THE CHALLENGES AND BEAUTY OF PETITE SIRAH
by Randy Caparoso
If there was ever a case for putting aside varietal assumptions, I found it at a recent event called the Petite Masters Panel. Held at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa, California, it was organized by the indefatigable Petite Sirah advocacy organization P.S. I Love You, founded in 2002 by Jo Diaz.
Petite Sirah is perhaps the variety you would least expect to find even a smidgen of vineyard, regional, or terroir-related qualities. And why should you, based upon all that has come before? Diaz once described Petite Sirah as more of “a winemaker’s wine . . . [they] love the challenge of taming the shrew.” For years Diaz branded the P.S. I Love You events as “Dark and Delicious”: a great way to perpetuate a varietal caricature, but not exactly the best method to expand its appeal to sommeliers in white-tablecloth restaurants, as they tend to prioritize characteristics like sense of balance or place.
At this year’s Petite Masters Panel, however, the discussion evolved to include previously unexplored topics like vineyard transparency. While talking about the importance of “place not process” in Petite Sirah production, Turley Wine Cellars Winemaker Tegan Passalacqua took a crack at winemakers’ typical ego-driven mania for pushing the grape into permutations beyond what comes naturally by quoting Mark Twain, who once said, “‘Be yourself ’ is about the worse advice you can give to some people.”
Turley, fortunately, is backing these words up in its wines. You have to love the way the blueberry-focused fruit character of the winery’s floor-grown 2014 Hayne Vineyard Petite Sirah from St. Helena contrasts with the more floral/violet/wild chaparral-like scents of its 2015 Rattlesnake Ridge, grown atop Howell Mountain. Even more distinctive is the acid-lifted minerality and spiciness of Turley’s 2015 Pesenti Vineyard, grown on rocky, calcareous slopes in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles.
During the event, I was particularly drawn to the svelte-yet-zesty feel of an otherwise sturdy 2013 ¿Como No? (the wine hails from a winery of the same name based on a 2-acre Stags Leap District site owned by Carl Doumani, former owner of Stags’ Leap Winery). Nevertheless, the old rhetoric dies hard—as evidenced by an exchange of post-event notes with ¿Como No? Winemaker Aaron Pott, one of Napa Valley’s brainiest vignerons. Pott told me, “I was a little out of sorts to hear you say that the ¿Como No? is ‘lean, lanky, and tart,’ which are not descriptions that I associate with great wine.” Au contraire, I explained: “Lean, lanky, and tart” are precisely the qualities I associate with greatness—certainly not the opposite, which would be big, fat, and flabby.
Petite Sirahs like ¿Como No? are challenging expectations by showing that, at long last, sense of balance as well as place can also be part of this particular conversation. Then again, finding such wines has always been part of the job of sommeliers—or at least those who are cognizant, like our best chefs and winemakers, of going out of their way to find wines that go against the grain to surprise and regale their guests.