Napa Valley’s Petite Conversion The valley’s legacy grape makes a comeback

By Patrick J. Comiskey
It begins, usually, with an old wine. Let's say a Mount Veeder red from 1975, or a Freemark Abbey from the middle '70s, an '80s-era York Creek from Ridge, or a '68 Souverain. Your expectations are modest, but without fail the wine astonishes, still full of tension and grace, giving off aromas of cedar and tanbark, dried plum and fig, the tannins fine and supple and faintly redolent of turned soil, with a savory complexity that most California 30 year olds can’t muster, and a texture that rivals great Bordeaux in its elegance, balance and length.  

And inevitably, the first thought is: This can’t be petite sirah.
To a man (and one woman) that is more or less the verbatim refrain of a certain group of winemakers describing their conversion experiences with Napa Valley petite sirah. Morgan Twain Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua, Mike Drash and Mike Hirby, Matt Dees and Matt Rorick, Helen Keplinger, Alex MacGregor and others have each, by way of an older well-preserved bottling, willingly succumbed to a kind of petite geek fever. According to Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars, great petites take on an aromatic purity as they age. “They’re all bass notes when they’re young, but they lose their funk and become very pure,” he says. “They literally blossom, with all these high notes.”
   Petite sirah is one of the great legacy grapes of the Napa Valley, and yet it is a variety often dismissed by all but a few of the wine loving public. (It is unequivocally reviled by sommeliers, who seem to want to reserve a circle of hell for the wine.) It’s castigated for being in every way mono: monolithic, monochromatic, monophonic, a purple monotone of flavor supported by textures so immense, so laced with extract and tannin, that it seems like the wine equivalent of an overstuffed pillow.
   But that’s young petite, and what goes in as a Clydesdale can emerge as a thoroughbred. The wine’s transformative properties have compelled a handful of young winemakers to devote time and creative energy toward making petite sirahs with the grace and longevity of their forebears, even as they endeavor to make these famously massive wines more accessible and dynamic in their youth.

No one in California in recent years has been puzzling over the mysteries of petite sirah more than Tegan Passalacqua, who has been making wine with Turley Wine Cellars since 2003. While the winery is renowned for its zins, petite sirah at Turley is treated with similar attention and respect—they make five, more than any other winery in the state. Petite, in fact, is the reason Passalacqua is at Turley: he sought a job there to work with the variety.
   Prior to this, Passalacqua had worked at the Napa Wine Company, the custom crush facility in Oakville, where for one vintage he processed ton after ton of merlot and cabernet—so when the odd lot of petite sirah was loaded onto the crusher, he took notice. “I was just fascinated with how feral and wild they were,” he says. “They didn’t seem as buttoned up as the rest of Napa’s wines; they weren’t pretentious, and I loved that you needed a piece of meat to enjoy them.”
   Passalacqua has become Turley’s de facto petite expert, managing old vineyards, and devoting a tremendous amount of energy to harnessing the wilder elements that come naturally to the variety in the Napa Valley.
   Petite sirah’s defining feature is its mass, a broad structure that can be velvety and sensuous, or so texturally thick it can feel like a bite of food that’s too big to chew.
   What makes petite petite, says Passalacqua, is its full complement of acidity, tannin and dry extract (literally, all the stuff that’s not alcohol and water). How these elements are woven together determines whether your petite will be suave or chunky.
   A well-farmed vineyard site, or a balanced vineyard of older vines, will contribute significantly to the inherent character of the fruit. Passalacqua has access to some of the most heralded sites in the Napa Valley, of which two vineyards—Hayne and Library—are practically legendary.
   Those two vineyards are in the town of St. Helena, and have managed to arrest development as that city encroaches on every side. Hayne is the younger of the two: its rows of petite were planted in 1953. The Library Vineyard is considerably older, planted in 1890 in a field that now surrounds the St. Helena Public Library. Petite is but one of several mixed blacks planted there, an array that includes as much as 10 percent white varieties as well, a 19th-century hodgepodge of green Hungarian, muscadelle, variations on muscat and other anomalies —all of which go into the Turley Library Vineyard petite bottling. Both sites are dry farmed, which keeps yields very low.
   To look upon the block at Hayne is to be reminded that petite, for decades, was the principal variety of the Napa Valley, dominating vineyard acreage in the valley until the sixties and only surpassed by cabernet sometime after 1965. Petite sirah is ideally suited to Napa Valley’s climate—indeed one could argue that it’s better suited than the cabernet that replaced it. That’s because petite can reach physiological ripeness here at relatively low sugars, especially on head-trained, balanced vineyards like Hayne. In the cellar the fruit requires very little intervention of the sort that is commonplace today: no need to add water, no need to remove alcohol, no need to worry about pyrazines or green flavors—unlike cabernet sauvignon, they aren’t an issue with petite sirah.
   Still, old petite vineyards are increasingly rare in Napa Valley, prompting guys like Mike Hirby of Relic Wines to jump when an opportunity presents itself, as it did three years ago with a small vineyard owned and farmed by Al Frediani. He didn’t have much experience with the grape when he was offered the parcel, so he called a friend, Jeff Cohn, who’d been a winemaker at Rosenblum Cellars. “Jeff had worked with the fruit before,” Hirby says, “and he insisted ‘You must take it!’”
   Tucked between Eisele Vineyard and Hundred Acre on Pickett Road in Calistoga—a pair of fabled, exquisitely farmed cabernet vineyards, this four-acre head-trained parcel is on a warren of volcanic soils flecked with chipped rock and rhyolite. Ninety-one-year-old Al Frediani has been tending the land since World War II, a dry-farmed vineyard planted to carignane, petite sirah and other mixed blacks, including vines that are older than he is. The particular parcel that Hirby draws from is one that Frediani planted when he was a boy—it’s about 75 years old.
    As such, the fruit is inherently balanced coming into the winery. Hirby’s instinct was to treat the wine like pinot noir, with a five or six-day cold maceration, a gradual warming of the must, mostly indigenous yeast fermentations (“if it smells good, I let it go,” he says), and infrequent punch downs. The 2009 is undeniably petite yet it feels elegant and suave, a spicy core of black fruits that coasts on fine tannins and a firm but lacy mineral frame. Like a linebacker, it’s substantial but nimble; it feels big, but it never overwhelms, a testament to Hirby’s skill in weight management.
   It turns out, gentle handling—of the sort reserved for pinot noir—tames petite into more graceful expression. “People are baffled when I say this,” says Passalacqua, “but petite sirah and pinot noir need to be treated in the same way. Pinot noir has some of the most stable tannins of any red wine I know. They’re obviously not the most abundant, but it’s the reason why Burgundy ages the way it does.” Petite, he says, exhibits the same stability, and has longevity for the same reason.

