Thursday, April 16, 2015

A League of Their Rhône Rangers--Part One

I always loved attending the Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles. It was the least snooty wine weekend I’ve ever been around. Maybe it’s something about the Rhône varieties that makes the crowd far more fun-loving and unpretentious. Cabernet Sauvignon celebrations are always the least amount of fun. It’s usually a self-righteous crowd, moneyed, and more interested in being able to brag to their friends that they’ve had the latest vintage of whatever the latest cult wine might be. Cabernet people always start their conversations with, “Have you tasted Hunchback Ridge (or whatever new Cab producer that wants $150 for their first release)? Aaron Pott makes it. It rang my bell.” Very tiresome crowd. Pinot Noir celebrations are not a million laughs either. Just like the variety, it’s a thin-skinned crowd—very sensitive and prone to bunch rot. The Pinot Noir crowd pontificates a lot more. Everyone understands Cabernet, it’s the Robert Ludlum of grapes—something to drink when you don’t want to think. But Pinot Noir, they imply, is closer to poetry, and requires prettier language, and endless explicating. And it’s much, much harder to create, they insist, than any other variety. Though the Pinot Noir crowd thinks Rod McKuen was a great poet, though he’s no Suzanne Somers. Rhône lovers tend to drink and just have fun.

Alas, the Hospice du Rhône had to fold its tent, pass its last Guigal stone, take its job and Chave it. I miss it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. I have some indelible loss of memories from that great event. I was so drunk after the dine around one year, I couldn’t find my hotel room. I was on foot, fortunately, staying at the Paso Robles Inn at the head of the town square. I knew where I was staying, but I couldn’t figure out what room I was in. It’s those fucking credit card keys they have now. There’s no room number on them. Sure, the name of the hotel is on the key, but what good is that? I know what goddam hotel I’m staying in, I need to know the room number. I tried about four different buildings—I knew I was on the second floor of one of them, in the corner room—and finally, through sheer luck and the presence of the God of Drunken Fools, I magically unlocked a door and fell into bed. Though when I woke up, the bed had transformed into a rug. Luckily, my clothes were in the bed, comfortably sleeping.

Instead of Hospice du Rhône, now there is the annual Rhône Rangers tasting. It’s a great event, sparsely attended, it seemed, especially compared to most of the 300 Pinot Noir tastings now being held, and I worry that the tasting’s days are numbered. It felt like the Trade and Media far outnumbered the paying public, which can only be frustrating for the wineries. The last couple of years, the tasting has been held in Richmond at the Craneway Pavilion. (What’s a Craneway? Oh, about fifteen pounds.) It’s a spectacular venue, an old Ford Motor Company assembly plant, I’m told, rather appropriate for the Edsel of wine tastings. The venue is airy and uncrowded, floor to ceiling windows with a view of the Bay and the City, the high ceilings keeping the noise level to the low rumble of a Mustang idling. The location might discourage the high and mighty in San Francisco from attending, but that may be a good thing. It’s one of the few tastings where I never feel crowded or jostled or deaf. If you live in the Bay Area, you should go next year. Maybe get on the mailing list at It’s well worth the price of attending, which I didn’t pay. “I’m Media, you know. People read my blog. I’m somebody. Really. I am. Please believe me.” (For those of you who don’t know, this is the Blogger’s Mantra. The attention-barking of us lonely Poodles.)

