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The Not So Little Prince
PETITE SIRAH SURVIVED DECADES OF NEGLECT, ONLY TO BE REDISCOVERED AS A NOBLE RHÔNE GRAPE

INTHEBARREL By THOM ELKJER, WINE EDITOR

It’s one of the most heart-warming wine stories of recent times: a tale of love and loyalty, family tradition, and the perilous passage through deserts of neglect to reach the lush garden of commercial success. The hero of this romantic journey? A forgotten prince known as Petite Sirah.

Petite Sirah was born of French parents in the 1800s. His father was Syrah, long renowned for the famed red wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. His mother was the less noble but passing fair Peloursin. Yet somehow they abandoned or lost their offspring. He finally turned up in Livermore Valley east of San Francisco, planted by Irish immigrant James Concannon in 1883. But no one knew who he was.

Petite Sirah grew up to be a strapping young California red, with an abundance of the tannic acid that gives wine astringency in its youth and stature in its maturity. He also packed plenty of flavor onto his sizable frame. Concannon Winery became the first winery in America to bottle Petite Sirah on its own, in 1961. Back in those days, most domestic wines included multiple grapes and carried fanciful names. That original Petite Sirah was so good that it helped change everything, and today the vast majority of American wine is based on a single grape.

But Petite Sirah did not prosper. He was such a strong and willing worker that many vintners who had problems with their Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel would simply use “Pets,” as they called him, to make the other grape seem darker, richer, or more age-worthy. As they got better at making their Cabs and Zins, they turned poor Pets away from the winery door.
He tried to go back to the old blends that had always loved him, but they were fast fading into history. Only wine grapes with known pedigrees were allowed to be famous now, and Petite Sirah couldn’t prove anything about his past. Some people said his real name was “Durif,” and others hinted that he was not even legitimate. Petite Sirah vineyards soon began to disappear.

Things looked bad for our hero, but fortunately he still had a few friends. Concannon Winery’s decades-old Petite Sirah vines continued to produce wonderful wine. Foppiano — another multigenerational family winery – kept putting Petite Sirah bottles in its ads and on its table at wine tastings. Pets was forgotten by the fashionable, but his true friends stuck by him.

Then one day in the late 1990s, a huge circus pulled into town. It was run by a group called the Rhône Rangers. They were amazingly entertaining, with stories and songs and parties and all manner of fun. They had millions of fans everywhere. The most amazing thing of all was the star of their show: it was Syrah!

When Pets snuck into a Rhône Rangers event, he was amazed to discover that he wasn’t an orphan after all. In fact he was a noble prince! And once his parentage was proven using DNA techniques, Petite Sirah was invited up on stage with a mighty cheer.

Today Pets has his own traveling variety show, and winemakers who once dismissed him are competing to sing his praises. Fortunately, good old Pets hasn’t changed: he’s still the same big-hearted, muscular, sweet-finishing red he always was — and always will be.


 


MAY/JUN 2005
TABLE OF CONTENTS

FEATURE ARTICLES
FOOD & WINE
Braised Lamb Shanks
Winemaker: Louis Foppiano
PETITE SIRAH - The Not So Little Prince
Wine Picks - PETITE SIRAH
SOCIAL TOAST
BITS & BITES


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