September 4, 2017
Not-So Petite Sirah & Other
While not a "Rhone Valley" grape, a handful of California wineries
still make a wine called "Petite Sirah" (some spell it "Petite
Syrah"). This variety, it turns out, is not at all related to Syrah and has
been thought to be a very minor French grape called Durif.
We understand that a
small percentage of what is called Petite Sirah is probably a really odd variety called
Peloursin. Monsieur Durif, it seems, had actually crossed Syrah with Peloursin to
come up with the "Durif" variety!
Petite Sirah enjoyed some of it's 15 minutes of fame in the mid-1970s. Ridge made excellent,
deep-colored peppery red wines of it, though the label most recognized for Petite Sirah
was/is Stags' Leap Winery. A number of wineries made Petite Sirah years ago and it
was often used to beef up light Pinot Noirs and wimpy Zinfandels. Imagine that
Concannon and Mirassou were the quality leaders back in the early 1970s! (Translated:
Mirassou, until recently and Concannon are not wineries viewed by those
"in-the-know" as places to look for interesting wines.) Freemark
Abbey's 1971 Petite Sirah, along with the 1971 Ridge, is legendary!
David Bruce has been making Petite Sirah since those days of yore, but only in
the last few years have they gotten it right.
Quite a bit was planted in California's Central Valley, growers thinking it
would flourish in that area's hot climate. Plantings have been scaled back
significantly and the few Petite Sirah wines made today of any note come from coastal
- STAGS' LEAP WINERY
- Now owned by
Estates group, this is an old vineyard in the Stags Leap District of the Napa
Valley. The winery was founded by Carl Doumani and made its first wine, a Chenin
Blanc, back in 1972.
The red wine of note was (and still is) Petite Syrah, though they make
Cabernet and Merlot, too.
Doumani spent years embroiled in a legal battle with neighbor Warren Winiarski at Stag's
Leap Wine Cellars over the "Stags Leap" branding.
This entanglement settled very little, but it made money for
The case lasted years and was finally decided by the California Supreme
Court! The verdict was that both wineries could use the Stags Leap
name as they were named not after their owners, but after a geographical
It was decreed, then, that Winiarski's winery would be spelled "Stag's
Leap" and Doumani would spell his brand as "Stags'
We suspect both fellows thought this was a "catastrophe," but in
fact it was settled by an "apostrophe."
If we recall correctly, an earlier verdict was that Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
would not sell its Petite Syrah in Napa and Stags' Leap would not sell its
The two adversaries became allies when their neighbors started to use
the name "Stags Leap District" on wines from this little corner of the Napa
Valley. They were unsuccessful in protecting their exclusive use of the name and
today you can find a number of wineries located in the Stags Leap District. Interestingly,
both wineries boycotted the "Stags Leap District Winegrowers"
Today, though, both wineries are members along with 18 others.
finally sold his property to the Beringer group. He retained a
portion of the original vineyard, though, and makes a really nice wine under
the "Panza" label. Sancho Panza...sidekick to Don
Quixote. Carl, too, is tilting at windmills, still.
- Petite Syrah continues as the mainstay at Stags' Leap and the wine is deep in
color with a peppery, spicy element. There's a mildly woodsy
note here, too.
The winery used to offer technical information about its wines on their web
site, but these days under the Treasury Wine Estates management, there is
virtually no information about the Stags Leap wines apart from a few
descriptors of their products.
Here's the best they can do:
- Currently available:
2013 Napa Valley (Winery price: $45) Weimax
Sale Price: $34.99
famous former chicken farmer, Robert Biale, is now a Gentleman
A customer came into the shop one day and saw a Biale bottle on the rack and
shrieked "Bob Biale?!?!? But he's a chicken farmer!"
She explained he used to sell fresh eggs along the road, so she was shocked
to see his name on an expensive bottle of wine.
- The winery is best known for Zinfandel, but they've made some nice Petite
Sirah, too. They source fruit from four vineyard sites, from Calistoga
to the north down to Oak Knoll in the south.
- Blueberry fruit, moderately tannic and definitely teeth-staining...
Currently In Stock: 2011 ROBERT BIALE Napa Valley PETITE SIRAH
"Royal Punishers" $39.99
Varozza family has been in St. Helena forever, as long as going back to the
late 1800s counts as forever.
They have about 40 acres of vines and sell most of the fruit to neighboring
wineries. Varozza produces a tiny bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and a
small amount of Petite Sirah.
We have a nicely mature version of their Petite Sirah and it's a
medium-bodied, old-fashioned Napa Valley red wine.
