After tasting two dozen syrah and petite sirah wines at the recent St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel, Wayne Donaldson of Eonian Wines exclaimed, “These are some lovely wines, and great food wines: You need a big open fire, goblets, tankards of wine, and roasted animals.” For sure, these two grape varieties can produce wines with big personalities in Napa Valley.
Syrah especially should be a revered grape of the region. It turns the valley’s warmth into rich, sweet cherry and plum fruit, spice and earthy flavors, and can show its heady perfumed side from cooler pockets. It can’t be too hot or too cold, mind you; we just need to seek out those “just right” areas for our Goldilocks grape.
When Napa Valley syrah is well-made, however, it is one of the most hedonistic wines on the planet — all fleshy and generous. So why then has syrah not made a bigger splash in Napa Valley? How can it be so misunderstood?
First, we did it all wrong when it came to Syrah. As John Skupny of Lang & Reed noted, “Syrah went from zero to 60” in Napa Valley. Almost as if dumped in our laps, consumers were pushed to purchase this heralded, new hero of Napa Valley, and asked to pay top dollar to boot — without a good explanation of why they should do so. It’s Napa, we made it, now give us 60 bucks a bottle.
Add to that, the panel noted, a consumer who had already been favorably introduced to the $12 shiraz from Australia, and it really confounded wine buyers.
Historically, syrah didn’t catch a break either. While the wines of Bordeaux made cabernet sauvignon wildly popular around the world, including in the Napa Valley, the Rhone Valley’s syrah (the Old World heartland for the grape) did not fare as well. Not because the northern Rhone was not making incredible wines — you need only taste a Hermitages or a Cote-Rotie to be a lifetime member of the syrah fan club — but because it was not exported, not known, and used for other purposes. Syrah was found in venerable wines like Bordeaux’s Latour and Lafite — as a blending grape, saving lighter or poorer grand vins vintages from a paler, ghostly fate.
Petite sirah is perhaps more understood than syrah. Consumers seem to get that the grape will offer big tannins and dark, dense fruits. It is considered one of Napa Valley’s historic grape varieties although it had a schizophrenic start in the 1880s. Petite sirah was often confused with several other varieties, including syrah. Nonetheless, the grape gained favor for its dark color, fragrance and good yields. Following phylloxera, petite sirah was a key part of the finest California blends and only lost ground when varietal wines started to gain prominence.
We started to see variety-labeled petite sirahs in the 1960s from such venerable wineries as Stags’ Leap Winery, Inglenook and Ridge — which made a York Creek Petite Sirah. It remains however, a niche varietal. Why plant petite sirah when you can get so much more money for your cabernet sauvignon?
Certain Napa Valley sites take well to petite sirah, that’s why. And we need petite sirah and syrah — along with other varietals — to keep us diverse. Each of these varieties creates some incredible wines here; it’s an opportunity to explore other flavors of Napa Valley.
From the 13 syrahs and 12 petite sirahs reviewed during the Tasting Panel session — held as usual in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone — panelists found that these wineries were doing it right when it comes to syrah and petite sirah:
Chappellet Vineyard 2010 Petite Sirah ($45) is full of plum, spice and fresh oak aromas and flavors. No wallflower, this wine is robust and dark. Roasted meats and game will nicely tame the beast. Visit the winery up on Pritchard Hill and you’ll witness the transformation of rocky, rugged terrain to a gardener’s paradise. Molly Chappellet is the Martha Stewart of the West Coast, deftly wielding a shovel as well as a sautée pan for her celebrity packed James Beard dinners. When you go, pack a lunch — there are picnic tables to be reserved.
Odette Estate Winery 2011 ‘Adaptation’ Petite Sirah ($34). A newly minted winery on the Silverado Trail, Odette is owned by the Plumpjack and CADE family. Nowhere on the bottle, however, is the name: “Odette.” Look instead for the proprietary name: “Adaptation.” This wine is all red plum, tar and earth. Its juicy fruits are matched by high but balanced tannins, body and acidity. Put this on the table with any red meat dish and you will build a new army of petite sirah fans. Miss the old drive-in movie theaters? Pack your friends into the car, because they are back at Odette, Napa style, with wine pourings and food truck offerings.
Elyse Winery 2008 Syrah ($32). This syrah has 10 percent petite sirah in the mix and hands out an intriguing mix of red berry, citrus peel, spice and leathery aromas and flavors. The story goes that before starting their winery, owners Nancy and Ray Coursen tended a bed-and-breakfast — only because they were allowed to plant a vineyard in the back. Many accolades later, they are known for wines like their syrah.
Keenan Winery 2010 Syrah ($38). This 100 percent syrah has deep aromas which ooze warmth. On the palate, it is still quite tight — the wine is rustic with dark fruit flavors, full tannins and alcohol — but it is still approachable now with hearty fare, and will age for years. Syrah has been planted up on Keenan’s Spring Mountain property since the late 19th century. Look at any encompassing history books of the Napa Valley and Keenan Winery is in there.
These wines were also favored:
Flying Horse Winery 2009 Petite Sirah ($48). While zoology majors at UC Davis, owners Lettie and Hendrik met in a wine making class. The Smeding family are fourth-generation Napa Valley farmers.
Frank Family Vineyards 2010 Petite Sirah ($65) is from the S&J Vineyards in Rutherford. While Napa Valley continues to take on Disneyland qualities, the winery continues to keep things real despite the fact that the owner comes from an executive office at the Disney company.
Levendi Winery 2006 Syrah ($29). With their roots in Greece, the Gianulias family named this winery after the Greek term for “celebrating life,” a toast used at the end of a hard day’s work and achievement. The grapes come from the Stagecoach Vineyard.
Napa Cellars 2011 Syrah ($30) comes from the Dyer Vineyard in Carneros. While wine is the focus, you gotta love the personality behind the wine. Joe Shirley’s bio lists these favorites: beer and power tools, and lets us know he once bowled a 252.
(Catherine Seda Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)