Rhône Rangers Ride Into Town

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This guest post comes to us from Mira Advani Honeycutt, author of California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. She frequently contributes wine and travel pieces to the Good Food Blog.

Shepherds Winery's Rhône wines from Sonoma's Russian River appellation
Two Shepherds Winery’s Rhône wines from Sonoma’s Russian River appellation (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“They let you plant Syrah in Russian River?” I joked to William Allen, who produces Rhône varietal wines in that part of Sonoma County, renowned for its Pinot Noir.

I met Allen of Two Shepherds Winery at the recent Rhône Rangers tasting staged at the ethereal Vibiana (formerly the Catholic diocese’s cathedral church) in downtown Los Angeles. While the Central Coast, from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, is known as Rhône territory, I was delighted to discover more than a dozen labels from Napa, Sonoma and Lodi among 50 some Rhône producers at the tasting.

Allen’s approach to his small production (600 cases annually) is minimalist and old-world. Produced in Sonoma’s cool climate, these wines are well-balanced and lighter in hue than most Rhône style wines. The 2011 Grenache was laced with strawberry flavor aromatics. Allen calls it a Grenache for Pinot lovers.

Passionate about Rhône-style grapes, a group of maverick California winemakers began to experiment in 1997 with these varietals. They wanted to make something other than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Thirteen wineries established the original Rhône Rangers organization. Today, membership includes nearly 200 wineries from California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Michigan and Virginia.

Tablas Creek’s Jason Haas had the busiest table at the tasting.

I stopped by their tasting to visit the usual suspects from the Central Coast – Anglim, Steinbeck, Silver, Stolpman, Clautiere, Ecluse and Andrew Murray – but I was also on the lookout for Napa and Sonoma labels.

At the Santa Rosa-based Donelan Family Wines table, Tripp Donelan poured 2010 Cuvee Moriah, a Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre blend, and explained that the fruit is sourced from various appellations such as Sonoma Coast, Russian River and Bennett Valley.

We tasted two well-structured Syrahs from 2010 vintage. The Cuvee Christine showed peppery notes and the Walker Vine Hill Vineyard was lush with blueberry flavor. Besides the Rhône varietals, Donelan Family Wines also produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Others from Northern California included Cornerstone Cellars, Kale Wines, Mira Winery, Meyer Family Cellars, Petrichor Vineyards, Kieran Robinson Wines and Mounts Family Winery.

Earlier in the day, a rare wines seminar brought together six vintners, each showcasing a single varietal bottling of grapes that usually go in blending. The three whites included the Jaffurs Wine Cellars 2011 Grenache Blanc (Thompson Vineyard), the Qupe 2012 Marsanne (Santa Barbara County), and the Stolpman Vineyards 2010 (Roussane L’Avion).

All three whites were distinctive. Craig Jaffurs described the citrusy yet creamy notes of Grenache Blanc as not as floral as a Viognier, but quite delicate.

Ethan Lindquist pointed out the peachy, hazel-nutty qualities of this varietal. Lindquist’s father Bob pretty much put Marsanne on the map when he planted it twenty-six years ago.

Pete Stolpman walked us through the tasting of the delicious Roussanne, which tasted like liquid gold and betrayed a Sauternes-like texture (although without any sweetness).

Bottles from the rare wines tasting
Bottles from the rare wines tasting (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the red lineup, Jason Haas introduced his 2010 Counoise from Tablas Creek (Paso Robles). This varietal is not known for tannins or structure and its spice and earth notes are much like Beaujolais.

“Drink it slightly chilled, and early,” advised Haas.

A 2011 Carignane came from Ridge Vineyards’ Alexander Valley vineyards (Sonoma). This rustic wine is known for tannins and astringency and pairs well with bistro fare and gamey meats, said the winery’s David Gates.

Dave Phillips of Lodi’s Michael-David Winery talked about the 2011 Ancient Vine Cinsault. His great, great grandparents homesteaded in Lodi in 1860 and the earliest Cinsault vineyard was planted there in 1865.

The wine had raspberry and cranberry aromas with a balanced acidity. Phillips suggested putting a little chill on this wine, too. I am tempted to make it my “go-to” red this summer.