The Rhone Rangers rode into town a few weeks ago, bringing all sorts of goodies with them. Even though I missed the winemaker’s dinner, I enjoyed the seminar I attended and the Grand Tasting in Fort Mason. While this venue can at times feel too big, too crowded, and too cold for an intimate wine tasting event, the Rangers were able to strike the right balance, giving people a chance to actually learn about the wines that were being poured, and chat with the winemakers.
Instead of providing a full blow-by-blow recap of the event, I’ve jotted down the three things that stood out for me.
Top Tier Producers Continue to Experiment
It’s sometimes tempting at large tastings to focus on the newest, latest, hippest producers on the scene, and ignore the well recognized labels. But if you didn’t stop by the Tablas Creek Vineyard, Qupé Winery, Ridge Vineyards, Bonny Doon, and Arnot-Roberts tables at Rhone Rangers, you missed out. These wineries still have a bunch of tricks up their sleeves. Tablas Creek has launched a new white wine blend (Patelin de Tablas Blanc) at $20, and is perfectly priced to be poured by the glass at your favorite restaurant. In 2005, Bob Lindquist over at Qupé planted the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard and has farmed it using biodynamic practices. It is now the source of some promising wines, including the unfiltered “Sonnie’s” Syrah (sourced from one block of the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard). And Arnot Roberts has a Clary Ranch (Sonoma Coast) Syrah that clocks in at about 11% abv — relatively unheard of in today’s world of 15%+ wines. It’s a good reminder that no one stays ahead by standing still.
Sierra Foothills: An AVA on the Rise
There’s been a lot of talk about up-and-coming wine regions in California: Lodi for Zin lovers, Lake County for Cabernet Sauvignon at sub-Napa prices. For Syrah fans, the latest “hot” AVA may be the Sierra Foothills. The Foothills were on my radar screen before Rhone Rangers because of some fantastic Syrah I’ve had from La Clarine Farms. And I was happy to try wines from Bill Easton of Terre Rouge winery and Gideon Beinstock of Clos Saron at Rhone Rangers. [BTW – YumSugar recently gave a shout out to the Clos Saron Cinsault/Syrah blend called Out of the Blue, which also happened to be one of my favorites.] Many wines from this region display a mineral edge that gives them structure and depth. Because people are just starting to pick up on the Foothills as a great source of wine, these labels may have limited distribution. You can seek them out through the wineries’ mailing lists.
Evolving Palates: The Wind Gap Story
I’ve had a problem recently: some of the wines I stocked up on a few years ago now feel too big, too jammy, and (in some cases) utterly undrinkable. I was a bit embarrassed about this fact until I heard that some professional winemakers faced a similar dilemma. Take Pax Mahle, for example. He started making Syrah under the eponymous Pax Wines label, and many of these wines were known for being rich, concentrated, and high in alcohol (creeping up to 16%). But at some point, according to a recent article in Wine & Spirits Magazine, Mahle “stopped drinking his own wine altogether.”
Now, under his new Wind Gap label, Mahle is going after something completely different: wines with more elegance and less power, more vibrancy and less shock value. But don’t take that to mean that these wines are weak or thin: all of the Wind Gap wines I’ve tried (including the Pinot Noir) have backbone and structure, and seamlessly weave together earth and fruit notes. Wind Gap poured four wines at Rhone Rangers: 2009 Orra (Grenache, Mourvédre, Counoise); 2008 Rana (Grenache, Mourvédre, Syrah); and two Syrahs (2009 Sonoma Coast and 2009 Griffins Lair Vineyard – Sonoma Coast). It was a great tasting line-up, but what I enjoyed most about these wines was knowing that someone could put aside past formulas for success, go in a completely different direction, and still excel.
NOTE: Derek volunteered at a panel where Pax poured his Agharta Wines, a red blend that is aged in French oak barrels for 50+ months. Let’s just say that Pax likes to walk on the wild side.
Barbara, the winner of our Rhone Rangers Ticket Contest, also had a great time. The Grand Tasting gave her the chance to try wines from non-California producers, such as Oregon’s Cliff Creek Cellars (the Marsanne / Roussane blend stood out for her) and Virginia’s Tarara Winery. She also had praise for Rock Wren Vineyards — a new winery in Green Valley, as they share a similar story to Barbara’s own Inspiration Vineyards. Overall, she gave the event a thumbs up: the crowds were manageable, and the food was stellar (props to the Girl & the Fig for their cassoulet).
Well, I hope this has given you some things to think about, and I hope to see you next year for Rhone Rangers weekend.
NOTE: The Rhone Rangers were kind enough to provide us with a pair of tickets to give away to our readers, and we were provided with media passes for the Grand Tasting.