There are some events that so tantalize with “possibility” that you wish you might have been a fly on the wall at their inception. Wouldn’t you have wanted to have followed the “logical” thought progression that started with turtle, worked its way through teenage to ninja (OK, that makes some sense), added mutant (of course, obvious in hindsight) and then—as if that weren’t far enough out of the known universe—knighted these wily critters with the names of the best of our Renaissance period painters (Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello)?
As an oenophile, I would similarly have loved to have witnessed the inception of the Rhone Rangers, the high-spirited organization that promotes California wines crafted of grape varieties from southeastern France’s earthily expressive Rhone Valley.
The grand inspiration—if you don’t know the story—was the spectacularly impactful April 15, 1989 Wine Spectator cover that featured Bonny Doon Vineyards’ marvelously mischievous Randall Grahm, dressed in the classic blue doublet, the black mask and the white hat of The Lone Ranger. It was stunning in its style and meaning, and its repercussions have echoed though all of vinous history.
The Rhone Rangers is a nonprofit, educational organization (tasting lots of interesting wines can markedly open one’s horizons) dedicated to teaching folks how Americans handle the great Rhone varieties—Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne among the whites, and Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache among the reds.
Cheryl Quist is executive director for the Rhone Rangers, a position that entails overseeing three main tasting/seminar programs each year (in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle), assists two local chapters (one on the North Coast and one in Paso Robles—another hotbed of Rhone fervor), and manages all day-to-day activity for the organization. The Rhone rangers will make an award this year to a deserving student in the wine business program at Sonoma State University, as well as winemaking and viticultural students at UC Davis, Fresno State and Washington State University.
“Our mission,” says the Connecticut native, “is to educate Americans about the beauty of these Rhone grape varieties as they’re grown here in the United States. We have nearly 200 members who make these wines, which are so incredibly food-friendly. There’s such a range of flavors among the Rhone wines and their blends that there’s simply no food they can’t be matched up with. The other thing, especially in this economy, is that these wines represent such great values. Twenty-five dollars will easily get you a very nice Rhone blend [which would be difficult with a Cabernet, she points out], and $40 will get you a phenomenal Rhone-style wine.” The Rhone Rangers’ annual San Francisco Grand Tasting has likely passed by the time you read this (March 22 at Ft. Mason, with some seminars and a winemakers’ dinner the day before), but you can visit www.rhonerangers.org for information about it.
As it happens, the North Bay climate provides warm enough days for ripening fruit and cool enough nights for retaining natural grape acidity (the utmost key to wine quality and identity) to do these rustic grape varieties justice, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. One of the great local cheerleaders for the Rhone varieties is Daisy Damskey, who serves on the national board for the Rangers and is its public relations and marketing chair.
“The truest thing in wine,” she says with enthusiasm (everything Daisy does is effervescent and energetic), “is that people drink what they know, what they’re comfortable with. So it’s our job to give people the opportunity to taste and become familiar with wines that we know to be well-grounded, earthy and sensual. It doesn’t hurt that Sonoma County earth has the look and texture of the soils and slopes of the Rhone Valley.
“I think the development, over the last half dozen years, of our two local chapters—first down in Paso Robles, where they used to host the Hospice de Rhone [tastings and seminars in a street fair setting], the second up here on the North Coast—has revived the Rhone Rangers organization by giving new life to its marketing, advertising and educational programs. Also, the fact that we’ve brought Sonoma State University’s wine business program—both Debra [Mathy] and I have taught at universities, so we know that value of SSU’s participation—has also added light and focus to the cause.”
She ponders for a moment to gather her thoughts. “You know, if the movie ‘Sideways’ hadn’t happened, I fully believe Syrah was poised to be the new Pinot Noir. Think about it: Syrah is sensual and lush in texture, and it has that same androgynous character that Pinot Noir has—in one setting delicate and feminine, in another a heartiness that’s so masculine. Both varieties are changelings, capable of fitting into a wide variety of styles and, as such, both are capable of matching up with a wide variety of food combinations. My husband [winemaker Kerry Damskey] and I make virtually every variety that exists in California for our Terroirs Artisan Wines…and Syrah is what we drink!”
