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A Big Day for Petite Sirah

Yesterday, I attended the 10th Annual Petite Sirah Symposium. I came away with excellent technical information and historical perspectives, tasted several wines I can happily recommend and made some new friends. And I poured a magnum of history myself.

Petite Sirah has a long history in California. An Alameda County acreage report from 1885 identified it by name. Concannon Vineyard released the first varietally-labeled Petite Sirah in 1964 (from the 1961 vintage). Today there are nearly 850 producers of Petite Sirah varietal wines. Acreage has climbed to 8,354, the most since a dramatic, but short-lived, spike in the 1970’s. Growth in planting has been gradual, but steady and seemingly sustainable, for nearly 20 years now.

The attractions of Petite Sirah — deep color, mouth-filling dark fruit punctuated by exotic spice, firm yet approachable tannins — make it ideal for the way most Americans eat. The wine is happy to tuck into burgers and ribs, grab a burrito, call out for pizza or bring home Chinese. More and more, it’s showing up in restaurants featuring other ethnic cuisines: Thai, Moroccan, Persian, Ethiopian, Greek. Steak will be just fine too though.

For those people who like aged wine, Petite Sirah is a good candidate. Some of my favorite bottles of it have been Concannon wines with 10 years or so in the cellar. Just for fun, I brought a magnum of venerable wine to share at yesterday’s lunch.

I had purchased the 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah recently from K&L Wines. They had gotten it in the acquisition of a private cellar not too long ago. A good friend and fellow lover of old California in a bottle, Rich Meinecke, pointed it out to me online and I snapped it up right away. Thanks again, Rich!

A magnum of 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah Livermore Valley.      
Photo: Melanie Gameng

Jim Concannon, Fred Swan & John Concannon at Concannon Vineyard, July 31, 2012.
Photo: Melanie Gameng

It was fun to be able to share the wine with so many people passionate about Petite Sirah. Jim Concannon remembered 1965 as a good vintage and showed the bottle to friends. Clark Smith came pretty close to identifying the vintage blind and called out a lemony flavor he often gets from aged Livermore Petite Sirah. It brought back memories for acclaimed winemaker Nils Venge who worked at Concannon for a time in the early 1960‘s.

This particular bottle’s was in its golden years but was an enjoyable companion for our barbecued ribs. We drank it happily and enjoyed it’s evolution in our glasses. Bottled at just 12% alcohol, this Petite Sirah still had plenty of elegant tannins, neatly balanced by acidity and rich, baked fruit. And there were attractive spice notes, a touch of earth and more — including Clark’s lemon which I'll make a point of looking for in the future.

After lunch, we headed into the barrel room to taste current releases of Petite Sirah from numerous wineries. Stay tuned for my report on that. It will highlight some truly delectable bottles.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Cinsault Good


Cinsault doesn’t get a lot of respect. In Chateauneuf-du-Pape it’s just one of many red blending grapes, never a star. Cinsault and Pinot Noir are the parents of Pinotage. But, due to an old South African predilection for calling Cinsault “Hermitage,” the grape doesn’t get obvious credit. Besides, Pinotage?


Finally, in the past few years, Cinsault is striking out on it’s own and earning a reputation for excellence. All the variety had to do was move to Lodi and wait 120+ years. Suddenly Cinsault is cool. It’s an “overnight sensation.”


In Lodi’s Bechtold Vineyard, gnarly vines planted in 1886 stand patiently but proudly in deep, sandy soil. The vineyard, owned by Wanda Woock Bechtold1, has been leased and tended by Phillips Farms since 2008. They farm it organically and irrigate just once a year, after harvest. Some of the fruit goes to their own Michael David Winery. The rest is sold to quality-focused producers such as Turley and Onesta.


There’s a good reason, beyond Cinsault’s typical anonymity, that this particular Cinsault took so long to make a name for itself. It used an alias. When the cuttings were first purchased, back in 1885, they were identified as Black Malvoisie. 


