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Rhone Rangers San Francisco Bay Tasting Recap 2014

I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again in the future, but of all the large scale wine events I think Rhone Rangers continues to be my favorite.

Rhone Rangers is a trade organization based in Paso Robles that is largely responsible for the saving (hey, remember the 1980’s when everyone wanted to plant only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon?) the Rhone varietals in California, while also helping vintners to grow their Rhone business.

This year marked a change for the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting in San Francisco for a few reasons.  Most notably, the tasting event was moved from Ft Mason to the former Ford factory, now called the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond.

I loved the new location.  Here’s a few things that I thought were vast improvements about hosting in Richmond, instead of Ft Mason.  To start, the Richmond location was a heck of a lot easier to access via public transportation.  BART gets you pretty close and then the event had a free shuttle to bring you from the Del Nort BART stop.  It was really well designed and the shuttle seemed to be able to make a round trip in about 20 minutes, so no one ever had to wait long.  We took the first shuttle at 12:15 which got us to the venue by 12:30.  Plus, we had the opportunity to bug the other two people on the shuttle with our constant chatter.  Of course, we got to know Yoni Donner a little bit, Yoni is the purchasing manager for the Stanford wine society, as well as writing own wine blog called Blind Spectator. Evidently I also missed Nancy Brazil of Pull That Cork fame on the way home-but the shuttle turned into a good place to chat. If you have a look at the outside of the venue above you won’t see a huge line of people standing outside attempting to finally get their name badge and get checked in, that’s another thing that was different about this tasitng event, no long lines at checkin.  Typically, when I arrive at one of these large tastings, there’s seemingly a few hundred people in line.  At the Rhone Rangers, it was simply, walk to the table show your ticket, ID and business card and receive your ticket etc.

As you might expect, they didn’t want to make it more complicated for those in San Francisco to access the event and the Craneway Pavilion has the huge advantage of sitting directly on the water, so a free ferry was provided directly from San Francisco.

Another highlight from the venue is the Assemble restaurant, whcih we noticed on the shuttle on the way in because they own and operate a number of small urban farms inthe parking lots around the structure.  The restaurant is seasonal and largely organic, but affordable.  Given the view, that’s no small feat.  Additionally the venue itself allowed for a rolling door to be opened up and Assemble made small eats availble for purchase directly inside the tasting.  When you’re there for a few hours, that’s no small thing.  It was nice to not have to leave, or stand in an extremely long food truck line outside.

One of my collegaues for the day is a native Texan, so he was overjoyed (we’ll put that mildly) when he noticed a Frito Pie on the menu.  He ended up suckering in our other friend to try it,  but I stuck to the Korean Spare Ribs, which were excellent.

Rhone Rangers has two distinct time periods at play during these tasting events. It’s a trade only event from 1-3pm and then the general public is able to enter from 3-6pm. I don’t know if there were less people this year, or the space was a bit bigger, or really a combination of the two….but there didn’t seem to be an indorinately larger number of people after 3pm.

Here’s what I tasted and why it was memorable:

First, it’s always fun to note the winemakers and other winery staff walking around and tasting themselves during the trade section of the event.  From Jeff Cohn and JC Cellars fame to the 2 Shepherds folks, there were plenty of industry folks walking the venue and trying wine from wineries they hadn’t hda the chance to taste before.

Prospect 772 The BratProspect 772: It’s the least amount of fanfare I’ve ever seen on a tasting room floor for wines that scored 92 points and 94 points respectively.  Pick these wines up and move them from the Sierra Foothills to Napa Valley, Sonoma or even Paso Robles and you’d probably see not only a line at tasting events like these, but also a doubling of price.  Good for the rest of us that don’t buy into those preconceived notions of value and goodness of wine.  Prospect 772 has hired Jeff Cohn to make their wines and well, despite Jeff’s reported increase in prices, seems really worth the investment.  I loved both estate bottling and while I don’t live and die with points like some, 92 and 94 points are well, 92 and 94 points.  Both wines seem well worth their critical acclaim and highligted my time at Rhone Rangers.  Additionally, it merits a mention that I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with both founders, Ron Pieretti as well as Wendy Sanda who both said the idea to start a winery was their other partners.  It’s a good set up and some of the nicest people I ran into the entire day.

Alta Colina: A small confession, I had a friend or two who became employees for the day at Rhone Rangers. Given that having alternative viewpoints at events like this is incredibly valuable, I don’t feel bad about it.  Of course, we’ve known the Alta Colina folks for some time now and the opportunity to say hello to Maggie in person is always nice.  One of our new employees said that Alta Colina, the first spot we visited was his favorite of the entire day.  Given that he continues to express his love for a Syrah/Grenache blend from down the street at Thomas Alexander, I wasn’t surprised.  Oh and the big news…wait there’s big news with Alta Colina….but I don’t see it publicly yet.  Same winemaker and team don’t worry, but this is exciting stuff for those of us who have known the folks behind the label for a while.

