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 www.rhonerangers.org. 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.
TO BE CONTINUED...