Debra Mathy, proprietor of Dry Creek Valley’s Dutcher Crossing Winery, and her winemaker—yes, the irrepressible Kerry Damskey—are strong proponents of the Rhone path. “Kerry and I are already expanding our Rhone varietal program here,” she says forcefully. “We’re going to plant Grenache, some more Syrah, Cinsault and a few rows of Rhones yet to be determined. I went to France on a high school French club trip, and the first wine I tasted there—and learned to love instantly—was Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It went with everything we had to eat! I feel that same way today 20 years later.
“With the local Rhone Rangers organization, we’re going to do quarterly tastings at neutral sites and limit the number of wineries participating to about 20. When you have too many wineries pouring, it’s hard to be hands-on. We want tasters to be able to talk to the principals. Since our goal is to educate both consumers and the trade to the wonders of the Rhone wines, we want people to be able to get down and dirty and learn the beauty of the blends that are available with these wines.
“Blending is often the key to the texture and durability of these wines, and in a smaller tasting setting, people can see how one or two percent of another varietal in the blend can add to the wine’s food friendliness. And that, of course, is the real key to these wines: They go with almost any sort of cuisine.”
Charlie Tsegeletos is the winemaker at Cline Cellars (and its associated Jacuzzi Wines). “Our owner, Fred Cline, was warned not to plant Syrah here in Carneros,” he says. “[He was told] that the climate was too cold for its fruit to mature. But that’s actually the key to the variety’s success here: since the temperatures are borderline, the fruit stays on the vine for a longer period of time, it barely gets ripe, and you end up with wines with sturdy backbones, concentrated fruit, and interesting character, which includes blueberry, boysenberry and intense black pepper.
“We’re not picking the fruit at 25 sugar, mind you. It’s more like 23.5, maybe 24. So the wines aren’t the typical fruit bombs some people expect, but they do have delicious flavors and an earthy, almost Worcestershire sauce character—that meaty quality you sometimes get in a great Pinot Noir. They’re not short on tannin, but you have a structure that can hold up to fatty food marvelously. We’re having gumbo tonight, so I think there’ll be a bottle of Cline Syrah on the table.”
David Ramey is a vastly experienced winemaker. Born in Seattle, the UC Davis alum (MS in Enology) has worked in Australia and in France (twice). He started out learning from one of the best (Zelma Long at Simi), then turned in excellent stints at Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill before starting Ramey Wine Cellars in 1996. He continued to make wine for Dominus and Rudd while building his own brand.
Ramey is a huge fan of the northern Rhone, Syrah-based wines, but says he’d like to take a shot at a good southern Rhone Grenache if he can find the grapes. “The great thing about Syrah is that it takes the best of Cabernet Sauvignon’s color and intensity and Pinot Noir’s soft tannins,” he says. “As such, Syrah can go with just about anything, food-wise. If you give Cabernet beef and Pinot Noir salmon, you turn to Syrah for pork and lamb. Especially when you grow Syrah in a cooler climate, where you get that gamey, meaty quality, along with a little green olive; then those foods are just perfect.”
Newfie (born in Newfoundland) Cluney Stagg is co-owner of Occidental’s superb French “country” restaurant Bistro des Copains. Copain is the French equivalent for our slang words like “pal” or “buddy,” and the Bistro’s leanings toward the cuisine of the French Mediterranean (Provence, Languedoc, Roussillon) just happen to match up rather nicely with the wines of the Rhone Valley: Cote Rotie, Condrieu, Hermitage, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
“My partner [Michel Augsburger, whose extended family lives in the south of France—the pair also operate a few long-term care facilities in the area] and I opened Bistro des Copains in June 2006,” says Stagg, “and our theme has been to focus on the warm, earthy, country foods of the French Mediterranean. That’s what we like to eat. Fortunately, the often Syrah-based wines that we really like happen to match up perfectly with those foods. Lamb, for example, is always on our menu. Hangar steak, if not the tenderest cut, is very flavorful, and also matches up well with Syrah. The braised short ribs? Oh yes, the ultimate comfort food. In the winter, we also frequently offer cassoulet. If it doesn’t qualify for ‘refined,’ it’s hearty, rich and flavorful. Which is exactly what these wines are. The best part is, there are some lovely, elegant Syrahs showing great finesse being made in Sonoma County right now.”
