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Rhone Rangers Come to Town....

Owner/Winemaker Willaim Allen of Two Shepherds Opens Wine for the Trade Tasting

Last Thursday, 23 wineries who represent a group--perhaps a movement--known as the "Rhone Rangers" came to DC to help the DC-area wine community better appreciate their wines. The day began with a morning seminar featuring owners and winemakers of eight wineries--moderated by David White of The afternoon featured a tasting of all 23 wineries for the DC area wine trade. And the evening featured a similar tasting for the public.

The basic premise--which David White stated at the outset--was that most folks go into wine shops or restaurants looking for wines made from grape varieties that they know: frequently chardonnay or sauvignon blanc...cabernet sauvignon, merlot or pinot noir. Not many walk in hoping to find a good grenache blanc or petite sirah (two of the 22 varieties permitted in the Rhone). Yet as this event demonstrated, there are both good wines and good values among the wines made in the US (largely, but not exclusively, California) from varieties that originated in the Rhone. I found a number of both white and red wines that I'd like to have in my cellar with suggested retail prices in the $20s and $30s. Try finding that with chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon!

Of the wineries participating, 17 were from California, 5 from Virginia and 1 from Washington state. Not terribly surprising (and not just because of the proximity of Virginia). The best known red wine varietal from the Rhone is syrah and the best known white is viognier. Syrah is flourishing in Washington and viognier has been perhaps the best received grape in Virginia.

There were a few large wineries participating. Bonny Doon, Ridge and Qupe were among the best known. But most were small. It's a safe bet that few, if any, of these wines will be found in any supermarket. Many sell primarily directly to consumers (DTC), though there was interest among them in getting their wines into some of the DC area's better wine shops.

The morning seminar featured wines for summer sipping. Each winemaker selected one from his or her portfolio that goes well with the warm weather. One brought sparkling. Three brought rosé. And four brought still whites. What did they all have in common? Acid. Bright acidity provided all of them with the kind of freshness that goes well on the patio, around the pool or at the beach.

The afternoon trade tasting featured ~80 wines. I have learned the hard way that I don't have the stamina to go through 80 wines in one session--especially when some of them are big, tannic reds. So I prioritized the wines that I wanted to be sure to taste--a good idea in any large tasting. I didn't quite get to all of them, but I did get to most.

There was quite a lot of viognier being poured. I wasn't blown away by any of the pure viogniers. The whites that got my attention were lesser known varieties: grenache blanc...grenache gris...and some blends. Two of my favorites came from William Allen of Two Shepherds (one person shepherding two things: the grape and the palate). The highly regarded small producer (~1000 cases total) brought his flagship grenache blanc from the Saraloos Vineyard. It was an interesting wine--the acidity of the grenache blanc gave it an underlying freshness--with maybe a touch of salinity--but the time on the lees and full malolactic fermentation gave it some texture, even hints of richness. Equally interesting was his grenache gris, made with old vine grapes from the Mendocino area. It was my first grenache gris...but I enjoyed it enought that it won't be my last. I'm glad DC is one of the few markets that has Two Shepherds wines (Weygandt Wines)--I plan to get a few. Another of the interesting whites was Bill Frick's Côtes-du-Dry Creek. It's a blend of about three-quarters grenache blanc and one-quarter viognier...the viognier gave it some richness.

Among the interesting reds were two from Kenneth Volk Vineyards--a grenache from Rio San Benito Vineyard and a mourvedre from Enz Vineyard. They were warm and rich--but nicely balanced and with good depth. Margerum brought several reds--a grenache and a blend--which were well made. They were a bit on the ripe side for me...but I suspect some might welcome that.

Two other wineries caught my attention--one of them well known...the other, not so much. The lesser known winery was Vina Robles--not surprisingly, given the name, from Paso Robles. Managing partner Hans-Rudolf Michel was born and raised outside Zurich, was owner Hans Nef. They began their collaboration about 20 years ago--aiming at creating a balance between old world and new world wine sensibilities. Hans-Rudolf brought a viognier and a rosé that were pleasant and three reds that were better than that. Their red blend, called Red4, offered good value for less than $20. And their syrah and petite sirah were big and grippy...but with depth and balance.

The winery that I've known for years was Bonny Doon. Many may remember Bonny Doon from the antics of founder/winemaker Randall Grahm. Grahm became famous both because of his humor and because of some of the popular brands he produced--like the Big House wines and Cardinal Zin. Grahm has changed considerably since then. He fears that his humor created a cariciature that prevented many from taking his winemaking sriously. And he fears that the big brands distracted him from his goal of making vin de terroir--wine that represents the best of a place. So he sold off the "pop wine" brands and refocused. He thinks he's now making the best wines he's ever made. Based on what I tasted, I believe he's right. I won't go into each wine I tasted--there were quite a few--I'll just say that they were interesting wines offered to the market at a fair price. I wish Grahm well. I enjoyed meeting him and spending some time talking a few years ago. Like many who've met him for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to find him very bright, very thoughtful...and very open and candid.

Looking for some interesting wines at a price that doesn't resemble your mortgage payment? The Rhone Rangers are worthy of your consideration.

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