Tasting With the “Rhone Rangers”

Attendees at Rhone Rangers event
Rhone Rangers LA Tasting at Vibiana

The Rhone Rangers rode into Los Angeles on Sunday, June 23rd, and brought with them some wonderful American wines. The tasting event, held at the astoundingly beautiful Vibiana – a 130-year-old restored cathedral in downtown LA – provided a splendid afternoon of sipping, cheese tastings, and an appearance by the hot “LudoTruck” (http://www.ludotruck.com/), offering his famous peppery fried chicken.*

The Rhone Rangers (http://www.rhonerangers.org/) is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to promoting American Rhône varietal wines. It has been instrumental in reviving plantings of many traditional Rhône grapes that were dying out in California

The Rhône region of France is one of the oldest, most respected wine regions in the world, with vineyards lining the Rhône River, which flows down from the Alps and into Southeast France. The Northern Rhône, which has a cooler more continental climate than the southern region, specializes in Syrah (red), Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne (whites). Highly recognizable label names include Hermitage, known for spectacular Syrahs that can age up to 50 years, and Condrieu, which produces cult-status Viogniers. The Southern Rhône, with its hotter, Mediterranean climate, is known for Grenache, with lesser growths of Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault (all reds). The Côtes du Rhône appellation produces over half the wines in the Southern Rhône, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape is perhaps its most renowned label. In total, there are 22 red and white Rhône varietals labeled as such by the French government. To qualify as a “Rhone Ranger” in the US, 75% of the wine’s content must include one or more of these traditional Rhône grapes.

California offers many of the same growing conditions as the Rhône Valley, providing excellent alternatives to French-produced – and often pricey – Rhône varietals. William Allen, founder of and winemaker at Two Shepherds winery in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a Rhone Ranger board member and President of the North Coast chapter, says of producing Rhône wines in California, “California offers winemakers a wide array of climate profiles and terroir to work with, whether it’s the diverse climates and soils of Paso Robles, the cooler climates of Santa Ynez and the Russian River Valley, the granite soils of El Dorado, the sandy soils of Lodi, and the many other regions we grow Rhône varieties in. It’s a wealth of variation.”

Allen says the largest percentage of Rhone Rangers producers tends to be small and/or family owned. The Los Angeles tasting featured wineries as large as Ridge (http://www.ridgewine.com), which recently was served to President Obama at a dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping, to tiny “garagistes,” who by definition produce less than 1,200 cases annually. “The Rhone Rangers is a great organization for me as I am a small, micro producer who concentrates solely on Rhone varietals” says Steve Martell, owner of Paso Robles-Calif.-based Kaleidos winery. “The tasting events put me and my wine in front of trade, media, and consumers who are there specifically to taste Rhône varietal wines.” And Rhone Rangers attendees “tend to be more passionate, engaged, and focused than most of the other walk-around tastings” patrons, says Allen.

Dozens of wineries with hundreds of wines participated in the Los Angeles tasting, but I could only get to a fraction of them (this time!). Some of the highlights included:

Two Shepherds (http://www.twoshepherdsd.com) 2012 Grenache Blanc ($25); 2011 White Blend, Russian River (Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc), $26; 2011 Grenache, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River, $35; 2011 Syrah, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River, $35

Vines on the Marycrest (http://www.vinesonthemarycrest.com) 2012 Viognier, $26; 2009 Red Blend GSM (GSM = Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), $28; 2010 Syrah, $34; 2010 Petite Sirah, $30

Kaleidos (http://www.kaleidoswine.com) 2008 Syrah, $28; 2008 Red Blend “Osiris” (GSM), $32; 2008 Red
Blend “Morpheus” (GSM), $36; 2008 Praying Mantis Syrah, Single Barrel, $55.

And because it was a warm summer day and I can never pass up a rosé:

Halter Ranch (http://www.halterranch.com) 2012 Rose, $19 (a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Picpoul Blanc, and Syrah)

J Lohr (http://www.jlohr.com) 2012 Rosé, $18 (100% Grenache)

Rhone Rangers members participate in many tasting events around the country. Check the Web site calendar (http://www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/) for more information. The organization is planning its first Chicago tasting on September 11th and 12th.

Until next time,

* LudoTruck’s spicy fried chicken was named one of “99 things to eat in L.A. before you die” by the Pulitzer Prize winner food critic, Jonathan Gold (read about all 99 at http://www.laweekly.com/2010-02-26/eat-drink/99-things-to-eat-in-l-a-before-you-die/).