I am an unabashed fan of the Rhône varieties, white and red. And I find that the people who dedicate their wineries to these varieties are incredibly passionate. Cabernet and Pinot Noir make some of the great wines on the planet, but so does Syrah, and so does Mourvèdre, and so does Grenache. But it’s hard to get rich, or attention, making them in the United States. I often advise people that if you want to buy great wines that will be jewels in your cellar for foolishly low prices, buy great Syrah or Grenache or Mourvèdre, and stay away from Cabernet and Pinot Noir, for the most part. You can buy world-class Syrah from California or Washington or New Zealand or France for $50, maybe $75. I mean great wines, not just good wines. You cannot say that about Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, or much Pinot Noir from anywhere. This isn’t news to anyone who knows about wine. When friends and I would get together to taste older wines from our cellars, back when I had friends, many of them would bring old Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet. I would bring an old Hermitage, or an old Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Rhône wine would very often be the favorite wine of the night. You just have to get over the notion that some wines have more prestige than other wines, that Cabernet is somehow superior to Syrah. That’s nuts. That’s a notion bought and paid for by the traditionally wealthy folks who live in places like Bordeaux and Napa Valley, a notion still promulgated, with their overly generous scores, by much of the wine press, for no apparent reason. Who the hell cares about Bordeaux En Primeur prices any more? Who cares about the fundamentally insane scores given to barrel samples tasted at the Chateaux? It’s about as antiquated a tradition as there is in any profession, the equivalent of a medical convention about leeches. Leeches being a wonderful metaphor for many of the wine press attending. But I digress.

I would imagine that selling wines from the white Rhône white varieties is challenging, sort of the tofurkey of wine. (Is there toficken or tofeef?) There’s the unfamiliarity of the varieties to begin with. Most people think Roussanne was a big hit single for The Police. And Viognier was the first white Rhône variety with any measure of following in California, and the vast majority of those were lousy and turned people off to white Rhônes. Is there a harder wine to find in California than a really delicious Viognier? Maybe really good Nebbiolo, but not much else. Marsanne doesn’t show up too often, though Qupé has always made a nice version, and Picpoul Blanc is very uncommon. (Though I just had a wonderful 2014 Picpoul from Gramercy Cellars that possessed a gorgeous nose of lemon meringue and almost Gewürztraminer spiciness—get some of that if you can!) I have an inordinate fondness for Grenache Blanc, especially those that have a sort of lime zest and mandarin orange character. Love those. I thought some of the most interesting wines at the Rhône Rangers tasting were the white wines.

I guess this is where I should mention my usual disclaimer. Big public tastings are the worst places to evaluate and rate wine. I spent far too much time at the tasting chatting distractedly with friends (so many folks wanted to talk about my “Dear Jon” post that I was getting embarrassed and anxious), and not enough time tasting in a focused fashion. So I undoubtedly missed a lot of terrific wines. And I undoubtedly misjudged some that I tasted. But the wines I’ll mention were able to crash through all of that noise and capture my attention. Something, I’m not sure what, to be said for that.

Do I even have to mention how good the Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc is? What a beautiful blend of Roussanne (75%), Grenache Blanc (20%) and Picpoul Blanc. This might be the most interesting white wine in the state. One day I’d like to have an older version because I suspect that they will age splendidly. The ’12 is delicous, with pineapple and ginger, a Key lime brightness, and a very lush and appealing texture. This wine is never a surprise, but is instead a touchstone of white Rhône wines in California. I often taste at Tablas Creek first or second at a Rhône Rangers tasting in order to calibrate my rusty Rhône palate. They set the bar, I think, and particularly with their whites. Their 2013 Grenache Blanc is also a classic, with a quince and lime blossom nose, and great energy. Tablas Creek must make its famous parent, Chateau de Beaucastel, proud.

Many years ago, I attended a tasting of Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape at some ritzy Beverly Hills hotel. Upon arrival, they served us their rare and remarkable Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes.” I don’t remember the vintage, though 1990 seems about right, but it was the first time the Roussanne had been shown in the United States. We were there to taste the Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, which had received its usual gigantic Parker score, but all anyone could talk about was the Roussanne. We all wanted to buy it for our wine lists, but we were told they had only imported a tiny bit for their tastings. They weren’t sure the Roussanne would sell in the US. We strongly insisted otherwise. That first taste of their Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes” was one of my wine Ah-Ha moments. I’ll never forget it. It has become an expensive bottle, but if you ever have the chance, you should certainly buy a bottle and taste it. One of my favorite white wines on the planet.

