Rhone Rangers ride into Los Angeles
Paso Robles Wineries Showcased at the Tasting
–The annual California Rhone Rangers’ Los Angeles tour took place on Aug. 6 with a tasting at the hillside Skirball Cultural Center. Some 43 wineries poured over 200 wines at the afternoon event attended by 500 Rhone wine aficionados.
Paso Robles, famous as California’s Rhone Zone, was represented with 18 wineries such as Ecluse, Adelaida Cellars, Broken Earth, Sculpterra, Pomar Junction, Calcareous, Epoch Estate, Halter Ranch and Treana.
The Rhone Rangers movement was championed by Randall Graham, the legendary founder/winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Bob Lindquist, owner/winemaker of Santa Barbara County’s Qupe wine, along with a handful of friends.
“First couple of years it was very ad hoc,” recalled Graham of the late 1980s when the winemakers loosely formed the group. “We were all anarchist hippies,” said the pony-tailed Graham. “I don’t know how it got formalized,” he wondered as he poured one of the ten wines at his crowded tasting tables.
The group was a forum for like-minded Rhone varietal producers of California, noted Lindquist of the original days dedicated to exploring the Rhone wines. “How we could encourage more consumers so we did informal tastings,’ he said. Earlier tastings took place in Oakland and Berkeley area and later expanded to New York and Philadelphia.
The organization suffered a period of dormancy for a few years until it was jump started in the1990s with the effort of John McCready of Sierra Vista Vineyard and Winery. By 1997, the California Rhone Rangers organization was formally established with group of 13 winemakers, among them Robert Haas of Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek Vineyard. Currently there are 150 winery members with more than 3,000 sidekicks (consumer members).
Crafting a Rhone style wine is all about blending. In fact what launched the informal Rhone group was Graham’s legendary Le Cigare Volant, a blend of mourvedre, grenache, syrah and cinsault. So it was natural to start the event with a pre-tasting morning seminar addressing the principles of blending.
The seminar’s seven panelists included Paso Robles’ Jason Haas, co-owner of Tablas Creek Vineyard; from Santa Barbara County Santa Ynez Valley, Qupe’s Lindquist and Larry Schaffer owner/winemaker of Tercero ; and Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard in Ballard Canyon.
Other panelists were David Gates, senior vice-president of vineyard operations at Santa Cruz Mountains’ Ridge Vineyard, Kale Anderson, owner/winemaker of Kale Wines in Napa Valley; and William Allen, owner/winemaker of Two Shepherds in Windsor.
A tasting line-up of seven wines — three white blends and four reds represented the art of each winemaker’s take on blending. While Tablas Creek’s white blend was Viognier-driven supported by grenache blanc, marsanne and roussanne, both Tercero and Two Shepherds white wines were led by roussanne. “My objective is to show off roussanne,” commented Allen.
In the red blends. Kale and Larner blends were grenache-driven balanced by syrah and mourvedre while Qupe and Ridge spotlighted syrah.
And what happens to a blend that does not work? While some answers ranged from being cautious to wines not being released, Lindquist said confidently, “No, I didn’t make a blend that didn’t work.” He explained that wines not intended for release as blends were used in Qupe’s Central Coast Syrah. “We call it the kitchen sink.”
Following the seminar, the tasting in the grand hall offered Rhône blends from Napa Valley to cool regions of Mendocino County and Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. The majority of wines poured, however, came California’s Central Coast, namely Paso Robles and various appellations of Santa Barbara County’s wine region.
Most of the red wines poured were the popular GSM blends (grenache, syrah, mourvedre) some supported by counoise or cinsault. The whites blends were a medley of roussanne, marsanne and viognier. There were a handful of wineries such as Adelaida Cellars and Lone Madrone pouring picpoul blanc, now getting popular in single varietal bottling.
But nothing could top Boony Doon’s maverick 2013 Vin Gris Tuilé – brick pink wine of the sun and earth. “It’s aged for nine months in five gallon glass bottles and left out in the sun for aging,” explained Graham of the orangish/pink-hued libation. A blend of grenache, mourvedre and cinsault, the unfiltered wine with a sherry-like taste can best be appreciated by an adventurous palate as an aperitif.
Funds raised from the tasting event and silent auction benefit the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund. “We partner with the James Beard Foundation and the scholarship is awarded to a chef or a sommelier to travel and study any wine region focused on Rhone varieties.” said Barbara Smith, president of Rhone Rangers organization.
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