Phone rings, I answer, and hear, “Hello, this is Emma Thomas from Jackson Family Wines.”
This story is inspired by that call from Emma, who works with Jackson Family Wines, because of her interest in PS I Love You and how it relates to this heritage variety. She, really caught my attention, because I’ve been noodling a story on Petite Sirah for a very long time.
Having worked for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in 2000 to 2001, as I was starting my own PR firm, I intimately know the integrity of their wines and their growing number of wine brands (through other experiences), under the Jackson Family umbrella. I was greatly impressed and honored.
SIDEBAR: It was like the day that Stags’ Leap Winery became a member of PS I Love you. I was told by a Bay Area wine writer that “until Stags’ Leap Winery becomes a member, PS I Love You will not be credible.” I immediately went after Robert Brittan, winemaker at the time, and was like a puppy nipping at his heels. I didn’t give up until he said, “Okay, Jo, I understand.” He did get it, because he loves the grape, too. So, now here I am, with Jackson Family Wines really interested in the American heritage variety story, and I couldn’t be more jazzed.
For the record, Jackson Family Wines purchased Field Stone Winery, a few years ago. Field Stone’s old Petite vineyard section did NOT have any damages in the 2019 Kincade Fire. I took these vineyard shots a few years ago, at Field Stone Winery. They tell such a story of why having old vines are very interesting (and colorful, if I may), as well as being important to still be existing.
Besides, it’s been ages since I’ve written about Petite Sirah. So, here I am, back at it again.
I’ve been buried in detailed, busy work, with the Petite Sirah I Love You group. Emma brought me back up to the surface, for a breath of fresh air and it’s great timing. I’ve been thinking about writing a new update about Petite, most especially about its heritage in the US. (Part Two will be devoted to its historical data.)
She excitedly called, because Jackson Family Wines has a focus on heritage varieties, through the brands and vineyards they’ve acquired over the years.
I easily sold their Edmeades Petite Sirah, when I was working in their Kendall-Jackson tasting room. This was prior to PS I Love You even being formed. At the K-J tasting room time, I’d finish the reds tasting with the Edmeades Petite, because it was so bold and luscious. Perhaps this last wine left such a remembrance that that was my chosen closer. Perhaps it was because it was just simply delicious, and the guide I gave to what foods to enjoy with it made visitors hungry… Hungry for more Petite.
In 2001, there were only 62 growers and producers combined. Today, there are over 1,100 vintners and grape growers. Something has happened over time, and while I know the long story, this graph below is worth those 1,000 words.
I’m working on going way back to the history for the crossing of Syrah and Peloursin, which became known as Petite Sirah in the United states.
Dr. Carole Davis, of U.C. Davis fame, has confirmed the DNA lineage of Petite. There’s no longer any more of that “distant cousin,” so many writers have decried in the past. Syrah is the father + Peloursin is the mother grape = the offspring Petite Sirah.
Petite Sirah and Durif became Legal Synonyms in 2011
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) declared my synonym request in 2o11.
I was the impetus behind the effort. When I learned that Durif and Petite Sirah were not recognized as synonyms. I had to get busy with it. Calling in PSILY board of directors, the Wine Institute (through Wendell Lee), and the University of Davis’ Foundation Plant Services department, I got everyone’s backing to endorse my efforts. I filled out and files all of the correct paperwork; and now, the rest is history. In 2011, the names became official synonyms. TTB LINK – DECLARATION
Last October, getting that call from the Jackson Family Wines, just told me that somethings are meant to be. PS I Love You has had patron saints along the way, starting with Charles McIver, in 1884. Of the heritage varieties, Petite Sirah has my full attention. This American Heritage variety landed in California in 1884, when Charles McIver brought Petite Sirah from Montpelier France. The resource for this happening was recorded by California’s famed history Charles Sullivan.
The following is a bit of historical perspective, since it’s still not completely understood, even in the world of wine.
Author – Wine Historian Charles L. Sullivan’s Credentials
- Author of Like Modern Edens (1982)
Wines and Winemakers of the Santa Cruz Mountains (1994), and Napa Wine (1994)
- A Companion to California Wine An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (1998)
- Inventory of the Charles L. Sullivan Papers on California Wine History D-346 (OAC – Online Archive of California)
- University of California Press author biography, https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520213517#authbio
- University of California at Davis: archives and special collections manuscript Sullivan, Charles L. Collection.