- Currently in stock: 2001 VAROZZA Napa Valley PETITE SIRAH $34.99
often hear the term "garagiste" bandied about for small wineries,
especially those in Bordeaux.
But the Livermore Valley is home to a true garagiste and it's the
Wood Family winery.
Now Livermore is not on most wine geek's radar these days. The
wineries there are, in large part, underachievers. Yet, once upon a
time, Livermore was producing more prestigious wines than Napa!
In the 1960s and 1970s the region was famed for Petite Sirah.
We're a bit fuzzy, now nearly 40 years later, but we remember either Dan
Rowan or Dick Martin (Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In TV Show) was quoted as
saying he enjoyed Concannon's Petite Sirah from Livermore.
This brought a few minutes of fame to both Concannon and the Livermore
- The Mirassou family also became well-regarded for Santa Clara
Valley Petite Sirah, too, by the way.
Rhonda Wood was an airline pilot for USAirways in the early
1990s. She was on maternity leave and, amongst other hobbies, began
brewing beer. After a few batches of beer, she got the idea of making
wine. She and her husband Michael planted a vineyard in their backyard in
Fremont and while waiting for the vines to produce a crop, they discovered the
They later purchased a vineyard in Livermore, but each kept their day jobs and
braved the traffic, she commuting to San Francisco Airport and he to Fremont.
By 2001 she was making wine on a serious basis and by 2006 she
finished her career with the airline and today she pilots, rather nicely, Wood
Over the years we've had a number of good wines from this little
winery. Ages ago Rhonda had a Livermore Syrah grown by former football
coach John Madden.
We think Rhonda produces the best example of Livermore Petite Sirah.
The 2013 comes from, in 2013, from the Casa de Vi˝as Vineyard owned by Julio
and Marta Covarrubias.
She made about 3 barrels of this wine, totaling just 63 cases.
Rhonda pays attention to the grapes during the growing season and makes the call
on when to pick the fruit. She explains the trick is to wait until the
sugar level is such that the tannins shed their brittle quality and become
somewhat more supple.
The wine shows lots of dark berry notes and a faintly spicy quality.
There's a cedary, woodsy character from the time in oak (American oak
barrels). If you're looking for a big red to pair with a steak or
something cooked on the grill, consider grabbing a bottle of this.
- Currently in stock: 2013 WOOD FAMILY Livermore PETITE SIRAH
- Ridge has
close to 35 acres of Petite Sirah planted north of Healdsburg in Sonoma
County near their Lytton Springs winery.
One parcel is has vines in it which are more than 100 years
old. About two-thirds of their Petite Sirah was planted between 1987
and 2001. We've seen this variety under the Ridge label on a sporadic
The 2013 is a medium-full bodied red wine with some dark
fruit notes. It's mildly spicy, though not really purely black pepper
spicy...you will find dark fruits with hints of plums and blackberry and
then there's a touch of brown spice hinting at cinnamon and maybe clove...
- Currently in stock: 2013 RIDGE "Lytton Estate" PETITE SIRAH
and Mrs. Les Behrens bought out Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock in the Behrens &
Hitchcock winery. Les has named the place after his Mom who was, we're
told, a prolific baker. Hence the old kitchen mixer-master on
the label, a strange icon for a winery (but it beats the hell out of another
critter label). I asked if Erna had a son named Rainier or
Schubert, but apparently she did not.
We have a Spring Mountain Petite Sirah that's anything but petite. The
wine will stain your teeth and probably the wine glass. Don't wear
light-colored clothing when you're drinking this. The fragrances are
reminiscent of violets and sweet berries. It gives some of the "crŔmes
de cassis" a run for the money in terms of intensity. The flavors
are in the same super-concentrated direction. Fasten your seatbelt
when you open a bottle of this little red!
- Currently in stock: 2005 ERNA SCHEIN Napa Petite Sirah $47.99
- Bill Frick is
an old hippie who started his wine adventure in Santa Cruz before
establishing a real winery in Sonoma County.
He's a fan of all sorts of unusual grapes and has never been the sort of
fellow to follow the leaders. Cinsault, Counoise, Syrah, Viognier,
Syrah and Carignane find a home in Frick's cellar.
We've been delighted with Bill's fine efforts for decades and always seem to
find something interesting in his portfolio.
- Our most recent tasting through his line-up yielded a wine dubbed
"C-2." It's a deliciously spicy, mildly peppery blend of
Carignane and Cinsaut. (We had C-3 in the previous vintage, Carignane,
Cinsaut and Counoise.)
