Uncorked Ventures Blog
The Rhone Rangers are a trade group created with a simple premise, to advance and promote American Rhone wines.
Let’s start with the most basic, a Rhone wine is any of the twenty two traditional wines which the French government allows to be grown in the Rhone Valley of France. Yes, the French do love their archaic wine laws.
The Rhone Rangers have existed since the 1980’s, largely based on the California Central Coast since their inception. Looking back it is pretty clear that the 80’s were in many ways the height of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay focus in California wine. At that time, you could literally count on one hand the number of growers who were focused on the Rhone varietals. Given the wide spread adoption of Syrah in both warm and cool vineyard locations, it seems almost impossible to believe.
While the history of the organization isn’t exactly straight forward, I think it can generally be divided into two parts. The loose knit group of vintners which existed in the 1980’s saved the Rhone wines within California. Since the reforming of the group in the late 1990’s which included the creation of an organizational structure, the Rhone Rangers have generally worked to further expand the number of Rhone focused wineries while attempting to have a higher percentage of wineries plant at least one Rhone varietal.
All this comes to mind because I attended the Rhone Rangers 2012 tasting in San Francisco over the weekend. Always the event of the year for Rhone varietals, I was excited to be able to taste wines from a number of new vintners, while also seeing some old friends.
About those old friends:
Stolpman Vineyards: Let’s start by saying their La-Avion white wine blend is among my favorite white wine’s grown anywhere. I think their Hilltops Syrah is outstanding and their La Croce Sangiovese-Syrah blend is as innovative as any wine you’ll find on the Central Coast. When combined with a responsive and helpful GM in Peter Stolpman-there is a lot to like here. Stolpman is and will continue to be one of our go-to wineries for Rhone varietals at Uncorked Ventures. With a tasting room based in Los Olivos, Stolpman makes for a great break from Pinot Noir focused Santa Barbara county.
Alta Colina: Much like Stolpman, but probably five years younger as a winery, Alta Colina is now working on expanding their tasting room which currently fits only a small family. For those of us that love great wine from smaller producers-wineries like Alta Colina are incredibly exciting. World class wines, without the prices and the ability to support a new business which we can feel good about. Started by the Tillman family, daughter Maggie has helped us immensely in our exploration of wine in the Paso Robles region. We’ve been lucky enough to be granted access to some of their most exclusive Syrah blocks in the past, but everything made here is 90+ point quality.
Cornerstone Cellars: When I think about the influence of the Rhone Rangers and the entire movement that the trade organization has represented, Cornerstone is a great example. A decade or two ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a Napa Valley Cabernet house who was also making a great Syrah.
It’s an interesting time for the organization. Syrah has gained wide spread plantings and within many ciricles in the wine industry is thought of as the third most important red wine grape in California, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir-notably having passed Merlot. Syrah though, despite great success and offering better value for the money at the 90 point level and above, is still struggling for wide spread consumer acceptance. I’ll put it this way, hardly anyone will have Syrah for their first wine, plenty will have either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
With that in mind I am always excited to see new vintners and wineries focusing on Syrah. The quality to price point ratio is still pretty incredible.
Some of the new wineries that we found at Rhone Rangers:
Stark Wine: These guys were right in our wheelhouse so to speak. Small production, artesian and producing really high quality wine. Unlike so many others Christian Stark didn’t cut his teeth in the industry by graduating from UC Davis (yes his bio says he took some winemaking classes there) but instead he learned by trial and error and by having a mentor. I thought the Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah had a nice acidity structure and was one of the more balanced efforts I tasted throughout the day.
Renaissance Winery: I have to admit, I don’t usually associate the Sierra Foothills with Syrah and other Rhone varietals, but I know it makes sense that they grow well in those conditions. Renaissance has been around slight longer than I have been walking the earth, although I think they lose some critical acclaim by being a Sierra Foothills winery not focused on Zinfandel. While this is a mature winery, it seems they are doing an excellent job at working to learn how their vineyard functions. Given the way a vineyard can change over 30+ years, I think that is an admirable and desirable quality in a winery with a large estate fruit program.
Davis Family Vineyards: I have to admit, I’m usually not a Rose fan, but their Cote Rose from the Russian River Valley was a nice offering. Maybe it was a warmer than usual Ft. Mason-but it was a refreshing choice in a sea of Syrah. Of course, I always like seeing a winery which is both managed and founded by the winemaker, in this case Guy Davis. I originally stopped at the table because Davis is my son’s middle name-but I came away impressed with another winery that I wasn’t aware of before the Rhone Rangers tasting.
I have to admit, I’ve always had a fascination with the wines being served at the White House. Maybe it was the pride that winemakers felt when their wines were selected or maybe it was just a fascination with seeing how my tax dollars were spent, but over there years there have been a few interesting choices to be sure. Among my personal favorites was George Bush serving Schafer Hillside Select (retailing at the time for about $500 a bottle) at a G20 summit when the main topic of discussion was possible upcoming bailouts of some of the member economies.
Ok, so what brings wine at the White House back into the news? For the past few months President Obama and the current White House have stopped sharing which wines have been served. All in all it looks largely like a public relations move since they don’t want to show tax dollars being used to purchase $100 wine when it economy isn’t in great shape, in an election year.
That’s understandable, but it does leave me without an interesting conversation piece or two when I talk with wineries. Plus, I think everyone that is paying attention to this stuff already knows that the White House probably isn’t serving $2 wines at state dinners.
Books are Coming to Uncorked Ventures
We’ve talked a bit here about our expanding gift basket offerings, one that I am especially excited to talk about is an expanded Wine Essentials Gift Basket which will come with at least one bar style book.
Matt and I have certainly been accused of being many things, avid readers is certainly among those. We love Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate and have both enjoyed Extra Virginity (it is uncanny how similar the wine and olive industries seem to be, if only separated by 100 years).
For those reasons, among others, we're excited to be bringing a range of books into our upcoming gift basket offerings. We think our average customer is going to be interested in looking even further behind the curtain of the wine industry and there are certainly a few books currently in print which help do just that.
Over the past two months we’ve been working to expand our gift basket offerings here at Uncorked Ventures. Given the success of our Gourmet Gift Basket during the holiday season, we wanted to develop a similar offering for our customers.
Of course we had the same two priorities when it came to developing this new gourmet gift basket. First the products included had to be of a high enough quality that either Matt or I would buy them for ourselves and our families normally and secondly, if at all possible the company had to be local to the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
With 479 Degrees Popcorn we found the best of both.
A local, San Francisco based popcorn maker 479 Degrees focuses on crafting popcorn which is both organic and made by hand. Having been featured recently in Food and Wine Magazine, it seems that other people outside of San Francisco are starting to catch on as well.
You might wonder, why popcorn? As with most things in small business there is a personal connection. I grew up with my parents owning a Dairy Queen which came in their “Treat Center” concept meaning it contained an Orange Julius as well as a Karmel Korn store. I was definitely guilty of loving the taste of warm, fresh carmel corn which was made only a few feet away.
It took a while to find a popcorn maker that made me remember that feeling, until we got a chance to try 479 Degrees.
I don't think it hurts to every so often, direct you to things that we believe we do well.
On the wine club side, I think the quality of wines we are sourcing speak for themselves. We feel really good that the wines we feature are among the very best available anywhere.
Unlike our competitors, with a few exceptions we aren't buying wine based on price. We're buying wine that we think is of high enough quality and then asking wineries for price after we decide which wines are the best fit for our club members.
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