Quō vadis, kemosabē?

Apart from Family Winemakers, there isn’t a more varied wine event than the annual Rhône Rangers Grand Tasting at Fort Mason. Your West Coast Oenophile has attended this gathering almost religiously for the past 12 years or so, the last three sessions on behalf of Sostevinobile. In 2009 and 2010, a noticeable decline in attendance seemed reasonable, given the sorry state of the economy. It came as a bit of a surprise that this year’s event drew a relatively paltry crowd, in light of signs that things are finally on the upswing.

Of course, smaller crowds means easier navigation throughout the five hours I was on hand for both the trade and the public portions of the tasting. Not enough time to cover all 108 wineries that were pouring, but certainly enough to investigate the slew of newcomers and still make the rounds with a number of old acquaintances. Ambyth Estate out of Templeton seemed a logical place to start, and while this biodynamic gem did not bring the single varietal wines it had listed, it offered an array of delectable blends, starting with their 2009 Priscus, predominantly Grenache Blanc with 25% Viognier and 17% Roussanne. Their three red blends all combined Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Counoise in varying proportions, each with one of the GMS varietals in the forefront: the 2008 Maiestas (Syrah); the 2008 Adamo (Grenache), and the 2008 ReVera (Mourvèdre).

I happen to be quite partial to Mourvèdre, a generally underappreciated grape. Others extol the virtues of Grenache, while, in the same breath, deriding Syrah for its failure to seize the public’s imagination. And yet, here at Rhône Rangers, Forestville’s Arnot-Roberts showcased four separate Syrah bottlings. I preferred both the 2009 Syrah Alder Springs Vineyard (Mendocino) and the 2009 Syrah North Block Hudson Vineyard (Napa) to the 2009 Syrah Griffin’s Lair Vineyard (Sonoma Coast), while the generic 2009 Syrah (North Coast) came in on par with the single vineyard versions.

Along with Copain, which did not pour here, Arnot-Roberts and Wind Gap have been heralded as the rule changers with their contemporary vinification of cool vineyard Syrah. Here winemaker Pax Mahle excelled with his own version of a 2009 Syrah Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, while his 2009 Syrah Griffin’s Lair Vineyard struck me as a bit tepid. More striking was his Syrah-less blend, the 2009 Orra, a mélange of Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise, as well as the 2008 Rana, a standard GMS mix.

I hadn’t tried the Beckmen wines before, but soon found myself wondering why this Los Olivos gem has not received greater fanfare, apart from its Sideways highlight. Starting with their blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Marsanne, the 2009 Le Bec Blanc, the winery produced a number of superlative bottlings. I enjoyed both the 2010 Rosé Purisima Mountain (Grenache) and the 2009 Cuvée Le Bec, a deft blend of 45% Grenache, 34% Syrah, 14% Mourvèdre, and 7% Counoise. But Beckmen’s best efforts came from its varietal bottlings, starting with the 2009 Estate Syrah. The higher end 2008 Syrah Purisima Mountain Vineyard proved even more astounding, while both the 2009 Estate Grenache and the 2008 Grenache Purisima Mountain Vineyard matched this level. And I nearly overlooked the 2008 Marsanne Purisima Mountain Vineyard, which would have been tragic to miss.

Stolpman, too, presented a formidable lineup, with six different Syrahs among the nine wines they poured. I am always a fan of a great Roussanne, and the 2008 L’Avion proved no exception. Before delving into the Syrahs, I sampled both the 2009 La Cuadrilla, a Grenache/Syrah combo, as well as the truly excellent 2008 Estate Grenache. From there, the 2009 Estate Syrah paved the way for profound, proprietary bottlings that included the 2008 Originals (notably better than the 2009 also pon hand), the 2008 Hilltops Syrah, the 2008 High Density Syrah, and Stolpman’s zenith, the 2009 Angeli.

The folks from Skylark showcased a similar range with their wines. The 2008 Red Belly married Syrah with Carignane, though previous vintages had included Grenache as well. Rebounding from 2008’s misgivings, their 2009 Grenache was clearly a wondrous wine, but, like Stolpman, their heart lies with their range of single vineyard Syrahs. Here, I liked the 2007 Syrah Unti Vineyards, but favored both the 2007 Syrah Stagecoach Vineyard and the delectable 2008 Syrah Rodgers Creek Vineyard. Making a pure Syrah play this afternoon, Henson scored a trifecta with a superb 2007 Syrah Michaud Vineyard from the Chalone AVA, the 2007 Syrah Luna Matta Vineyard from Paso Robles and their home-based 2008 Syrah Estero Vineyard from San Luis Obispo.

