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Monday Manifestos
Get Ready for Big Red—It’s A Party

By Charles Olken

When California turned the corner into the 1970s and began to increase its focus on wines that would age well, more than a few wineries discovered tannin. And based on the conclusion that tannin was the missing ingredient, several worthies like Ridge and Freemark Abbey in the beginning and others like Burgess, Fetzer (yes, Fetzer was once a small, fledgling label) and Carneros Creek discovered that Petite Sirah produced more tannin per mouthful than any other grape in their arsenal. By the middle of the 1970s, we were awash in wines that, to be fair, only a woodchuck with a steel wool toothbrush could like.

Of course, back in the day, we all liked them. I still have bunch in my cellar that developing wisdom later told me not to open lest my palate would need a couple of days off. It was not long before Connoisseurs’ Guide decided to stop reviewing Petite Sirah because it was for the most part, an exercise in brawn and bluster and had very little to do with balance, with fruit, with usefulness with food. That was when we discovered the cult aspect of Petite Sirah. Contrary to our view of the wines of the era, there were folks who simply adored the grape and wrote us nasty letters explaining how they had wonderful recipes for moose and sausages and peppery stews that could not be enjoyed with those sissy wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel and Napa Gamay. Only Petite Sirah would do.

We would try Petite Sirah from time to time, but we rarely found more than a few wines to like, and, as the result, we finally stopped reviewing it altogether. But time and the learning curve do wonderful things for wine, and the Petite Sirah makers began to change the way the wine presented itself. The key, some of them discovered, was to make the muscle a little less over the top and to allow the inner fruit to express itself. Into this scenario of change and optimism came a then little known organization under the hopeful name, PS I Love You.

Its leaders were folks like Jim Concannon, David Bruce and Lou Foppiano, all producers who understood the grape better than the tannin lovers of the day, and under their guidance, Petite Sirah, a new and more accessible Petite Sirah began to be recognized. I am the first to admit that it took this new organization and its leaders to convince me to come back to Petite Sirah. It is still a brawny wine, but it is now a wine with insides as well as structure, and that difference has made Petite Sirah into a grape with a future.

Petite Sirah is like the Phoenix. It measured about 4,000 acres in 1961. By 1972, there were still about 4,000 acres in bearing acreage, but there was another 4,000 acres that had been planted in the previous couple of years. By 1976, acreage peaked at 14,000. And then the tables turned. From that point forward, Petite Sirah saw a steady downward spiral in popularity, and thus in acreage, until it hit its low in 1995 of 2,300 acres. With a change in style, and a new and growing audience, Petite Sirah started back and approached 4,000 acres by the Millennium and has neared 8,000 acres today.

And, with a reported 700-plus producers of the wine and its place now once again established, Petite Sirah has acquired a dedicated party all its own. It is called Dark and Delicious, and it happens at the Rockwall Winery in Alameda on Friday night (Feb 18) from 600 to 900. It is billed as a wine and food event, and it is that, but, more than most public tastings, this is a wine event in which serious aficionados turn out to try their favorite grape from the more than 40 wineries that will be pouring.

If Petite Sirah is you, and you are in the Bay Area, this is an event not to be missed.

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