The Big Little Grape

Don't call petite sirah "tiny"

The grape variety petite sirah reminds me of a story my dad tells from his 1970s advertising days, when it was normal to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. My dad smoked Kents, and he exhaled steady streams of white smoke from both nostrils when he first told this to me.

One of his colleagues, Bill, had spent all day in a sound studio perfecting TV and radio voice-over spots for a local supermarket chain. He left the studio that evening with an edited reel-to-reel tape in his briefcase. It was the one and only copy. It was dark when he unlocked the door to his Oldsmobile Toronado, so when he sped off with his briefcase sitting on top of the car he didn't realize it was missing until he got home. He freaked out and searched everywhere. He knew if he didn't find that tape that he'd be fired. He was doomed. Then he heard the loud, deep-throated throttle of a Harley-Davidson chopper. Someone pounded on the front door. He opened it to find a huge biker with a bushy red beard like a Viking standing in the porch light. He must have been six-foot-five, 300 pounds. He was wearing a leather Hells Angels vest. His big, hairy arms were covered with crude tattoos (in the '70s tattoos either came from a stint in the Navy or time in prison).

Van's Wine of the Month:

2006 Girard Napa Valley Petite Sirah

This grape is an example of a variety discarded and disrespected by its home country of France, only to find love and nurturing in its adopted country. It thrives in California and is an amazing overachiever when allowed to reach its full potential. I enjoyed it with beef, pork, pizza, blue cheese, and pasta with red sauce. The Girard is an inky-blue, purple color -- almost opaque. It is a monster with sensitivity training. Big blackberry, cherry fruits with hints
of blueberries. It saturates your palate with chocolate and coffee flavors, then finishes with gentle tannins. A beautiful wine that can last all night long with an interesting friend or a good book. $28 at Reid's Fine Foods.

He stood, rocking in his scuffed black biker boots, holding Bill's briefcase in his left hand. Bill was sure that he was about to become a victim of extortion, or violence.

"I found this downtown," the biker said. Bill asked how much he wanted for it, reaching into his sportscoat pocket for his wallet. The biker held up his right hand and waved him off. He handed the briefcase to Bill and said, "Just tell them Tiny sent you." Then he turned and walked to his chopper, kick-started it, and roared off.

Petite sirah, like Tiny the biker, is not what it seems. It was given a name that describes it as small or inferior. The word "petite" is, in fact, still added to labels to denote an inferior year due to excessive rain or late frost. With petite sirah, though, it was a mistake. Its real name is Durif, a syrah clone developed in France in the 1880s to resist molds. The variety never caught on, so it disappeared. Immigrants brought it to California, where it was named petite sirah. The grape thrives in the soil and steady heat of California and is a good example of a grape performing better, even overachieving, in its adopted climate. When allowed to reach its full potential, petite sirah is a big wine with a deep purple color and lush fruits, and if left in oak for a while can be one of the biggest wines on the market.

Van Miller's favorite wines

After an exhausting, purple-tongue-staining round of tasting, I have found some petite sirahs worthy of your attention. They're all from California and range in price from $10 to $35.

2006 Bogle Petite Sirah Medium purple color. Nice, clear, evenly made wine. Not flabby or oversugared. Good entry level for this variety because it is easy to find and affordable. $10 at Harris Teeter.
2007 McManis Family Vineyards Petite Sirah A deep ruby color. Clear, dark cherry fruits. It is not a complete wine, because it has no oak, since it is made in stainless steel. But it is a bright, fruity, and easy-to-drink wine at a good price. Avoid the 2006. $10 at winestore, Total Wine, and Harris Teeter.
2006 Rosenblum Cellars Petite Sirah Heritage Clones Inky, blue-black color. A big, juicy wine with blackberry, currants, and cherry flavors with hints of chocolate. Nice tannins keep it in check. A mouthful. Nice wine at a fair price. $20 at Total Wine.

2005 Earthquake Petite Sirah Lodi Appellation Michael David Deep purple color. Soft, lush fruits of plum, blackberry, and cherry. It is not over the top or overripe like some Lodi wines. $25 at winestore.
2005 Elizabeth Spencer Proprietor Selected Special Reserve Petite Sirah Opaque purple density. Dry aroma. Soft, caramel on the tongue. Mellow with fruits of dark cherry, cassis, and hints of cranberries. Tannins on the backside. $30 at winestore.

2005 Titus Napa Valley Petite Sirah A big, juicy, soft wine with dark ruby color and plums, dark cherry fruits, and hints of pepper and chocolate. Medium tannins give it a good, dry finish. Soft and delicious. Worth the extra dollars. $35 at Total Wine.

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