It’s been long known that some, if not most, of the exciting developments in Rhône varietals have come out of Paso Robles; validating that truism, Kaleidos offered a modestly-named 2008 White, a symmetrically balanced confluence of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. I relished their excellent 2006 Grenache, as well as the equally delightful < b>2006 Syrah. There appears to be an incongruity in calling a Rhône blend a Spanish name, yet the unspecified makeup of Katin’s 2008 La Ramblas Blancas provided an extraordinary bottling. No such ambiguity marked the other wines I sampled, especially the crisp 2009 Viognier and the 2009 Grenache Blanc (which they fortunately did not call Garnacha Blanca). I was deeply impressed by the 2009 Syrah GlenRose Vineyard, as well as by their yet-to-be-released 2007 Red Blend, a Syrah remarkably dominated by its 10% Viognier component.

Given my aforementioned predilection for Mourvèdre, I found myself drawn to the 2007 Mourvèdre Enz Vineyard that Kenneth Volk was pouring, as well as its equally-appealing 2008 vintage. And from the realm of “if you think Sostevinobile is hard to pronounce,” Paso Robles’ Minassian-Young proffered an compelling 2009 Mourvèdre alongside its dry-farmed 2010 Grenache Rosé. Buellton’s Curtis Winery showcased its own complex 2007 Mourvèdre Santa Ynez Valley, complemented by a 2007 Heritage Cuvée, a mélange of 36% Mourvèdre, 28% Grenache, 19% Cinsault, and 17% Syrah that bespoke their versatility with Rhône varietals. Of course, I appreciated their 2009 Roussanne and the splendid 2007 Grenache, while admittedly felt somewhat surprised they only poured their 2007 Syrah Ambassador’s Vineyard from the quartet of vineyard-designate Syrahs that they feature.

My last Mourvèdre fix came from Oregon’s Folin Cellars, a Rogue Valley winery I had sampled in previous years. Their 2009 Estate Mourvèdre exceeded the 2009 Estate Grenache, but their classic GSM blend, the 2008 Estate Misceo, edged out both. Another Oregonian, Cliff Creek Cellars, started off with a smooth 2009 Marsanne Roussanne, their first white effort. I had no preference between the 2006 Estate Syrah and its predecessor, but did favor the 2005 Claret, a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Merlot hidden beneath the table, as well as the appealing 2008 Tribute, Cliff Creek’s inaugural dessert wine that garnered Best of Show accolades at the 2010 World of Wine Festival in Rogue Valley. Dobbes Family Estate also proved a striking discovery, a winery strongly focused on Pinot Noir but showing tremendous strength with their 2007 Fortmiller Vineyard Syrah and the wondrous 2007 Sundown Vineyard Syrah, both from Rogue Valley.
A final Oregon entry, Jacksonville’s Quady North returned to Rhône Rangers with an impressive lineup that included the 2009 Viognier Ox Block Mae’s Vineyard, a Syrah/Grenache-based 2010 Rosé, plus a pair of Syrahs, the 2007 Syrah 4 2-a and the exceptional 2007 Syrah Steelhead Run VineyardWashington’s lone representative here, Waterbrook, comported themselves ably with both their 2008 Grenache 1st & Main and the 2007 Reserve Syrah.

This year also saw the first participants from Virginia, Tarara Winery. Even though the cross-country haul means that this winery cannot fit within Sostevinobile’s sustainable guidelines, I was happy to sample these wines, knowing little about the region other than, of course, the public saga of Kluge Vineyards and Horton Vineyards, which specializes in Petit Manseng and Rkatsiteli, in addition to its widely-acclaimed V
iognier. Tarara brought three distinct bottlings of this varietal: the 2009 Viognier Nevaeh Vineyard, the 2009 Viognier Honah Lee Vineyard, and a slightly premature 2010 Viognier Williams Gap Vineyard. Both of their 2008 and 2010 Syrahs were barrel samples, as was the non-specific 2010 Red Blend. If I ever decide to do a Sostevinobile d’Este, I will definitely keep this winery in mind.

Back in California, I was pleasantly surprised to discover my former Dartmouth schoolmate Joe Gleason manning the table for Clavo Cellars. Here the 2009 Apparition, a pure Viognier, ruled the day, while their Grenache Blanc, the 2009 Oracle seemed pleasant enough. On the other had, both the 2008 Dreamer (Petite Sirah) and 2007 Reckless Moment (Syrah) struck me as particularly strong expressions of their respective varietals. I had recently visited Pine Ridge, so tasting through their sister winery Chamisal’s offerings mirrored this pleasure. I was equally impressed by their 2010 Rosé (of Grenache) and the 2008 Estate Grenache, but found their strong suits to be the 2008 Estate Syrah and especially the 2008 Califa Syrah.