And that’s the bottom line. The wines of the Rhone—grown here, grown in France—are marvelously earthy wines, wines of zero pretension and expansive flavor. Without going overboard, what more, exactly, can one ask for?
Hinkle is the author of nine wine books, the latest being Clo Pegase: The Architecture of Wine, due out soon. You can find his work at www.RichardPaulHinkle.com. For more information about Rhone Rangers, including a listing of member wineries, visit www.rhonerangers.org
Bonterra Roussanne 2006 Mendocino: Cinnamon, lychee and lemongrass; aromatic, oily, with orange peel hints in the finish. Lovely white for subtle seafood.
Bonterra Viognier 2007 Mendocino/Lake: Rich, oily lemon and lanolin and ripe pear; crisp acidity makes this the ideal candidate for shellfish or Thai cuisine.
Bonterra Syrah 2005 Mendocino: Plum and pomegranate, violets and tobacco, fluid and silky. Picnic, barbecue or fireplace at a bargain price. “All our grapes are farmed organically, so that gives us true flavors and intensity,” says winemaker Bob Blaue. “We also feel that blending really adds depth and complexity to our Syrah, so we have 3 to 5 percent each of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and Viognier in this wine.”
Cline Viognier 2007 California: Lilac aromas, with hints of almond meat; bright and lively, with very aromatic floral notes and a rich, lanolin-like silken texture. Your favorite chicken dish, for sure.
Cline Syrah 2007 Sonoma County: Lively cranberry smells, with depth coming in the middle palate with pomegranate. There’s also a nice mulberry spiciness in the finish that makes this a wine that could do a Salisbury steak justice.
Cline Mourvèdre 2007 Contra Costa County “Ancient Vines”: Dense black pepper and blackberry, with oak graham and a tangy hit of blueberry in the finish. This brusque beauty would be perfect for those sauce-slathered barbecued ribs you like.
Cline “Cashmere” 2007 California: This is a good example of why we blend wines, putting together the best of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre in a wine that’s soft and alluring, with feminine strawberry and plum fruit in a fleshy, silky texture. You like beef stew? Try this with it.
Dutcher Crossing Syrah 2006 Dry Creek: This strawberry and plum beauty calls for the picnic basket. It’s jammy and sweet, but it’s all fruit and not residual sugar. There’s a little black currant and black pepper in the finish that makes me think pastrami sandwich.
Dutcher Crossing Petite Sirah 2006 Dry Creek: Thick raspberry, almost syrupy in texture, with fleshy texture and rosemary spiciness in the finish. This is your basic fireplace wine, with a thick wedge of sharp cheddar close at hand.
Ramey Syrah 2006 Sonoma Coast, Shanel Vineyard: As they do in the Rhone, owner/winemaker David Ramey blends a little white (Viognier) with his red. This wine is vibrant with blood orange and exotic plum up front, with fennel spiciness and a powerful finish of pomegranate in a wine that’s deep and long.
Ramey Syrah 2006 Sonoma Coast, Rodgers Creek Vineyard: Blackberry, blueberry and that sort of filet mignon character that’s more often associated with Pinot Noir. “I think that’s the cold climate you’re seeing there,” says Ramey. “This is one of the last vineyards we harvest, and that exaggerates the Syrah character of smoked meat. There’s also a little white pepper and green olive in the finish. The longer hang time means greater depth, too.”
Stark Viognier 2007 Sierra Foothills: Ripe pear fruit, fennel spice, oily lanolin texture, with just a hint of hazelnut in the finish.
Stark Syrah 2005 Dry Creek: Dense, fleshy pomegranate and raspberry, with oak graham notes. Solid.
