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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
06/01/2012
Friday Fishwrap
California’s Rhône Movement: At a Crossroads

By Stephen Eliot

California’s Rhône movement is stuck in the doldrums these days. No news in that. But as the wine markets heat up, “wither the Rhônes” is a question worth asking.

Oh, there’s plenty of chatter about Rhône varietals among writers and critics and dyed-in-the-wool devotees, but a quick glance at retailers’ shelves and wine lists tell a different tale. There are some very good wines to be had, but the wind has gone out of the sails of a once promising campaign and is not showing any signs of picking up soon.

It has become popular, however wrong-headed, to belittle the once much-ballyhooed Syrah with same condescension hitherto reserved for Merlot. Viognier had a very bright start, and there are a handful of excellent wines, but results are mixed in terms of both quality and style. Grenache has some promise, Mourvedre less so. While a few outstanding Marsannes, most notably those made from grapes grown in Napa Valley’s Stagecoach Vineyard, have emerged, the remaining hodge-podge of whites has generated but modest excitement hereabouts, and there is no rush to new plantings of any. The one “hot” grape is Petite Sirah, but it is something of an outlier and a rustic, once-removed Rhône cousin in any event.

Rhône varietals have always been a bit enigmatic here. Syrah and the whites are only a few decades arrived, and the scattered patches of older Mourvedre (Mataro), Carignane, Grenache and Cinsault vines that exist were only recently looked at as something with value beyond blending. A few locales have earned a small claim of fame, but specific style and the grail of distinctive terroir remain somewhat elusive.

Maybe it’s a natural ebb and flow, and today’s circumstance reflects what must by necessity be a lengthy process of finding the right sites and a well-practiced winemaking hand. Maybe, it is just that the abiding appetite for something new and implacable consumer attention deficit have thinned the ranks of would-be enthusiasts, but I am simply not hearing a chorus of hurrahs for the Rhône grapes these days.

We are finishing our tastings and going over our notes for our annual Rhône feature in the July issue of CGCW, and, just as they have been for the last several years, these questions are once again on my mind. They are not new, but this year they a little more pointed as word has come this week that the annual Hospice du Rhône celebration in Paso Robles has been discontinued after twenty years of seeming success.* I am sorry to hear the news.

Hospice du Rhône organizers Vicki Carroll and John Alban made the announcement and, after expressing thanks for their supporters over the years, went on to say simply that it is time for Hospice to Rhône to take a new direction focusing on smaller, more intimate settings. The reason, they have said, is not financial, but, when I hear someone say that it is not about the money, experience teaches that it more often than not is.

It has been some years since I made my way to Paso Robles for the festivities, but I had lots of fun when I did. I do confess, however, that I have at times wondered just how much the event might really have broadened the consumer base and the appreciation of Rhône varietals. It always seemed more a celebration on the part of those already in fold, preaching to the choir if you will. That choir, however, is not about to disappear. It apparently just needs to get bigger.

What, then, is the future of Rhône varietals in California? Is greatness in the offing, and, if so, when? I do not think the questions require crystal-ball speculation. There are simply too many significant bottlings available to believe that the wines will do other than both improve and grow in number. The path may be slow and it may not always be smooth, but I am confident that we have not heard the last from the folks at the Hospice du Rhône, nor have we seen the last of their often remarkable wines.

* http://www.hospicedurhone.org/news-and-press/news.php?id=125


 

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Comments

Rhone Worries
by Larry Schaffer
Posted on:6/1/2012 2:43:50 PM

Stephen,

Thanks for your post on the state of Rhones per your current tastings . . . and your musings on the challenges that continue to lay ahead for rhone varieties in this country.

As a rhone variety lover myself, I truly am excited about what I see in the marketplace. I think that there is greater awrareness of these varieties than ever before thanks to organizations like The Rhone Rangers and HdR. I'm seeing more acceptance of varieties such as Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre at both retail and restaurant accounts - albeit in regional markets.

I'm not sure how rhones will eventually play out where lower priced cabs and merlots currently take center court - and I'm not sure that really matters to most of us making rhone varieities. Sure, we want and need the market to continue to grow for our wines, but baby steps are okay instead of leaps and bounds - as long as we're progressing forward!

It is sad that HdR has decided not to continue doing their three day weekend - and I think your comments about 'preaching to the choir' are really poignant. It was a fabulous event, but it was not as if you were getting a lot of 'fringe wine drinkers' to come on down to Paso with the weekend price tag for consumers hovering around $800. It certainly was not an event for 'the masses' . . .

I will disclose that I am a Board Member for the Rhone Rangers, and I'm really excited about what we are currently doing to continue to educate consumers about domestically produced rhone varieties. We're holding our Los Angeles tasting this weekend, and it's shaping up to be the biggest one yet. We're doing our first NY tasting in November at City Winery, and it's shaping up to be a fabulous few days! And our grand tasting in SF will hopefully be the best yet!

Please do continue to cover domestic rhones and 'keep the faith' . . . and remember that you're in good company in doing so (-:

Cheers!

Larry Schaffer

tercero wines

www.tercerowines.com

Rhones
by Greg
Posted on:6/4/2012 11:21:14 AM

Hi Stephen,

I could not agree more with Larry's comments, as a young Rhone producer just releasing our first vintage. We are excited of course that there is so much more awareness now to all the Rhone varietals. Due to the hardwork and passion of winemakers that have come before me.

I believe the passion that these producers poses it what seperates them from the pak. Great times are still on the horizon and I believe new leaders will emerge, continuing to tell the story on the platform that John and others have built.

