This past weekend I had the pleasure—nay, the honor—of moderating the featured tasting and seminar at the 2022 Rhone Rangers Experience. It was a special event for several reasons. Top of most people’s minds is the fact that this annual tradition had to take the obligatory COVID-pause. So, of course, it was wonderful to see friends and colleagues from across the US gather together and, yes, even hug.
For me, the opportunity to participate goes a bit deeper. The Rhone Rangers was one of (if not the) first event I’d ever attended in a pseudo-professional capacity. Back in those days, I was but a newbie freelancer writing for just a few small outlets, and pretty much just getting paid in wine samples and event tickets. And so it was, the lovely Girls on Food blog ‘hired’ me to attend the SF Rhone Rangers event, complete with VIP tickets for the seminar and media-only portion of the walk-around tasting. (I wish I could find the link to the original article…)
Green as I was to the wine-scene, little did I know the characters I was meeting—Randall Grahm, Bob Lindquist, Neil Collin and Jason Haas—were ‘celebrities’ of wine history. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t, because they each became wonderful acquaintances and, in the case of Randall and Jason, I do in fact consider them friends. It also allowed me to make quick friends with smaller producers, like Larry Schaffer (tercero wines) and of course the boys over at Crux and eventually others, like Bob and Maggie Tillman over at Alta Colina.
Whether big name or small producer, the Rhone Rangers—these boots-on-the-ground, passionate producers of wine—have always welcomed me with open arms, a generous attitude, and have been critical in my pursuing my wine passion.
Anyway, my point is that it is nice that my Rhone Rangers Experience has, in effect, come full circle. The shy blogger girl who once was, returned as an experienced wine industry reporter, journalist, and editor—just as open and eager to learn from these exciting, innovative winemakers.
The Rhone Rangers Experience seminar and tasting walks participants through stand-out wines, each of which exemplifies key categories in Rhone-style wine production: Clairette Blanche, Viognier, White Rhone Blend, Rosé, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Red Rhone Blend.
As many of you know—particularly if you follow me and my writing—Rhone varieties and Rhone-style winemaking has deep roots in California history. But truly, these wines are finding and even stronger foothold in our modern culture, a modern culture that is looking for new, interesting, “alternative” wines.
And this is what is offered—particularly with the experimentations from those involved in the Rhone Rangers movement: Be it single-varietal expressions of, what Rhone tradition dictates, is a common blender; the blends themselves—allowing varieties outside of Syrah and Grenache to take the lead; and of course the conscientious, environmentally-aware farming methods and low-intervention winemaking techniques employed by many of the winemakers involved.
Here there is so much experimentation that makes the Rhone Rangers movement one of the most dynamic facets of American wine today.
The panel involved nine talented California Rhone producers (pictured above): Larry Schaffer from Tercero Wines, Michelle Shafrir of Miner Family Wines, Jason Haas—Tablas Creek, Bob Tillman—proprietor of Alta Colina, Daniel Callan from Thacher, Bob Lindquist, Damien Grindley—Brecon Estate, Stephen Searle of Jaffurs, and Jason Joyce of Calcareous Vineyards.
WINE 1: Tercero Wines – 2020 Clairette Blanche $33 (Larry Schaffer, Proprietor)
Clairette Blanche, I would say, is quite an over-looked variety. Typically considered a “blender varietal,” used to add freshness and acidity to white blends. But when I asked Larry about his single varietal expression, he commented that, not unlike Chardonnay, Clairette Blanche is considered a “winemaker’s grape.” It can create great wines when picked early (for that light, crisp expression), not so early (producing fuller, rounder wines), or even as a late harvest. It all depends on what one is trying to achieve.
2020 was the first year Larry worked with the grape, and he notes that he was particularly attracted to it because, when picked early (which Larry did in order to create a light white that carried some tension) it still shows off its distinct characteristics—aromas of pineapple, key lime, mint; the palate teetering on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass.
WINE 2: Viognier: Miner Family Wines – 2019 Viognier $25 (Michelle Shafrir, Assistant Winemaker)
Most commonly associated with Condrieu in the Norther Rhone, Viognier is renowned for its aromatic profile—white flowers and ripe stone fruits. As in the Rhone, Michelle comments that Paso Robles receives the ample sunshine needed to develop the deep aromatic intensity one expects from the grape. But, she also notes, because of Viognier’s tendency to lose acidity quickly, her team works closely with their vineyard sources to ensure that acidity is maintained, balancing that warmer, rounder flavor profile.
I particularly love the way Michelle describes where her Viognier is positioned in terms of target consumers: appealing to those who don’t like the herbaceousness or extremely high acidic profile of Sauvignon Blanc nor—on the other side of the spectrum—the overly oaky/butter Chardonnays. Indeed, Viognier seems to sit right in the center and offer a balance both in terms of taste and texture. She also comments that it’s one of the wines within their kegging program, which is an awesome option for restaurants serving it in their by the glass program.
WINE 3: White Rhone blends: Tablas Creek Vineyard – 2020 Cotes de Tablas Blanc $30 (Jason Haas, Proprietor)
A blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne—Jason notes that the base of this blend is always the Viognier. After assessing both the structural and flavor profile of the Viognier, the team will then decide what the right blending components are—Grenache Blanc for acid, Roussanne for body, Marsanne for minerality. With the 2020 vintage being quite a warm one, Tablas leaned into the fresh acidity of Grenache Blanc, having almost equal parts of Viognier (38%) and Grenache Blanc (32%).