Here’s something to know about Black Malvoisie. There’s really no such thing. That name seems to have been used solely in California for misidentifying Cinsault. (There are a few variations of Malvasia Nera in southern Italy, but they have nothing in common with Cinsault nor do they have any relevance in the US or France—Cinsault hails from Languedoc-Roussillon.) The Bechtold Cinsault’s secret identity was revealed through genetic research by Kay Bogart and Andy Walker of U.C. Davis in 2003. 


Bogart immediately contacted Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, who became the first modern champion of these particular vines. Bonny Doon seems a natural place for a lonely Rhone to range. Grahm has long been a proponent of authentically, even anachronistically, grown and made wines inspired by those from the Rhone Valley.


The grapes immediately found their way into Bonny Doon’s delicious Chateauneuf-du-Papish blends. Lately though, vintners are letting this Cinsault solo. Red wines and rosés show its gentle, yet complex, personality. There are berries, red and black, earth, dry herbs, flowers and gorgeous spices.


These Cinsault are not wines for aging. They are wines for drinking: drinking by the glass, by the bottle, with a meal and without. Moderate in alcohol, moderate in tannin and moderate in acidity, they can be wholly immoderate in pretty.


Take for example, the 2013 Turley Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard with its beautiful nose of meaty and exotic spices, dried dark flowers and dried berries. Drink most of the bottle, then dab the rest behind your ear. The wine is medium in body with fine grained tannins and alcohol of just 13.0%. It politely requests an invitation to lunch at your favorite sidewalk cafe.


The 2011 Onesta Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard is beefier, literally. It offers drying herb, earth, meaty spice and rare beef with medium-plus body. The acidity and fine-grained tannins remain moderate though. Here’s a wine which will hold up some months in the cellar or hold its own during an evening at the steakhouse.


Winemakers tend to respond in kind to this Cinsault’s gentle nature. The aforementioned Turley is surprisingly laid-back relative to that company’s powerhouse Zinfandels. So too the 2013 Michael David Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard. The uber-successful family winery, behind bold labels such as Earthquake, Lust, Rage and Seven Deadly Zins, used a delicate hand to produce their balanced and graceful vineyard designate.


That wine is red and black berry pie on the nose and palate—something Michael David knows well—with a soft kiss of oak and chocolate. Again, body is medium, the sophisticated tannins moderate and acidity just enough for food. Speaking of which, you’ll want a thick hamburger, medium rare on toasted focaccia; no ketchup, mustard, mayo, onions, bacon or cheese to confuse things.


Another winning wine is the 2012 Estate Crush Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard. Its aromas and flavors are of earthy red and black berries, spice and dry herb. Again, the body is just north of medium and the tannins moderate and very fine. Take it on a picnic with charcuterie or chicken ( grilled or fried).


2013 Turley Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard, Lodi 

13.0% alcohol. About $25, Highly Recommended


2011 Onesta Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard, Lodi  

14.5% alcohol. $29, Highly Recommended


2013 Michael David Ancient Vine Cinsault, Lodi 

14.5% alcohol. $25, Recommended


2012 Estate Crush Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard, Lodi

13.8% alcohol. $26 , Recommended



1 Wanda Woock Bechtold also owns Jessie’s Grove Winery with her son, winemaker Greg Burns


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. Photo courtesy of All rights reserved.

Free: Hospice du Rhone 2010 iPhone App Available

I'm really looking forward to Hospice du Rhone this year. it's coming up soon, April 29 - May 1, in Paso Robles. To help people like me, and you, get up to speed on everything that will go on there, the wineries involved, etc., the HdR organization has put out an iPhone app. This is the first event based iPhone app i've seen.

I downloaded it as soon as it hit the Apple App Store on Monday. There's a lot of cool stuff in there that could well be of use to you regardless of whether or not you go to the event. There's winery and varietal information, Rhone wine quizzes and more. And the price is right. Free!