There were two Roussannes at this year’s tasting that I liked (though, of course, the aforementioned Esprit de Tablas Blanc is mostly Roussanne). I didn’t see much Roussanne at the Rhône Rangers this year, which is too bad, but probably linked to how difficult it is to grow, and how shy yielding the variety is. Hard to grow, hard to sell, not the greatest combination. Sort of like, hey, he’s not very good-looking, but at least he’s poor. Which explains my unpopularity. I loved the Roussanne that Lagier-Meredith makes with Aaron Pott under their Chester’s Anvil label. It’s the Chester’s Anvil 2012 Gretna Green, a wine largely Roussanne with a bit of Viognier. And the only thing I understand about the name is the “2012.” If your Gretna is Green, it could be about to fall off, and you don’t want that. And, if I’m not mistaken, Chester’s Anvil is right next to Chester’s Stirrup, so ‘ear’s looking at ya. Anyhow, I found this Roussanne to be lovely, a great example of the variety, with honey and tree fruit aromatics and a weighty texture. Just delicious. Nice bottle for $30. I also have a fondness for Bill Easton’s Terre Rouge Roussanne—the 2011 was what he served this year. It’s more classic white Rhône than the Chester’s Anvil, that same honeyed aroma, but with more quince and apricot, and built like a brawny white Hermitage. And $25? Man, that’s a great deal. Bill Easton seems to have a consistently nice touch with Roussanne.

Viognier is like an orgasm—I can’t wait for the next one, but only once in a while is it really satisfying. But, really, it’s Viognier that launched the Rhône Ranger movement in California back when Mat Garretson and John Alban started crusading for the then little-known variety. It wasn’t that long ago, back in the ‘80s, Viognier was confined to Condrieu, with a few hectares in Côte-Rôtie. When Mat and John began stumping for the grape, their first few releases were all the buzz in the biz. Viognier started turning up everywhere, but few winemakers seemed to understand the variety at all. That initial excitement seems to have faded—it is white wine, after all, and it’s the rare serious wine dweeb who spends much time thinking about great white wines for his cellar. White wines are passing fancies, the one-night stand of wine lust, but, hey, an orgasm is still an orgasm, great or not.

The best Viognier I tasted this time around was Ranchero Cellars 2013 La Vista Vineyard. Now this is gorgeous Viognier. One measure of Viognier for me is how much I want to smell it, how often I want to stick my nose in the glass and inhale deeply. I stuck my nose in this glass like it was other people’s business. It has a glorious perfume of apricot, honey, pear, and quince. Great foreplay for the taste. The Ranchero Cellars Viognier even gets the texture right, that wee bit of oiliness but tempered by vibrant acidity. I loved this Viognier. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted Alban’s Viognier, one of the touchstones of California Viognier, but this will do nicely. You want to smoke a cigarette when you’re finished. Or, being a guy, fall asleep.



Nigel said...

I'm a big fan of Viognier, too. It's my go-to wine for roast pork. I've heard that it is very difficult to grow and make wine from, and if so it's a wonder that there are so many coming along to choose from. Good prices too! It's also a difficult wine to pronounce and I'm still not convinced even the French pronounce it correctly.

I'm from the UK and so am happy to pass this along to you: Gretna Green is a place in Scotland to which star-crossed lovers would elope, without permission from their parents, to get married. The "ceremony" supposedly was conducted by the village blacksmith over his anvil. I didn't know that he was called Chester, which is not your typical Scots' name...

Unknown said...

I am a huge fan of Rhone wines as well, partly because there are a ton of very good ones for under $20, plus you can go to the top with CDP and Gigondas as well.

WineKnurd said...

Viognier is like a Hosemaster post. When its good its fruity and playful; when its bad it doesn't take no for an answer.

Pam Strayer said...

Thanks for lighting a lamp over the Rhone gang and their incredibly great wines (and price points). Although I like the reds best, you've inspired me to Pay More Attention to the I'll be opening a bottle of that Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc tonight...

Charlie Olken said...

"To be continued" .......

Three of the more famous wine words from a generation now gone.

"Take its job and Chave it" may have been too obvious but its place in the litany of Hospice du Rhone's folded tent worked anyhow.

Too bad about the stagnant state of Rhone varieties because so many can be very good. I am halfway with you on Gren Blanc--far more sour lemons than sweet lime and mandarin orange but a variety that could find a home if not made as a fullout ripeness monster.