- Zinfandel A History of a Grape and Its Wine (2003)
Charles Sullivan has written numerous articles for wine and food journals, including
Wines & Vines
Journal of the American Wine Society
Let’s start with Charles Sullivan’s A Companion to California Wine An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present
- LINDA VITA VINEYARD: “Charles C. McIver bought 400 acres south of Mission San Jose from Juan Gallegos, in 1883. There he built hid Linda Vista winery and planted one of the most diversified premium vineyards in California. The pre-Prohibition reputation of the Mission San Jose area for fine table wines was derived mostly from McIver’s efforts. He imported such varieties as Béclan, Verdot, Syrah, Durif, Merlot, and Malbec.” pp 189-190
- PETITE SIRAH: In 1997 there were about 2,500 acres of Petite.
When I took on Petite Sirah in October of 2002, I had no idea the journey would last this long. Petite is so much of a thread in my tapestry that I have a granddaughter who is named Astrid Sirah. (Notice it’s spelled with the “i,” not the “y.”)
To have started the advocacy group PS I Love You for this heritage variety, has been such an privilege. To have so many incredible brands helping me over the years has allowed for a very obscure variety (at the time) to begin to come into the spotlight, to take it’s rightful place in American viticultural history.
[PHOTO: asturianu ~ Hackberry, Arizona, Usa – July 24, 2017: The famous historic route 66 highway with the old general store is visited by people from all of the world.
Petite Sirah ~ The All American Grape
Petite Sirah left France as soon as it had been crossed by French botanist François Durif. He was looking for a Syrah variety that would not be prone to powdery mildew. Instead he created one, whose tightly clustered berries are compacted on its rachis, making it extremely prone to bunch rot. France was happy to see it leave, so it wouldn’t destroy their fragile, viticultural eco system.
Wine Historian Charles Sullivan writes about Petite Sirah coming to Mission San Jose through the Bay Area to Fremont, with Charles McIver. That was in the early 1880s, and here it has been ever since. In California, we have the most acres in all of the world. In the 1960s, Napa Valley was planted to Petite Sirah by 60 percent. It was a work horse and very popular, until Beaulieu Vineyards and Robert Mondavi became enchanted with Bordeaux varieties. Napa has primarily continued on with Bordeaux varieties.
The following brands in Napa Valley still “get” Petite Sirah, and are hanging with this heritage variety:
- Aratas Wines
- Artezin Wines
- Ballentine Vineyards
- David Fulton Winery
- Davis Estates
- Kent Rassmusen
- Merisi Wines
- Quixote Winery
- Robert Biale Vineyards
- Stags’ Leap Winery
- Stanton Vineyards
- Tres Sabores
- Varozza Vineyards
- Vincent Arroyo Winery
It’s significant to note that this one variety, until most recently, has had very few acres anywhere else in the world,and we still lead in Petite production. Unlike other heritage varieties, Petite Sirah has no lasting history of “belonging,” because it would have been a disaster to grow it in France.
It’s not like Zinfandel that has come from Croatia. From Vivino: Primitivo is a grape primarily grown in Italy. But these grapes are actually the same. And even more, Primitivo and Zinfandel were never the original names for this grape. The grapes are originally from Croatia, where they’re called “Tribidrag” and sometimes “Crljenak Kaštelanski.”
When it left France, it came to American first. Nor is it historically like another heritage variety… Charbono. From Wine-Searcher:
In California’s Napa Valley, Charbono – as it is known there – has a more historic role in the region’s wines. It is thought that the variety was brought here by European settlers but the why and how of this is disputed. The most popular theory suggests that it was brought to the valley by Italians under the guise of Barbera. In the 1940s, researchers discovered that these vines were something different from Barbera altogether. Inglenook released the first Charbono in the 1940s, and now remains one of the variety’s most important proponents. However, it is losing ground to more fashionable grape varieties and now covers less than 100 acres of land there.
As soon as it was crossed, it became an imported item that would flourish in California. That was in early the 1880s, coming into Mission San Jose (Fremont). It saved the wine industry during the infestation of Phylloxera. Then, it had a heyday in the 60s, dropping off the charts in the late 1960s, when Beaulieu Vineyards and Robert Mondavi made their trips to Bordeaux, and decided to go that route.
My next story on Petite Sirah is going into greater detail with a time line, followed by quotes from members of PS I love You and why they’re dedicated to the importance of US Heritage grape varieties…
Looking into the future of Petite Sirah, through the lens of my camera and a bit of space in this 130 year old vine.