Just as wine neophytes and aficionados alike tend to focus on the Napa for Cabernet Sauvignon, in the past decade, Paso Robles has become ground zero for Rhône varietals. Nonetheless, numerous other AVAs offer strong selections of these varietals, like Carneros, from where the omnipresent Truchard Vineyards produced an easily assimilable 2009 Roussanne and their 2008 Syrah. Big Basin from the Santa Cruz Mountains featured six different Syrahs, underscored by their 2007 Coastview Vineyard Syrah. As truly awesome as their 2008 Mandala Syrah may have been, the soon-to-be- released 2007 Frenchie’s Ranch Syrah proved an absolute revelation, perhaps the best Syrah of the afternoon.

Santa Rosa’s Cosa Obra, a small, artisanal winery with but two selections, nonetheless impressed with their 2008 Proprietor’s Blend, a fusion of Grenache and Syrah from three separate vineyards (their other wine, the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc showed itself to be a delightful find, despite not being a Rhône varietal).

I wonder how many people at Rhône Rangers have ever been to Oregon House, northeast of Sacramento? Somehow, Clos Saron’s Gideon Beinstock makes it down to San Francisco for almost every relevant tasting to trumpet his natural wines, which span the gamut in terms of flavor. Here he demonstrated his versatility with his 2008 Holy Moly!, a GMS blend focused on Syrah, and a striking 2010 Out of the Blue, a Cinsault rounded out with Syrah. Closer to home, Berkeley’s Rock Wren, Dennis DeDomenico’s successor to his family’s Ghirardelli Chocolates, made a noteworthy debut with their 2007 Syrah from his vineyard in Solano County’s Green Valley AVA.

South of Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo winery 10 Knots Cellars sailed in with a spectacular Viognier, the 2008 Beachcomber; almost as impressive were their 2010 Grenache Rosé and the 2006 Atlantis, a well-balanced GMS blend. Even further south, Los Olivos’ Saarloos and Sons poured their parental vintages, the 2009 Mother (Grenache Blanc) and the 2008 Father (Syrah), bypassing their 2008 Wolfhounden, a Petit Verdot that pays homage to the German Shepherd/Canadian timber wolf bred by Leendert Saarloos.

I wrapped up my time at Rhône Rangers with a cluster of Paso wineries, starting with the melodically-focused Vines on
the Marycrest
. The 2009 Summertime, a rosé blended from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Zinfandel. The 2007 ’Round Midnight focused on Syrah, with 20% each of Mourvèdre and Grenache. The misnamed 2007 Heart of Glass (shouldn’t a Blondie song title be reserved for a white blend?) nonetheless artfully combined 60% Grenache with equal parts Syrah and Mourvèdre. I found the 2007 Petite Sirah adequate but did like the 2007 My Generation, an Old Vine Zinfandel with Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Petite Sirah mixed in.
Cypher Winery named their Syrah the 2008 Phoenix. Like Vines on the Marycrest, they added Zinfandel to their GMS, the 2008 Anarchy, but omitted the Grenache. Their other GMS blend, the 2008 Peasant, stayed purely Rhône, adding Counoise and Tannat. Ortman Family was not nearly as clever with their nomenclature, labeling their striking GMS+PS red blend the 2007 Cuvée Eddy; moreover, their 2008 Petite Sirah Wittstrom Vineyard proved outstanding. Arroyo Robles served up a nice trio of wines: the 2008 Viognier, their 2007 Rosé (a blush Syrah), and a dominant 2008 Syrah.

My final stop turned out to be a revisit with kukkula, a winery that pays homage to its Scandinavian heritage by giving most of their wines Finnish names. The 2009 vaalea combined Roussanne with Viognier. Three consecutive vintage of their GMS concluded with the 2009 sisu, an extraordinary mélange. New to their repertoire was the pas de deux, a marriage of Syrah and Grenache from different vintages and an excellent conclusion to the afternoon.

Despite five hours on the floor and notably smaller crowds, I certainly could have covered many more wineries here, although each of the rest has been reviewed one time or more by Sostevinobile. The relative paucity of attendees actually worried me, and I hope this will not deter Rhône Rangers from conducting this event in the future. Tastings like this have been critical to my development of our wine program, allowing me to interface with far more wineries than I might be able to cover if I had to review each onsite (not that I don’t try to visit as many as I can). More importantly, it would be tragic for the public to lose such a profound event that allows them to experience the amazing panoply of wine varietals, winemaking styles, and winegrowing regions here on the West Coast..

I am at a loss to explain why so many wine enthusiasts failed to show for this comprehensive Grand Tasting. Then again, the prospect of enduring another Presidential campaign year in 2012 may well drive everyone back to imbibing on a grand scale once again!

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