A Tale between Two Cities

Your West Coast Oenophile is not above resorting to cliché on occasion. Like for so many others, for years Paso Robles was the place to refill the tank and take a leak when driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles (or vice-versa). But ever since I launched Sostevinobile, this central coast hamlet has become so much more. And since the COVID-pandemic. Paso has emerged as the nexus between these antipoles, drawing thousands of new residents from both North and South while blossoming into a full-fledged resort destination, much as Healdsburg did a couple of decades ago.

Admittedly, the wine communities I encounter outside of Napa & Sonoma often consist of a hodgepodge of endeavors, a handful of prestigious labels alongside a wide swath of lesser endeavors. With its 11 sub-AVAs, however, Paso Robles can now hold its own as one of California’s top-tier appellations. But producing great wines is only part of the equation; marketing and promotion of the region is equally important, if not more so in the  hypercompetitive environment the myopic distribution system has fostered.

Lately, I have been surveying the big chain liquor stores and supermarkets to gain an appreciation of how they handle wines, specifically the California and West Coast producers on which I focus. The lack of diversity in these offerings is both astonishing and appalling. White wines are virtually limited to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with perhaps two or three Rieslings like Kung Fu Girl, a paltry Pinot Grigio, and, occasionally, a sacchrine-sweet Moscato. On the red side, there are Cabernt Sauvignons, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, and Zinfandels, with unspecified Syrah blends and perhaps a mislabeled Petite Sirah. Your average consumeer has no idea that wines like Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Aglianico, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, St. Laurent, Valdiguié, Kerner, Blaufränkish, Pinotage, Saperavi, Tempranillo, Graciano, Albariño, Arinto, Assyrtiko, Rkatsiteli, Chasselas Doré, Colombard, Sémillon, Roussanne, Marsanne, Dreirebe, Fiano, Vermentino, Verdelho, Verdejo, Arneis, etc. even exist.

Which is why in 2023 trade tastings and associations are more important than ever for the growers and producers of these “esoteric” varietals, in order to gain any semblance of awareness of their wines. And in 2023, no organization does this better than Rhône Rangers, particularly with its revived Rhône Rangers Experience in Paso Robles. I trekked down to the Paso Robles Event Center, a charming faux-Western town near the northern end of the city, for my second visit to this event since the COVID pandemic. Normally, this is the time of year I am inundated with trade events; 2023 was no exception, with Rhône Rangers sandwiched between ZinEx and Première Napa (also the Garagiste Festival in Solvang, but car troubles prevented me from attending). But where the other two events had notably dwindled from their more robust past, Rhône Rangers flourished with even greater vitality this year.

Granted, attendance may have been slightly down, but the reduced crowd made for easy navigation from table-to-table and kept the atmosphere festive.  More importantly, with over 70 wineries on hand, a significant portion traveled from regions outside of San Luis Obispo county, including Ventura, Santa Barbara, Napa, Sonoma, Lodi, Monterey, the Sierra Foothills, and several Oregon locales, testimony to their belief not only in the event but in this organization.

Over the past several decades, I have owed much of my wine education to major trade events, including Rhône Rangers when it was a mainstay at Fort Mason. Most of the other Grand Tastings are now at a standstill, with dwindling attendance and a mere fraction of their constituent wineries participating. Moreover, they have lacked the necessary dynamic to attract the up & coming under-30 age bracket. Coupled with the myopia of the distribution network, it would almost seem that the validity of these events has run its course.

Except for what Rhône Rangers has shown. First, they have a clearly focus, defined not by a theme or region, but in a specific category of varietals. To its advantage, the sheer number of different grapes, along with their propensity for formulating an even wider array of blends, means there is enough diversity here to satisfy almost any taste. Secondly, the singular focus of this event is to create awareness of its membership and the wines they produce. Thirdly, this tasting has just the right balance: not prohibitively costly, which underscores the accessibility of these wines; a healthy balance of (catered) food and wine that keeps things from becoming a drunkfest; no shortcutting the materials and accessories trade and media need to ply their trade and ultimately bring greater recognition to these 23 varietals and the wines they produce.

Lastly, with a casual, down home venue, an up & coming, dynamic destination, and all the right elements in place, little wonder attendees traveled from as far north as the Bay Area and as far south as San Diego. To put things simply, the Rhône Rangers Experience is a sheer joyful event.

Moving forward, the organization has elected new leadership for 2023, with their incoming President heralding from Oregon. And with regional events being revived, it is a clear sign that a focused, committed trade organization still has the ability to make a difference in the wine realm. Suffice it to say, I expect it will be a long time before someone has to ask me “what’s a Counoise?” again!

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