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by Dan Clarke

 

I drove over to Livermore yesterday. The occasion was the 10th Petite Sirah Symposium. As you might expect, all assembled had an interest in wines made from the Petite Sirah grape. There were farmers who grew the grape, wine makers, wine marketers and members of the press.

Early versions of this annual gathering were held at Foppiano Winery up in Sonoma County. I had attended some of them and the Livermore meeting was a good time to catch up with recent developments.

Getting away from the computer on this last day of July took longer than I had hoped and by the time I arrived at the Martinelli Event Center I had missed the keynote speaker, Evan Goldstein. Evan is a qualified Master Sommelier, which means he knows a hell of a lot about wines—all wines. Scholarship and unerring palate notwithstanding, his greatest skill may be his ability to communicate. Like all great teachers, he chooses to engage his audience in a way that encourages them to share his enjoyment of the subject. His topic this day was “Why Evan Believes in Petite Sirah.”

Disappointed though I was at being late, three presentations still lay ahead, as well as a nice lunch under the arbor at nearby Concannon Vineyard and a tasting of over 40 examples of current Petite Sirah releases.

Third Generation Wine Grape Growing Family Successfully Takes on Winemaking Toodavid mounts with grapes PicmonkeyDavid Mounts brought jar of vineyard soil and a grape cluster.

David Mounts' family has farmed property in Sonoma County since it was purchased by his grandfather Jack at the end of World War II. Although grapes had been grown in the area for nearly a century before that time, prunes were the big crop back in the 1940's and the Mounts family grew prunes and raised sheep in the early years. David's Dad Richard began planting Zinfandel and Petite Sirah grapes in 1967. Their winery came into being in 2005 when they made a total of 500 cases of wine, 300 of which were Petite Sirah. Since then the production has grown, but the winery is still a small operation which allows an intimate relationship with both the growing of the grapes and with their vinification.

David, who is both grower and winemaker for the family endeavor, wove a tale of “what we've learned in the last 45 years farming rocky, hillside vineyards--some of them dangerously steep.” Variables in the process include pruning styles, the use of native yeasts to start the fermentation process rather than purchased “designer yeast,” and allowing for a little dehydration of the grapes just before harvest, which leads to a wine higher in alcohol and better suited to the style David said he's looking for.

A Cult Petite that Rocks

Nils Venge's topic was “Creating a 'Cult' Petite That Rocks.” Nils is about my age and I suspect that wasn't his turn of nils venge 2 PicmonkeyNils remembered Cancannon's Petite Sirah.phrase. Nonetheless, the audience understood what was meant and you probably couldn't get a more appropriate guy to address the subject of cult wines. The Napa Valley legend has been creating great wines for more than 40 years. However, just as Yankee's pitcher Don Larsen was forever known as the man who threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Nils Venge has a reputation forever framed by his own perfect effort. The 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve he made for Groth was given a 100-point score by writer Robert Parker, the first time the oracle ever awarded such a score for any California wine.

Venge still makes outstanding Cabernet for his own winery, Saddleback Cellars, but he's not limited to just that niche. He makes whites and reds other than Cabs—among them Petite Sirahs. He recalled his first exposure to variety as being in the mid-1960s when, as a UC Davis student, he worked for a short time at Concannon, the first California winery to produce a varietally-labeled Petite Sirah. Sitting in front of a microphone across the room, Jim Concannon interjected that he remembered Nils from that period—though not necessarily because he'd demonstrated great skill as a fledgling winemaker. Jim recalled their playing tennis some 45-years ago. “You beat me,” said the now-75 year old Concannon, “And I was pretty good, too!”

Nils first made Petite Sirah with grapes from a warm weather vineyard near Calistoga at the northern end of the Napa Valley. Since then he has added another source of grapes. He also gets fruit from the Red Hills near Lake County's Cobb Mountain. The vineyard is at higher elevation and is cooler. Both vineyard produce good fruit, but are made into separate wines, each having its own characteristics.

jim concannon PicmonkeyJim remembered Nils' tennis game.In winemaking there are few absolutes. Factors contributing to the final product include what the French call terroir. The phrase means the land, but it's more than that. The soils, the weather and a hard to define “sense of place” all contribute to it. Add all the variations in viticultural practices (the growing of the grapes) and the enological practices (the making of the wine from crushed grapes onward), and you have a long and complex process. Presentations such as those made by David Mount and Nils Venge were given to an audience of wine professionals, but briefer and less technical delivery of similar information can be of help to the consumer. Restaurants offering “Winemaker Dinners” can be a great way to learn more about wine, especially when a principal of the winery or, better yet, the winemaker himself is in attendance. A sommelier or knowledgeable waiter can help you learn—and help you enjoy wine more, as can a wine merchant who really knows his/her stuff.