Sonoma William posted an in-depth HdR 2010 iPhone app review at Simple Hedonisms if you want to learn more.

Russian River Valley Winegrowers’ 2nd Annual Single Vineyard Night

The Russian River Valley AVA is very large. It covers roughly 150 square miles, 15,000 acres of which is planted with high-quality wine grapes. It has one-third the vine acreage of the Napa Valley AVA. But Napa Valley contains 15 smaller AVAs. There are only two smaller AVA within Russian River Valley: Chalk Hill and Green Valley.

Because it covers so much territory, it is hard to make useful generalizations about the characteristics of Russian River Valley wines. There are too many mesoclimates, soil types, slopes and flats, wind breaks and wind gaps. This diversity allows wineries to create succulent and balanced blends. But, in a tasting of five different Russian River Valley Pinot Noir or Chardonnay blends, there could be five very dissimilar wines. The variety is delightful on one hand, but frustrating on the other. If you are looking for a particular flavor profile or want to know why a given wine tastes the way it does, you need to a wine that highlights a much smaller piece of land.

Fortunately, there are hundreds of single-vineyard wines made from Russian River Valley fruit. Taste these wines and you begin to understand how Chardonnay grow on Goldridge loam vineyards differ from that on volcanic clay, how a slope near Occidental with an eastern facing ripens grapes differently than the flats near Santa Rosa. When you want wine that stimulates your mind as well as your palate, single-vineyard selections are hard to beat.

To really get a sense of the differences between a group of single-vineyard wines, you want to taste them side by side. There is a great opportunity to do exactly that coming soon. The Russian River Valley Winegrowers’ 2nd Annual Single Vineyard Night is Saturday, June 4 at Thomas George Estates. There will be more than 30 winemakers pouring small lot, single vineyard wines in partnership with their growers. Tasty bites, provided by local eateries, will be paired with each wine.

The tasting runs from 6:30 to 8 PM. (Sign up for the VIP Reception to get in an hour earlier, have exclusive access to winemakers and more.) At 8PM, an auction begins. That is followed by a dance party which goes until 10PM. For more details, visit the event page at Advance tickets are just $45.

Buy tickets for the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Single Vineyard Night

If you’d like to win a pair of tickets, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . In the email, tell me which Russian River Valley winery is your favorite. A winner will be selected at random from all entrants. I’ll accept entries until noon on Tuesday. I will notify the winner shortly thereafter.

Here is the roster of participating wineries and growers:

Ancient Oaks, Siebert Ranch
Arrowood-Saralee’s Vineyard
Balletto Vineyards , selection of single vineyards
Benovia, Bella Una Vineyard
Desmond Wines, Estate
Dutton Estate Winery, Dutton Palms Vineyard
Dutton Goldfield, Freestone Hill Vineyard
Ferrari-Carano, Fiorella
Gary Farrell, Westside Farms
George Wine Company, Leras Family Vineyard
Graton Ridge Cellars, Bacigalupi Vineyard
Hop Kiln Winery, HKG Bridge Selection
Inman Family, Olivet Grange Vineyard
Iron Horse Vineyards, Rued Clone
John Tyler Wines, Bacigalupi Vineyard
Joseph Swan, Trenton View Vineyard
LaFollette, DuNah Vineyard
Lauterbach Cellars, Estate
Longboard, Dakine Vineyard
Martinelli Winery, Lolita Ranch
Matrix Winery, Nunes Vineyard
Merriam, Willowside Vineyard
Merry Edwards, Klopp Ranch
Moshin Vineyards, Bacigalupi Vineyard
Mueller Winery, Vino Farms
Nalle Winery, Hopkins Ranch
Old World Winery, Estate
Papapietro Perry, Leras Family Vineyard
Russian River Vineyards, Estate Vineyards
Sandole Wines, Oehlman Ranch
Siduri Wines, Ewald Vineyards
Sonoma Cutrer, Owsley
Thumbprint Cellars, Saralee’s Vineyard
William Selyem, Flax Vineyard

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Banner edited from photo by Naotake Murayama. All rights reserved.

