinking – for the last eight years – how PS could be judged in a separate way from all other varieties. This year, he’s on his way and so is PS, with his annual Riverside Wine Competition, where PS will evaluated, again, by region…

This segment of the competition will be headed by wine maker Clark Smith. Clark will create a template for regional characteristics by polling other judges. He also plans to publish the results on Appellation America. The results will also be made available to the media, and I’ll follow-up on Wine-Blog.

For more details, call Dan Berger at 707-528-9466.

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8 Responses to “Further Defining Petite Sirah’s AVA Characteristics”

  1. Roger says:

    I’m in for the book Jo.

    What I like about the Riverside Wine Competition is that when you view the results you can search for specifics instead of perusing the whole darn list for the wineries your interested in. I can’t wait to see what happens with Dans creation.


  2. Jo says:

    Thanks, Roger…

    Re: I can’t wait to see what happens with Dan’s creation….Me, too.

  3. Matt Reid says:

    It’s an interesting concept, Jo, but I’m not sure how much truth there is in the generalizations. Foppiano’s Estate Petite Sirah from Russian River Valley is hardly “feminine and light.” Neither, back in the day, was Gallo’s “Hearty Burgundy,” which legend/rumor has it was mostly Russian River Petite Sirah. I do think there are some similarities, say, among Stags Leap District PS, and perhaps also to wines from those other palisades up north, by Calistoga. Overall, though, I think our AVAs are just too big to have much to say about the character of the wines produced therein.

  4. Jo says:


    Interesting points, and they’re so noted.

    Having worked for the Foppiano family for seven years as their publicist (and wine taster on a very consistent basis), I know what you’re saying about their hearty style. That style was due to Rock n’Roll Bill, their winemaker for nearly 30 years (Bill Regan). Bill was known for wine on testosterone… Even his Pinot Noir was the baddest in the valley. He prided himself on that technique. (He was also a fan of American oak.)

    Today, they’ve got a new winemaker who is priding herself on making their wines to emphasize their unique terroir. (Natalie West, who worked for Ferrari-Carano prior to Foppiano.) Foppiano’s wines are now going to be more true to terroir versus truer to style of a winemaker. Yes, Natalie will still be showing her “style” in her wines, but with French oak and a softer hand, Foppiano’s wines are going to rock at the other end of the spectrum.

    And Gallo… no comparison there with wines that were so commercially driven with Hearty Burgundy that that wine – today – would break the Richter scale.

    As far as AVA’s being too big to reflect much character… I’m a Maine-ah, yup. And I’ve not had an apple yet from the west coast that even comes close to my apples from Maine… Even if they’re the same variety. MacIntosh, for example, in Maine it makes the juice run down your chin, and the flavors explode in your mouth right, whether or not its right off a tree in September. On the west coast… nothing like that’s happened to me in the 18 years I’ve been out here, and is the best lesson in terroir I’ve ever experienced. Apples to grapes…

    After being in on the first terroir tasting, with guys who have tasted Petite’s for the last 30 or so years, I’m trusting their palates to pick up the nuances, and to continue to unravel the mysteries of Petite and it’s flavors.

    I’m not naive to the fact that it’s in a winemaker’s style to craft the final flavors, but Clark Smith is UCD trained and has worked with tons of wine, mostly doing the auto correct on a lot of it. And, Dan’s been tasting Petite’s since he began tasting wine… They’re going to be the best at this, because they’re already among the best of the Petite tasters… Steve Heimoff’s right up with them, too; although, he’s not part of the Riverside competition. MaryAnn Worobiec (Wine Spectator) is awesome, Robert Parker cut his wine teeth on PS. I’d trust anyone of them with this terroir for PS exercise.

    Perhaps studying this variety every day so intensely since 2002 has me over the top… It could be… but I’m still thrilled to see this going on. It’s unique and – for me – a fascinating study.

  5. Jo, I tried sending a comment in the previous post to sign up for the book drawing, but never saw it appear. I am not sure if comments must be approved before, if so, I apologize for the repeat comments I am sending you.

    – The Ceci Sipper

  6. Jo says:

    The Ceci Sipper,

    For some reason, my back end had you in a Spam folder. I jut found all four of your attempts… sorry, I didn’t catch it earlier, but you are now in the running for the book.

    Best to you. Sorry you had to try so hard. Maybe the universe will reward you!

    Good luck!

  7. Matt Reid says:

    Hi Jo,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to my comments. I did not know about the winemaking change at Foppiano. I enjoyed Bill’s efforts and look forward to trying Natalie’s.

    And I’m not at all opposed to the new efforts in delineating Petite Sirah styles and regions. I’m just not sure that AVA is the best way to separate them, nor that a winemaker should be punished for making a wine that does not fit with a notion of what, e.g., a Russian River Petite should taste like. But I don’t have a better idea (yet), so have at it.

  8. Jo says:

    Hi, Matt,

    Very few people know about the changes at Foppiano, because they don’t have a publicist on board telling the story anymore. They’ve wanted to keep it low profile until all their wines have been released, and then let the stories roll again. I don’t know at what point they’re going to be ready to get the ball rolling, because I’ve been too busy with new clients to check in with them. (I should, sometime soon. Senior will be 100 this coming November 25, and that one’s too good to miss. Hum… Maybe that’s when?)

    And, yes, I agree that we don’t want to force wine makers to craft in any kind of a cookie cutter style – based on anything, really. I’m all for art for the sake of art.

    What Clark and Dan are doing is that they’re trying to taste beyond the winemaker’s styles to see if there’s a common thread.

    Having tasted more Petite’s than the average bear, myself, based on my relationship to the cultivar, I’ve learned that if a Petite is from Lodi, Modesto, or Paso, the wine is going to have a very juicy flavor that might even be interpreted as residual sugar… But, it’s not. The wines are all bone dry, but those areas still produce Petite with an intensity that’s missing from – say – Mendocino. Those wines seem to have a conservative edge to them, that’s closer to a Cabernet or Merlot’s restrained flavors.

    Each one I taste is different, based on the winemaker’s efforts; however, there’s some commonality of region that can’t be denied. And, again, it may be that I’ve probably tasted more Petite than any other red, based on availability to me while pouring their wines at events I attend on their behalf. (Fortunately, having worked in Napa at Mondavi, Sonoma with Belvedere, Grove Street, K-J, and the Sierras with Ironstone, rounded me out before having my own PR company – where the world is now my oyster, so I’m not just a Petite palate…. but my Petite palate is still fairly developed tasting these guys wines pretty constantly.)

    I have an upcoming tasting at The Hess Collection winery this coming April. I’d be honored to have you join us, because Dan Berger, Clark Smith, Steve Heimoff, Jose Diaz (my partner) and I (possibly Laura Ness) are going to be tasting Petite’s from some of the members (who sent their wine to me for a Petite and Alacia Van’s new Jazz CD tasting. (A bit off the wall, but that’s how I like it.) We’re also having lunch.

    Since you’ve taken up this interest, how would you like to join us as a winemaker?

    Just Email me (jo@diaz-communications.com) for more details and to see if you’re available on that date. This could be really fun for you and the rest of us.

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