Tasting Vicariously 

Petite Sirah: Oh, they'll sell it before its time all right.

On a recent visit to one East Bay winery's Web site, I encountered the usual request for my age that such sites use to dissuade minors from making purchases. But as I scrolled down through the birth years, I was alarmed to find that they stopped at 1982 — all the years prior were bundled under the ominous label: Before.

Before what?? Before Cats opened on Broadway? Before Princess Grace of Monaco died, John Hinckley Jr. was acquitted, and Graceland opened to the public? Or was it the more obvious subtext: If you're that old (26 and up, mind you), it just doesn't matter? Ouch.

This demoralizing online experience occurred while I was researching a wine known for its tendency to taste just a little too young: California Petite Sirah. A classic, well-balanced wine often praised for its deep color, Petite Sirah is also known for its strong tannic qualities — think of the inside of your mouth after a sipping a strong cup of tea. Our age-appropriate tasters thoroughly enjoyed two out of the three bargain Petite Sirahs we tried this week, but even the two goodies were a bit tart, and reminded us of wines we found sophisticated and impressive in our younger days. You know. Before.

The clear winner was Livermore Valley-based Concannon's 2004 Central Coast Petite Sirah ($9.98). Noting violets and plums in its aroma and a raspberry taste, we found it hearty and easy to drink — a good choice to bring to a casual dinner party, especially if steak is on the menu. "Very pressy," said our Token Winemaker, meaning that it had the freshly fermented, astringent flavors of a newly pressed wine — perhaps a motivation to buy a few bottles and keep them around for a while.

The 2004 Parducci Petite Sirah from Mendocino County ($7.39), a region known as a source for some of California's best examples of the varietal, also held its own. It was our Token Winemaker's favorite, although he and several other tasters commented on its obvious youth and a certain grittiness to the mouthfeel that definitely isn't for everyone. "Upscale-cheap" was the phrase that came to mind, and I could imagine drinking it with a wide variety of foods. Again, if you have the patience and the space, spend the seven bucks now and give it a year to age.

Finally there was the 2004 California Petite Sirah from Guenoc ($8.19). We recently placed Guenoc's Lake County Sauvignon Blanc in the "ho-hum" category (see "California's Best Bargain?," 5/9/07), but the Petite Sirah didn't even earn that tepid label, with a strong taste of raisins and berries gone bad, and a bitter aftertaste. The Guenoc did have a few defenders, however. They praised its bold fruit and, in true Wineau spirit, called it a "good Tuesday-night wine" that improved after a few sips.

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