America’s Rhône makers come together as Rangers
Rhône Rangers celebrate twenty years of alliance
Since the movement has matured, writing about latitudes and sunshine was easier than trying to draw a circumference around the story of Rhône in California. It was like parsing a short story to decipher how the skilled author slipped small bits of information seamlessly to move the narrative along.
The Hospice du Rhône and the Rhône Rangers have carved a place for themselves. Indeed, this year the Rhône Rangers observes its twentieth year as a nonprofit that brings together vignerons from several states in the U.S. to celebrate their love of Rhône wines. But looking back all those years to plot the points that created the larger story, I realized that the isolated events that venerated Rhône in the early 1980s must have seemed like little more than expressions of young enthusiasm.
In addition to speaking to several people, I read Patrick J. Comiskey’s extremely well-written book American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink. Going through it gave me the feeling of déjà vu: The Silicon Valley story of enthusiasts cooking up an idea in a garage. (It makes me feel great that it supports a motif of wine and tech that I often employ, albeit in a different way.)
For this blogazine, I will focus on the Rhône Rangers, as it is the all-American, membership organization. Hospice du Rhône, which runs an international event every other year, grew out of some revolutionary plantings of the Viognier grape in the U.S. This is the predominant white grape in the Northern Rhône.
Before Rhône Rangers was a concept, a few winemakers were planting Rhône varietals. In an interview, Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery told me his long history with Syrah, the grape that produces all red wine in the Northern Rhône. He hired Matt Garretson, who after drinking Condrieu in Georgia, started growing Viognier. By the mid-1980, Eberle was making Viognier, Counois, and Syrah, which he does to this day. Eberle said that the majority of wineries in the Central Coast make some Rhône wine, a testament to its popularity. The Rhône pantheon consists of twenty-seven grapes, according to Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible.
Up the state from the Central Coast were other revolutionaries, such as Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery and Joseph Phelps, who experimented with both Northern and Southern Rhône varietals. Even so, says Comiskey, in 1987, there were fewer than two dozen winegrowers who produced Rhône-style wines.
They were a scattered bunch doing their own thing, until in December 1987 they decided to meet to taste what all of them had been creating. After the dinner, they put out a press release: One journalist responded.
Every Artist’s Dream.
The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker. That was before he became Robert Parker. He had been studying Rhône, a sort of step-sibling to Bordeaux and Burgundy, with enthusiasm. More importantly, he believed that the California climate would lend itself well to making great Rhône wine.
Although the nonprofit Rhône Rangers was formed in 1998, the name didn’t stick until the Wine Spectator in its April Fool’s edition in 1989 put a picture of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery on the cover. The caption referred to him as the Rhône Ranger.
(Note to those who, like me, think all the verbiage the WS uses to describe wine is an expression of priesthood. In the beginning, Comiskey tells us, they were opposed to the snobbery that the world of wine presented. I guess we all start out determined not to distinguish ourselves by our fancy language. But then life propels us forward. Maybe when I can decipher the different varietals in a blend or distinguish the aromas that now escape me, I will be eager to enter the hallowed halls of the Brahmins – to use a word for priests from my own culture.)
This piece is already quite long and I still want to write about my interview with Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Winery, the winery in Paso Robles that embodies the alliance of California Rhône with Chateau de Beaucastel its counterpart in France.
Stay tuned for subsequent posts…
Photo credit: Yours truly.