March 17, 2008
Reining in the Rhone Rangers

A few first impressions from yesterday's 11th annual Rhone Rangers Wine Tasting in San Francisco:

- A year ago, I came away from the tasting convinced that blends rather than varietals show best the efforts of American winemakers to use grapes long associated with France's Rhone Valley. While I tasted a few standout syrahs, grenaches, carignanes and the like yesterday, blends that used three or more Rhone varieties were the most consistently impressive wines. This is the way the grapes customarily are used in the Rhone Valley, by the way, with some wines consisting of up to 13 different grape varieties. American vintners prefer to market their wines more simply, by a single varietal name, but there looks to be something about Rhone grape varieties where when mixed together they produce much more intriguing wines, whether in France or the United States.

- That said, I also came away from the tasting with a new appreciation for syrah as a varietal, but with a caveat: You increase your odds of finding a memorable syrah if you stick to producers who have been working with the grape the longest and who seem to spend as much time in the vineyard coddling the fruit as they do in the cellar refining it into wine. Based on yesterday's tasting, those brands include Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Lagier Meredith Vineyard, Copain Wine Cellars, Holly's Hill Vineyards, Edmunds St. John, Domaine Serene, Peay Vineyards, Morgan Winery, Io Wines.

- Despite my belief that the future of Rhone Valley grapes in the United States will rest largely on blends, I also was pleasantly surprised by the rising number and the quality of varietal wines made with varieties other than syrah, most notably viognier, mourvedre and grenache.

- Though I don't have numbers to back up this hunch, I suspect directors of the Rhone Rangers were disappointed by yesterday's turnout. It was considerably lighter than what I've seen in the same venue lately for tastings by Zinfandel Advocates & Producers and by the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The ease of getting up to the tasting tables because of the seemingly light turnout simply could have reflected poor marketing of the tasting, but sponsors also may be asking themselves a more worrisome question: Might consumers just not be much interested in the category? And if that's the case, why not? Another hunch: With few exceptions, producers of Rhone Valley wines have no hesitancy about charging surprisingly high prices for wines that many American consumers still are learning to understand. If that barrier were lowered, consumers stand to discover a class of wine that looks to be gaining strength with each year's tasting.

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