Ranchero Cellars: So I’ve talked to Amy before via email after hearing about Ranchero through her partnership with our “old” friend Anthony Yount, whom combine to produce a wine called Brouhaha.  Amy’s focus is largely Carignane and she has said multiple times, publicly that the opportunity to pour at an event where people are excited about Carignane instead of her having to explain the mere existence of the grape, is a good thing. The wine was memorable and if you ever have the opportunity to run into Amy, she’s among the funniest winemakers I’ve come across.  There was this during the seminar session:

The Washington Folks: Ok, so here’s the thing…..I was really, really excited to see some Washington faces in the room. Increasingly, Syrah is coming into its own in the Northwest both in Washington, as well as the warmer environments in Oregon (see my post about Del Rio Vineyards).  While Skyler from Press Wine Sales knows his stuff and I’ll gladly sit down with him to look over the wines from the 3 vineyards that he represents, it was disappointing to not have anyone from the wineries at the event.  I think it also speaks to a clear point of focus for the Rhone Rangers organization itself in the coming years, raising awareness in growing regions that currently are not represented well enough.  Oregon and especially Washington are clearly targets to start while even Temecula, Arizona and other non standard regions should be marketed to as well.

Kiernan Robinson: Any time I run into someone standing in front of a table, with two different Syrah’s and little else,  I’m interested.  When the winemakers name is on the label, even better.  Kiernan Robinson makes wine in a more French style, not surprising given the winemakers experience in the RHone Valley, as well as elsewhere.  Robinson’s complete bio reads like a who’s who of the international wine industry, he’s worked with Michele Rolland as well as my old favorite, Paul Hobbs.  These wines reminded me most of Hobbs in that they showed bright fruit and vibrant acidity all the same time, without giving up the dense and lush mouthfeel that drives so many sales to Napa Valley and Sonoma in the first place.  If you want a small production Syrah from Rhone Rangers, this is the spot.

Carica Cellars: I’ll talk more about Carica at some point in the future since they’re local but they merit a mention here as well.  Carica crafts about 1,000 cases of wine annually out of the Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda.  They’re good and I hope it’s cool to simply leave it there for now.

Acquiesce Winery: A few months back, we found a Picpoul from France that we liked enough to include in our wine clubs.  Frankly I’d seen so little of the grape, even at larger events like this, that I didn’t even realize it was technically a Rhone grape before deciding to ship it. Acquiesce deserves a mention because their version of the grape stood up well to that and of course, they were the only winery pouring a Picpoul at the event.  If you’re stuck in a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc rut, this seems like a grape that’s worth a look, especially as a replacement for Sauvignon Blanc.

Caliza: It’s always nice to run into Carl, who I didn’t have enough time to chat with.  Caliza’s a winery with a viewpoint and while it hasn’t received the hype that’s flown to 2 Shepherds and some of the lower alcohol folks these days, these are outstanding wines that are going to please a wide, wide majority of wine drinkers.

Epiphany Cellars: So it’s owned by the Fess Parker family, but I love their winemaker Blair Fox, who makes an outstanding smaller label under his own name as well.  This is the day job for Fox and the results given the price points are memorable. The Gypsey red blend at $25 is an absolute steal and I enjoy Fox’s take on Grenache Blanc, which is simply that more acidity is better than less for hot summer days.  I couldn’t agree more.

Tablas Creek: It says something about this event that the winery that in essence, started it all didn’t have a larger line.  I joked a few days ago that April was beginning to turn into Tablas Creek appreciation month on social media, but a few moments at their table showed why. The setup of the wines is very French with tiers of price points and complexity.  For a winery that literally dominated the talk of Rhone’s to this day based on location alone (wineries sell their wine based solely on the fact that their vineyard is kitty corner to Tablas Creek) there isn’t a pretentious bone in the body of anyone at this place.  Maybe I was being a bit unrealistic when I scanned their table to see if a bottle of the Panopile had made the trip?

Terre Rouge: We’ve shipped a wine from Easton before which is the Cabernet arm of this well established Sierra Foothills grower and vinter.  I thought they deserved a mention here both in terms of quality, but also price points.  It’s rare to find any wine these days produced by an estate on a yearly basis that isn’t sold for over $20 and oftne that’s finding its way into the $25 per bottle range

Fields SyrahFields Family: Less of a typical Lodi than most, these are restrained wines with lower alcohol than I frankly thought would be possible from the AVA.  Sitting at under 14%, this is a Syrah that’s lower in alcohol level than some you might find from Oregon.  While that’s not necessarily good or bad, it shows some perspective from the winery and winemaker, which is something I can’t help but encourage.  Plus, the wine was good.

The Girl and The Fig: They’re a staple at this event, making a small bowl of food for everyone, for free. The whole free thing makes me simply say thank you here-the next time you find yourself on Sonoma Square, it’s a great place for a bite to eat and a glass of wine.  Of course the restaurant was at the forefront of encouraging the Rhone’s in Sonoma so this is a natural pairing for them.  I can also respect the ladies working for them, had a bottle of Ridge’s Mouvedre open and behind their table-

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