This vintage the wines are from the same vineyard site in Dry Creek and the
blend is 60% Carignane and 40% Cinsaut. The wine was matured in
seasoned cooperage, so oak is not a part of the profile of C-2. It's
all about the grapes as singer Meghan Trainor might say.
This is mildly tannic and pairing C-2 with lamb or something with a bit of
fat makes it tastes smooth.
Currently in stock: 2012 FRICK Dry Creek Valley "C-2" Red
Some French-styled sausages and grilled vegetables were well-matched with Bill
- FOPPIANO VINEYARDS
- The Foppiano family has been in the wine biz in Sonoma's Healdsburg area
since 1896. They had, for many years, made significant quantities of insignificant wines.
I can recall their "Burgundy" being a wine of those "in the know" back
in the 1970s. We used to have a few of their "jug" wines back in those days:
half-gallon bottles filled with wines called "Chianti," "Burgundy,"
Today Foppiano makes about 20,000-30,000 cases of wine.
They seem to be focusing on Petite Sirah, perhaps because it is the one grape varietal
with which they do well, though we've found a good Zin here from time to
Foppiano makes a pleasant, berryish, mildly spicy red wine from its Petite
Sirah. We like the brown spice character of the wine, which
reminds us of cloves and nutmeg with a nuance of cinnamon. Try a
bottle for yourself and see if you detect this quality in the Foppiano
- Currently in stock: Foppiano Russian River 2012 Petite Sirah
- What, you may be wondering, is a "Birichino"?
It's an Italian word which might describe someone who's a bit mischievous.
A rogue, perhaps. A little scamp.
Well, there are two Birichini in Santa Cruz and they're the team
behind this cool little brand.
Both have studied at the University of California at Bonny Doon and learned
a lot from Professor Randall Grahm.
John Locke worked as a cellar rat and winemaker at Bonny Doon from 1990
until maybe the 2006 or 2007 vintage. He's been affiliated with Patrice
Boyle's Soif Wine Bay in Santa Cruz.
Alex Krause has been working for Bonny Doon as a sales rep.
Many years ago Bonny Doon made an excellent dry white of the Malvasia Bianca
grape and, for some reason, abandoned it.
- The pair then launched their own brand, Birichino, featuring
Malvasia. We have the current vintage in the shop and it's a dynamite
dry white. Very fruity and floral, with sweet aromas but no sugar on
- Another wine they were familiar with was a fruity, Beaujolais-styled red
made of Grenache grown in Gilroy.
The Birichino Boys make their own rendition of Grenache from the Besson
vineyard, a site in the Hecker Pass region of Santa Clara county. Some
of the vines are said to be more than a century old!
They have quite an interesting recipe for making this wine. It
incorporates some whole berry fermentation. Some of the fruit is left
in picking crates in order to "dry" the fruit out a bit.
This probably seems odd these days since so many wineries reduce yields to
concentrate sugar in the grapes. But keep in mind, producers in
Italy's Veneto region routinely leave grapes to dry so that can make their
Producers in Tuscany used to do the same with Sangiovese to make more
complex wines of their Chianti by leaving some grapes to dry.
And even in Piemonte, Barolo and Barbaresco guys would leave some boxes of
grapes to dry in order to boost the potency of their wines.
The Italians call this "appassimento."
So Locke and Krause employ this on a small scale to add another layer of
complexity to their wine. They explain the stems seem to dry out
nicely after about a week and this "contributes an entirely
different set of complex brambly wild raspberry, bitter cherry, dried herbs
and winter spice aromatics to its vibrant red alpine fruit."
They view this Grenache as a sort of Burgundian wine made of Southern
In any case, it's a delightful bottle of wine and one we enjoy quite a bit.
Pair it with all sorts of foods...Mediterranean cuisine...red
meats...roasted chicken...grilled salmon...cheeses...
Currently in stock: 2013 BIRICHINO Central Coast
Sebastiani and his sons offer this California Viognier made from grapes
grown in the warm Sacramento Delta region of Clarksburg.
The region allows for relatively cost-effective (that means
higher-than-cool-coastal-area yields) tonnage, while still retaining some
It's a wine that now shows some honeydew melon-like notes more than apricot
and peach. We also find a faintly citrusy tone here so we'd have
trouble tasting it 'blind' and pegging it as being Viognier.
It's reasonably priced at ten bucks a bottle.
- Currently in stock: 2014 WHITE KNIGHT Clarksburg VIOGNIER
French Syrahs, etc.