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.