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Successful, But Still Homeless? The Red Rhône Varieties In California

By Stephen Eliot

I have always rooted for underdogs as long as I had the sense that there was real effort on their part -- that their struggles were not the result of simply not trying -- and I have always felt a special pleasure when their work began to pay off. There have been dark-horse surprises aplenty over the course of the last fifty years in California winemaking, and, it would, in fact, be easy to argue that California’s emergence as a producer of world-class Cabernets and Chardonnays back in the early 1970s was in itself a triumph of the underdog. Over the years, we have watched as the trajectory of local Pinot Noir climbed even as naysayers dismissed its potential hereabouts, and, even traditional varieties such as Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, long regarded by many as second-class players in the world’s French-focused vinous hierarchy, have gained deserved legitimacy and respect. I keep waiting, however, for the Rhône varieties, most notably Syrah, to gain the enduring and widespread acclaim that they warrant.

There have been times when a Rhône breakthrough has seemed imminent, and, indeed, there have been remarkable offerings that have garnered both praise and popularity, but neither has become permanent and wholesale celebrity has remained out of reach for the red Rhônes as a group.

Perhaps it is because no signature place in California has emerged as Rhône territory the way in which Napa Valley, for example, has become synonymous with great Cabernet Sauvignon and the Russian River Valley with Pinot Noir. Wherever the great examples of Syrah and its cousins been sourced, and there have been many, they were late-arrivals, newcomers that had to compete with established, highly touted varieties. Does their identity and stature depend on having a place of their own? Is the persistence of place as the key to greatness that is so grounded in Old World thinking work against their acceptance and success? Is there a subtle but invidious subtext that if a region is famous for Cabernet or Pinot, then it cannot make Syrahs and Grenaches of the first order? Any student of fine California wines, of course, knows better.

Not long ago, the Ballard Canyon AVA was established specifically with Syrah in mind and is home to some of the state’s very best. For a number of years now, Paso Robles has shown itself to be a most welcoming environment for the Rhône reds and has done much to put them on the map. The truth, of course, is that there are splendid efforts issuing from Amador, Napa Valley, Sonoma, the Santa Lucia Highlands and the whole of Santa Barbara County, but just maybe as the red Rhône varieties become associated with a few specific and widely recognized sites of their own, they will finally find the far-reaching fame that continues to be so maddeningly elusive. Time will tell.


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Syrah -- "then" and "now"
by Bob Henry
Posted on:3/10/2017 3:02:59 AM

This was "then":

From the San Francisco Chronicle

(March 6, 2011):

"As Syrah falters, make way for Grenache"


By Jon Bonné

Syrah -- "then" and "now"
by Bob Henry
Posted on:3/10/2017 3:04:20 AM

. . . and this is "now":

From Wine Enthusiast magazine

(Jan 20, 2017):

"Is California Syrah Misunderstood?"


By Virginie Boone

Misunderstood, Indeed
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/10/2017 9:49:00 AM

The misunderstanding, if it can be called that, by Mr. Bonnay, was part of a a deliberate pattern of self-aggrandisement meant to suggest that he knew the truth the and rest of us were just plain stupid.

Well, look at him now. Grenache is stalled because it just does not make great wine often enough despite its potential, and Syrah is making lots of very significant wine in a style that may not have fit Mr. Bonnay's taste but suits California right down to the ground. 

Mr. Boonay was right that Grenache does have potential here. What he missed is that we are not the southern Rhone were Grenache has a stranglehold on the wines. Wineries and growers plant what works for the wine-buying public, and Grenache so far is not it on any big-scale. Maybe in time. Hopefully in time, but not yet and not anytime soon.


Grenache is stalled . . .
by Bob Henry
Posted on:3/17/2017 1:09:59 AM


You have overlooked the appeal of Spanish Granacha in the U.S. marketplace -- eclipsing Grenache from France.  (Which is found in a Côtes-du-Rhône blend, but rarely by itself.)

~~ Bob


What Is Grenache
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/17/2017 10:05:54 AM


A very good point, but one that is lost on the world.

I sincerely doubt that the general wine-drinking public associates Grenache with much of anything despite the oceans of wine that it produces. And while Grenache is the dominant variety in the southern Rhone, albeit in blends as you have pointed out, it is not as if folks have much knowledge of Gigondas or Vacqueyras or the Spanish reds from Grenache.

That leaves the variety pretty much on its own here. I like the successful bottling of Grenache, and wish it would find a following just as I hope the same for Riesling. 

Maybe some day--probably before pigs learn to fly.


Grenache is stalled (con't)
by Bob Henry
Posted on:3/17/2017 6:16:41 PM

Speaking as a wine retailer, one California offering that has found success (with me) is Bonny Doon's Clos de Gilroy Grenache.

Consumers who enjoy the red raspberry aroma and matching flavor of Zinfandel, but find too many "heavy handed" on the fruit extraction and alcohol, embrace Grenache when sampled on the wine.  (Added bonus: you can chill it.)

And those who enjoy that same red raspberry character can find an even lighter bodied version in Bonny Doon's Vin Gris de Cigare rosé.

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