Stark Syrah 2004 Russian River: Raspberry and black currant, with menthol and iodine accents and a hint of chocolate in the finish. Christian Stark also has a decided lean toward the cooler climes with Syrah. “You get a bit less complexity in the warmer areas, while cooler climate Syrah is a bit more expressive on its own,” says the Connecticut native. “You don’t need to blend anything else in with it to add depth or texture.”
Truchard Roussanne 2007 Carneros: Sweet straw aromas, with bright pear and peach in the middle, and the beginnings of lanolin oiliness that will be enhanced with bottle age. A bottle of the 2002 vintage showed that marvelously, with apricot blossom fruit and a bit of lemon in the finish. This white is seriously accommodating to a wide range of foods, from seafood and shellfish to chicken and pork. “This grape originally comes from the Northern Rhone,” says winery founder Tony Truchard, whose grandfather once had a small winery in Texas. “My wife, Jo Ann, and I often drink this at home, because it’s so complementary to food, even spicy food. It’s even great with pizza!”
Truchard Syrah 2005 Carneros: Solid, with warm, outgoing friendliness, with the three P’s—pepper, plum and pomegranate. Another cold-climate Syrah, this wine shows the usual ability to match up with lamb or veal rather nicely.
Bourboulenc. Provides freshness and acidity in blends.
Clairette Blanc. Its low acidity, high alcohol and floral perfume make it an ideal blending grape.
Grenache Blanc. Its high-sugar, high-acid, straw-colored bunches produce wines that are high in alcohol with green apple flavors and aromas. Crisp with a long finish.
Marsanne. A sturdy grape that produces a full-bodied wine with the heft of a good Chardonnay.
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Almost certainly the oldest known wine grape varietal, its berries are small and produce wines with elegantly floral aromatics.
Picardin. Fairly colorless with an agreeable light musky note.
Picpoul/Piquepoul Blanc. Piquepoul means “lip stinger,” which is an apt description of its high-acidity must. It also has floral aromatics and soft tannins.
Roussanne. High in acidity and aromatic qualities. A racy, lively wine with the potential to age.
Ugni Blanc. Also known as Trebbiano (in Italy). Low in alcohol, high in acidity and, when not overproduced, makes wines with delicate fruit and floral aromas.
Viognier. Deep, yellow color and an exquisite, exotic bouquet—apricots, pears, tropical fruits.
Carignan (Carignane). Responsible for untold millions of cases of jug wine, this varietal can also make perfectly respectable wine and add a useful flavor dimension, color and tannin to blends.
Cinsault (Cinsaut). Tends to be low in tannin and is often added to blends to add a spicy component. Half the genetic cross (along with Pinot Noir) behind Pinotage.
Counoise. Rich, spicy character, with flavors of anise, strawberries and blueberries. Its moderate alcohol and tannins make it a good complement for Syrah.
Grenache. Has a tendency toward high sugar and alcohol levels if not planted in the right areas or cropped back. It needs sandy, devigorated soil to produce exquisite, luscious wines. Sweet, fruity and low in tannins.
Mourvèdre (Mataro). Produces sturdy wines with good acid and some astringency, and can develop enticing blackberry aromas and flavors resulting in meaty, intense wines that age well.
Muscardin. Has a distinctive floral bouquet and is pale in color.
Syrah (Shiraz). Characteristics of spice, pepper, dark fruit, smoke and sometimes meat, and very versatile depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made.
Petite Sirah (Durif). A cross between Syrah and Peloursin. Dark in color with great extraction and big tannins that will reward those with the patience to cellar. Younger wines will benefit from decanting.
Picpoul Noir. The red variant of the more common Picpoul Blanc, Picpoul Noir produces wines that are almost colorless, but high in alcohol.
Terret Noir. A minor varietal more commonly seen in its “Blanc” and “Gris” forms. It produces wines with bright acidity, providing a balance for some of the low-acid red varietals.
Vaccarèse. Considered a relative of Cinsault and produces floral, tannic wines.
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