Join Me in Becoming a Certified California Wine Appellation Specialist

In September, I reported on a new wine class and certification, the California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) program. Created and conducted by the San Francisco Wine School, the course is focused solely on the wines and wine regions of California. It is the only such certification course in the world.

As I mentioned in my previous article, I don’t believe there is enough focus on California from certifying bodies or wine schools in general. California produces 90% of all wine made in the United States and accounts for 90% of it’s exports. California is the world’s fourth largest producer of wine — behind France, Italy and Spain. California is a huge state with a a broad range of climates, landscapes and soils. Yet classes with global focus tend to treat California as one big, uniform state that makes only oaky Chardonnay, fruity Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon with no sense of terroir. The amount of time given to California is sometimes less than that for New Zealand.

sfwineschoolI asked the San Francisco Wine School’s founder, Master Sommelier and talented wine educator David Glancy, to allow me to audit the first session of the class. My goal was to get an understanding of how the classes would be conducted along with their breadth, depth and quality so that I could write a review. But the first class impressed me so much, I signed up for the full course and certifying exam myself the next morning.

Each class was taught by either David Glancy or Maureen Downey, an MW candidate, Certified Wine Educator and Certified (Advanced Level) Sommelier. There were seven sessions, plus the test date, in the program. (An additional class has been added for the upcoming course, to allow even greater depth on a couple of key regions.)

For the most part, the classes are organized by major region. Detail is provided on all the AVAs in those regions, including their history, location, climate, soil, topography, production volume, principal grapes, wineries and vineyards. Facts provided are exhaustively researched and fully vetted for accuracy. (You’d be amazed at how much conflicting, or just plain wrong, information there is out there.) The detailed breakdowns are complemented by practical insights and personal anecdotes. The wines provided for tasting, around 10 per class, were very well chosen and ranged from new releases exemplifying a particular style or terroir to aged bottles illustrarting development and long-term potential.

I was able to attend all but one of the evening classes and got the class handout for the one I missed. I studied hard and took the test. Now, I am the first wine writer to hold the California Wine Appellation Specialist certification.

As chief-bottle opener at, I feel obligated to know as much as I can about California wines and AVAs. And I’m pleased to say that I earned top score on the test — 99%. That’s great news for me and for you. It means I’ve learned a lot about California wine and it means you have an opportunity to take the class and outscore me. Consider that a challenge ;-)

Should you choose to accept my challenge, the next series of classes begins on January 11 (see below for the full schedule). If you do outscore me, there’s a very nice bottle of wine in my cellar with your name on it. You won’t have a hard time finding me to collect either. The San Francisco Wine School has invited me to become an adjunct instructor for them and I’ll be teaching two classes in the upcoming series.

To sign up for individual classes or the entire series, go to the San Francisco Wine School’s CWAS page.

Full California Wine Appellation Specialist program:

Jan 12, 2012 USA/California Law, Overview & Mendocino with David Glancy
Jan 18, 2012 "Napa Valley Rocks!" Napa County with Maureen Downey
Jan 25, 2012 Lake County & The Sierras with Fred Swan
Feb 1, 2012 Sonoma County with Maureen Downey
Feb 8, 2012 Monterey & San Benito with Maureen Downey
Feb 15, 2012 Paso Robles & the Rest of San Luis Obispo with Fred Swan
Feb 22, 2012 Santa Cruz, SF Bay & The Delta with David Glancy
Feb 29, 2012 Santa Barbara & Beyond with David Glancy
Mar 7, 2012 California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS™) Exam with David Glancy








The price is $79 per class plus $100 for the test, if you choose to take classes individually. There is a discounted rate of $679 for the whole package. All attendees must be at least 21 years old.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Photo of David Glancy by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.