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Finally, after nine years, I have some long awaited answers about Petite Sirah

Having nine years invested in studying and writing about Petite Sirah (I dare say, more than most people in the world right now), I just got some very exciting and long awaited answers. These are answers that only nine years of studying, wondering, and trying to understand this cult variety would conger up…

Namely, what is it about PS’s parents that created this offspring.

Syrah (father) + Peloursin (mother) = Petite Sirah (offspring)

Your father + Your mother = You (Yeah, it’s that different, and yet has DNA similarities)

You’d think in the wine business, I could have just gotten out of my own way (in the last nine years) and gone out investigatively on my own. Well, I’ve also got a day job as a wine publicist, and also manage PS I Love You, the wine grape advocacy group for Petite Sirah. As a result, this discovery that I’ve wanted to make has simply been on a back burner. It wasn’t until I decided to make some room in my garage that the answers came forth, in the most unexpected and delightful way.

Bill Nachbaur of Acorn Winery was in a Santa Rosa Junior College wine marketing and sales class with me, in the mid 90s. Bill was beginning his vineyard and winery career, only a few miles from where I live. Since then our paths haven’t crossed again, except in fleeting moments from across a room or a parking lot. Many months ago, when I was cleaning my garage of wine shippers, I called him to see if he could use some boxes. At the time, he told me, “Only if they’re full cases,” and I needed the couple that I had. Months later, I now had four empty cases in my garage, and I wanted the space back. I figured that it was Sunday, so why not just drive them over to Bill’s and come back to cleaning the garage?

Jose went with me, we pulled up just as a party of four was also pulling in. Bill’s wife Betsy was there to greet us all, and she thought her party of four had unexpectedly grown by two. We explained that we were just dropping off boxes, Bill was also there. Betsy asked if we were also going to taste, and I thought to myself, “Let’s see how Bill’s wines are doing.” I felt like it was a fair thing to do, since we had been project partners when he was just starting, and I hadn’t been to see him since the 90s… What the heck, my garage could wait.

In another blog posting, I’m going to write about Bill and Betsy Nachbaur’s fabulous wines. For now, though, it’s time for my Petite Sirah discovery, and what each partner has (at least visually) brought to the offspring (Petite Sirah).

AGAIN: Syrah (father) + Peloursin (mother) = Petite Sirah (offspring)

While tasting one of Bill’s wines, I noticed that Peloursin was one of the wine’s varieties. I asked Betsy if it would be possible to taste and/or see Peloursin on the vine. Betsy called Bill, he came to the tasting room and said that the vines had just been harvested. I told him, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back next spring… I live so close… Don’t worry about it.”

Bill quietly disappeared, and about five minutes later emerged with three leaves  each of both Peloursin and Petite Sirah. With each meticulous grouping of small, medium, and large, Bill also had collected a small cluster of grapes for each one.

The grapes were part of the second crop that a vine puts out. Artisan winemakers leave these clusters behind, because the brix level isn’t as high as the first crop’s levels. To harvest these grapes will throw off a good brix level.

I immediately began to see what Peloursin has given to Petite Sirah.

The grapes of Peloursin are very tiny, the skins are dark and inky, the juice is quite tannic and has a bit of spice… Peloursin, the mother, adds a lot of character to this most mysterious of all grapes. As dark and brooding as the juice is visually, I then also knew what Syrah has given to Petite… it’s funky, saddle leather, tobacco character.

While I was ogling over my discovery, Bill quietly slipped away again, this time to emerge with three leaves of Syrah and a cluster of that variety as well. This cluster was from a  primary growth, but it just didn’t meet Bill’s standards during picking and was left behind. However, it was a great example of what the grapes look like on the rachis (skeleton of the cluster). This one, because it was such a loose berry cluster, showed me that Petite Sirah also got its tight bunch cluster from Peloursin.

Syrah’s leaves are much larger then Petite’s, with Peloursin’s leaves being much smaller. Petite Sirah settled somewhere in the middle; not only in size, but also in texture. The leaves of Peloursin are the most hardy. Petite’s are somewhere in the middle, and the leaves of Syrah’s feel much more delicate by comparison to either Peloursin or Petite, with both Peloursin and Petite having a much more complex veinous structure as well.

Looking at these examples, it was easy for me to see how much more Peloursin has added to Petite Sirah’s character, and why – if anything – Petite Sirah is better compared with Peloursin than Syrah.

You know how we look at children and say, “She looks so much like her mother.” Well, this is definitely one of those instances. Look at all three varieties, one can easily imagine the union; and what went through François Durif’s head in 1880, when he crossed Syrah with Peloursin…


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4 Responses to “Finally, after nine years, I have some long awaited answers about Petite Sirah”

  1. Jo Diaz says:

    I just got a great Email from Mike Officer of Carlisle Vineyards. It’s so great, in fact, that I asked if I could share with you all. He gave me permission, so here you go. This story is nowhere near finished, as you’ll see. We’ve agreed to meet next fall, and take it even deeper.

    Hi Jo,

    Enjoyed your blog entry on the parents of Pet. Morgan [Peterson] and I have actually identified (with FPS’s help) quite a bit of Peloursin in old vine vineyards, sometimes right next to Petite Sirah. But it’s funny, I would have described Peloursin very differently. I see it as often having larger clusters, larger berries, and larger leaves. Pet leaves in comparison seem dainty, even “petite” if you will. 😉 A Peloursin leaf is more quilted, goffered, kind of like Carignane but not that extreme. It’s also curled back (revolute) at the margin and often has deeper superior sinuses in addition to more exaggerated teeth. A Pet leaf tends to be flat to involute with little to no quilting. Mature Peloursin leaves tend to be shade darker in their green, more forest green. Late in the season, Peloursin exhibits much less virus. Pet almost always seems to show virus. Peloursin old vines also tend to be more vigorous. One thing that Pet did get from it’s mother is the glaborous backside on its leaves. I think this alone is what has caused many growers to mistakenly think Peloursin is Petite Sirah.

    If you ever want to see the two side by side, let me know. I have a great example at our Two Acres vineyard.


    Mike Officer

  2. Sondra says:

    Jo, thanks for taking us on your journey of discovery. When we were at Concannon this summer I was struck with how small the ps leaves in the vineyard were compared to other varieties. Are there different ps clones? If so, I would guess they show different parental qualities.

    When I looked at your photos of the peloursin grapes, they reminded me of the many pinot noir vyds I walked through a few years back – the small grapes and the huge variety of ripeness in the bunch.

    what wonderful mysteries the grape holds. Keep up the good work inspiring us.

  3. Jo Diaz says:


    There are different clones, but honestly not too many of them. As little as five years ago, there were only four clones. Now FPS has a few more (Foppiano clone and Stags’ Leap clone, among the new). How fun it would be to photograph each one, while there’s still so few of them.

    Yes, it is a mysterious grape to try to unravel.

    Happy you’re one of the fans and take my stories as they’re intended… Inspiration.

    I’ve always got in the back of my mind that one editor who told another writer (and then the second shared with me), “I can’t stand hearing about facts and figures from Jo anymore.” I’m always wondering if I’m continuing to out live my welcome with more PS info…

  4. […] The reason for asking this is that I just met with Bill and Betty Nachbaur of Acorn Winery, for a second time. I say second time, because I met with both of them, not just Bill in 2011. See more… […]

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