I first met Steve and Brian at the 2016 Rhone Rangers event in SF. After tasting a few of their Rhone-specific varietals (namely their Grenache Blanc, rosé of GSM, and GSM Rhone-style blend), I was immediately in awe with what these boys could do. What was more amazing to me was, while most other participants either hailed from California’s known “Rhone region” of Paso Robles or were large wineries — both in name and production quantity — with direct connections to the French Rhone roots, these two guys are situated in their own little nook in the heart of the Russian River Valley.

Crux Winery owners Brian Callahan and Steven Gower

In fact, the name and Crux Winery logo both pay homage to the land where they harvest their grapes. On a recent visit, Brian and Steve told me that, once upon a time, this funny little area that’s not quite in the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley or Chalk Hill, but falls in the center of this quasi-triangular geography was called “the Crucible.” And since Brian and Steve create wine from the fruit that’s right at the nexus — or the crux — of it all, well, you get it.

Close up of Crux Winery logo
Close up of Crux Winery logo

The thing about this area that’s not quite one region or the other is that it has it’s own unique microclimate. It’s not the cool and foggy atmosphere of the RRV that’s so perfect for the traditional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Nor does it have the warmth of either Chalk Hill or the Alexander Valley with it’s climbing hills warmed by the sun that produce big, bold Bordeaux varieties. It’s kind of the “Goldilocks” of an AVA: it’s not too cold, not too hot, but is “just right” for creating Syrah’s, Grenache’s, Petite Sirah — in other words, Rhone varieties.

Crux Winery Exterior

A visit to Crux Winery is definitely “warehouse chic.” You’ll be tasting these Rhone-style wines surrounded by barrels filled with fermenting wine. But the boys create a nice setup, balancing a wood plank across unused barrels as a service bar, displaying a full line-up of their current releases (a few of which are adorned with recent award-winning medals), and even have a few Crux Winery swag items off to the side. It’s everything you’d expect to see in a tasting room — with a much more down-to-earth, relaxed, and friendly vibe.

And because Brian and Steve are the only employees, they’ll be your combination tour guides, hosts, and educators. No question is too broad or too specific, they’re happy to geek out with the best of us wine-nerds, but also don’t mind elaborating on the basics for those who may need more of a wine 101. Either way, you’re talking to the guys who work the vineyards, harvest the grapes, blend the wine, and drink their own juice. The authenticity is real.

Tastings with Brian and Steve are by appointment only, and, as they are a small lot winery, producing just about 1500 cases annually, each tasting will be unique to what’s currently available. On a recent visit, I tasted through a full line up of their 7 current releases as well as a vertical lineup of Zinfandels from 2010 through 2014.

So what to try? (Click on the name to see the full tasting notes and review of each wine. Links will become live as reviews are posted)

  • 2014 Alexander Valley Viognier – Blended with just a smidge of Grenache blanc, this typically light and fruity white wine has a bit more body than expected, with a soft mouthfeel that calms the typically over-endulgent fruit-forwardness associated with the varietal.
  • 2015 Rosé of GSM – Made in the saignée, this rosé has an enhanced red wine quality that enhances the floral bouquet on the nose, diminishes any fruity-sweetness on the palate, and creates a well-balanced salmon-pink wine that could pair with a light fish dish or a hearty steak just as well.
  • 2011 Zinfandel – An example of a great wine that came out of a year of bad weather. This Zinfandel just sings of fresh fruit and goes down just as cool as the rain in 2011.
  • 2013 GSM Red Blend – It’d be a mistake not to try this classic Rhone blend when tasting from these Russian River Rhone Rangers. They do the classic style justice with a full bodied red wine that’s aromatic on the nose and smooth on the palate from start to finish. Each vintage will be different, with the exact percentages of G, S, and M varying depending on the climate and grape growth, but rest assured that Brian and Steve conduct blending trials and taste-tests until balance is achieved. The 2013 is a testament to that dedication to detail.
  • 2014 Mourvèdre  – A rare sighting of a single varietal Mourvèdre and Crux has executed it perfectly. Steve calls it “a hard varietal” to describe — go ahead and read my attempt.

Each bottle tasted showcases such refinement and restraint in the winemaking process that, if tasting blind, you’d think these guys were old-school wine veterans. Granted, some of the heftier wines like the 2014 Zinfandel with its musky overtones or the 2013 Petite Sirah with its dry, tannic finish would benefit from a bit of shelf life — the fact that they’re making wines that can either age or be enjoyed now shows a level of expertise that one can only admire. And if they’re producing wine of this caliber after only officially being in the business since 2012, I can’t wait to see what the future will hold for Crux Winery wines.

For more information about Crux Winery, their wines, and to schedule a visit with Brian and Steve, please do visit the Crux Winery website.

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