Food and Wine Pairings

Joyce Goldstein prepared her audience for the lunch to follow by addressing “Food and Wine Pairings for Petite Sirah.” Goldstein was once chef at the Café at Chez Panisse. Later she owned and operated the San Francisco restaurant Square One, which celebrated food from many Mediterranean cuisines. A prolific cookbook author, she's currently working on a history of California cuisine for the University of California Press.Joyce Goldstein at Livermoe PS Symposium PicmonkeyJoyce Goldstein suggested innovations.

In a state where Cabernet and Chardonnay are kings (or King & Queen?), a lesser known variety like Petite Sirah has to work harder to get the attention of restaurant wine buyers. Beyond the broad category of “American food” are identifiable cuisines—or at least American interpretations of them—that might be candidates for matching to the flavors of Petite Sirah.

Italian food, especially the northern Italy dishes now popular in California, would have affinity for this grape variety,” said Goldstein, “but Italian restaurants tend to favor offering Italian wines on their lists.” Some French dishes would also be well served by the accompaniment of Petite Sirah—Steak au Poivre, for instance, “would be a slam-dunk.”

While acknowledging that the variety could pair well with many familiar cuisines, Goldstein suggested taking the road less traveled might be more productive, especially in the sophisticated and hyper competitive restaurant atmosphere of the nearby San Francisco Bay Area. “Go to new restaurants in San Francisco,” she urged. “They'll be much more open to you.”

Referencing a Turkish dinner she once made, she recalled “the lamb was prepared with a little tomato sauce and some smoky eggplant and the Petite Sirah brought it all together.”

Acknowledging that there aren't too many potential wine customers owning Turkish restaurants, she said there are dishes from many other cuisines that would have potential. She suggested a Spanish beef stew in a preparation including “clove, cinnamon, wine and a little bitter chocolate.” North African cuisines would have many possibilities, including the tagines from Morocco. “Instead of making my normal fried chicken this Fourth of July, I put in a ton of Morrocan spices,” she recalled of an experiment that apparently was a hit. Kebabs and meatballs served with cumin would likely be good pairings. Greek moussaka would work, as would a Greek stew called stifado, “which includes cinnamon, cloves, red wine and currants--ingredients that contain your flavor profile.” A Persian recipe for duck with pomegranate and walnuts is another inspiration in this vein.

Further from the Mediterranean are other food cultures ripe for matching with the wine. Mexican moles, for instance, “include nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, anise—those flavors are in your wine,” Goldstein said, “so it's a natural.

Meats of all kinds are likely to show affinity for this Petite Sirah grape. The variety of grilled meats served in Brazilian churrasco-style restaurants would be appropriate. Texas beef brisket is in that direction, even beefy chile “if you play down the heat,” she said. “Korean short ribs, rubbed with sesame, garlic, pepper and ginger,” is offered. Even Germany's sauerbraten, prepared with ginger snaps and raisins, is also a candidate. At this point Joyce Goldstein's audience really is looking forward to the barbecue lunch soon to be served over at Concannon. Referring to pages of notes and recipes she's brought with her, the chef tantalizes listeners who enjoy cooking with names of several other dishes and a few ingredients each includes. Rattling off idea after idea, she challenged her audience to “look further afield. The trend is going to be melting pot cookery. Some people (who'll be cooking it) won't have a clue, but others will be good.” Urging marketers of Petite Sirah to find newer restaurants and actually work with the chefs to create a wine and food synergy, she advised, “Don't ignore the little guys. You'll find some magic pairings out there.”