Managing petite’s unbridled weight has been one of the ongoing challenges of petite winemakers for decades. In the late ’90s and early aughts, pushing ripeness was inevitably seen as a solution, especially since that approach was often met with a fair amount of attention from critics who appreciate that sort of thing. At higher sugars tannins grow softer and chewier, often counterbalanced by a modest sweetness. But at higher ripeness levels petite sirah tends to prune and lose its freshness; the wine’s structure seems to slacken or even collapse, as if the wine had been hollowed out. And of course alcohols climb into the mid-teens and higher—not ideal for longevity.
    Some producers employed a method derived from Australian shiraz winemaking, transferring the wine from tank to barrel before all of its sugars are converted to alcohol, leaving the final push of fermentation to complete in barrel for better, more seamless integration. This method is still in use across California for many other red varieties, and seems to yield softer tannins, a creamier texture.
   But some would argue that the end result—a soft, agreeable red— goes against petite’s more feral nature, rather like replacing an animal with a plush toy. In 2011, Passalacqua put this method to the test in a trial using Hayne Vineyard fruit, against a second fermentation which finished in tank to full dryness, and a third, based on a method Passalacqua learned in South Africa employed by the syrah producer Eben Sadie at his family winery. It involved a maceration so long in duration that the word ‘extended’ doesn’t really do the interval justice. For 30 days post-fermentation the grapes lay on their skins, off stems, in tank. Passalacqua says while all were good, there was something about the extended maceration tank that seemed more evolved than the rest.
   “I think probably the least accessible of the three was the one we pressed off at five Brix,” he says. “Pressing early gave us a good wine, and it was aromatically interesting, but the palate wasn’t really well put together. It had the primary-ness of an early-production wine, only good, not complete.”
    But the long maceration wine was another story. “It was so well knit,” he says, “and it continued to mature in tank, not unlike how wine evolves in barrel sometimes. It was really put together; nothing stuck out like a sore thumb. For lack of a better way to describe it, the wine tuned itself.”
   The trial lots were blended together before bottling, so that’s where comparisons ended. Passalacqua is not altogether certain how he’ll employ the results, but he’s very optimistic about his prospects.