Cheers

Greg Baiocchi

www.baiocchiwines.com

Rhones Are Alive
by Laura
Posted on:6/4/2012 1:55:53 PM

Stephen,

First, I'd like to thank Larry Schaffer for his well-expressed observations. Rhones are indeed making headway with the public and we need more events, not fewer, that focus exclusively on these varieties to further educate and excite wine lovers about these truly unique wines.

To that end, Affairs of the Vine is holding its first ever Rhone-focused event, called Romancing the Rhones: A Seductive Rhone Shootout, on July 14 in San Francisco. Featuring a blind tasting of top-scoring wines from the Rhone Shootout Competition, it will also highlight some of the most notable wineries producing Rhone wines and will give consumers a chance to explore these seductive varietals in a new, fresh and affordable way.Tickets start at $45.

Wineries making Rhones who are interested in participating should call Barb Drady at Affairs of the Vine at 707-874-1975.

For info and tickets, go to affairsofthevine.com

The wines I've tasted so far in the Rhone Shootout prelim evals have been amazing - vibrant Viogniers, marvellous Marsannes, rich, heady Roussannes, gorgeous GSMs, mysterious Mourvedres, sexy Syrahs - even punchy Petite Sirahs - these Rhones Rock!

As a wine writer, I'm pretty jazzed about the future of Rhones: well-made, they have a vibrancy of soul and a warmth of personality that give them broad appeal. Plus, they are just plain fun to drink and don't require a libretto to understand their story. :-)

Laura

myvinespace.com

No Subject
by The State of Rhones
Posted on:6/6/2012 3:10:00 PM

I am surprised that you would express worries about the state of the Rhone wines of California. Last summer I discovered what the small wineries of Paso Robles are doing with these wines and while the Reds may be a little big for some people, they are much better than ever and by a substantial margin. I find relatively few of the exciting wines reviewed here. Herman Story, McPrice Myer, Linne Calodo, Prospect 772, Alta Colina, Kepplinger, Booker, Favia, Caliza, Big Basin, Denner, Epoch, Sans Liege, Torrin and several more have made some very good to great wines. We need to pay attention to these little guys a little more.

Rhones are hot, sorry
by William Allen
Posted on:6/7/2012 10:00:07 AM

Your opening and closing sentences seem a bit out of sync Charlie:

"California’s Rhône movement is stuck in the doldrums these days. No news in that. But as the wine markets heat up, “wither the Rhônes” is a question worth asking."

"What, then, is the future of Rhône varietals in California? Is greatness in the offing, and, if so, when? I do not think the questions require crystal-ball speculation. There are simply too many significant bottlings available to believe that the wines will do other than both improve and grow in number"

 

I was very sad to hear about HdR, but thats not the only Rhone focused organization. The Rhone Rangers, representing only DOMESTIC Rhones, unlike HdR's international flair, is doing very well, and between our LA and SF events, draws 2x the crowd of HdR.

Yes, like Larry I am a Rhone Ranger board member, appointed a year ago. We had record attendance at our Spring SF event, by wineries, trade, and consumers, as well as last weekends fabulous LA event. If there are 'doldrums' we aren't seeing them.

At our live Twitter tasting last week Randall Grahm noted the consumer explosion he is witnessing in Grenache.

As someone uber passionate about Rhones, I have only see quality increase, and new players continue to wade in. The days of 'poor Syrah' are behind us, and time to shoot that dead horse.

We had a balloon and a correction, and new we are back to a smaller number of producers, with cool climate Syrah (the good stuff) gaining traction and selling very well.

Rhone plantings continue to increase every year in almost every AVA. It takes time, just over a decade ago we had ZERO Grenache blanc planted, now we crush 20k tons a year and growing. And yes, still figuring out what grows best, where. The Rhone valley had hundreds of years, we are less than two decades in.

Additional disclosure, in addition to writing about Rhones, I went all in and launched my own brand, Two Shepherds, a year ago, 100% Rhones. 500 case a year production. Response has been so good have to refuse and slow down placements, to ensure wine supply for DTC stays in tact.

At our first event pouring in SF this Spring, my first time at a large event on the other side of the table, I was amazed at the consumer passion and interest. Unlike almost every other FT Mason event, attendees take notes, are knowledgable, some consumers even spit (!)...we have the occasional partier, especially near the end, but no other varietal category tasting I have attended, has the same level of passion and enthusiasm.

Rhone wines in the US are still niche, and god bless, may they never go the way of 1M case a year producers of Cab and Chard. The vast majority of the Rhone Rangers producers are small, 1-5k cases a year. You don't find our wines at Safeway, you go to specialty stores or buy direct. Quality, not quantity. That doesn't mean we are withering or being left behind.

I guess I need to get on your request list, no idea you just did a Rhone tasting or would have sent you samples.

 

Cheers and Rhone on!

 

 

Hot Rhones
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/7/2012 11:27:26 AM

Mr. Allen--

Connoisseurs' Guide has long championed Syrah and other Rhones. We devote an entire issue to Rhones every issue and also cover Syrah and Viognier at other times as well.

While I am happy to hear that your wine is selling well, adn agree with you that Rhone Rangers is a more serious gathering than some others, it is still also true that the Rhone sections at the retailers where we shop are small and not yet expanding despite what has been a continuing increase in quality at the top end and an array of very priceworthy efforts at the lower end of the price spectrum.

Your assessment that time is on the variety's side could not be better stated. It takes time for place and style to emerge at their highest, and there is no reason why our climate and soils cannot produce an increasing array of brilliant wines.

Please note, however, that the comments in the blog article, do not suggest that Syrah is failing but that it has a ways to go. Our tasting notes, in the July issue, will show that we have recommended a great many Rhone varieties with enormous enthusiam.

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