Syrah has many problems in California, not the least of which is that too much of it is planted in the wrong places. And I always wince when I see top Syrahs selling for $75. There are plenty of great Pinot for that price and less, and it hurts Syrah when one has to choose between the top Syrahs and the top Pinots for the same price.

Well, at least it has you for a fan so if your blog ever gets popular ( :-] ), Syrah might as well.

tercero wines said...

It was a pleasure - and always a bit scary - to have you standing in front of me at ANY tasting, my friend! :-)

I'm glad that you enjoyed the annual Rhone Rangers tasting. I will agree with all of your sentiments - the venue is spectacular; the noise level was quite low for a 'major' tasting; those across the Bay SHOULD make it over . . .

And I would agree that the whites on display at this event just keep getting better and better. It's certainly a key reason as to why I make the wines that I do. I dig Roussanne as well, and one of my 'epiphany' moments was a tasting at HdR called 'Blinded by the Whites' - simply spectacular to see how this variety ages and what it brings to the table.

I also share your sentiments about domestic viogniers in general - this grape grows well whereever it is planted, and most winemakers dig making that fat, flabby, viscous, sometimes sweet version that, to me, needs to be served ultra cold to go with any food whatsoever. The challenge is to go the other way - yt still retain those beautiful floral and stone fruit aromas the grape possesses.

I will say that I was certainly surrounded at the table by greatness - with Tablas on one side of me and Terre Rouge on the other. Two 'clasic' producers who continue to make 'their greatest' wines year in and year out!

Keep up the great work, my friend - and hopefully I won't be as 'scared' the next time you are standing in front of me :-)


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks for the Gretna Green insight. It's far more interesting coming from you than from an Intergnats search. The symbolism of an anvil being part of a marriage is interesting. Gotta love that. I'll have to ask Carol Meredith who the hell Chester is.

I've always loved the wines from the Rhône Valley, and that love has never wavered. So it can be disappointing tasting versions from California, but the folks who get it, really seem to get it. Which is not to say that California should emulate the Rhône producers, they can't. But they should emulate their Rhône counterparts' understanding of the varieties.

Too much Viognier is like a HoseMaster post. Simple and easy to ignore.

I think the best of the CA Rhône whites are very compelling. And what attending a tasting like the Rhône Rangers provides is a chance to find out whose wines are worth buying--I'd buy just about any whites from Skinner, Terre Rouge, Tablas Creek, and, well, many, maybe not all, of Larry's Tercero wines (there were a LOT). Let me know how you like the Esprit de Tablas Blanc. And thanks for being a more regular common tater. I'm very flattered.

Syrah will get popular long before my blog does. So, never.

I do think great Grenache Blanc is a rare bird, but I want to encourage folks to grow it, and hope a few figure it out. Proper balance does seem to be its problem, but proper ripeness also plagues Grenache Noir producers, so it must be a family trait.

The second installment will be about the reds. You taste far more than I do, so I'll look forward to your comments. Syrah does have a lot of problems in CA, but so does Pinot Noir and so does Merlot and so does almighty Cabernet. It's just as distinguished a grape, but takes far more flack and is always underappreciated. So I identify with it...

Thanks for chiming in. No one is actually afraid of me. I'm no Jon Bonné.

What I remember about tasting with you was the blowhard standing next to me who talked incessantly and yet had nothing to say. He wore me out. I thought a lot of your wines were damned good, and a few will come up in Part Two. I neglected to mention that I very much liked your 2013 "Verbiage" Blanc. Roussanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc, right? Fantastic wine, a bit reminiscent of the Tablas Blanc, at least texturally. Really good. I may have to amend my text to include it. Sorry I missed it the first time through.

Unknown said...

Wow, thanks for another entertaining post Hosemaster. I enjoy your stories from past HdR events and commentary about various other wine trends as much as I do the ramblings about the RR tasting. Too bad the event isn't well attended, the wines are beautiful. Couldn't agree more about the Tablas and Amy's Ranchero Cellars Viognier. It's one of my favorite white's in Paso (or the state). Looking forward to part deux. Cheers,
(the other) Joel

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks. I only wish I'd been able to taste at more wineries. I highlight my favorite wines, but I'm certain there were many great wines I didn't get around to. Luckily, the HoseMaster doesn't have any clout, so it only matters to me.

