Monday, January 20, 2014

2008 Vinum Cellars petite sirah


So very smooth, so lush and easy and slipping right down like fruity purple velvet -- I almost thought it was too smooth. Was I missing something as I gulped merrily along? Might the wine be characterless? But how silly. Imagine muttering "it lacks oomph" as you reach for your second or third pour.


I must admit I don't have a screamingly passionate interest in the flow charts, or the family tree, or what you might call the apostolic succession, of the California wine industry. Who apprenticed where -- whose ex-wife's maiden name still graces the secondary label -- who used to be a hedge fund millionaire -- who has moved on --- whose grandson sold to Constellation Brands. All very well; they make wine. But once in a while anyone may happen upon a factoid which fits into the flow chart, as I did a few days ago. A California bottle on our shelves, 2005 Used Automobile Parts (no kidding) from Don Sebastiani & Sons, credits winemaker Richard Bruno in small gold font on the back label. By sheer luck I see that Richard Bruno's name now appears on Vinum Cellars' website, as a helpmeet to this petite sirah. So by sheer luck I can inform you that he has moved on to a new employer.

And brought his style with him, perhaps. Sebastiani, a.k.a. Don and Sons a.k.a. The Other Guys a.k.a. Three Loose Screws, makes generally inexpensive, smooth, well-bred wines like Hey Mambo, Smoking Loon, and Pepperwood Grove, retailing for $6 to $12. Used Automobile Parts, at $50 to $60, was the companies' high end offering. So our Vinum Cellars petite sirah, smooth and well-bred and about $10, would seem to have the Bruno/Sebastiani touch upon it. Lots of wines, Talus, Vendange, Nathanson Creek, used to have the Sebastiani touch because they were Sebastiani products, until a grandson sold them to Canandaigua Wines. Not to be confused with Constellation. The flow chart it floweth every day.

The petite sirah grape seems to need a flow chart of its own. Descended from a mighty parent, syrah, petite sirah was bred in the 1870s by an amateur French biologist named Durif, who wanted to create a new vitis vinifera variety resistant to powdery mildew. He named his new vine after himself. The durif, however, did not catch on in its native Rhone valley. When it was brought to California in the late nineteenth century, growers embraced it, but also seem to have gradually forgotten its name. Who decided to rechristen it petite sirah from the start? There was already a "petite sirah" in California in the 1880s, when M. Durif was only just experimenting with his new fruit on the other side of the world. So what was that, and which was which? Incidentally, the French do grow a small-berried version of syrah, which they helpfully call "petite syrah."

Anyway, when durif arrived in California and got rechristened, it threw itself into the jumble of "field blends" with which growers made inexpensive jug wines before the days when an accurately identified varietal on the label mattered to consumers. Today, heroic researcher Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis -- U.C. Davis, to wine geeks -- has shown that indeed, most of the state's vineyards labeled petite sirah are planted to M. Durif's baby. Other misnamed petite sirah vines, however, "have over the years turned out to be true Syrah, carignan, mourvedre, and grenache" -- all Rhone grapes -- and peloursin, which latter is durif's other, non-mighty parent. (See the New Wine Lover's Companion, by Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler Herbst.) 

Returning to our rapidly emptying wineglass -- what surprises me about this example from Vinum Cellars is its smoothness and gulpability. Books and blogs will tell you that petite sirah makes a big, full-bodied, peppery, tannic wine; that it has long been added, field-blend style, to zinfandels to give them "zest and complexity." I would have thought zinfandels need no further zest, but then again, perhaps every one I have ever enjoyed has been secretly married to le Durif. In any case, big-pepper-tannic translates for me as difficult to like. Yet this one was easy. Do we see here the crowd-pleasing, Bruno/Sebastiani touch? Or do I suddenly like pepper and tannin?

The petite sirah is not a noble grape, but some people think it should be. They have a website, called P.S. I love you. And if you can't find Vinum Cellars at your local retailer, you might try the California Wine Club.  

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