It’s always interesting when you discover a winery in your own backyard. It wasn’t until I was doing research about San Francisco South Bay Rhone producers for a recent article that I came across Jeff Fadness of La Vie Dansante. What’s even more remarkable is that in tasting through his wines (and I must admit tasting through neighboring winery and exclusively white Rhone producer Lion Ranch as well), he put my fear and stereotype of Rhone white blends to rest.
Yes, I know there are some iconic California Rhone producers who craft, what many call, beautiful and balanced white blends. In fact, Fadness credits the expression of his white blend to the Esprit de Tablas Creek by Tablas Creek. Even so, I have to credit Fadness himself for creating a blend of white varietals in which the sum of those varietals expresses even better than the separate components.
I’m not going to lie — I’ve heard mixed reviews about Justin Winery. It seems my fellow wine enthusiasts either absolutely love or will have nothing to do with this big name winery. But when I decided to do this week-long series dedicated to Rhone, I couldn’t ignore this Paso Robles icon.
When Justin Baldwin first purchased his piece of Paso in 1981 he — like so many others back then — orginally intended to work exclusively with the classic Bordeaux varieties and craft Bordeaux-style blends. Of course, as we all know, Paso Robles is kind of California’s mini-slice of the Rhone Valley and vintners there can’t help but at least have one or two Rhone-inspired wines in their portfolio.
Interesting enough, when I was studying for my recent Rhone article (Read Where We Rhone), I found out that, as odd as it sounds, blending Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon is not that uncommon — in the New World or the Old. And so it is that I decided to include Justin’s Savant red blend in this series.
I first met Randall Grahm at one of the annual Rhone Rangers events in San Francisco, after which he was kind enough to invite me to his Davenport tasting room and take me through a full line up of his — then — current releases. I was enthralled, not just with Randall’s obvious passion for wine, but his innate ability to teach about wine and pass his passion forward. That first one-on-one meeting will always be a special memory for me.
The thing about Bonny Doon Vineyard wines is that there’s, well, a lot of them — reds, whites, pinks, even oranges and more obscure colors — the common thread being Rhone varietals and Rhone-style blends. As a young winemaker, Grahm sought to recreate the great wines of France here in his native California home, but soon realized that one cannot make French wine if one is not, in fact, in France. So now the very core of his Rhone-style wines is the idea of vins de terroir — wine that speaks of its specific place and time. He’s constantly experimenting with new-to-California wine grape varieties to see if and where they’ll thrive — and if he finds a vine’s sweet spot, rest-assured a wine will soon follow. He also plays with the idea of Rhone-style blends. This eclectic mix of Iberian grapes Tempranillo and Graciano along with the well-recognized Rhone grape Grenache Blanc was, for me, a new concept — and one I couldn’t leave behind in the tasting room.
Sourced from the rugged terroir of the Vaca Mountain foothills, the consistency of quality fruit the Shafer family harvests year after year is, indeed, persistent, continuing, nonstop, never-ending, interminable, unceasing, endless — relentless. But, as proprietor Doug Shafer says, the “soul” of this wine comes from the winery’s long time winemaker, Elias Fernandez, whose tireless attention to detail seems to create a new level of quality with each vintage. “And so Relentless emerged as a testament to both a person and a place.”
Being a California native, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, and a regular ground-stomper of Monterey County, I’m amazed I’m only now learning about Big Sur Vineyards. But, to be fair, though the winery takes the name of a famous stretch of California coast, it’s a boutique, family-run operation.
Husband and wife duo Lenora Carey and Richard Gebhardt moved to the area back in 1983 becoming purveyors of lavender, olive and citrus trees, crafting essential oils and soaps in addition to selling their fresh produce. But it wasn’t long until they became enthused about what kind of grape varieties grew well in the area. Lovers of Rhone varietals, they picked and pressed the grapes of neighbors for many years — namely Grenache, Syrah, and Petit Sirah. And so it was, when they blended these three together, the “Big Sur Red” was born.