While the composition is similar to white blends of the Southern Rhone, Jason also comments that it is the brightness of the wine, achieved due to Paso Robles significantly cooler nights compared to the Rhone valley combined with the signature limestone soils, that make this wine “uniquely Paso.”
Of note, Tablas Creek is Demeter Certified Biodynamic and has achieved the Gold Standard of Regenerative Organic Certification through the Regenerative Organic Alliance. The grapes for the blend—as with much of Tablas Creek’s wines—were picked early in order to keep the ABV low. The wine saw no new oak, underwent all native yeast fermentation and natural malolactic conversion.
Jason’s Tasting Notes: “I tend to talk about its texture just as much as I do its flavors. Stone fruit and white flowers, sure, but also a kind of creamy richness with a little pithy bite that helps maintain order. It’s all done in stainless steel, so there’s no oak, but we do let it go through malolactic to help achieve that textural character. It would love to be paired with just about any fresh seafood, but something cooked with garlic and olive oil will sing. Mussels marinieres is my favorite-ever pairing for this wine.”
WINE 4: Dry rosé: Alta Colina – 2021 Grenache Rosé $35 (Bob Tillman, Proprietor)
When asked what makes this wine “uniquely Paso,” Bob’s quick answer—18 years of blood, sweat, and tears in Paso.
And, indeed, this does seem to be the case with this wine because, when asked what it was about the grape growing at Alta Colina that helps produce the resulting wine, the answer was not vineyard management techniques (canopy management, fruit load, etc.) but being able to identify the ideal growing location for each variety within his estate—through years of trial and error. [So, basically, 18 years of blood, sweat, and tears.]
The combination of that perfect location with specific clonal selection produces the crisp, clean rosé that also has a good weight, body, and almost creamy texture on the tongue.
Bob also notes that Alta Colina has been consistently growing their rosé production about 50% for several years, and still sell out by mid-June.
WINE 5: Unique Reds: Thacher Winery – 2020 Cinsault $40 (Daniel Callan, Assistant Winemaker)
Daniel describes Cinsault absolutely perfectly, so I’m going to quote him: “Cinsault is quite possibly California’s greatest wine grape. It is a reliable, generous bearer. It is heat and drought resistant, and loves a dry climate. It always produces wines of moderate alcohol, no matter how late into the season you hang the fruit (alcohol at Thacher has never topped 13.5%) and produces intensely fragranced wine.”
That said, Daniel also comments that even though it’s a lower ABV, fragrant red wine, it “often beats up on the heavier ones.”
The whole cluster expression presented at the event was alive and vibrant with fresh, ripe red fruit flavors that were almost candy-like in nature. Indeed, this one seemed to divide the crowd.
WINE 6: Grenache: Lindquist Family Wines – 2019 Grenache $40 (Bob Lindquist, Proprietor)
Hailing from the Edna Valley AVA, Bob Lindquist’s 2019 Grenache is a cooler climate expression than those coming from the classic Southern Rhone region. As such, the resulting wine is more delicate, elegant, with bright red fruit characteristics, a stony minerality, and a low(er) 13.5% ABV.
Of note, the vineyard is Demeter Certified Biodynamic, which Bob says helps elevate the aromas and sense of place. And when I first met him several years ago at a Biodynamic conference, I straight up asked him: Does Biodynamically farmed grapes produce better wines. His answer was a short and simple, ‘Yes.’
WINE 7: Mourvedre: Brecon Estate – 2019 Mourvedre $72 (Damian Grindley, Proprietor)
Damian comments that because Paso Robles has so many microclimates, what are typically considered blenders in other wine regions can be truly world class here. This is particularly true of Mourvedre which has been around for some time but only just finding its true home in Paso Robles. However, because of Paso’s range of microclimates and diverse topography, there are also a wide range of styles.
Damian describes his Mourvedre as more fruit forward and concentrated. I’ll add that the tannic structure—mature, fine-grained, with just enough grip to make its presence known without the drying affect that distracts or detract—was a stand-out characteristic for me. For those of you afraid of Mourvedre because of some of the monsters coming out of Bandol, I highly recommend trying a single varietal expression coming out of Paso Robles.
[As a side note, I was also able to taste Larry Schaffer’s single-varietal Mourvedre—even friendlier!]
WINE 8: Syrah: Jaffurs Wine Cellars – 2018 Syrah $50 (Stephen Searle, Winemaker)
Stephen comments that Jaffurs built its brand on Syrah, calling it their specific niche in the market. While they practice the traditional Cote Rotie technique of co-fermenting a small percentage of Viognier with the Syrah, Stephen attributes the vineyard soil profile that gives his wines a New World edge. Hailing from the Ballard Canyon AVA in Santa Barbara County, the sandy texture is unique to the area and what Stephen calls the driver of the wine’s profile—fresh fruit aromas of blueberry, currant and bramble, balanced with a gravelly minerality, savory tannins, and a healthy line of acidity.
WINE 9: Red Rhone blends: Calcareous Vineyard – 2019 Tres Violet $60 (Jason Joyce, Winemaker)
A blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah, Jason calls his take on a GSM “a more elegant expression of Paso Robles brutalism.” He comments that he attempts to make wines without any specific influence or thought of the Old World Rhone style, instead focusing—as all pane winemakers have—on a sense of place, a wine that speaks to his piece of Paso.
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