Tasting the Current Releases

Rusty Eddy pours at Concannon PS PicmonkeyRusty Eddy pours Clayhouse.Following lunch was a tasting for members of the wine trade. In the Eric Cohen Shoeshine PS at Concannon PicmonkeyEric Cohen makes Shoe Shine.Concannon barrel room purveyors of more than 40 of the state's best Petite Sirah poured their offerings. A few rosé wines made from this grape variety were in evidence and tasted especially good on the warm afternoon. Most of the wines were substantial reds that are the more traditional product of this grape. Styles differed. Alcohol levels varied. Retail pricing of these wines covered a broad swath, varying from about $8 to $50. Comprehensive tasting notes weren't taken on this occasion. Better than reading my opinions—or anybody else's, for that matter—is to explore this variety for yourself. Any good retailer would have some examples and many restaurant wine lists would include at least a couple of options. To learn more about this variety a good resource is www.psiloveyou.org. Included in this site is a great recipe section,.

Weaverville, the town that James Hilton - the author of Lost Horizon - said inspired his mythical paradise of Shangri-La, has been named by Budget Travel as one of the coolest small towns in America and, by exclusion, as the coolest small town in California.Weaverville The Joss House SMALL P8021972Recent visitors gather at The Joss House

With a population of 3,807 souls, Weaverville is known for its isolated location near the Trinity Alps of northern California. The settlement began during the California Gold Rush and was the site of the 1854 Tong War among Chinese laborers who eventually thrived there, embraced by a supportive community. They built The Joss House, California’s oldest continuously used Chinese temple, a colorful structure where Taoist faithful have worshiped since 1874.

Red brick construction, used to fireproof buildings during the late 1800s, preserved the town’s historic character. Many Victorian homes and commercial buildings line its main street which remains a picture of life in the late 19th century. Weaverville curiosities, like external spiral staircases on store fronts along Main Street, harken to a time when shop owners would avoid paying taxes for a second floor, since local tax laws then charged extra for interior staircases.

Today, Weaverville serves as a gateway to the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and regional supply center for the State Route 299 corridor between Arcata and Redding. Nearby Trinity Lake is a popular destination for camping, fishing and watersports and Weaverville provides a gentile, gently bohemian and time-frozen resting point for weary travelers.

Budget Travel wrote, “The result is a town that, even today, comfortably spans cultures… Religious and cultural tolerance combined with 2 million acres of wild country? Sounds like heaven on earth—a description that wouldn't be out of place in the works of the writer James Hilton, who compared Weaverville to… a little place called Shangri-La.”

 

Read more at budgettravel.com/contest/americas-coolest-small-towns-2012,11/.

A Malbec wine from Madera County took top honors at the 2012 Orange County Fair wine competition in Costa Mesa June 5 and 6.

Farview Farm Vineyard, owned by Ray and Tammy Krause of O’Neals, earned a four star gold medal for their Malbec Saint Michael. It was the only Malbec to earn this coveted rating.RayTammy Krause SMALL at Fasi 2009 largerRay and Tammy Krause

“Gold medals are like belly buttons. A four star gold, well, that’s a different story,” said Krause with the usual quick wit and good-natured grin for which he’s known – almost as much as for his wines.

Ray said he’s grateful for the recognition, and he and Tammy were pleasantly surprised.

“To be the only Malbec to win a FSG out of all Malbec entries in all price ranges and, to be one of but 39 given out of nearly 2800 wines is pretty cool.”

The honor means even more, as the approval comes from his peers. Only California wines are judged at the prestigious event, and only California vintners serve as judges.

Ray said the latest accolades continue to prove a point that he and the Madera Vintner’s Association has been championing; that Madera County grapes, given proper attention, can produce top quality wines.

“Chalk up another win for Madera County-grown fruit which can certainly hold its own against the big dogs,” he said in an email thanking his winegrowers for the superior fruit that became the wine.

Farview Farm Vineyard is the second label owned by Ray and Tammy. Their flagship label is Westbrook Wine Farm, also of O’Neals, where they create “Authentic hand crafted wines of quality and conscience.”

Westbrook also had great success recently. At the 2012 San Francisco International Wine Competition, held June 15-17, their 2008 Fait Accompli “CRYO” took a double gold medal. Made from estate-grown grapes in Madera County, this “Claret style” wine retails for $60 and is comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon (55%), Cabernet Franc (20%), Malbec (10%), Merlot (8%) and Carmenere (1%).

More information about Farview and Westbrook wines can be found at http://www.westbrookwinefarm.com.

 

(PRWeb contributed to this article)

 

Those planning to visit the Madera Wine Trail and/or the Yosemite National Park area will find links to websites of the wineries there, as well as links to many lodging and dining options, at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

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