SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, CA—Who are the Rhone Rangers? They are a dedicated group of wine industry professionals devoted to the advocacy and promotion of those particular grapes whose ancestral home is the Rhone Valley in France. According to the Rhone Rangers website, “The French government recognizes 22 (grape) varieties in the various appellations that comprise this large and diverse wine-growing region.”
THE REDS: The following are the most common red grapes which are considered Rhone varietals: Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. Others, that are less common, include Cinsault, Carignan, and Petite Sirah. Others that are rather rare include: Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul Noir, Vaccarese, and Terret Noir.
THE WHITES: If you prefer white Rhone varietals, you’ll certainly recognize Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. Grenache Blanc also falls into the category but is less well known. Other white Rhone grapes include Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanc, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Picardin, Picpoul/Piquepoul Blanc and Ugni Blanc.
Don’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of most of these – neither had I until I started to dig deep.
The Rangers have strict guidelines for their tasting events. “For a wine to be considered a ‘Rhone Ranger’ wine, and poured at an official tasting event, the 22 recognized accepted varieties must comprise at least 75% of the blend.”
The 18th Annual Rhone Rangers San Francisco Bay Area Weekend Celebration of American Rhones will be held this year from March 27-28 at Craneway Pavillion in Richmond, CA. There will be a large number of wonderful California wineries in attendance. I’ve contacted the following wineries to find out what they’ll be pouring in advance of the grand tasting:
|Winemaker Jim Shumate|
Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery
Location: Templeton, CA
Appellation: Paso Robles
Annual Production: 9,000 cases
Winemaker: Jim Shumate
Owners: The Merrill Family
This family-owned California winery can boast 8 generations living in the Golden state since the days of the Spanish land grants. Their focus is on Rhones but they also produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir. The family has been cultivating grapes for over 25 years. Their parent company, Mesa Vineyard Management, oversees 12,000 acres of vineyards from Santa Barbara to Monterey. As a charter member of the Central Coast Vineyard Team in the 1990s, Dana Merrill helped develop the Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification program, which fosters sustainable agricultural and business practices by evaluating such elements as water and energy conservation, and labor relations.
What they’ll be sampling:
2014 Estate Viognier (100% Viognier)
2014 BLANC Cotes de Pomar* (40% Roussane, 40% Grenache Blanc, 40% Viognier)
2014 Estate Rosé of Syrah (100% Syrah)
2014 Estate Roussanne* (100% Roussanne)
2011 Syrah (100% Syrah)
2012 GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre)
*According to Mark Stern, Director of Sales & Hospitality, last year Pomar Junction Winery won double-gold medals at the Central Coast Fair and State Fair in Sacramento for their Roussanne and BLANC Cotes de Pomar.
|(Left to Right) Cellar Master Agustin Robles, Winemaker Eric Mohseni, |
Associate Winemaker Kristin Bryden
Location: Los Olivos, CA
Appellation: Santa Ynez Valley
Annual Production: 35,000 cases
Winemaker: Eric Mohseni
Owners: John and Lou Cushman
The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail snakes its way for twenty miles through some of California’s most scenic countryside. In 1972 a group including real estate investor John Cushman purchased the 1,750-acre property, which was originally part of the 1830s Rancho La Zaca Mexican land grant. In 1973 they started the Zaca Mesa Vineyard on soil that was once covered in prehistoric ocean dunes. Initial plantings included Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. The early fruit and vintages showed great promise, and in 1978 Zaca Mesa built a winery, which was expanded three years later into one of the region’s first tasting rooms.
Few other vineyards existed in the region in the early 1970s. Zaca Mesa experimented with grape varieties for twenty years to determine which grew best in their microclimates and soils. This grape-growing experience determined Zaca Mesa’s path from the 1990s forward: Rhone varieties prosper here, warmed by the sun early in he day and cooled by ocean breezes flowing through Los Alamos Valley to the vineyard from thirty miles away. The winery shifted its focus to Syrah and Rhone blends with great success.
“Our estate vineyards are very conducive to Rhone Varietals,” said winemaker Eric Mohseni. “We are a Rhone focused winery and our Rhone program (and in fact the entire winery) is 100% estate grown and bottled.”
Mohseni has a fondness for the annual Rhone Rangers San Francisco tasting. “I love this event because it gives winemakers a chance to get out from behind the pouring table and taste what our colleagues are doing. Plus we get to engage in shoptalk… The San Francisco tasting is the largest of its kind and seems to draw both wine producers and consumers.”
What they’ll be sampling:
2011 Z Blanc (Roussane, Grenache Blanc and Viognier blend)
2014 Z Gris (Grenache rose)
2011 Z Cuvee (Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault blend)
2011 Mesa Reserve Syrah
2011 Chapel G Syrah
|Pam & Carl Bowker will be pouring their wines at the Rhone Rangers event.|
Location: Paso Robles, CA
Appellation: Paso Robles
Annual Production: 2,000 cases
Winemaker: Carl Bowker
Owners: Carl and Pam Bowker
While contemplating what to call the western Paso Robles winery they founded in 2006, Carl and Pam Bowker discovered the word caliza, Spanish for “limestone,” a fitting evocative name for the sixty-acre property they purchased off Highway 46 West where Anderson Road dead-ends into ranchland. In this part of the Central Coast, the seismic equivalent of what created France’s Rhone Valley took place, transforming previously undersea terrain into limestone hills hospitable to grapes. Although the Bowkers grow small amounts of Spanish Tempranillo and Italian Primitivo on their site’s twenty acres of vineyard, most of the rest is planted to Rhone varietals: nearly half to Syrah, with smaller amounts of Grenache, Viognier, Rousanne, and Mourvedre.
“I love Rhone-style wines,” says winemaker Carl Bowker. “It’s what drew me to the wine industry.” Bowker, along with wife Pam, is looking forward to pouring his wines at the upcoming Rhone Rangers San Francisco tasting. “The people who attend this event are really focused on Rhone varietals,” he said. “We don’t have to do as much education as the wine tasters are already familiar with these varieties. This allows us to go deeper with attendees.” Bowker also looks forward to seeing “so many familiar faces” as well as meeting new wine enthusiasts.
Bowker has tried to pick "an array" of his wines for Rhone Rangers such as GSM blends and a single varietal. He will be featuring a few of his, not yet released, 2012 reds along with some other recently released wines.
What they’ll be sampling:
2013 Kissin’ Cousins (Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne)
2013 Sidekick (Roussanne and Viognier)
2012 Azimuth (Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah)
2011 Cohort (Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo and Mourvedre).
Other California wineries at the event who are on my short list for tasting include:
Tom’s 3 rules for the Rhone Rangers Event: It’s okay to spit (into the provided buckets, please; be sure to try wines and brands with which you are not familiar; have fun.
For event tickets: Rhone Rangers website.
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