Back at the Napa Wine Company, Passalacqua’s obsession with petite had rubbed off on winemaker Matt Dees, who in turn tried to pass it along to his friend, fellow winemaker Matt Rorick, now of Forlorn Hope Winery. Rorick, though, couldn’t see his way to it at the time. “I’d never tasted one which I thought had any finesse,” he explains. “I’d had a few with plenty of brawn but I always felt they were pretty monolithic.” Two years later in 2003, more or less on a dare, Rorick agreed with Dees to go in on a row of petite at Tenbrink Vineyard in the Suisun Valley, just east of Napa.
   Matt and Matt “farmed the hell” out of this single row, says Rorick, and made the wine using techniques he’d acquired through Byron Kosuge at Miura Winery in Carneros—like a pinot noir, in other words. Rorick destemmed but left the berries uncrushed for what he calls the mildest of carbonic treatments, left it to ferment naturally and made no additions. When handled at all, the wine was treated gently. The result was “Les Deux Mathieux,” and it was one of the more ethereal wines Rorick had made to that point in his career. “It hooked me,” he says. “I’d expected this big, monstrous, high-octane bruiser of a wine. Instead we got this aromatic, soft, lifted, compelling wine, not a lightweight by any means but really elegant, with a femininity I didn’t expect.”
   When he founded Forlorn Hope two years later, Les Deux Mathieux became a touchstone for the brand, reflecting the sort of restless creativity Rorick is known for.
   In 2005, for example, Rorick decided to ferment his petite sirah whole cluster, a method that may seem counterintuitive for an already tannic variety (stems, after all, add tannin to the must). But the semi-carbonic character, and the higher pH afforded by stem inclusion resulted in a much more floral wine, with a looser, less blocky texture that to Rorick “was more about depth than weight.” The wines need time—Rorick’s current release is 2007—but the result is a more pliant, supple texture.
   And the autre Matthieu? Matt Dees now makes wine for Jonata in the Santa Ynez Valley, and was out of the petite game until last year, when he purchased cuttings from Passalacqua, sourced from the Library Vineyard, for a planting of his own in Ballard Canyon.
   In 2007 Helen Keplinger was offered petite sirah from one of her favorite vineyards, Shake Ridge, in Amador County, farmed with meticulous care by her friend Ann Kraemer. She couldn’t refuse, even if she tended to prefer wines traditionally considered to have more finesse. But having made wine in Priorat at Cellars Melis, she was accustomed to reds with tannic fortitude. “Both are loaded,” she says, adding that power, on its own, didn’t interest her much. “Big plus big just makes big,” she says. “It doesn’t make the wine more complex or interesting, just monolithic.”
   Her time in Priorat had accustomed her to blending, too: It occurred to her that some degree of co-fermentation might loosen the wine a bit—and syrah seemed like a reasonable partner. It was just a modest reach that that picture should include viognier, a sufficiently late ripener in Amador to consider as an addition.
   The result is the aptly named Sumo. The 2010, the fourth vintage, is roughly 88 percent petite sirah, 10 percent syrah, and two percent viognier, a wine of girth and grace, the core petite illuminated by the white fruit, which shimmers like light at the end of a tunnel. “I love the floral notes and fruit-lifting elements of viognier against the utter black massiveness of petite sirah,” she says. The syrah, meanwhile, relaxes the petite tannins, in her estimation, and seems to help delineate the petite. “Petite sirah can be very compact,” she says. “The syrah allows the inherent complexity in petite sirah to be comprehensible, because it’s not just more of the same.”

Of these producers only one, Mike Drash, has set up a brand devoted solely to petite sirah. He founded Aratás in 2008 with partners John and Mickey Chohany, along with Stephanie Douglas. Aratás offers three petites, one from Howell Mountain, one from a two-acre vineyard in Oak Knoll and a new wine from the same vineyard in Amador County, Shake Ridge, which Helen Keplinger also draws from.
   If there is a sensualist in this group, it’s Drash. He’s the one prone to speaking of how petite’s earthy, “close to the ground” aromas seem almost historic; as an amateur historian, he sees petite sirah as part of the Napa Valley’s genealogy. He’s not above waxing poetic about its texture, its exoticism—he insists, to whomever will listen, that petite sirah rachises (the tawny central shaft of a cluster, essentially) are the sexiest of any vine grown in Napa.
   That Drash makes these wines at Cuvaison in Carneros, a pinot house, lends insight into his approach. He sends the fruit through a crusher that breaks the berries gently without using rollers. The fruit ferments without added yeast in open-top fermenters, with infrequent punch downs, no fining, no filtering. The Aratás wines are dark and seductive, with sensuous textures that nevertheless feel built for the cellar.
   “The greatest wines in the world,” says Drash, “are wines of ageability,” citing an ethereal Mount Veeder bottling from 1975, a wine with the complexity and grace of an older Bordeaux, one of the wines, in fact, that drew him toward petite in the first place. “Petite sirah has proven it can age better than anything else in the Napa Valley,” he says, sounding very much like he intends to leave a legacy of his own.