I confess, when I see you're a common tater, I always think of the Other Joel Peterson. Wait. You're the Other Joel Peterson. So who is the Other Joel Peterson? OK, now I'm confused.

I'm not the Other HoseMaster.

Unknown said...

Like what you wrote about Viognier, too often they can be cloying, fruit bombs, but when a grower gets the acidity right its so nice on a hot summer day..

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Of all the major white Rhone varieties, I think Viognier is my least favorite. Amy's example from Ranchero Cellars is terrific, pure and expressive. I'll have to ask her the secret, aside from the vineyard. Otherwise, well, since I can't drink older Chateau Grillet or Condrieu, I pretty much ignore Viognier. Except at Rhone Rangers. Where I live to regret it.

Bob Henry said...

As I recall, Robert Parker's all-time favorite red wine is . . . drum roll, puh-leeze . . . 1978 E. Guigal Côte Rôtie La Mouline.

Not a red Bordeaux.

Not a Napa Valley Cab.

A Rhone.

Bob Henry said...

Quoting from The Wall Street Journal (Nov 9, 2012) "On Wine" column from Hoser's BFF Lettie Teague titled "Drinking With Robert M. Parker Jr."



The greatest wine he has ever tasted: 1978 Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline.
The best Châteauneuf-du-Pape vintage: Either 2007 or 2010 -- "we will have to wait six to eight years to tell."

Bob Henry said...

I thought Hoser was pulling a delayed April Fool's Day prank when he wrote:

"You can buy world-class Syrah from California or Washington or New Zealand or France . . ."

Say what -- Syrah from New Zealand?

Were Hoser's synapses misfiring -- thinking one island nation (Australia and its Shiraz) but typing another (New Zealand and its Syrah) by mistake?

Curiosity got the better of me, and I Googled the subject.

Damn. Who'd of thunk it?

"Wine: Syrah Grape Causing Stir in New Zealand"


(With a nice attribution to Tim Atkin MW.)

Digging a little deeper, from Tim himself in the pages of Decanter:

"Tim Atkin MW on New Zealand Syrah"


Learn something new every day . . .

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Parker has always been an Advocate for the Rhone Valley, and, unlike many other regions he reviews, I tend to agree with his assessment of Rhone wines. Though he likes the Guigal La-La's more than I do.

I've had a bunch of terrific, even dramatic, Syrahs from New Zealand. But, as ever, it's Pinot Noir that gets all the attention.

Unknown said...

Bob, the last time I was in New Zealand, about five years ago, I was really impressed with the trajectory of Syrah. I had visited a couple of times before in the mid-2000s and there were only a couple of players in the Syrah game. I always thought the Syrahs coming from Hawkes Bay were more consistent and higher quality than the more acclaimed Bordeaux varieties. Te Mata's Bullnose Syrah is my favorite from this region, though Esk Valley and Craggy Range do a nice job as well. I'm looking forward to seeing how the variety does in the South Island, especially Seresin's version.

Bob Henry said...

For San Francisco Bay Area wine industry professionals, your ship has come in.

This morning I received a notice that the New Zealand Winegrowers are hosted a trade tasting:

Monday, April 27th from 1-4 PM
Fort Mason Conference Center
Landmark Building A
Marina Blvd and Buchanan Street
San Francisco, CA 94123


Quoting from today's e-mail invite:

"Taste a comprehensive selection from the 2014 vintage as well as aged whites and reds. Meet the winemakers and representatives, and make this your opportunity to discover New Zealand in a glass.

"A seminar on Sauvignon Blanc will also be held at 11:30am - 12:30pm featuring a special selection of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Please email your expression of interest in attending this seminar to (spaces are limited)."

David Strada, based in The City, is the marketing director for New Zealand Winegrowers in the U.S.

(I always attend their So. Cal. events -- so I envy my Bay Area counterparts for next Monday's gathering of the wine tribe.)